Technology is an amazing thing. It has brought us so much and changed the cultural and social landscape of the world in so many profound ways. We have gained healing powers beyond our imagination, we are globally connected, we have an infinite dearth of knowledge right at our fingertips. There is so much convenience and beauty and connection in technology, but there also evolves a darker side to our convenience. The erosion of the subtle virtues that require deep and focused development.
The old adage of “use it or lose it” is very much supported by the neuroscience idea of synaptic pruning. Synaptic pruning is exactly what is sounds like. Basically, the brain is constantly trimming up the neural networks of synapses that are spread throughout it in order to speed up the processing power and make it more efficient. Synapses that are frequently fired in the brain are retained, while those that have seen little or no use are pruned off the neural network. You don’t lose the ability for that thing, you just lose the connection to it. Like a town being skipped over by a highway. All the structures remain but getting there is difficult.
Our overuse of technology has dramatically rerouted the neural landscape of our minds. We have pruned off so many connections to the more deliberate skills we once had. Those skills that required focused attention and endurance – both mental and physical – to master. I think this pruning, due to our reliance on technological devices, has made shallow the once deep well of truly valuable skills we had that, not only helped us to survive, but brought us closer together through shared toil and service.
We still retain an image of the skills we had but they are shallow reflections. There is no depth to them and the depth of them is what makes them enjoyable and meaningful and valuable. The depth makes them stick and makes them indelible impressions of the very core of who we are as humans.
What value is deep memory and deep knowledge in a world where everything can be recalled by a simple web search? What value is deep friendship when we have the ability to have a million virtual friends? What value is deep work when we can automate nearly everything in our worlds.
Albert Borgmann is a modern day philosopher of technology who has explored the ways in which technology has impacted our lives. Borgmann introduced the concept of device paradigm to look at how technological devices are perceived and consumed in the modern world.
Borgmann argues that most of the technological devices that we use on a daily basis have a certain nature and power that have worked to remove us from the possibility of a meaningful, enjoyable, deeply connected existence. They are devices that have provided us with “safe, easy, instantaneous and ubiquitous” enrichment to our lives, but they come at a cost. We have become so closely aligned with these technological devices that they have severed the connections we have to those deeper and more meaningful activities and pursuits that make our life worth living. Borgmann refers to these meaningful activities and pursuits as focal things and practices.
What are focal things and practices?
Focal things and practices are those things that have a superior gravitas and meaning in the world. Things that connect us to nature, or the spirit, or humanity, in a deeper context. They are the things that sharpen our virtue and excellence in deep and meaningful ways by forcing us to deliberate and focused attention, not necessarily to the thing, but to the process and results of the thing. Musical instruments. Books. Cooking. Gardening. Working out. These things and practices are made great because they force us to slow down, reconnect and experiences a deeper, more meaningful process of existing through shared, creative and physical connections.
Technology has a way of disconnecting us from focal things. As greater technology has been introduced it has made it easier for us to forgo the disciplined accumulation of skills and knowledge because these technological devices do not require the same learning curve or depth of knowledge to be used. I do not need to know how my central heating actually works in order to use it. I just press the buttons on the thermostat and I get heat. It has all the attributes of something that is technologically available but it does not offer anything else. Contrast this with Borgmann’s example of a wood burning stove.
A wood burning stove provides something much deeper in it’s use. It requires forethought of how much wood you might need, the practiced cutting of that wood, the knowledge and ability to properly start a fire and some vigilance over the continuous burning of the stove. It also gives off a more social experience with the opportunity to sit around the fire with others.
Using the wood burning stove fosters a growth of many different skills and knowledges that insist upon a deeper relationship with it as a “thing”. It is something we use in order to get to a deeper result, while the central heating unit is a self persisting, encapsulated “device”. It is technologically available but it produces no further depth afterwards.
How do I reintroduce focal things and practices?
It’s not nearly as hard as you might imagine. In fact, I bet you dream about it every day. That vacation that takes you away from all the stress of modern life. You feel it pulling you. The time to read and think and pursue your hobbies. How happy could you be in a world where you could step away from your devices and return to yourself? Well we can do that daily in order to improve the quality of our lives and to reconnect with the depth of skills we are all capable of.
Find a focal hobby.
It is so important to have a hobby, and most hobbies are naturally focal things and practices. Gardening; the joy of growing your own food. The feeling of the dark, cool soil on your hands. The research of the proper seeds and growing seasons, when to prune and when to pick. Or learning a musical instrument; the practiced pursuit of creating music. Learning the different tones and physical feeling of playing. The social aspect of playing a musical instrument with others or for the joy of others. There are so many hobbies that can help to reconnect us with the natural, simple joys of life. Find one that suits you and pursue it often and with the same intensity that you pursue Twitter or facebook followers.
At some point we have all probably had the realization that we spend too much goddamn time on our technological devices. That moment when you realize that you have just spent two mind numbing hours scrolling through your facebook feed like a zombie or when you have been staring at the television, wasting away through a binge watching of House of Cards. Whenever that moment was for you, it is almost always followed by a desire to go do something more “productive”. And something productive almost always seem to take the form of some sort of focal practice.
You would be surprised how little technology you actually need and how empowering and enlightening it can be to return to the analog days of your ancestors. Think of the joyful memories of camping. The smells of the crackling fire shooting brilliant orange sparks into the sky. Cooking smores and telling stories. Long hikes in the woods. It’s funny how our vacations always seem to include getting away from technology to distant destinations where we won’t be disturbed. Well we can recreate those moments of imagined serenity right here and now but taking hours or days to step away from the technology and reconnect with the deeper things in life. I promise it will all be there when you get back.
Make a conscious effort to make your life more simple. Perhaps that means digging up a bit of the backyard for a small garden to grow some of your own food. Or maybe that means making sure to take a few days a week to make a nice meal for yourself. Maybe you start making those Christmas presents or birthday presents instead of buying them. Self reliance, and the confidence that comes from it, is an amazing byproduct of pursuing simplicity. Make it a habit and you will find that your mind naturally goes to simplicity and you are no longer ruled by the convenience of devices.
I am obviously not saying that technology is a bad thing. I work as a software engineer and enjoy the many benefits that technology affords me. But we do need to balance the cost vs. the benefit, and realize that overconsumption or misappropriation of technology does have many negative affects. Our connections to technologies has severed our connections to the deeper things in our world; those things that we wish we had more time for and those things that pull at our heart strings when we realize that we have become too connected to our devices. Focal things and practices beckon us to participate more deeply in our world and create opportunities for us to connect with things, ourselves and humanity in a more meaningful way.
We need to put down the devices and find the hobbies that move us. We need to reconnect with nature and resurrect the practices that helped to fuel our social connections and our sense of self reliance, self confidence and self respect. These virtues are eroded by the overuse of the technological devices that have, all at once, made our world great, while making ourselves less. If we can find the balance we can find the depth of ourselves in an increasingly technologically sterile, device driven world.