Reconsidering the place of technology in our lives
Michael is the associate director of the Christian Study Center of Gainesville and has written for The New Atlantis, The New Inquiry, Comment Magazine, and Real Life Magazine. He is also the author of a forthcoming book, 41 Questions: Technology and the Moral Life (Avid Reader Press).
In this thought-provoking episode, we invite you to reconsider the place of technology in your life.
- The role of technology in our lives and how the tools we use shape our experience of the world, and by extension, our existence
- Attention, its importance, and its various forms
- Why Twitter for Michael is a deal with the devil
- How, even out of the Metaverse, technology reframes our reality
- The three most important questions everyone should ask about the way that they use technology
This episode is part of our series on “Self”, where we explore how our technology impacts some of the most important aspects of being human.
Host and Producer: Georgie Powell Sentient Digital
Music and audio production: Toccare Philip Amalong
Michael: If I am saying that virtual reality can be just as good as or better, as some have recently argued, than our lived experience. They might argue that it’s more varied or it’s more engaging, entertaining, whatever.
But what I wondered is whether that’s not increasingly plausible to the degree that through our devices, we’ve already attenuated our experience of the world. That we’ve so narrowed our vision that we’re no longer sensitive to the wonder, the beauty, the remarkable character of the world that is present all around us at all times. Even if we are not necessarily extremely wealthy or have all of our consumer dreams met.
There is still a remarkably beautiful and engaging world around us, communities that can be rich and vibrant, such that if we have lost sight of that, right, through our — the narrowing of our vision through our devices, then that idea that the virtual world can be just as good or better might be more plausible.
We’ve already maybe have impoverished our experience somewhat voluntarily in such a way that it makes it seem feasible to say, well, sure, let’s just continue to augment the virtual experience, and it’ll be just as good. Whereas I think somebody who maybe, might be more attuned to these goods and this beauty, would find that argument just on the face rather ludicrous.
Georgie: Welcome to Freedom Matters, where we explore the intersection of technology, productivity, and digital well-being. I’m your host, Georgie Powell. And each week, we’ll be talking to experts in productivity and digital wellness. We’ll be sharing their experiences on how to take back control of technology. We hope you leave feeling inspired. So, let’s get to it.
This week, we welcome Michael Sacasas, author of the revered ‘Convivial Society’, a newsletter about technology and society. He is also Associate Director of the Christian Study Center of Gainesville and has written for The New Atlantis, The New Inquiry, Comment Magazine, and Real Life Magazine. He is also the author of a forthcoming book, ‘41 Questions: Technology and the Moral Life’.
In this eye-opening conversation, we discuss how tools influence our interactions with our environment, how to think about attention, why Twitter is a devil’s bargain, and how virtual reality may well be Utopia unless we start to look up. If this episode makes you think differently about technology, then email us at [email protected]. We’d love to hear from you.
Michael, welcome to the Freedom Matters podcast. Thank you so much for joining us this afternoon.
Michael: It is a pleasure. Yeah, honored to be on here.
Georgie: I’m also thrilled to just hear that you’re also a Freedom user, which we didn’t know until we just started having conversations.
Michael: Yes, absolutely. I confess, I should probably use it more than I do.
Georgie: So, I wanted to start by just getting to know you a little bit more. And we were talking before about how your private life is quite difficult to work out online, which is, I guess, in keeping with a lot of what your writing is all about.
And I’m interested in less about what you do, but how you’re writing, given this as a series on self and self-discovery. I’m interested to understand a little bit about how your writing over the years has helped you to learn more about yourself. And if that is something you’ve considered as your writing career has progressed.
Michael: Yeah, certainly. The first thing that comes to mind, it’s a dictum, that’s certainly not original to me, but that I think holds true, at least in my case. And that is that I have found that writing clarifies thinking or that writing even is a form of thinking.
And so I began writing online, in an effort to help me think through, I was in a graduate program at the time, to process books that I was reading arguments that I was encountering. And trying to express through writing it certainly crystallized and clarified my thinking on the various topics that I was learning about. So, it’s certainly helpful in that regard.
A lot of my writing about technology simply stemmed from an attempt to pay close attention to how technology was shaping me or how it was making me feel, or how it was shaping my perception of the world.
