Perpetual consciousness and how we abuse abstraction (Reflections on leaving Twitter)

Returning home in the 1920’s, Romano Guardini reflects on the paradigm shift afflicting the southern Italian countryside. He is saddened by new technologies and manufacturing growth which threaten to break his fellow countrymen who lack “the grim seriousness, violent power, and inner alertness to the monstrous that is demanded.” (What social platform does that sound like to you?)

The men who are to replace these countrymen, he says, are Italian urbanites who have mastered abstraction; those who are ready to move beyond small cottages and human wants; those who will embrace the future. Guardini describes abstraction as the innate human curiosity that seeks systems and concepts to scale and replace the individual features of everyday life or vitality.

Guardini says “vitality,” is our “direct encounter with things, from direct grasping and being grasped,” in order to “lay hold to individual things directly and become stuck in them.” When interacting with reality, things are “detected, seen…formed, or enjoyed,” not quantified or abstracted. And as technology grows, so do systems of abstraction at the cost of vitality. Think Wal-Marts at the cost of local grocers or, perhaps, tweets at the cost of verbal human conversation.

The natural result of abstraction, Guardini says, is our lifestyle of consciousness and awareness. When you, the modern man, have finally shed the messiness of dealing with individual people and problems, you must next find some system to maintain awareness of everything. Absent individual parts, you need to build a census to understand the greater whole. More from his Letters from Lake Como (1959):

“Newspapers are a technique of developing awareness. By them we today become aware of what is going on around us and to us and in us. Reporters are present at events to describe and integrate them. Cameras take picture of them. Nothing happens anymore without being noticed. That decisive point is that we accept all this as normal.”

A paragraph later:

“Everywhere, then, we find an attitude in which we not only are and live and act but also know all these things, know the reasons for them, find the relations, and see the inner mechanisms of what takes place. This attitude is indeed basic in every sphere, from the setting of technological goals to immediate living, to recreation and amusements. Consciousness is our attitude, our atmosphere. And it is becoming increasingly so.”

His critique is stunning. Twitter, and social media overall, occupy this role of consciousness in our present day: every sphere, always on, total abstraction. When we seek to understand the world better — during say, an earthquake or hurricane — we log on to build awareness. When we are stuck in rush hour traffic, despite absolute certitude that nothing can change our situation, we log on to build awareness. When we have had a miserable day and want to lash out and strut our sharp wit, we log on to build awareness.

Not only do we believe it is essential to build our own awareness, but it has become necessary to build the awareness of others (lest you be accused of laziness) and, most urgently, “move the conversation,” as is frequently quipped. If only we could generate enough buzz!

Take an example that is impossible to disagree with: “It is great to help a single mother pay for rent, but it would be so much better to make the entire country aware of her plight and help all single mothers pay their rent!” How can you disagree with such an obvious good? Are you heartless?

The abstract nullifies the vital in a beguiling but deadly way. It moves on quickly from a person who could be encountered, loved, served, to a campaign raising awareness of People Like Her. The messy vitality of discovering a single mother’s needs and helping pay her rent can grow one’s charity, experience, and potentially aid more women in need. Meanwhile abstraction of her will only ever distract or serve as an expedient vehicle for other purposes. An exaggeration in either direction diminishes her.

Abstraction fools us into believing that we can all rule, like petty kings, from our mighty laptop thrones. Even worse, we believe that those around us, our serf followers, all share homogenous human qualities that can be remedied by abstract solutions. Twitter, for its part, has coronated many as such with verified blue check marks. If you wonder what features contribute to the filter bubble (the creating of one’s own echo chamber), you need not look further than Guardini’s thesis of consciousness.

Now for my part

Over the past decade I have abandoned most every other medium and Twitter is my last. Starting after college in 2010, I dipped out of talk radio. The Tea Party movement activated a beast that took flags and symbols from (my love) American history with little regard for their meaning. A couple of years later, when Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney for a second term, I stopped watching the day-to-day warfare of Fox News; I sold my TV. Come 2014, I joined my first political campaign, deleted Facebook, and weaned myself off of liking. With Facebook went my blog/punditry reading, and after the election I never looked back. Now, a whole decade later, I read books and follow a handful of users on Twitter.

