“he asked two children why we eat breakfast. One of them said it’s to get energy for the day. The other said we eat breakfast in order to eat breakfast. Which of those children are you?”
Why I'll never own an iPhoneWritten by Andrew Baxter
TJ asks, “What do you do while you eat?”
“I was able to sit there and read about the food I was eating. I was very productive” a friend recently recounted.
Basking in the improvements to his life brought about by the ownership of an iPhone, it was recently described to me how our time has now been made so much more useful, indeed productive, by being connected, through our phones or other such devices. This friend of mine was able to learn all about the Korean food he was eating while he was eating. I suppose that one is not to be condemned for wanting to learn, but looking deeper, to the underlying set of ideas about time, and how we ‘spend’ it, we see quite clearly that eating is itself not something that is ‘done’ but rather is idle time, non-productive time.
I myself just finished dinner during which not only did I read, but I had on the basketball game – needless to say, my attention was rarely attracted away from the newspaper I was reading!
We live in an age of movement, and much as this ethos has helped shape the material and thusly the mental life of the city, it has also had a very definite hand in the production of the modern, urban individual . We live in a time where sitting still, idling if you will, is a particularly virulent form of modern day sin. (Re)quoting Allan Watts again, because I think this gets at the fundamental issues facing us and our culture of accomplishing:
“To the restless temperament of the West, sitting meditation may seem to be an unpleasant discipline, because we do not seem to be able to sit ‘just to sit’ without qualms of conscience, without feeling that we ought to be doing something more important to justify our existence. To propitiate this restless conscience, sitting meditation must therefore be regarded as an exercise, a discipline with an ulterior motive.”
To paraphrase: In this culture, eating is often described and indeed understood to be something of a chore because we cannot ‘just eat’ without feeling we should be accomplishing more. To assuage our need to accomplish, eating becomes a means of ‘staying healthy’, of refuelling, something to be ‘accomplished’.
We rarely do nothing but eat. It is almost always done while doing something else, it is a bother and inconvenience rather than one of the most basic, and indeed, central acts of sociability that helps build and strengthen bonds and trust, a ‘collecting ritual’.
It’s a chore, something to be made more convenient, and avoided if possible.
Sleep, a luxury enjoyed only by the lazy. We’re just too busy!
What, though, are we too busy doing?
We live lives of constant activity, and of continual distraction that have so disconnected us from each other, but more importantly from our most social and connected selves, that we often don’t even consider the simple, mundane, and routine activities and events that provide coherence to our daily existence to be activities at all. At least not productive ones.
Accomplishing has simply become an end. No longer can idle time simply be that, idle. We’ve bought into a set of assumptions about how life should be lived that have privileged the world of work, of accomplishment over the singularly human activity of contemplation.
“How is an iPhone going to improve my life?” I asked a newly converted proponent.
“Now,” he exclaimed, almost jubilantly, “you can check your email while standing in line at the grocery store!”
And so we arrive at the logical conclusion of this need. Even when there is nothing else to do, even that last bastion of the line-up, waiting for our turn when you used to have nothing else to do but wait, to think, to be – truly nothing else left to accomplish, has been absolved of its sinfulness. That idle time can now be productive time, time we can finally use to do something.
Thank god for that.
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Monday, 24 May 2010 10:44
At the risk of too much inside baseball, I will have to assume that I represent an example of one of these said friends, if I’m not the primary target.
What alone is disappointing in this reflection is the simplistic straw man you have erected in the final paragraphs to make an otherwise legitimate point.
The purpose of an iPhone is consolidation. I no longer read newspapers; I spend less time on the computer checking emails; I rarely buy CDs. Instead, all of these activities are done on my iPhone. You can make a qualitative value judgement about your preference for reading actual newspapers, but that’s all it would be. I read 6 newspapers, as well as a range of sports and business sites, at no cost. I still buy books; don’t care for books on computer screens. But poetry on the other hand…
I could also make the argument that with an iPhone, I consume less: no more newspapers or CD casings. More compelling, I can make the case that, in theory, I’m saving time. It’s all available at my finger tips when I need it. If I am compulsive, this is a problem. If I have discipline and intelligent priorities, I have not in the least compromised my ability to savour a quiet moment.
