Not All Things WiFi

Matthew Walther recently wrote a piece about the snowball-like momentum smart homes have gathered over the past year or so, and I found myself nodding along with nearly everything he had to say. Here are a few paragraphs:

How do you plan to spend your Thanksgiving? Talking with your uncle about how much money he is saving on his home insurance by installing four different cameras and a set of WiFi-enabled locks? Comparing spreadsheet data about your respective heart rates with your cousin? Letting your insurance company know how fast you took that last corner on the way back from the movie theater? Talking to a robot cube about paper towels? Using your iPhone to change the temperature on the slow cooker from your toilet seat?

I have a really hard time believing that people in real life actually use any of these so-called “smart” technologies. But it is even more difficult for me to figure out why.

For one thing, it’s not clear to me that many of these gadgets are actually any good at performing their core functions — heating water for tea, keeping your leftovers cold, washing your clothes. It is an iron law of engineering that the more resources are devoted to ancillary features, the fewer will be left over for what is essential. Last year my mother-in-law had to throw away her coffee maker, not because it was no longer capable of making coffee but because the LED screen with which it was necessary to interact in order to initiate the brewing process went out. I might not be able to activate my old diner-style Bunn machine from my smartphone while I am 4,000 miles away, but it will probably outlive me.

But I have other, more serious concerns. At a time when we are all supposed to be terribly concerned about online privacy, why are we expanding the definition of “online” at such a breathtaking pace? Is it really sensible to hand over control of everything from the operation of your vehicle to the lock on your front door to precise and detailed information about your bodily functions to whoever happens to have the right password? I am old enough to remember when sensible Democrats protested the fact that the Patriot Act could potentially require libraries to hand over records of what books a patron had checked out. What happens when someone is suspected of a crime and a secret court grants a warrant that allows the authorities to know exactly where the accused is at all times, between his smart watch and his smart car regardless of whether he has allowed the battery on the phone that is meant to control both of them to die? This is to say nothing of the very real possibility of the FBI or whomever simply walking into his house after the feckless data mining venture masquerading as a home security firm unlocks the front door for them remotely. (It would be amusing to see a 2019 episode of The Sopranos in which the feds waltz into Tony’s front door after hacking their way in via Anthony Jr.’s Playstation.)

It’s only recently occurred to me that the increasing digitization of our lives has taken a sharp turn: we’re no longer simply adding new gadgets into daily routines–hooray for indoor plumbing! These new gadgets feed on our personal information to function appropriately and efficiently. It’s teeth is the omnipotent and omniscient algorithm, chewing and digesting our preferences, credit card numbers, and home addresses until it can perfectly predict our future decisions.

The first time I noticed the sheer volume of personal information consumed by internet-based platforms & devices occurred while I had an Instagram account. I began to notice that many of the personalized advertisements were prompted not by the links I clicked or the profiles I visited, but by the amount of time I spent looking at particular pictures. If I paused for a few seconds while scrolling through some of the pictures, I could count on an advertisement related to the picture surfacing in my feed in the near future. It was at that point I realized I was inadvertently feeding a beast.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no illusions that it’s too late to think I can completely remove myself from internet algorithms. The damage is done. I also don’t hate the internet. Yes, the Luddite is strong with me, but I also enjoy the resources easily obtained through internet browsing. Hence this blog and my newfound appreciation for RSS feeds and email newsletters. There’s so much more to the internet than any social media platform can provide. I prefer to cultivate my own presence on my own turf, to employ my own capacities for creativity,  and to enjoy the serendipity of discovering a new blog, article, or author which would’ve been lost in a mindlessly hyper-curated algorithm.

Tech and Boredom

This is a great piece. As I like to tell my students, “Boredom is a lost virtue.” And it’s been lost thanks, in part, to the way technology has consciously adapted to protect everyone from boredom.

What is clear from our vantage point today is that the people who were pushing photography, telephones, radios, movies and other consumer goods did so by exploiting shifting mores around vanity, loneliness and boredom. But they also exacerbated them, reinforcing the belief that people should present their best faces to the world and the conviction that they should always be in contact, and never be bored or unstimulated.

In turn, these ideas have become central to our daily lives. We harbor fewer reservations about vanity than our ancestors. We turn to our phones because we have become accustomed to celebrating ourselves and to seek out the affirmation of others. We are also obsessed with our phones because so many of us regard loneliness and boredom as pathologies with potentially negative consequences for our health. As a result, these emotions are now considered feelings to be cured rather than endured. Anxious about being alone and worried about being bored, we use our phones to seek out constant companionship and unending entertainment.

To put down our phones, or at least to use them more wisely, we should be attendant to this history and how Silicon Valley exploits its legacy. We take up social media’s invitation to post selfies and indulge our vanities because we’re conditioned by history to do so. Conversely, because we worry more about loneliness and boredom than our ancestors did, we’re more apt to turn to our phones since they promise to relieve these afflictions.

The Long Defeat

From Fr. Stephen Freeman reflecting on Tolkien’s notion that history is a “long defeat:”

It was a common belief among the Desert Fathers that successive generations of monks would become weaker and weaker, unable to bear the great trials of their predecessors. Indeed it was said that in the end, the simple act of believing would take greater grace than all of the ascetic feats of the earliest monks.*

This is not a Christian pessimism. If history tells us anything, it is that this is a very honest, even prescient reading. The evils of the 20th century, particularly those unleashed during and after World War I, are clearly among the worst ever known on the planet, and continue to be the major culprits behind all of our current struggles. That first war was not “the war to end all wars,” but the foundation of all subsequent wars. May God forgive our arrogance (“boasters, proud”…). However, the Classical Christian read on human life contains the deepest hope – set precisely in the heart of the long defeat.

*emphasis mine

Critical Thinking

Leaving this here to remind myself to read it again later.

The teaching profession is infected with the idea that “critical thinking” is the primary goal of education. The idea comes in a few different disguises. When I was taking a “Teaching Composition” course in grad school, they called it “Writing across the curriculum.” Unfortunately, the result is a pedagogy that looks askance at anything that resembles rote memorization or knowledge mastery, and is accompanied by textbooks with fragmented bits of content. I had some firsthand experience of this when I taught from a Common Core English high school textbook a few years ago.  It’s a sad state of affairs.

On Critical Thinking:

Thinking cannot be separated from knowledge. Instead, critical thinking is learning to use our knowledge. The most effective critical thinkers, then, are those who learn history or physics. The stuff we learn about matters.

How, then, should colleges and universities understand skills? They should see them in relation to the goods of liberal education. This means that skills should be developed in the context of reading and writing about literature or history or engaging in scientific inquiry.

We can only think critically about things about which we have knowledge, and we can only make use of facts if we know how to think about them.

In other words, intellectual skills and knowledge are not two distinct things. They must work together to produce critical thinkers. Put more baldly, despite all the rhetoric, there is no such thing as critical thinking in general.

Holiness and Wendell Berry

Brad East has a great line at the end of a short post about holiness.

What I am convinced about is that, e.g., the moral vision of Wendell Berry is both good and beautiful and not sufficiently converted to the gospel. And if some forms of Christian political theology don’t recognize that, then so much the worse for them.

Reading those final sentences, I had a familiar experience where I thought, “Hey, I think that’s been a blind spot in the way I’ve thought about X, and I think it explains some of the intuitive, though mostly subliminal, hesitation I may have had about it.” Maybe Berry’s work isn’t Christian enough, which is an odd thought if you’re at all familiar with Berry. Read the rest of Brad’s post to find out what “not Christian enough” might mean.