I’m reading a book called Silence, by Erling Kagge. I found it—or it found me—at just the right time. Currently, things that used to be easy are hard. I find it difficult to sit and read for hours at a time—I never used to. I find it difficult to breathe and meditate before the sun rises—that was never the way. I flit restlessly from thing to thing, from one source of stimulation to another—what is happening to me? Silence contains counsel that is helping me surmount these problems, but not in the way I expected.
The book itself is an ode to empty space, to the pauses between words, to the quiet between the noise. It is also a reminder that the way we live now—connected, available, insensitive to information—is unprecedented, and may turn out to be unsustainable for the human condition. In that sense, the book is not unusual. Many others are reacting to the dominance of technology in our lives by withdrawing. It seems that the pendulum of technology acceptance is swinging from mindless embrace towards equally mindless retreat. It will be years, decades even, before the oscillations calm and we understand how technology helps us and how it harms us. But Silence stands out because it has made me realise how easy it is to attribute harm to that which has helped.
Consider the rhetoric concerning the role of the internet. Individuals like Cal Newport say that to be at our best we must periodically censor its presence. To do deep work, we must shut out the barrage of noise that social media is the carrier of. To live a deep life, we must cut it out. I’ve gone along with these ideas. In fact, I try to integrate them into my life. But like a Trojan horse, they carry a hidden cargo; the idea that the internet is, on balance, bad.
I owe my life to the internet. The internet didn’t get me into reading and into books. The example of my father did that. But it did expand my horizons. It made it possible for me to read the work of Nassim Taleb. It made it possible for me to stumble across Ryan Holiday’s blog posts and find the Stoics. It made it possible for me to learn about and delve into philosophy. It made it possible for me to have a space, a place, where I could birth ideas. It made it possible for me to realise that I wasn’t alone, and also that I wasn’t as clever or as special as I thought. It made it possible for me to see the many forms that a life can take—the good and the bad—and it made it possible for me to figure out ways in which I could build an existence on my terms. It made relationships possible, it made relationships better, and in ways that I have yet to comprehend, it has made me better.
All of this is what I turn my back on when I attempt to purge the internet from my life, when I attempt to inhibit its disruptive effects. In my clumsy attempts to keep out the known bad that comes with internet, I also unwittingly keep out the unknown good.
Another angle: on one hand, I try, to the best of my ability, to maximise my optionality and my exposure to serendipity. But in parallel, I try to stop one of the biggest engines of those things—the internet—from gaining any more of a foothold during my average day.
Perhaps my reaction to the internet is just indicative of human nature? We want the good without the bad, but when we try to shut out the latter, we also restrict the influx of the former. Naturally, we want the profit without the expense, but life is never so straightforward.