So, just kind of sitting and feeling my way through the use of certain technologies, it was a way of then feeding my writing about these issues so that it was less abstract and grounded in my own experience, which I suspected might also be the experience of others.
And so in order to write well about technology, I think then that I found it easier to do that when I was more reflective about my own practices and even just phenomenologically how the experience of technology was shaping my encounter with the world, with others and with myself.
Georgie: Michael writes broadly about a wide range of technologies from the table to light bulbs through to the metaverse. He begins with understanding how technology impacts how we exist in our own bodies, because those technologies then impact our experiences with our environment.
Michael: I think one of my starting points in thinking about technologies is the idea that we’re fundamentally embodied creatures. The body is an essential element of how we think, how we feel our way through life, how we encounter ourselves and others.
And sometimes the story of modernity is framed as a story of these dualisms. And one of those dualisms is mind and body. And I think that’s a misleading way of thinking about the human person.
So, if the body is an essential aspect of how we make our way in the world and the seat of our desires, and the home base, as it were, of our habits that become our character, then the tools that we take in hand seemingly become very important, right, as a interface between the body and the world.
One of the other ways of looking at technology that was very influential for me is school of philosophy known as post phenomenology. And so its approach to technology, this tries to understand the way that technology mediates perception. So, these, both intellectual and more concrete realities fed into the way I typically analyze or think about a given tool.
There are many tools that very much enter into the circuit of mind, body and world. And so to just pay attention to how that circuit is shaped or disrupted, or augmented or strengthened, or whatever the case may be, by the tools that we introduce into that circuit, I think is a very valuable way of thinking about our technologies.
And a lot of it is a matter of even just how we carry our body. What postures do certain technologies, and do send us? What do we find our bodies doing in response to our interactions with technology?
I think it was Linda Stone, a researcher who, a decade or more ago coined the term email apnea. To get at this interesting habit of breathing in a very shallow way, when we’re interacting online. She’s expanded this beyond email to just our interactions with computers generally. And so that’s a very interesting bodily consequence of what we might ordinarily think of as a kind of purely intellectual activity.
So, being attentive to all these things, or even to the way that lighting affects our circadian rhythms. These are all ways I think, of thinking about the consequences of technology, when you start with this premise that we are embodied creatures, and what happens to our body matters to us greatly.
Georgie: All I can think about as you’re talking here is these, kind of images of the evolution of man, as we become more and more hunched again, over our screens, curled back to whence we first came.
Michael: Yeah. I remember an early meme to that effect. Yeah.
Georgie: Yeah. And when you think about that, and obviously, we’re quite interested in screens, in particular, what have been your observations in terms of how portable or even kind of computers have started to impact the way that our body is able to express itself in its environment?
Michael: Where my own thinking goes immediately here is, for example, to what happens to our openness to the full range of the world and the experience beyond our heads when there is a beacon to our attention that’s always with us. So, we carry always in hand.
I will confess, and I’ve confessed this publicly before, I don’t have a smartphone, in part for this reason. And find that I certainly don’t have the willpower to resist to the degree that I would like to, the way in which I might respond to every particular prompt or notification, or even apart from notification. So, just seek the phone for a distraction.
And so when I’m in the world, walking down a street, sitting outside somewhere, interacting with another person, that temptation for me, it takes a structure of a temptation, is very powerful. And it redirects my attention in ways that I think are often unhelpful.
I would say primarily what I would think of the portable, ubiquitous screen even sometimes when we don’t necessarily even have it in hand. But just because it is accessible, it is almost an accoutrement of the body, may limit our vision, our experience of the fullness of reality that unfolds before us. And I think there’s good reason to avoid that.
Not from the premise that the smartphone is of itself necessarily a bad thing. But that there are good things that are worth attending to their habits of attention that are worth cultivating. And that this tool for some people, myself included, sometimes becomes an obstacle to the cultivation of those habits of attention and care and even contemplation of the world beyond my own head.
Georgie: And that actually brings me really nicely on to the next point, which is another area of writing I found really interesting is this concept of the discourse of attention and actually what is attention and why is it important.
And there has been — a lot of people we’ve spoken to even on the podcast been talking about how smartphones are effectively just an attack on our attention. And distraction has never been more easily available.
