Don’t Be A Tool of A Tool – Distraction and Human Dignity

I hear it at least once a week now. The words shimmer with urgent relevance. Maybe it’s because I’m listening for it, but I hear many people exasperated at the glut of information being presented and extracted from us. How do we navigate our relationship with various media without becoming a tool of the tools presented to us?

Distraction is one salient word describing our relationship with information these days. In overwhelming moments, the onslaught of news, entertainment, and communication distracts us from daily tasks or even from pausing to absorb the information as it passes by in our “feed’. We find books with this title particularly relevant, lining the featured book shelves in our libraries (for example, Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long, The Thinking Life: How to Thrive in the Age of Distraction, and The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction). People blog about it at length (for example, “A Diet of Distraction” on Unfiltered and “Demons of Distraction” blog and me!). Why is the distraction so disconcerting? Does new media distract in a qualitatively different way, or was this sort of distraction a problem before computers, before television, before newspapers? Who is responsible for the distraction we experience?

We can ask many interesting questions, but we can ground ourselves with one line of questioning in particular. Let’s question the basic axiom that we have a problematic relationship with communication technology. If it is not truly problematic, then we idly ask the other questions.

From the title of this blog (“Info Wrangling”) to this series of posts, I assert that our relationship with communication technology is problematic. Why do I think that? These days, I can distill it down to questions of human and ecological dignity. I ask myself the human dignity questions every day. Am I using the tools at my disposal in a way that treats my fellow humans as instruments? Am I okay with that? Are they okay with that? Am I engaging with technology in a way that makes me a tool used for someone else’s ends? Is that use of my energy acceptable? Am I respecting myself while I live distractedly in my digital feeds? Am I living purposefully within my community while the feeds distract me?

Insofar as our answers to these questions are unacceptable, let’s explore how to live imaginatively and avoid being simply the tools of tools.

Don’t Be A Tool of A Tool

Unasked questions are a terrible waste. Whether we ask questions explicitly or whether they subtly guide our thoughts and actions, they are an important part of the human endeavor. Seeking worthwhile questions is one of the ways I have resisted sinking back into dull stagnation over time. I feel like I’m still learning how to listen well to the answers that worthwhile questions provide. Sometimes I don’t want to hear the answers.

In asking myself questions about where I spend my energy and how I relate to my environment, I have often come upon questions of responsible use of technology. This topic is worthy of shelves-worth of books, but it is also worth simple daily consideration. We can choose from hundreds of other people’s tools to use in many daily activities. This abundant choice is a gift, but it is not entirely a beneficial circumstance. The wrong tool applied to a situation can cause more harm than good (think “fishing with dynamite”). The right tool used without skill also causes trouble.

In subsequent posts, I will explore some questions we can ask ourselves to use technology more skillfully and to relate to each other and our world in a healthy way. If this topic inspires you, I welcome guest posts and comments. Until next time!

Funk Shui

It’s easy to stagnate at times. For people and all of nature, stagnation seems to be one of the traps that we face. Life (and death) are part of a flow of energy and matter in their complex cycles. While there are natural deposits and reservoirs, this particular sort of impediment of the flow stifles creativity. It inhibits good work and play. It dulls us and that dullness leaves us vulnerable to troubles of all kinds.

An especially cold winter was part of the formula of stagnation for some of us in Saint Louis this year. While the cold demanded a degree of resilience and many of us rose to that challenge, it also took its toll on our energy. Now that spring and summer have come, many of us have been able to exercise and thereby exorcise some maladies. In my life, my friends and family have expended considerable effort in lifting me towards healing and balance. I was in a heavy funk during the past several months. It wasn’t entirely something new, and I’m not entirely out of it. However, attentiveness to my expenditure of energy and my relation to my environment has held at bay the fogginess and stagnation of this funk. Part of this attentiveness is very practical and noticeable.

As far back as high school, I have realized the profound connection between the state of my bedroom and the state of my mind. Now living in a small apartment, I realize that this connection extends to the whole of my living space. One of my friends devoted many hours of hard work over several days to help me relate more healthily to my living space. Unused items were removed. Dirty things were cleaned. Confusingly chaotic piles were ushered into more meaningful collections. Months worth of leaves and rotting wood were pulled from damp spaces during Saint Louis’ rainy spring. Seemingly dead succulents readily revived and grew again. As my living space transformed, my thinking and habits did as well. I was overcome by gratitude and did not conceive how I might reciprocate this healing. There was no direct way to do so at the time, and my friend requested no payment nor reciprocation for these actions which meant so much to me. I recollect my friend saying at the time, “it needed doing.”

Funk Shui cactusHaving been retrieved from a place of deep stagnation, I am left to simply ponder the lessons and to endeavor to do likewise for others. This endeavor includes being attentive to my expenditure of energy and my relation to my environment. I can see what creative work and play look like, and how these things will benefit myself and others. I also admit that I don’t fully understand this interplay of imaginative work and play. But as long as I am asking questions and attempting to see and inwardly see, I trust that I will move forward on a worthwhile path. I hope the same for all of us.

