The Thinking Life: A Review, and Tech Challenges

A review and a question for you to answer: Robert's mother sent us P.M. Forni's latest book, The Thinking Life: How to Thrive in the Age of Distraction. It's a thin but wise little book about the ways that modern life discourages deep reflection and unhurried thought. It's a quick read, although blasting through the book misses the point. The questions at the end of each chapter help slow one down and let the material sink in.

Forni looks at "the thinking life" in a broad way, encouraging virtues such as curiosity, humility and awareness. It's less about "taming the tech" than I thought it would be, though the first few chapters hit this hard. He encourages putting boundaries around one's media use: using one's commute to think rather than text/read/listen to NPR, stepping away from one's desk during lunch rather than catching up on Reddit, and so forth.

He also encourages turning off the Internet for three hours a day in order to work on "thinking" tasks. Here is where he lost Robert: "Yeah, but he's a writer," he said. "Our company does all of its communicating via Skype," he said. "Sure, people turn it off if they're working on something and don't want to be disturbed, but setting an arbitrary time frame to be offline would be looked upon very strangely." Forni provides a one-size-fits-all solution. Not helpful.

I think constantly about the spiritual (and practical) implications of our current technological landscape, and ultimately haven't found any book that really gets it right. Nicholas Carr's book The Shallows was too pessimistic and short on solutions. William Powers's Hamlet's Blackberry was ultimately more hopeful, and I agree with his remedy, a tech Sabbath. (I talk about this some in Sabbath in the Suburbs---did I mention that it's coming this summer? Yes, I'm sure I did.)

But again, the idea of a tech Sabbath is very general. What Powers's book doesn't do is talk in-depth about how hard it is to unplug once one has, well, plugged. Tech Sabbaths are hard---I speak from experience. (They're also SO worth it.)

A good book on this topic should delve into the psychology of breaking habits and establishing new ones. Are there practical strategies, tips? It should be conversant in addiction issues: Internet use triggers physiological responses; we get a "hit" when we check our e-mail, so it's not enough just to stay "stop using the computer" or "just don't check your e-mail." Are there things we can learn from twelve-step methodology as we seek to put boundaries on our use of social media?

Most of all, a book like this should be broad-based in terms of its audience and who is interviewed, because a product manager at a DC-area technology company does not have the same issues as a professor like Forni.

I also think there are strong spiritual implications to all of this. Faith traditions and practices give us some tools. What does the discipline of hospitality have to do with Facebook? What role does contemplation play when perusing one's Twitter feed? How do we cultivate discernment in what we consume and produce?

This article, called "The Joy of Quiet," has been making the rounds everywhere I go. People from many walks of life are realizing what has been lost in our buzzing digital world. While few of us want to put the toothpaste back in the tube, but people looking for strategies that really work for their specific situation.

I don't know if this is my next book project or not. Maybe a series of blog posts, or an e-book. In any case, I want to know the most important issues you, personally, face.

When it comes to technology, what is your greatest challenge?

I hope that's broad enough yet specific enough to get you thinking. Comment here or on Facebook (mdana), Twitter (revmamd) or e-mail me at maryannmcdana at gmail dot com.

(See my review of Carr's and Powers's books here.)