I have been listening to NPR segments on the coming revolution in Smart technology. This usually involves an ecstatic announcer begging me to consider the benefits of texting my coffee-machine from bed, or having eggs delivered by drone when my smart-refrigerator registers a deficit in the egg-tray. If only we could give our mundane lives to machines, the logic goes, we’d have time for really living.
It’s baloney, and of the floppiest sort. Our use of smart-technology is not some neutral side-stage of human activity that we indulge so as to better enjoy The Real Life. We have one life. Every moment of it is as “real” as every other — including the moments spent hammering at our smartphones.
Acts of patience form a habit of patience. Our bullying at work forms the “innermost man” and makes us a bully everywhere else. Our fidelity in marriage builds a disposition of faithfulness that we carry into every other relationship. “Everything is connected,” as Pope Francis is so fond of saying: Every act builds up a habit in the total human person. The act of operating smart-devices is no exception. If this is true — that there is no use that does not form the user — then this is the question we should pose to Siri: “What habit, what disposition of the soul, and what mode of being are you building within me?”
In his article “Is Google Making Us Stupid,” Nicholas Carr recorded the discontent of a generation of Internet-readers who, since “switching modes” from books to articles and papers to Buzzfeed could no longer read. The very technology that promised them unlimited reading simultaneously educated them to skim, skip, and impatiently jump from text to text. The habit it formed negated the benefit it offered.
The same seems true of “time-saving” devices. John Steinbeck has a wonderful phrase in his novel, “East of Eden,” that sums up the problem: “Eventlessness has no posts to drape duration on. From nothing to nothing is no time at all.”
The problem with smart-technology is that it promises to fill our life with time, but it fulfills this promise by the reduction and negation of the events by which we feel the time that we have saved. The daily tasks of life, the mundane work — these are the “posts” we plant into the temporal void. They enable us to feel the time as really having been. The more bodily and spiritually involved we are in our tasks, the more they take on the definite quality of an event. The more a moment takes on the quality of an event, the more it remains in human consciousness as a fixed point, a memory — a creative shaping of the temporal void into this definite thing.
The coffee I grind, weigh out and French-press is a coffee with this definite event-quality. The button I press to start the Keurig machine, less so. I can only imagine that the smart-Keurig that responds to my voice-command (after an initially exciting trial round) will be as close to event-less coffee as I can get. But the French-pressed or moka-potted coffee, for all its inconvenience, has the benefit of shaping time into a definite something rather than a nothingness — as does the handwritten letter, the record, the map, and the homegrown oregano. The more our days are speckled with sturdy, purposeful events, the more the day appears as a day rather than a blur. The more we abdicate our position as the craftsmen of the everyday, exchanging our mundane crown to become the initiators of automated processes — the less our days appear as “well spent.” What good is it if I gain all the time in the world if I do so by losing the very events which shape and order time into a felt, memorable, and enjoyable phenomenon?
Of course, the rebuttal is simple: One does not simply leave the time saved through technology blank. One fills it with precisely those event-posts Steinbeck speaks of — with vacations and travel, with novels and movies, with art-projects and philosophy. But this leads me back to where I began, to the question of whether the manner that we save time develops in us the interior disposition to use that spare time in the perfection of humanity, and in the flourishing of our more noble qualities.
My generation — kings and queens of technology, all — rarely run to the woods or to contemplation with the leisure time we dredge up from the mundane. We watch Netflix, take pictures of our feet and post them to Instagram, feel phantom vibrations on our thighs, and scroll up and down our News Feed with a vague feeling of panic that there may, after all, be nothing to see. If the prophets of the Smart Age were right, we would expect our technologically advanced humanity to blossom into renaissance: Surely now, with so much time saved, we can create great works of art and literature, implement our ideas for community development, and so on. Surely now, with our mundane tasks and jobs delegated to an army of robots, we can flourish in a genuine “really living.” As it turns out, we are bored, anxious, depressed, and under-educated. Our work is mediocre. We do little and text a lot. We can barely read. Our attention-span rivals only that of the hamster.
In truth, time cannot be saved. It can only be spent — inexorably, day after day. The only thing a being plunging toward his death can do is shape the manner in which each day is spent. If we spend our days operating apps to save time, we will arrive at the end of our lives and find that we spent our days operating apps. The quality of our life will not be magically limited to our vacations and rare sparks of creativity and joy. Our life is what it is on the basis of the whole — on the basis of our every act and the habits that result therefrom. So there will be no Renaissance. We will spend our time in the same mode that we save it — as technological consumers.
Not that we will feel any particular shame when we compare ourselves to previous generations: We divert ourselves from our mediocrity by indulging the pleasant dream that, once our food is cooked by machines, our packages delivered by drones, our emails sent to our glasses; once we can call out to the stove-top to clean itself, the book to read itself, and the car to drive itself; once we have our credit cards in our arms and the web in our head — then we will have the time for excellence. We are so convinced that we “just don’t have the time,” we have forgotten that no quantity of time can spew out a great people — only an excellence of intellect and heart that empowers them to seize and shape whatever quantity of time they are allowed.
Lent is a gift of Christianity to a mediocre age, in that it demands that we take 40 days of extreme inconvenience to develop, not our technical proficiency, but the interior disposition that allows us to make good use of the time that is given. Perhaps, amidst our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, the taking on of a few dumb-activities is in order — a few inconvenient posts to hammer into the temporal void.