But I think what you’ve done is asked a really important question of actually hang on, if our attention isn’t going into these devices, where actually should our attention be going? And what is good attention? And lots of people have talked about how it’s very dangerous now that we can’t sit down and read a book. And I think you asked the important question of actually, is that what we need to be doing? Is that what attention really is? So, perhaps you could elaborate a little bit more on your concept of attention, and why these sorts of questions around attention are really important.
Michael: Sure. And I think this is — A part of the idea here is that so much of what I call attention discourses, recurring waves of books and articles, essays that do consider the fate of attention in an age of digital devices.
And part of what was interesting to me is that this is only the latest wave. And so there have been since the 19 century, these recurring waves of attention discourse. But a lot of the writing over the last decade about attention, and I certainly wouldn’t say all of it, but a lot of it analyzes the ways in which digital devices may be hampering our capacity to pay attention to the world.
But I thought it was a good occasion to ask what exactly ought we need to be paying attention to? And I think this is always a good question to foreground, right? What is the good where after and how do our tools and devices hinder that pursuit or sustain it or encourage it?
Obviously, this question of goods gets into a question of values, of morals. For some people, there may be a religious spiritual dimension to what ought to hold our attention. But I would say one point of commonality is, it is good to give another person our attention, to attend to them as somebody worthy of our attention when we’re interacting with them and speaking with them.
And so, if attention is a kind of capacity to focus on something or someone, then it takes on a kind of moral imperative, because it’s not just about being able to read crime and punishment, or war on peace.
It’s about the ability to be fully present before another human being, when we’re interacting with them, whether it’s a serious and engaged conversation. Or whether it’s just passing a cashier at a checkout aisle, for example, where it’s so easy to just never make eye contact, never acknowledge the person before us. In other words, never attend to them.
I’ve come to like that phrase a little bit better, attending to, rather than paying or giving attention. Only because it seems to suggest this aspect of care, that part of what our attention is for is to direct our care for the world and for others. And so it has an ethical dimension too, which I think is very important, and heightens the stakes in some respects, as well, of what’s happening to this capacity that we call attention, and how it is trained by our material environment, our devices.
Georgie: Yeah. And as I think you’ve written as well, to elaborate on that a bit more, it moves the conversation on from attention being this economic or value orientated kind of commodity in a way that we’re always seeking to optimize for some kind of gain.
Michael: Right. And I did find that a lot of the economic terminology that has gathered around attention, I’m not sure how helpful it may be. I’m under the influence of a writer that’s been very important to me, Ivan illich, questioning whether that language implies a scarcity, which maybe isn’t really the problem.
Maybe the problem is not that we don’t have enough attention, but that we’re not ordering our lives so as to allow us to give attention to things that matter that we’re being insufficiently disciplined in our own practices, or that there are social structures that are inhibiting our ability to attend to the world as we want to.
And so I wanted to see what would happen if I simply operate at this premise that I have all the attention I need at any given moment. If only I know in that moment what is good and right for me to attend to. So, that you’re not beginning with this presumption of scarcity. And I don’t know, I think that does some good in, at least it has for me in framing how I think about attention.
Georgie: Yeah, that’s fascinating. I wondered, as someone who works in the productivity sector, are we putting too much emphasis on laser focus and flow? I asked Michael, could this be at the expense of other forms of attention, which are much more important for being human?
Michael: Yes, certainly. I mean, two things I suppose come to mind. One that there is this, it is a question of the end, right, the end for which I seek to do whatever it is I’m doing. And so why do I want to focus my attention in this way, right, to serve what goal, what end. And so we ought to think carefully about that.
And then there’s the other side of attention, which is, I think, just a kind of openness to the world, right. So, there’s attention as that kind of beam that comes out from our mind to the world and latches on to something and can hold on to it, which is important.
But a spirit of, of openness to being surprised by the world being surprised by others, receptivity. I sometimes talk about this in terms of experiencing the world as a gift, rather than simply a field wherein we get to actualize ourselves and our projects, but we have to receive it in a certain way, in a certain spirit.
And then it’s not just a switch, right, where you have a distracted mind and a very focused mind. Sometimes distraction can be good. Sometimes we need a kind of randomness or play in our interactions with the world.