My options are greater: I can return a message now, or let the sucker wait. I can answer my phone, or ignore it and let the sucker wait.
On the other hand, if I’m lost, I punch in my GPS map, and I’m found. No looking for a gas station. I use a flash card application to teach my son shapes, colours and animals. Save myself the 15 dollar flashcards. I locate restaurants anywhere I am in the world, which tends to be many places.
Your real argument is an opposition to a certain undisciplined hyperactive mania intrinsic to this technological age, to which you confess weakness, and the commoditization of time, making the sacred profane. The first point I will concede, but not the second.
Assuming for a second that all those moments you spend in line at the grocery store are maximized in simple wonder at life, what on earth makes you think an iPhone will disrupt these? On the other hand, on those rare moments when meditative bliss eludes you, why on earth is it an inherent negative to be able to read an article while you wait?
I have no problem with a certain disdain for a world obsessively buried in their phones as they impatiently wait for the next event (which perfectly describes my situation now, writing this in an airport, with 5 of the 9 people around me either on or in their phones). (Also, rather pompously, I have a sneaking suspicion that what is going on in most of those phones is unworthy of fixed attention).
But irritation with the use of technology is no final argument against it, especially when that same technology can be leveraged to increase precisely the moments you so cherish.
Tuesday, 25 May 2010 23:58
posted by andrew
With the risk of coming off defensively, I must stress that the so-called “friends” in this piece were in no way meant to represent anyone in particular but rather were amalgams of interactions I've had with a number of people - You are by no means the only iPhone advocate out there, Juma. They were in fact intended as rhetorical devices employed (in an attempt) to highlight a particular narrative that has overtaken, rather dramatically, the way our society, culture, and indeed civilisation, we, have come to experience the world.
This was not meant as an accusation or condemnation of an individual, rather a critique of a societal fixation.
Your points about the benefits iPhones specifically, and the internet age in general are no doubt legitimate, and not infrequently made; but in your counter-charge you seem only to have catalogued all of the underlying assumptions I was critiquing. I have no doubt that your life is indeed made more convenient, that you are able to accomplish so much more with your time now that you have an iPhone...but that was my point!
In your remarks you've used the very rationality, and indeed language, that underlies my complaints. One line is a most telling example of the main thrust of my point - the focus on efficiency. You state: "Assuming for a second that all those moments you spend in line at the grocery store are maximized in simple wonder at life, what on earth makes you think an iPhone will disrupt these?"
Moments being "maximized" in simple wonder!! Again, we see the language of business, of economic rationality, of accomplishment being deployed to describe how we use our time.
Further to this point: "More compelling, I can make the case that, in theory, I’m saving time.” Again, correct. No argument from me. The question left unposed though, is to what end are you saving time?
In an earlier blog, I lamented the notion that density had become an end in and of itself when it came to urban development. That density as an idea had become devoid of meaning as it moved from a means of creating meaningful human ecosystems to an end, a way of making money. In much the same way, the saving of time has become devoid of any meaning as it as well has been turned into an end. It’s simply not clear to me that saving time is neither a desirable nor compelling goal towards which we should blindly strive.
As is argued by many a thoughtful historian, as civilisations have developed, as our societies have made the tedious evolutionary journeys towards more complexity, so too have human beings tended to have had to work more, and harder, to fulfill their daily caloric needs. That is to say, that as the efficiency with which we do things, be that ploughing a field or washing a load of laundry increases, the less free time we end up having. This paradox is at work in our hyper-connected age, and as with every previous technology that promised to free us from our daily toil, new communication technologies simply free us up to do more in quantity, though not necessarily in quality.
My point is that we have simply, and mostly blindly, accepted the premise that convenience and more connectivity (as it is defined vis-a-vis the internet and such) is by definition a good. Your comments fail to engage this point, or make any convincing argument that the convenience provided by these devices is indeed beneficial, only that it is a fact. But this was never in dispute.
The question I suppose I ultimately want to ask is whether or not the convenient life the good life.
I’m not saying that technology is bad. I am not intending to indict iPhone users or any other person out there using the internet. There are most definitely a great many advantages to these technologies. I’m just asking that we actually consider the implications of the technology on our lives beyond the faith that more is better. Is that too much?
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