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Franklin Foer on Technology’s Surprising Threat to Humanity

Contemplating the Importance of Contemplation

Franklin Foer has a new book coming out this week. It’s titled, World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech.

I haven’t read it yet, but this morning, on returning from a family camping trip, I read Foer’s essay in today’s Washington Post and a recent interview with The Verge (as, of course, there’s no better time to contemplate the existential threat of technology than right after a weekend in the woods).

According to the interview in The Verge, Foer writes in the book: “the tech companies are destroying the possibility of contemplation.”

This premise is one I obviously support, having written an entire book on why we should fight to retain our diminishing ability for sustained attention.

But whereas my main issue with digital distraction was limited to issues of personal satisfaction and productivity, Foer, in elaborating his contemplation quote, goes much broader in his concern:

“We’re being dinged, notified, and clickbaited, which interrupts any sort of possibility for contemplation. To me, the destruction of contemplation is the existential threat to our humanity.” [emphasis mine]

In using this strong language, Foer is hitting on an increasingly urgent point that I’ve also seen fruitfully explored in Matt Crawford and Jaron Lanier’s humanist critiques of the attention economy.

Whereas I’m often focused on the immediate practical concerns of new technologies, an increasing number of thinkers like Foer, Crawford and Lanier are exploring a bigger point: when we allow ourselves to be washed away by the latest gadget or app designed to extract some more dollars from our attention, we’re not just losing some time, we’re actually losing something more fundamental about what it means to be an autonomous human.

When you hear an argument enough times, it probably makes sense to start taking it seriously.

(Photo by Alyson Hurt; this is where I was camping this weekend.)

24 thoughts on “Franklin Foer on Technology’s Surprising Threat to Humanity”

  1. Thanks Cal – this is a very hot topic in our family at the moment. Harnessing technology vs being ruled by technology. It’s a big deal.

  2. The irony is that even poor, underdeveloped countries are falling to this trap. I see it all the time, Poor peasants in the rural areas of Nicaragua so distracted in their FB worlds. Their promise of moving upward through education and hard work has come to an end thanks to social media.

    Thanks Carl for this worderful post.

  3. This resonated with me, as a meditator for 50+ years. I’ve long thought that the best way to get through a Powerpoint presentation is with closed eyes, peeping only as needed. PP and other tech tools seem to be the devil’s own instruments for destroying concentration. Doubly true, of course, for such deliberately distracting technologies as Facebook and Twitter.

  4. Hello Cal.
    I am Mishbah.
    One of your subscriber.

    However, this argumentation coming with deeper idea about the bad effect of the flood of information we, millenials, usually face everyday.

    One thing that I analyze, gen Y seems more friendly with this new habit, and I see that they are very enjoying this new approach of living: multitasking, looks busy with notifications, etc.

    Actually Im in your side in terms of “deep work”, “focus”, and “mastering something”


    How do you think if millenials (especially gen X and Y) are literally thinking that as opposed to “deep work”, “broad work” seems more interesting?

    *”broad work” is just my self-made frase to describe people who choose quantity rather than quality. It is better for them to produce more stuffs with rare meanings, rather than little stuffs with deep meanings.

    • Then the question is – can you really create something that would bear your unique imprint, your individuality – when your life is fill of useless ‘notifications’, looking busy, and so on?

      What about being happy (equals satisfied and healthy)? Will posting, commenting and likes be self-expression enough? Will ‘quantity’, as you call it, be enough, or you’ll have to fill the void and try to dissolve dissatisfaction with… something?

  5. – I still think that our best bet to rise above the swirl of digital distraction is to become “makers” rather than be satisfied with being mere “passive consumers”, as nicely articulated by Matthew B. Crawford whose name reflexively came to mind even as I started reading your essay… Happy to see you quoting Crawford’s work 🙂

    – Equally importantly, IMHO, is to become contributors to a more humane society as nicely articulated by Martin Luther King, Jr., whose quote is atop a tangential exploration of related ideas.