And so there’s a well-ordered attention, which isn’t just about constant strict focus, but that knows how to switch to various modes of attentiveness in response to the given situations. I don’t know if that helps.
Georgie: Yeah. No, I think it definitely does. Yeah, it’s hugely valuable. And you said that, since you’ve thought about the fact that you have sufficient attention in your life, you just have to learn where to place it. How do you think that’s changed how you are in yourself and how you experience the world?
Michael: Very imperfectly. And I want to stress because I don’t want to lay this burden too heavily on the individual. So, there are ecosystems of attention. And those can be structured so as to tip the deck against a person and to simply ask a person to marshal the internal resources to resist it, and can be misleading, I think, and unfair under certain circumstances. So, I want to acknowledge that.
But I think a lot of this sometimes comes to a point in how I relate to my children. I have two small girls. And it’s very easy, especially I found period of the early pandemic when I was working from home, it’s obviously very tempting to come talk to daddy during the day. And it’s very tempting for me to say not now, this isn’t a good time. And surely there’s a time to say something like that, right?
But it felt like one could frame that as a problem of having too many things to pay attention to in a given moment. Or I think what this question helped me to think about is whether there’s actually one right thing to pay attention to in that moment. I have to discern what that is.
Sometimes it is the work that I have to complete. But sometimes it is what my daughter might need from me in that moment. And so once I make that decision, then it’s not that my attention is divided, I actually have the attention I need. I just need to commit it to the right thing in that moment.
Georgie: And not always feel like you’re pulled in two directions simultaneously, and therefore, not really achieving either.
Michael: Yeah. And I think so much of the way we use technology is tied up with this desire to control, to master situations.
And I think part of the reason we find ourselves so torn, maybe or distracted or pulled in different directions is that we have a hard time letting go of things in relinquishing control or seeding our attention. Because somehow our attention, we’ve come to think that it’s vital to this project, or to this endeavor, or whatever the case may be.
And so sometimes it’s just a matter of saying, I don’t need to attend to that, or I don’t need to care about that right now. And that can be a hard thing to do if we’re invested in this idea that we must be fully attentive to something in order for it to succeed or for it to work or for it to be managed well.
I think I’ve used the phrase that the arc of digital technology bends towards exhaustion. In part because it requires so much of us in a way that other technologies have not. You hope over time to build habits that become inclinations, that then become natural dispositions to act in this or that way, in a given moment. Right?
So, I’m just starting to change my patterns of behavior. That becomes very taxing to have to exert that kind of thought and reflection in that moment. But that over time, that becomes more habitual, in a good way, right, that I know more intuitively and instinctively, what is the right thing for me to attend to. And a lot of this also has to do with things that are not necessarily related to technology per se.
Georgie: Moving on from that, let’s talk about Twitter.
Michael: Sure. I’ve described it as a devil’s bargain with Twitter. And it’s the only social media platform that I use at present. I’ll start with the good because I think it’s important and honest to acknowledge that there certainly have been good things that have come out of my use of Twitter.
And chiefly I think of people who, even though I have not met them in person at any point, or even had a phone call with them, I know them almost exclusively through Twitter interactions. I count these as real and genuine relationships that I’m glad to have made and I would not have made otherwise.
I have benefited professionally from the exposure that it has garnered some of my writing over the years. And certainly, there’s a lot I’ve learned through the people I follow on Twitter that I may not have learned otherwise. And so that’s on the positive side of the ledger.
But on the negative side, I suppose is that it has a kind of compulsive draw. There are times where I catch myself mindlessly scrolling through the infinite timeline. And maybe I have in that moment, some rationalization for why I’m doing what I’m doing. But if I’m more honest, I realized that I’m not, right? I’m not doing something that is ordered towards some good in the moment. I’m simply in a bad habit, really.
And as a lot of writers, I think will attest, it’s very easy to turn to Twitter when we might be stuck with a sentence and find yourself then far too long later, realizing oh, what have I been doing? So, it has that compulsive draw to it that I don’t think is healthy. I think I’ve managed not to make a fool of myself too badly on Twitter.
