Cal Newport: Franklin Foer on Technology’s Surprising Threat to Humanity

Contemplating the Importance of Contemplation

Franklin Foer has a new book coming out this week. It’s titled, World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech

I haven’t read it yet, but this morning, on returning from a family camping trip, I read Foer’s essay in today’s Washington Post and a recent interview with The Verge (as, of course, there’s no better time to contemplate the existential threat of technology than right after a weekend in the woods).

According to the interview in The Verge, Foer writes in the book: “the tech companies are destroying the possibility of contemplation.”

This premise is one I obviously support, having written an entire book on why we should fight to retain our diminishing ability for sustained attention.

But whereas my main issue with digital distraction was limited to issues of personal satisfaction and productivity, Foer, in elaborating his contemplation quote, goes much broader in his concern:

 

“We’re being dinged, notified, and clickbaited, which interrupts any sort of possibility for contemplation. To me, the destruction of contemplation is the existential threat to our humanity.” [emphasis mine]

 

In using this strong language, Foer is hitting on an increasingly urgent point that I’ve also seen fruitfully explored in Matt Crawford and Jaron Lanier’s humanist critiques of the attention economy.

Whereas I’m often focused on the immediate practical concerns of new technologies, an increasing number of thinkers like Foer, Crawford and Lanier are exploring a bigger point: when we allow ourselves to be washed away by the latest gadget or app designed to extract some more dollars from our attention, we’re not just losing some time, we’re actually losing something more fundamental about what it means to be an autonomous human.

When you hear an argument enough times, it probably makes sense to start taking it seriously.


This week’s guest post was brought to you by productivity expert Cal Newport. Cal Newport is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University. In addition to studying the theoretical foundations of our digital age, Newport also writes about the impact of these technologies on the world of work.

We recently sat down with Cal to ask him everything from career advice to his productivity routine. You can check out our interview with him here.

For more information on Cal, his books, or popular blog ‘Study Hacks,’ head over to his website CalNewport.com


 

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