  6. Thanks Cal for your great blog! Just the right content, the right form and size. I came to a lot of your conclusions on my own, that’s why I still don’t have a smartphone. I manage quite nicely with the folding cell. Not for long, probably (if I start a business).

    I can hear you and Mr. Foer about threats. But it’s still up to us to choose, right? Yes, you see crowds of people – eyes perpetually glued to cells – on a bike, in a restaurant, yeah, in a loo too :). Yet it’s still possible to choose. All these things you write about – Inet sabbatical, less cell time, switching off phone and closing fb page when you don’t really need it.

    There are people who do it, not just famous guys who write books. 🙂

    I came to these ideas as they turned out to be the only option when you need quiet creative time. How can I create something and post, reply, click, etc. every 10 minutes? I cannot.

  7. “…what it means to be an autonomous human…”

    I have a little bit of reputation in my little circle of friends about being good at routes. The general tendency I see in my friends and acquaintances is that the moment they get into their cars – unless they’re going someplace they go often – the hand reaches out to the GPS on their phones.

    I enjoy the process of looking up a new route before the start of my drive and then try to rely on my memory as I drive. I do get lost occasionally but have gotten good over time and now I know my region and its network of freeways intimately.

    It saddens and also sickens me when I hear of people recommending apps for every damn thing you do. Can I just rely on my senses, instincts and life experiences with only a smattering of technology for a change?

    • Last year I flew into an airport in the U.K. and had to drive to a small place a few hours away. Thought to buy a map at the airport. They didn’t sell them anymore !!! Had to include a GPS in the rental car

  8. Have you seen the new iPhone X reveal? When I officially saw all the features and updates added, it disappointed me that smartphones are getting “smarter” while people are getting “dumber.”

  9. Anyone here ever watched Star Trek TNG or read Isaac Asimov?
    The Borg aren’t all evil. Having machines and robots taking over the mundane and hazardous can be a good thing, IF WE CAN GET PAST THIS TECHNOLOGICAL OBSTACLE.

    Strictly on FAITH here folks, but I believe most of humanities issues with technology is due to not truly appreciating AND understanding that they are tools – like any tool it can be harmful. e.g. Use a hammer for nails and not as a weapon. Same with technology.

    In summary, our current state of education does not address HOW to use technology properly and PARENTS as a whole spend too much time talking and doing “what [they] should NOT do” and most don’t truly understand digital technology past the basic user level to truly be able to TEACH kids what they “may do with it, and HOW!”

  10. Thank you! This kind of reflection on technology is so much needed! It seems like most people dont want to think about it, maybe because with similar, almost neoluddist views, you go against the tide… for me it’s absurd that some people think they can not get around without things that humankind most of their existence did not have… It’s like we want to forget/erase all the herritage of our past ourselves…
    But don’t get me wrong, i am not saying “let´s go back to trees”, i just want to slow down and Contemplate!

  11. Alber, I’ve also seen that among colleagues and friends in Timor-Leste and Indonesia. They earn $2-10 per day, but an Facebook capable phone can be had for $100, and they (like everyone else in the world) want to spend their time and connect with people in the world.

    We’ll get our quiet and meditative space back, but what an impairment for our current generations.

  12. We live in mass-produced houses, wear mass-produced clothes, eat mass-produced food, our education becomes or is more and more an excercise to fill in the standarized tests, we have our mass-entertainment and forget our mass-anxiety.

    Phew, luckily we are all individuals!

  13. The problem is not the technology but of education. No one teaches children how to control emotions, how to cultivate peace and happiness. Without these tool sets one will seek them outward rather inward.

  14. I’m often focused on the immediate practical concerns of new technologies, an increasing number of thinkers like Foer, Crawford, and Lanier are exploring a bigger point: when we allow ourselves to be washed away by the latest gadget or app designed to extract some more dollars from our attention.


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