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The Hazards of Too Many Inputs and Too Much Tech Dependency
Hello and happy spring! Before I jump in today, I wanted to mention another podcast interview I did, which published last week. This was for principal Josh Herring’s The Optimistic Curmudgeon. A heavy emphasis on education reform for anyone interested!
Now to the Stuff!
From the Ages
Aristotle on the need to train virtues so that the right emotions are elicited in the right way.
“… both fear and confidence and appetite and anger and pity and in general both pleasure and pain may be felt both too much and too little, and in both cases not well; but to feel them at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way, is what is both intermediate and best, and this is characteristic of virtue.” —Aristotle
Source: Nicomachean Ethics, Book 2
Today I’ll feature a longer From Today and let it do much of the heavy-lifting.
This is from The Every, by David Eggers. The Every is a fictional tech company, but in a world just like ours. Delaney, the main character, is talking to Kiki, who is the exact opposite of unplugged—tracking every possible life metric and on every self-help app. The quote picks up right after Kiki has answered a phone call in front of Delaney.
“Hello!” Kiki said, and pressed her finger to her ear. She began a very loud conversation with what Delaney took to be an elderly person. In the middle of the conversation, Kiki put herself into a plank position, with her phone beneath her… She carried on the conversation while her triceps strained and vibrated, and when she was done, she sat up, rolled her eyes and sighed in immense relief.
“My uncle. He’s in Argentina. One of my OwnSelf [an app] goals was to have more contact with my family down there, and it’s working out so well. Twenty-two calls in the last week, which is a few short of my goal. And I get some of my ab work done at the same time.”
“Twenty-two calls with relatives in one week?” Delaney asked.
“It’s a start,” Kiki said. “I’ll get better” She was planking again. “My core needs more attention,” she said. “And I’m supposed to lose four pounds. Are you on OwnSelf yet?
Delaney worried about Kiki losing any weight. She couldn’t be more than a hundred pounds, her arms no thicker than a garden hose. “Who told you to lose weight?” she asked. Instantly she wondered what the AI would make of that [all conversations are graded by an AI]. It was borderline.
“My body mass index is not ideal,” Kiki said. “I got a notice. But it’s doable. Hey, you don’t speak French by chance, do you?” Delaney did not. “No,” she said …
“It’s fine,” Kiki said. “I’m trying to practice, and I figured we might as well speak in French if you knew any. I’m trying to get in twenty minutes a day, but I’m thinking it’d be easier to overlap somehow. Like I tried exercising in French but that didn’t work.”
Kiki’s mind was pinballing, her eyes hyper-alert and unsteady.
“Did I ask you before what your sleep average was?” She asked, and didn’t wait for an answer.
“Did you hear the new research says ten hours is ideal? The guy who did Bananaskam [an app] sleeps ten hours a night. In a shroud! A few nights ago I went to bed at eight, and I thought I slept enough, but then the sensors didn’t count my hours as high-quality sleep. So last night all I could think about was sleeping in a high-quality way, and I ended up not sleeping much at all. So while the goal has gone up to ten hours, I’m down to 6.4.”
A tiny laughtrack burst from her oval [like an Apple watch]. “We should laugh. I’m low on laughter, too. Is there something funny we can talk about?” Delaney tried to think of a joke. She could never remember jokes. Her face must have been contorted in concentration because Kiki let out a long, trilling laugh…
“Do you think you’re taking on too much?” Delaney asked.
Kiki was bent over, trying to regain control. She raised a finger to ask for a moment. A few seconds later she unfolded herself to her full height and breathed a series of measured breaths.
“Such a funny face you made!” she finally said. “Boy, I had a good laugh there.” Then she checked her oval to see if the laugh had registered. Satisfied, she smiled. “What did you say again?”
In The Every, Eggers does a brilliant job of showing how, in our advice-saturated, tech-metricized world, good goals and seemingly positive products can have a disastrous effect on individuals and on the quality of the larger social ecosystem. Kiki, like so many other characters in this story, is just a caricature of many people we all know (or, perhaps, are).
We stress ourselves out trying to keep up with all our content streams or trying to implement all the latest life-optimization advice. Then, we find ourselves doing high knees as we brush our teeth at night so we can hit an Apple Watch goal. Dance, puppet, dance.
Without boundaries there is really no way to use modern technology without it using us. Even among healthy, intentional people, tech has a way of working around our boundaries and inserting itself into more and more aspects of our lives. But we can regain perspective by blocking out an intentional period to disentangle ourselves from our immense web of tech tethers. We need time to re-evaluate how we want to be, how we want to spend our lives, and how we can ensure our tech is actually useful in furthering those goals.
Many of us delude ourselves into thinking that our own tech use is innocuous. Because of my job or my kids, it is necessary for me to check email all evening. Or: I just scroll Instagram in every spare moment because I like it. For most of us, these are rationalizations—what Justin calls “junkie-logic.” We humans have a fantastic capacity to rationalize our own behavior while seeing the ills of others in perfect clarity. We love giving advice, but hate getting it.
In this spirit, Justin, me, and many IHD Members will be taking April to do a 30 day Digital Declutter (as inspired by Cal Newport). The basic idea is that you eliminate all non-essential tech from your life for 30 days. For purists that means you can use tech at work, for work, but:
No social media,
No streaming video services, including Youtube
No email on your phone
No podcasts, TV, etc.
As with our bi-annual fast challenge, you might want to try a softer version where you allow yourself one or two specific podcasts and an hour of television at the end of the day. I am going to take a month off of podcasts, but will allow myself to still listen to Audible during commutes and household chores only, to music while I workout, and to make phone calls and respond to texts from my immediate family (these are important to my daily life—I won’t use text for conversations). For these few exceptions, I have defined very specific boundaries. Try to avoid blanket exceptions such as: I’ll give up Instagram but Twitter is ok.
At minimum for this challenge to be beneficial, it is important to restrict any tech use to very specific, pre-selected times and to eliminate social media, phone email, and any app that you check for notifications. Trust that the world will keep turning and you’ll find insights from this experience.
Also, I recommend thinking about how you will fill the extra time. Can you carry a book with you that you read in those moments you would be scrolling TikTok or watching YouTube videos? Is there a skill, like guitar, you could practice? Could you sub a once tech-saturated time with phone calls to important people in your life? Reflect on how much differently you may have used your time just a couple decades ago.
The goal at the end is to be able to operate from first principles to add in tech only as it is useful for your deeper life mission. As Cal Newport frames it, you want to be able to say: “This is what I want to do with my life. How can tech help?”
If you’re interested, in this video Newport gives a wonderful description of the rationale for the challenge and how to get started.
We will be hosting the 30-Day Declutter challenge discussion within our member's community. You can participate in this challenge for free by signing up for a membership and using the code digital-declutter (first month of membership free). Whether you become a member or not, I hope you will join us! The self-mastery and perspective that come with this challenge are essential ingredients for living well in the modern world.
Thanks so much for reading!
Life is too short to be normal,