But it’s time to let go. Like Guardini, I see now what novelist Mark Haddon keenly describes as abstraction’s crowding out of beautiful human vitality:

“When reading a novel, watching a TV programme or visiting an exhibition, a part of my mind would be constantly alert for, and quietly fashioning, tweetable material, highlighting the more succinctly packageable aspects of what was in front of me and simplifying the more complex aspects.

I would concoct a mildly clever bon mot, hang on to a thought that would hitherto have blown away like chaff, or notice something so mildly amusing that it was hardly worth sharing with my own family — an unintentionally ribald place-name, a house that looked like Hitler — and tuck it away to share with the world. And if I usually realised in time that the vast majority of these potential tweets were not worth the effort, the automatic mechanism that gathered and shaped them was nevertheless ticking constantly away…

I was, in short, wasting time, energy and emotion. I was engaging with the people and things around me more narrowly, and I was thinking with less freedom.”

But what else? I have spent a great deal of time sharing what I see as the final and most concrete example of why I should leave. However, I would be failing you if I did not at least enumerate several of my other reasons, all of which I have ignored for some time.

Twitter is:

  • An absolute time suck, both as a focus and as a distraction throughout the day,
  • An echo chamber that crowds out diverse thoughts and builds choirs to preach to,
  • An unrealistic sample of the American population and electorate, which leads to biased conclusions in discussion,
  • Almost entirely entertainment and loses its appeal when topics become overly serious,
  • A pitiful tool for maintaining (what Neil Postman calls) a good information-to-action ratio,
  • An overstimulating emotional force that few can spiritually combat in any meaningful way,
  • A near occasion of sin that often provokes me to privately or publicly scold people who are (or pretend to be) eternally ignorant,
  • Entirely incapable of disseminating satire.
  • A stage, where the most successful art is honestly the most abusive.

In The Concept of Irony (1841), Kierkegaard tells us that “irony in a strict sense can never set forth a thesis.” This twisting of words, which is the backbone of Twitter, is spiritually vacuous — perchance even nihilist. To set forth an idea is to communicate in earnest and make arguments for one’s cause. To reject any concise structure of understanding is to, in effect, to “make the weaker argument the stronger.” Truly we must see that if Twitter is anything at all, it must be the weapon of sophists.

At the end of his reflection, Haddon jokes that if you want to talk to him ex post Twitter, “come round to dinner sometime,” otherwise he will be “shovel[ing] coal.” In this retort Guardini’s thesis is fully realized and I too am convinced.

Goodbye!

To those who follow, I am happy for you to continue. A well-oiled robot will continue to share my articles in quite a few places, including Twitter, and my DM’s will remain open (though I would rather you email). As for my interactions, those will soon cease and I will begin my journey to become but another naive soul in a sea of unawareness.

If you ever want to come sail with me, there’s plenty of work to do.

[Photo credit: Mehmet Geren: https://www.instagram.com/p/BeuetL_gLhQ/ ]

What is people over product?

(Artwork: https://www.instagram.com/mehmetgeren)

Some history

Some 2400 years ago, Plato composes “Phaedrus,” a critique citing the dangers of abandoning the oral tradition of learning. This warning is fully realized another millennium later when Hugh of St. Victor pens the “Didascalicon”as a guide for scholars who will soon be able to, beyond speaking, read and write Latin on transportable paper — something that was not thought possible in the 11th century.

The explosion of reading that occurs paves the way for the Enlightenment and the invention of Gutenberg’s press quickly follows: A gift that educates most of the modern world, destroys the Church’s authority, and builds the intellectual caste systems that still exist today.

From the power of the book, the rise of academia, and the sheer intellectual might of Renaissance philosophy, the scientific method soon summons Aristotle to bestow on humanity an intense power of repeatable empiricism, yielding only to the limits of our imagination.

Now, with a handy guide for science, Frederick Winslow Taylor brings a mechanical clock onto the steel-mill floor in 1878 to track, sequence, and optimize the individual actions of his employees. Taylor’s goal? To create the most efficient algorithm possible for his workers’ time and labor. This is what we now affectionately call the assembly line. It is in this first deliberate act that industrial man finds his epistemology and from which the philosophical foundations of modern day Silicon Valley emerge: automation.