But obviously, for some people that may be a little harder to do. I think it incites the passion in a way that obviously has been unhealthy. And there’s this feedback mechanism where I think it would take a very strong will indeed, to not find yourself molding yourself to the kind of feedback that you would be getting. Also, I think, unhealthy for the life of the mind, but also inculcate morally unhealthy as well.
There are some days where I think, just need to log off and be done with it. And I think I’ve tried to more recently just aim at a more stricter moderation of my use of the platform.
Georgie: Yeah. And I love how you also made the observation that I’ll try and quote you here. Twitter diverts attention whether we are on the platform or not by focusing the attention of journalists, politicians, celebrities, pundits, academics, etc. And I think that’s also a really key point. It’s not as by your own interaction, it’s the fact that this is shaping culture.
Michael: Right, exactly. And I think this is the unique power of Twitter, why it punches over its weight. Some people point out that only, I don’t know what it is, 20% of Americans even have a Twitter account. A far fewer percentage use it actively and so it might seem to be an insignificant platform by those measures, but in fact that it has become the focal point of the attention of many of the people who then go on to direct our attention through other media. And so it has a great deal of power in that way.
Georgie: You mentioned real life. And I didn’t know whether or not we’d get on to talking about virtual reality versus reality. But it’s also something you’ve written about. So, I’m going to give it a shot. I was interested by this concept that there have been arguments to say that virtual reality for many people will actually be significantly better than their reality.
And therefore, for all its criticism, you can see why it will be celebrated by so many people and become the new reality in the sense because it’s so much better than the live world. And I believe what you’re saying is, hang on, we have to recognize that the reality we live in is actually quite heavily curated already.
And there is a lot that we can do to change the structures that are in place to make it better in real life, so that the virtual world isn’t actually better. Is that correct and can you talk to me a bit about these various layers of reality?
Michael: I think that the moment I began thinking, along those lines, I think it was a post where someone was arguing, I think, in the attempt to be somewhat provocative that some people have reality privilege. And that is why they are critical of virtual reality, because their lived experiences is quite pleasing, right? And that many people in this world don’t have that kind of privilege. And for them, as you explained, virtual reality may be a respite.
And I think my point here is, in part simply that this can be used, obviously, as an excuse to stop trying to make our communities, our cities, our society, more equitable, more just, more conducive to the flourishing of all of its members.
And so it says, if we’re saying most people, or some large segment of society will just never have the kinds of privilege that others do, so might as well just plug them into the matrix, so then at least they have this simulation of a good life. And I think that that strikes me as an incredibly self-serving argument to make by those who would be creating these tools.
And I obviously would want to continue to work towards a more just, equitable and good society in which human beings from all segments of society can find a measure of satisfaction, their needs met, the measure of joy and meaningfulness in their own lives without needing to, in essence, distract themselves from their lived experience, and be engaged in these virtual worlds. And I think that part of what you are drawing out as well is that there’s a trajectory of sorts.
So, if I am saying that virtual reality can be just as good as or better, as some have recently argued, than our lived experience. They might argue that it’s more varied or it’s more engaging, entertaining, whatever.
But what I wondered is whether that’s not increasingly plausible to the degree that through our devices, we’ve already attenuated our experience of the world; that we’ve so narrowed our vision that we’re no longer sensitive to the wonder, the beauty, the remarkable character of the world that is present all around us at all times. Even if we are not necessarily extremely wealthy or have all of our consumer dreams met.
There is still a remarkably beautiful and engaging world around us, communities that can be rich and vibrant, such that if we have lost sight of that, right, through our — the narrowing of our vision through our devices, then that idea that the virtual world can be just as good or better might be more plausible.
There’s a trajectory where we’ve already maybe have impoverished our experience somewhat voluntarily in such a way that it makes it seem feasible to say, well, sure, let’s just continue to augment it, the virtual experience, and it’ll be just as good. Whereas I think somebody who maybe, might be more attuned to these goods and this beauty, would find that argument just on the face rather ludicrous.
Georgie: But it’s interesting, isn’t it? Because actually, it’s a rhetoric that has existed for most technology. There’s always the promise of improvement, it’s the better way of doing it, it’s the easier way of doing it, the more entertaining, the faster. I mean, that’s why we use technology.
