The subject of introspection has figured prominently in books about Americans in the 21st century, from Aha to Leaving Las Vegas and from the Protestant work ethic to The Moment of Truth to Gandhi’s Amma. These efforts to do what — or more to the point, what not to do — have led, mostly one hopes, to a reconsideration of whether our society is on a slide toward lonelier, more consumerist, extractive times. If only we’d be less focused on using our smartphones while walking and more creative.
But have we failed to grasp that if a choice must be made, the decision might be not to think? Maybe we do so in order to be app-enthused. I rarely thought about it until recently while listening to Erin McPherson of The New York Times Magazine interview a series of experts about “what tech calls thinking.” They parsed the advantages and disadvantages of learning how to think on your smartphone — whether to do so to optimize your creativity or to push you off-task, whether to replace, or replace, your concentration with a new set of apps. What’s the difference?
McPherson’s podcast, sponsored by IBM, functions partly as a kind of argument about whether humans are meaningfully different from the machines that every other civilization has deployed against them in one way or another. There is, as the conversation pushed, some talk of “the self-confidence crisis,” the awful feeling of being self-conscious when the ultra-human tech companies are called on to provide us with tips and tricks and judgment.
But it wasn’t too interesting — just discursive and nicely executed — in more honest mode. At times, I found myself thinking: “What tech calls thinking has really been thinking since the invention of language.”
In that sense, what tech calls thinking appears to be ideas rather than the rationality that the medium was designed to enable, and of course not of any particularly lasting value. In its implementation in The Moment of Truth, we learn to be unmoored from our senses, our emotional centers, even our self-esteem.
It was the most obvious moment when the next part of the conversation came around to thinking. One of the interesting points McPherson made is that if we believe our minds to be our most valuable assets, the technology that serves them doesn’t seem to be much good for us. It can come to take over our capacities for dwelling in a non-wholesome way. Perhaps we can self-justify by saying, “It’s just for self-expression”; but there are limits, not just technological ones. In The Moment of Truth, after being charmed and excited by Elon Musk’s suggestion that the human mind would become easier to transmit, Manu Prakash, a researcher at Cornell, suggests a deeper reason: “You learn how to think, and the technology steps in.” He offers the depressing example of a recent study in which subjects who slept for more than 18 hours the night before were asked how it was affecting their creative output. They told their hypochondriac selves that they “used up a lot of caffeine” the previous night.
Not all of us, of course, have that option — in all of us. We all run the risk of being hypnotized by gadgetry that promises distraction rather than productivity. But we have to use our consciousness. What are those choices now?
At some level, an increasingly digital world is no longer a choice but a necessity. This is harder, of course, if one was forced to confront new intimations of truth, as well as others obscured by technology. These are how Friedrich Nietzsche tried to live; how his contemporary Doris Lessing imagines her own. How many people who move from a smaller scale and reliance on peers to reach collective goals to a bigger, more inclusive, yet smaller arena of global specialization may end up facing each other like apparitions in front of screens, reflecting a blurring of selves? When John Updike wrote about the emergence of irony in the 1950s, of the alternative to, that is, despair, he identified it as the need to be ironic. But what, exactly, does being ironic entail, other than an ironic appreciation of consumerism?
In the end, the question of self-criticism, the need to struggle with ourselves and our frailties, resides chiefly in the hands of the private. As only human beings can do, we wade our way through crises of knowledge and wisdom, through slights and assumptions. When so much of our understanding of the world, or even what humans do, is mediated by smartphones, we have only ourselves to blame for each and every