Reentering the Matrix?

I’m sitting down today to put down some thoughts on my month-long absence from social media. Actually I thought today was the last day of April but—lo and behold!—’tis the first day of May. As I write this then the thought occurs to me: I could go check my Facebook right now! What juicy notifications await! But I will finish writing this first.

The simple conclusion here at month’s end is that the role of technology and social media in my life has been healthier this last month than at any time I can remember. That isn’t to say there isn’t still room for improvement—there is—but it’s been a very significant step in the right direction. As a family we have spent more time together, and I have been more present when present. I’ve also had time to read and write more than usual, although I didn’t have any great outburst of creative productivity. I guess a part of me was hoping I’d wake up two weeks into April and have a brilliant novel or short story just pouring out of me. Alas!

Twitter I did not miss at all. Even with the Elon-buying-Twitter drama playing out in real time, I don’t really feel I missed anything by my absence. The constant screeching of real (and manufactured) outrage, the preening self-righteousness, the craven virtue-signaling, the over-active users who somehow tweet a hundred times a day (but how?!), and the creeping notion that Twitter somehow is or even represents real life—good riddance to it all. The best part of Twitter for me is interacting with people I have some existing connection to and being able to share bits and pieces of my writing. But that was perhaps 10% of my time on there. The rest of it was just a yielding to the power of the algorithm.

The Algorithm knows what we like.

Facebook is a bit more complex. Of course the same addictive neuro-hijinks are at play. The reason people become enslaved to gambling machines is the same reason many of us check Facebook dozens of times a day: the delicious possibility that something amazing might be there the next time. So we need to break that stranglehold with honesty, wisdom, and self-control. The positive side that I do miss is interacting with friends and the genuine exchange of ideas that, despite everything else, does occasionally happen. l do enjoy “thinking out loud” and hearing from people who have something to say. I’m a weird guy who thinks about things most people in my life do not and so Facebook puts me in touch with other folks who are likewise interested.

But is that reason enough to step back onto Facebook?

I’m not sure.

What is clear is that it needs to stay off my phone. The role of the “phone”—a ridiculous misnomer at this point—is a key piece of this whole techno-puzzle. It would be more truthful to name them rightly, for the word “phone” does not even begin to represent honestly the role they have come to play in our lives. And “smartphone” is no better. So what shall we call them? Our glowing rectangles, our pocket super-computers, our handheld digital universe gateways, our AI-powered attention absorbers, our voluntary surveillance devices (too conspiratorial?). A bit of a mouthful, but closer to the truth. I increasingly hear the word devices used. That’s not bad—it trades a sleight-of-hand, as if phoning is what we used our phones for, for ambiguity; a device might be used for anything, as is in fact the case with these.

All this highlights the need for more and better thinking about technology. I’m thankful to be finding that many fine thinkers and writers are answering the call. I’ve written before about many of these, but let me just list them all in one place. Older writers worth revisiting: C.S. Lewis, Neil Postman, Jacques Ellul; contemporary writers who are Christians: Paul Kingsnorth, Andy Crouch, Chris Martin, Samuel D. James, Tony Reinke; and those who are not: Jonathan Haidt, Erik Hoel, Tristan Harris, and many more. Please feel free to comment with a name or two I missed.

My hope is that the collective effect of all these will be to shift the thinking of a critical mass within the church and the culture on these questions. And to correct many parents’ unthinking embrace of every new techno-gizmo for their kids. Indeed there seems to be a shift taking place, as indicated by the springing up of grassroots movements like 1000 Hours Outside (“The entire purpose of 1000 Hours Outside is to attempt to match nature time with screen time“).

As for me, I will not be stepping back into the social-media Matrix like before. I don’t want to. The challenge will be, given my personality and various weaknesses, to dip a toe back in without being pulled in entirely.

“Swim at your own risk.” Spillway from the Monticello Dam in California.

Stepping Off the Tilt-A-Whirl of Social Media

I got it into my head that it would be good to take a month off social media. This decision, of which more later, came about after a few months of reading a lot about technology, media, the internet, and the massive changes causing so much upheaval in the West. There are tectonic shifts occurring under our feet in real time. Francis Fukuyama famously wrote in 1989 that we had reached The End of History, that liberalism had prevailed, and that we had entered a golden age wherein democracy would continue to spread across the world. Such a feeling was perhaps understandable, but it is no longer credible. With war in Europe once more, and liberal democracies everywhere struggling with debt, decadence, and internal decay, such illusions are dissipating. Even Fukuyama himself agrees. History has started up again.

With all this instability in the world, I felt compelled to try and understand the nature and implications of these changes. I plunged into Paul Kingsnorth’s essays about The Machine, which is shorthand for the cumulative effect of technology’s endless march onwards. I, like millions of others, watched The Social Dilemma which exposed how Social Media giants exercise massive control over their users. I learned about the movements towards decentralization, such as cryptocurrencies and homesteading, and the powerful movements from above towards ever-greater centralization, such as the dangers of Central Bank Digital Currencies. I read about how AI increasingly functions like mysterious capricious spirits; how people have been broken and undone by an addiction to technology. I read thoughtful Christians reflecting on the spiritual impact of technology in our lives.

