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Avoid Magic, Seek Mastery
A Simple Schema For Healthier Tech Use
Hello, good people! Before we get started today, I wanted to point your attention to my interview on The Walled Garden Podcast, which was titled: Overcoming Human Devolution
Simon Drew is an awesome guy doing really cool things on The Walled Garden, and this conversation was a blast!
Now to today’s stuff!
From the Recent Ages
For magic and applied science alike, the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men; the solution is a technique, and both in the practice of this technique are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious.” —C.S. Lewis
Source: The Abolition of Man
“There are websites for “weld porn,” and the mere fact that this is so should be of urgent interest to educators. Education requires a certain capacity for asceticism, but more fundamentally it is erotic. Only beautiful things lead us out to join the world beyond our heads.” —Matthew Crawford
Source: The World Beyond Your Head
I took up guitar in January. If you’ve never played guitar you probably imagine it is fairly easy to learn. After all, you’ve seen thousands of videos of people singing away, smiling, and performing without seeming to give a second thought to the beautiful sound emanating from their guitar. Most assume that with a little work, playing the guitar is basically autopilot.
But this is far from true. It takes thousands of hours just to be able to string together a song without long, awkward pauses between every chord transition. When first learning a chord, you’ll take many seconds to place your fingers just right and somehow it still won’t sound right. It requires a matter of feel that only comes with considerable repetition and it’s easy to get discouraged. But eventually—and far before you are anything that would resemble a decent guitar player—you feel the pure bliss of progress. You play a song or a section of a song. You make music and it is addictive.
In modern times, you can listen to any song you want at any time you want to. In fact, you can pick stations that learn from your likes and dislikes in order to consistently bring you better and better selections. The technology learns to deliver you exactly what you want to listen to, even without your input.
But 100 years ago, very few homes had a radio. The only way to listen to music on-demand was to make music or find friends who could make music. Thus, it was far more common for the average person to persist past the inevitable frustrations that come with learning to play an instrument and to have achieved a level of musical competency. Technology has made it easy to hear great music. On one hand that is wonderful. But the inevitable (and de-humanizing) effect of this is that it also reduces the incentive for people to cultivate their own musical competency.
As with music, 100 years ago, there was no way to entertain yourself but to read, take on a hobby, or to interact with other people. Twenty years ago you had to knock on a door or at least pick up the phone to get a friend's "status update." There was no way to get a date with someone you were attracted to other than to get the courage to put yourself out there and persist through the awkward trial, error, and rejection that characterizes early romantic interests.
Author Andy Crouch often refers to such uses of technology as magic. Tech gets us what we want—some basic need or desire that we want so much we’d have previously worked tirelessly to be able to get it—but it gives it to us without the pains of skill acquisition.
Google Maps. Magic.
Video games. Magic.
Social media. Magic.
Door Dash. Magic.
Each of these magically meet deep needs without requiring anything of us. By doing that, they remove the situation that would have once prompted us to become something more—to develop skills that would be a springboard to higher quality living. We get what we want (or at least a shell of it), but don’t have to work to acquire the skills that were once a prerequisite to that pleasurable desire. This feels great…at first. But, in the long run, it leaves us feeling used and as if we are wasting our potential.
Still, technology is not evil. The guitar is, itself, a technology. As is everything from skateboards to written language. And those computery things we typically think of as technology are not evil either. The computer has been a medium for incredible procrastination and distraction in my life. But it was also an indispensable medium for writing and researching my book.
In his book, The Life We’re Looking For, Andy Crouch makes an essential distinction that can help us discern what tech use is productive and what is basically tech junk food: the difference between instruments and devices. Devices are magic. Devices remove or reduce the need for skill. They give us what Crouch calls “power without effort.” Instruments, by contrast, require effort to master. They are technology that is used to assist our own personal expansion. They augment our innate abilities and allow us to do things we cannot do alone, but which still requires us to engage with the world as it really is. Think of written language and the way it has expanded human potential.
Making this distinction is quite helpful with technologies like the computer and smartphone, which can be both an instrument and a device, depending on how they are used. With Crouch’s structure in mind, you can change your phone settings to reduce “device” time and insert prompts to reflect before mindlessly slipping into scroll mode.
For example, I’ve changed my phone’s unlock background to a wallpaper that says: “Do You Really Need to Unlock Me Right Now?” On the back of my phone I have a sticky note that says: “Why?” While not full-proof, these have helped spur a moment of reflection before I open Pandora’s box. Why do I need to use my phone? Do I have an explicit purpose in mind or am I grabbing the phone simply to stifle boredom? I want to train myself to mentally call-out the reason for using my phone before diving in. If I learned anything from my April Digital Declutter, it is that wonderful things often come when you interrupt that tendency to grab your phone every time you realize you don’t know what to do next.
Thanks so much for reading and sharing with your kindred spirits!
Life is too short to be normal,