Taylor sets his findings in stone in “The Principles of Scientific Management (1911)”, which would become the 10 commandments for modern industry. Here, in “Technopoly (1993),” Neil Postman reflects on Taylor’s commandments:

[T]hat the primary, if not the only, goal of human labor and thought is efficiency; that technical calculation is in all respects superior to human judgment; that in fact human judgment cannot be trusted, because it is plagued by laxity, ambiguity, and unnecessary complexity; that subjectivity is an obstacle to clear thinking; that what cannot be measured either does not exist or is of no value; and that the affairs of citizens are best guided and conducted by experts.

Taylor deconstructed, optimized, and subverted the human condition. He brought automation to bear with human weakness, and it was in this monumental act we first collectively decided that the human substance was less important than the efficiency of the outcome. Underpinning the technological paradigm we now observe is the Taylorist philosophy that the human condition is outmoded or faulty — that we are incapable of advancing human progress without the aid of machines.

Taylorism is the religion — the high church — of Google, Facebook, Silicon Valley, and beyond. The sophists of old are now replaced by futurists (who are also sophists) who demand that everything bend towards a technological singularity.

Finally, what is it?

“People Over Product” is the affectionate moniker I give my outlook on how humans should interact with and ultimately subjugate technology. It is the platform by which I personally research, study, grapple, and write about the technological effects on American society — a people who are embracing technology faster than we can breathe.

I live in Washington, D.C., so my day job is national politics. I have worked at the intersection of politics, media, and technology for a decade; in those ten years I have seen many things that have both frightened and amazed me. Now as a husband and a father, I am intent on examining the effects of our choices and how they shape us.

Despite how my writing may strike you, I am no Luddite. Far from it. But while I will always defend technology’s incredible gifts to us, like the book or medicine, I will never allow it to replace the God who gifted life itself to us.

We are God’s love and creation. We owe it to His infinite mercy and to each other to build things that help us grow, flourish, and continue to glorify His name. Tools that weaken or destroy us have no place in His kingdom.

We must remain vigilant, refusing to worship any false masters that would dehumanize us — especially the technology we increasingly can’t seem to live without.

Welcome former Politic readers!

I began The Politic in April of 2015 for lots of different reasons. At first I just wanted to build some original writing. Then, halfway in, I realized that my writing was dreadful, and I became adamant about improving. My reward for readers? I would shed some light into politics and technology in Washington, D.C.— two worlds I very much occupy. But over the years, a very different theme took shape. A theme that, if you have been reading my newsletter since the beginning, shouldn’t surprise.

Technology has taken a central focus in my life. I was thrown into digital marketing at the same moment I returned to the Catholic Church. I began asking questions of my work: “Why do we do these things?” Had anyone asked me ten years ago — at the peak of my political philosophy coursework — if I had any reservations about the abuses of technology, I would have laughed. But today I have two little children and my views look very different: especially about God and the role of the good.

The new title — “People Over Product”— will take on a mission of its own. Its goal is to bring people together under one cardinal maxim: Technology should always be subservient to man. Whether it be the hammer, the screen, the WTO, or an interconnected global economy — we should always demand that our tools serve human beings instead the reverse. Additionally, I am vigilantly searching for people who believe in this mission. Searching for people who believe that:

  1. Our tools shape who we are and we are constantly recreating our environments to mirror and imitate the mediums we worship;
  2. Every man deserves work that summons his greatness, creativity, or physicality — even if that work product is less efficient, more expensive, or not automated;
  3. Constant communication, especially media, news, streaming video, and information on demand, all contribute to an insatiable online addiction;
  4. Visual media, especially video, can be a corrupting force that entertains, distorts truth, and consumes the mind;
  5. Reading, writing, and physical communion of persons are the highest order goods for communicating.

You do not have to agree with all of these, but if you agree with at least some, I want you to join me. Reach out to me and become part of this movement: [email protected]

All my old writing will either remain on Medium or eventually find its way to this new home: https://overproduct.com. Thank you to everyone who has stuck with me for this long. For the few hundred of you who have remained loyal to my newsletter over the years, you are my true reward.

[Photo credit: Mehmet Geren: https://www.instagram.com/p/Byul3eYHz9S/. ]