I’ve been getting clarity on the fact that my relationship to technology is not that healthy, even in the process of learning so much about how technology so often shapes us more than we think. The words of Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman are coming back to me. The medium is the message. Each technology has an inherent logic that works itself out despite the intention of the user. As one writer pointed out in an essay titled Technology and the Soul:

Every major smartphone app, especially social media, is the interface for an artificial intelligence “algorithm” which constantly processes everything it “learns” about you, updating a virtual representation of you, testing hypotheses about it against your real behavior, and continuing to update the model. The goal is not merely to predict your patterns of behavior, but, by presenting you with customized digital stimuli, to actually shape what you do. What is commodified is not information from and about you, but your very attention and behavior.

The closest analogy is to the insidious, absurd, but dangerous manipulation of demons as described by C. S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters. Like Screwtape and Wormwood, digital technology companies observe and gather and analyze information about you, and it is not the “data” itself they seek to harvest, but your very mind and your will. Jaron Lanier, a former artificial intelligence innovator who has become a sharp critic and an evangelist for more responsible technology, clarifies that the “product” of social media is not information or attention but “the gradual, slight imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception.”

That’s helpful and sobering. So all this nudged me towards trying to do something concrete to reset and reboot the role of technology and social media in my life. But a big part of me, the addiction-prone part, didn’t want to change anything. So I posted my intention to take a month off of social media on… social media. This meant I was on the record – no backing out now.

But why exactly am I doing this? It’s important to be specific about the goals for such an undertaking. In order to answer this question, it’s worth reflecting on what negative effects technology and social media are currently having in my life. First, Facebook and Twitter can easily act as huge time-wasters. Too often I have found myself passively scrolling the endless string of content from the algorithm that was designed by expert psychologists and neuroscientists. They have chosen to use their hard-earned PhD’s to hijack the dopamine loops of countless millions, including me. Second, if I post anything to these platforms, I tend to compulsively check for engagement with that content every few hours for the next couple days. Third, daily news content & opinion comes my way via email, news websites, podcasts, and YouTube videos. My intake of these varies from day to day, but at times is excessive and unhealthy.

In addition to these effects upon me, there is also a definite negative impact on my family relationships. I am not nearly as mentally present with my wife and children if I have my phone in my hand. But even with the phone elsewhere, if I’ve filled my mind with these things to the point of saturation, I’m still not as engaged relationally as I want to be. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I’ve been a complete zombie, but the difference is measurable and therefore lamentable. My wife and my family deserve the very best I have to offer, and I have too often given them far less – and for what?

So these are some of the things I am hoping to change during this coming month. I have removed Facebook and Twitter from my phone entirely, and will block access to them on my browsers. I will not watch news or current events opinions on YouTube, but take that kind of content in only through published articles. I will aim to not have any passive time on my phone, and to have nothing available on it to which I instinctively turn in those many small moments of tedium or delay throughout the day.

But what will replace all of this? You cannot create a vacuum without something filling its place. Well, more silence would be good. Silence encourages a prayerful heart, reflection, thoughtfulness. Good spiritual food is another thing I want to emphasize. Bible reading or audio is good, as is the daily prayer service of the Church of England. I would like to find a sermon series or seminary lecture series that I can dig into as well. I’m open to suggestions. It’s also a great chance to be outside more, with the weather warming up here in rural Quebec.

We moved out to the countryside a year and a half ago. A few things have been more difficult, but by and large I have loved it. The natural beauty is awesome and endless: stunning sunrises and sunsets, flocks of geese noisily settling down for the night in nearby fields, a distant train quietly moving across a winter field with a long trail of snow floating behind it, the power of the wind whipping across the landscape, and on and on. Living out here, you can’t help but recognize that, despite our modern conceits, we still need to bow to the natural forces that can so easily overwhelm and humble us. The city erases the wild; the suburb domesticates it; the countryside just barely keeps it at bay. Unplugging from ubiquitous technology allows for a deeper connection to natural beauty which, for me at least, speaks to my soul of the undomesticated Creator.

I will also aim to write more. Silence really helps me to write more, as the stillness allows my heart and mind to come up with ideas. Although I’ve been writing on and off for about 20 years, creative writing has been very intermittent. For example, after a season of reading a lot of poetry, I found myself writing some. I say it that way because it sort of bubbled up; I didn’t sit down and decide to write poetry. Recently, I noticed that I stopped writing poetry immediately upon returning to work after a season of parental leave.

I’ve long wanted to try my hand at fiction, whether through a short story or a short novel, but nothing has come yet. I recently discovered a chapter’s worth of fiction that I wrote about ten years ago, and I was very pleasantly surprised. I didn’t really remember writing it, so it felt like reading someone else’s writing – and I enjoyed it. If I could find the right idea, and then have the mental space to develop it, who knows? I might just write something worthwhile.

And of course I want to write about this specific experience of resetting my relationship to technology and social media. I’m not sure what that will look like, but it will probably include some shorter pieces on this blog, and then something like a personal reflective essay with some broader application. I am not, after all, the only one who struggles to keep technology in its place. If anything, I belong to the last generation that will have had a memory of life without technology and the internet as an ever-present reality. I suspect that in the coming years our society, and young people especially, will be desperate to reconnect with nature and the transcendent as technology leaves them empty, frazzled, and addicted.