But I think what you’re saying is, or I don’t know, but it’s, we need to be eyes wide open about that rhetoric and be able to look critically at the other side of the story that isn’t being told.
Michael: Sure. And I think that maybe the concept of thresholds is helpful too. It’s one thing to find that a tool is helpful in, I don’t know, improving the way I prepare certain meals or the way that I construct the house. It’s a tool that is helping me shape the material world.
And some tools do that, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that because some tools have done that and have been used to do that, that every tool, every device that has ever made subsequently will serve the same function. And so this is, I think, part of the trap of the word technology. We use the word technology to designate any blinding number of realities.
And then we are tempted to make judgments such as, well, technology is good or technology is bad. When I think it’s much more useful to think of specific technologies and tools, rather than to just assume that, you have to take the position, technology is itself good or technology is bad, or whatever. So, it’s important to see what each technology promises, whether it meets those goals or not. And whether it doesn’t cross certain thresholds beyond which it becomes counterproductive.
That’s also language from Ivan Illich where the idea is not that a technology is good or bad, necessarily, but that it, to a certain point, achieves something good and meaningful. But if it reaches a certain scale, if it becomes sufficiently dominant, some area of life monopolizes some particular cultural sphere, it then flips into being counterproductive, and maybe even ultimately destructive.
And so that’s not a matter of just deciding this technology is good or bad, but to find it’s right place on this particular spectrum of use. And that can be a difficult thing to do certainly even to do ahead of time to project that. But I don’t think we we often don’t even try,
Georgie: No, we definitely don’t. And it’s definitely not part of the tech development process to think about at what point does technology has its limits. I think that threshold concept is incredibly useful, as are your 41 Questions to ask when using technology, which I’m glad to hear is going to be expanded into a book that will be available later in the year.
Let’s talk about your top three. What are your top three questions that Freedom listeners should think about and ask so that maybe they can start to understand their own thresholds with different types of tools and technology?
Michael: Oh, that’s a good question. That presumes that I’ve memorized my 41 Questions.
Georgie: This will help because the ones you remember are clearly the most important.
Michael: Right, right. And I will clarify probably later next year, not this year.
Georgie: Okay. Depending on Twitter.
Michael: But I think one question — Right, right. Yes, exactly. Right, and how faithful I am in my use of Freedom.
One question that comes to mind is the question, What habits does this technology inculcate in me? I think we are creatures of habit. I buy into virtue ethics view of moral formation of self-formation. And I think it is important to attend to how technology uses become habitual.
And sometimes that can be a perfectly good thing. These habits can be good habits that yield good proclivities and build good character. When they’re not, they can be very unhelpful, and even undermine our express goals for ourselves and our community. So, to be attentive to the kinds of habits that technologies inculcate in us.
Another question that gets at how technology mediates my perception of the other. I think this is a critically important question. We live in an age where there are many forces that are pulling us apart, pulling the fabric of society apart, if you like. Our communication technologies often contribute to this.
And so to simply ask, how does this tool, how does it encourage me to see the other, whether that’s in emotions that it might build up in me. Is it optimized for my outrage or more mundane things? Is it distracting me from simply making eye contact with the person in front of me? So, that question of how these tools mediate these relationships, and my perception of the other, I think, is an important one.
And then the first question on the list is, what kind of person will the use of this technology make of me? And I think that’s a very global question. In some respects, it sets the tone for all the others. But it, I think, acknowledges the fact that these tools are morally consequential, some more, some less.
And so to even just raise that question, to not assume that our tools are just neutral, that what matters about them is the specific uses that we put them to, but that they’re going to mediate our experience of the self. They’re going to inculcate habits in us, and mediate our experience of others. I think those are, in essence, those are the questions that all of the questions are trying to get at that basic concept that these tools are shaping our perception of the world, our perception of others, and our communities, and that can have serious moral repercussions that we ought to be aware of.
Georgie: Fantastic. Michael, you’ve been an astonishing guest for the Freedom Matters podcast. I’m so grateful to have had this conversation. It’s been a real privilege. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Michael: Yeah, my pleasure, wonderful conversation. So, glad to be here.
Georgie: Thank you for joining us on Freedom Matters. If you like what you hear, then subscribe on your favorite platform. And until next time, we wish you happy, healthy, and productive days.