For Christmas, my step-daughter gave me Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building Life in the Digital Age. She explained: “You like Hamlet, and you like technological.” If only her choice were that simple. I’m afraid that whether or not she knew it, I am in desperate need of William Powers’ cautions and advice–to such a degree that my New Year’s resolution will be what I’m calling, “Gridless Sundays.” Although I’m allowing myself television, word processing, movies, music, and phone (I’m not a barbarian, after all), I’m taking myself off the Internet grid. No browsing on Sundays.
Powers’ next point is that technology isn’t the problem. It’s our rapid use of technology that closes the gaps of reflection and appreciation. Powers explains that “as the gaps between my digital tasks disappeared, so did the opportunities for depth. Sereen [sic] life became more rushed and superficial, a nonstop mental traffic jam. Second, because I was spending as much time in the digital sphere, I was less able to enjoy my own company and the places and people around me” (48). Rather, we need to pause for the awe of what we’ve just encountered on our screens. Powers evokes Great Expectations’ Joe Gargery’s exclamation, “What larks!” In self-actualization terms, let’s review the “What larks!” potential of “minding the gap” and enjoying our own company.
Previously, I’ve synthesized Maslow’s work with self-actualizers into 3 categories. For the sake of this discussion, I’ll show how attending to the gaps between tech experiences and fostering our solitariness can enhance our self-actualizing.
1. Self-knowledge & self-acceptance: For this quality, we need the ability to see “reality more clearly” without “defensiveness.” We need to avoid the “pose, hypocrisy, front, face, playing a game, trying to impress” approaches to life. We need to foster a “continued freshness of appreciation,” and “oceanic feeling,” and a “philosophical, unhostile sense of humor.” Finally, we need to explore our own “creativeness” (Motivation 208-223). It’s easy to see that unless we pause and reflect in private between our tech checks, we have given ourselves no opportunity to understand, enjoy, and appreciate life to this degree and in these ways. Without that level of experiential embrace, we can’t know ourselves fully.
2. Resistance to acculturation: Self-actualizers intentionally create a “dialectic between growth-fostering forces and growth-discouraging forces” (Toward 204-205) in order to establish a “quality of detachment,” their privacy (Motivation 212), and a sense of autonomy (Motivation 213). This creates a discontentment necessary for resisting unhealthy forced cultural assimilation (Motivation 224) through a “continual series of choices for the individual” (Toward 193). Resisting being “rubricized,” self-actualizers strive to be “role-free” (Farther 273) and, instead, create their own self-narratives. For example, after reading one NPR Story of the Day, it behooves us to consider its effect on the world and us. Does the story call us to action or acceptance? Does the story disturb our sense of communal connections or foster it? These are important questions if we seriously want to re-evaluate our place among other humans instead of self-identifying as members of a group—Republicans, Baptists, lawyers, capitalists, homosexuals, Stoics, etc. Self-actualization demands that we resist inappropriate, forced enculturation. To do so, we must at least temporarily withdraw from society and self-reflect. While society’s meta-narratives constantly bombard our resistance to them, we must vigilantly reinterpret those myths for our own self-worth. We must disconnect in order to reconnect—to ourselves and to others.
3. Cultivation of a better world: To improve the world, we need to live “vividly, selflessly, with full concentration and total absorption” (Farther 45), experience in full an “oceanic feeling” (Motivation 216) amidst our deep and “profound interpersonal relations . . . with rather few individuals” (Motivation 218). This entails no Pollyanna view of life but accurate and efficient judgments of others (Motivation 203) and the strong belief that the “Good Person” creates the “Good Society” (Farther 19). We strive to “love the world as it is and to improve it” (Farther 308); to enjoy other people’s happiness (Farther 309); and to fuse with others while allowing for personal freedom (Toward 91). One of my greatest attractions to Maslow’s work is that self-actualization demands living ethically, which depends on a calm mind, clear intentions, and purposeful actions. Again, we’re back to creatin gaps and personal space in order to generate catalysts for self-actualization. “What larks!”
Powers continues, arming his philosophical argument with examples from 7 famous lives.
1. Socrates/Plato: Gain distance from your distractions.
2. Senaca: Calm your mind in order to create “flow” experiences.
3. Gutenberg: Reach within yourself despite your busy, crowded life.
4. Hamlet: Use 3-D tools to focus your mind and express your thoughts.
5. Ben Franklin: Employ a positive approach to changing negative habits.
6. Thoreau: Create home zones for both solitary and social moments.
7. McLuhan: Choose the right medium to calm your mind and be creative.
Powers concludes with his suggestions for practicing his new philosophy for the digital age:
1. Create a living environment that supports both “communality and individuality” (226).
2. Nurture your capacity to be alone while among others.
3. Selectively limit your “screen” time and give yourself the occasion to properly reflect upon the content and experience that reading the screen has just afforded you.
4. Enjoy the company of others.
5. Practice “technology-free introspection.”
Perhaps, you have additions: reading a sacred text, communing with nature, volunteering, exercising, listening to music, developing your creativity, etc.
I’d like to add one of my own: playing games. Not computer games but games with at least one other person. My husband and I play what we call “war solitaire” after each meal we eat together at home. We have learned about each other through our fierce playing. I could not be more competitive—to the extent that I inflict bruising for the sake of playing a card. We could not be more competitive together. We have released more than a bit of tension between us through our ferocious carding, which involves body checking and ridiculous name calling. It feels great to win, to beat the other guy, to console the card mate, to rationalize our errors, to concede defeat, and to accept a stalemate. Could all this be accomplished using screens? I suppose. But there’s something to the physicality (the 3-Dness) of this particularly fast-paced card game that helps us fight for our own successes and grapple with each other’s defeats. Perhaps, we don’t create an “oceanic feeling” or improve the world. But I guarantee you that, as bizarre as it seems, we deepen our relationship and enjoy each other’s happiness. Despite the name calling and bruising , when we play cards we both fuse together and allow for each other’s personal freedom.
Right now, I’m listening to a soft jazz Pandora station, typing on my laptop keyboard, drinking my re-re-warmed coffee, and periodically, watching the snow fall. Having grown up in the Chicago ‘burbs, I’m no stranger to snow. But there’s something about snow falling in the South that’s different. “God brought it and he’ll take it away” is no exaggeration for where I live. At 7 AM, the dentist closed his office for today and tomorrow. The university conceded defeat at 7:30 AM, closing for the first day of the spring semester (despite the many hours I prepared yesterday to teach 2 hours of Kant.) Looking up and out, I watch the snow falling. I think it’s falling harder than when I started this paragraph. I hear the jazz piece, which sounds prettier than when I began this paragraph. My coffee is just the right temperature. My husband may come down any minute now and give me another hug. How can all that compare to checking my inboxes.
Of course, I’ll go back on the grid and post this blog. And you’ll read it on your screen. Just promise me that you’ll spend a few moments considering what Powers, Plato, Maslow, and the rest have considered themselves. And me, as well. Thereafter, I wish you a pleasant “flow” to the rest of your day.