Imagination As Seeing And Inwardly Seeing

My last post spoke of a failure of imagination and made a call to foster imagination in our lives. I lamented what I saw as one repeated pattern of widespread lack of imagination that has disfigured the lives of many children and young adults. For me, this lament led to an urgent request that we all try to be more imaginative and support places where imagination is allowed to flourish. And what is so important about imagination?

Well, if we define imagination as forming a mental image, it may not seem like much. It can sound like a mundane act, simply one of our main faculties as human beings. But what an amazing faculty it is. After reading a passage from Wendell Berry’s Imagination In Place one day, I began to understand imagination as seeing and inwardly seeing. (In fact, that may be a direct quote from the book, pardon my memory.) This phrasing and his words further opened my mind as to why I am so attracted to this faculty and find it urgently necessary to use it. In this “graced moment of opportune crisis” (as Lyanda Lynn Haupt once put it), we must imagine.

We must take a good hard look at ourselves and our communities and the world. This awareness of what happens in and around us is key. It is part of the imaginative seeing. However, if it is the only part, our “good hard look” becomes an endless accumulation of facts. This does not end up being terribly useful. It’s plenty of data points, but what do we do with this data? How do we arrange it and interpret them?

This leads to further consideration of inwardly seeing. Inwardly seeing is not self-absorption but is a quiet opportunity to look at what we know and to synthesize the things that our eyes have seen. Quite simply, it’s processing and forming a mental image, as the dictionary definition so mundanely puts it.

It is mundane, in some regards. It is also an accessible faculty to all human beings. I think there’s something powerful in that. I staunchly disbelieve people who say they can’t draw/write/sing/act/etc. I don’t usually say it to their face, but I’m saying it now. We all possess the power to imagine and to create.

Creating things from our imagination is not always a constructive force, but, if we honestly move back and forth between seeing and inwardly seeing, we are bound to do some imagining about what is good and true in the world. And, if we act creatively to bring these good and true things forth, wow. Just wow. That’s where a blog post becomes a woefully inadequate way to depict all this. I surely don’t know how it all works, but I am sure that we all need to use our imagination and make good things.

MC at the CM

Before being completely sacrificed to the altar of American celebrity, a younger Miss Cyrus visited St. Louis’ beloved City Museum. Miley Cyrus at the City Museum

The City Museum is a place of infinite kinetic imagination for many of us. Not all can share in its magic, but many feel strongly about the mysteriously transformative world that the Cassilly crew have built and continue to build. The seemingly boundless strangeness, silliness, and surprise of the sculpture-scape draw out the shy inner child in some people, and the place opens up most visitors to seeing the world and themselves in bizarre new ways. I’ve not been there in years, but that’s how I remember it. I remember the first time I went on the big slides after they were expanded almost to the building’s top floor. As someone played an organ, people of all ages were climbing several flights of stairs to slide back down all of those stories in the chutes of the former shoe factory. As wild as that was, it is just one of many giddily preposterous experiences that the City Museum facilitates. I am glad that Miss Cyrus visited the City Museum because every person her age (and of every age!) deserves such a chance to let their imagination laugh and play in such a landscape. No matter what you think of her as a celebrity, I think that Miss Cyrus has suffered from unimaginative circumstances fostered by her handlers.

A lamentable failure of imagination continues to hastily build up many child stars and remorselessly tear them down. The process of rising to fame and then falling from grace is older than all of us, I will admit, and I am sure that few child celebrities have been allowed a graceful adolescence. But the marketing of children and young teens by companies like Disney, Time Warner, and Viacom (National Amusements) has become so rapid and nauseously formulaic that I feel it demands our attention. Without any public expression of shame or even regret, the same companies that plaster these children all over their television channels and movies aimed at children later fill their tabloid news shows and other media with the fiery crash as their stars age, getting into hard drugs, being recklessly and embarrassingly promiscuous, blatantly plagiarizing movie ideas from comic book creators, etc. Whether these children are willing participants in their meteoric rising and falling seems irrelevant. These companies repeatedly derive countless profits from their rise and demise even as they distribute their characters to children all over the world.

Do you find these behaviors repugnant? I do. So what action can we take? I don’t know. Realistically, we have little leverage against the behaviors of the three or so companies that own most major media content in the United States of America (and far beyond). The only answer I can conjure is to spread imagination in loving ways to those around us.

The behavior pattern described above lacks imagination. The storyline is worn out and without merit. The jokes are stale and propped up by canned laughter. The dance moves are mechanical. The music is phoned in and auto tuned. The art is a cheap, slick imitation of someone else’s work, just like the clothing styles they lift from their paid focus groups.

I know you have a better imagination than they do. First of all, you are a human, not a corporation. Second of all, I’ve seen your Vimeo channel / Bandcamp page / zine / graff writing / open mic night set / open source programs / wood working / math homework / knitting projects / notebook doodles and, frankly, I can’t look away. So, please, KEEP DOING THAT.┬áIt’s the only answer I’ve got.

P. S. Don’t be content to share it only on the Internet. Be imaginative in person with other people, friends, family, strangers, and anyone who will let you. And visit the City Museum if you are able! Visit somewhere that similarly sings out to your imagination if you are not able! Let joy flow uncurbed. Cuz why not?