The 3Rs of Unmachining: Guideposts for an Age of Technological Upheaval
"The Look of Silence", a scandalous proposal, and a practical beginning
Today’s post is a unique collaboration between my husband Peco and I, capturing our efforts to point a hopeful path through an age of technological upheaval. Although this is a single (lengthy) post, we have been discussing the foundational ideas for over a decade. We hope that you will find encouragement and practical catalysts to help you on your journey.
For those of you who, like me, prefer to read off paper rather than the screen, I have converted the post into an easily printable pdf file. Remember to come back and share your thoughts and comments! You can access the file here:
A five-minute drive from our home (or thirty minutes by horse and buggy), lies a small town with a Mennonite “Country Pantry”, where the price of 20kg bags of unbleached local flour is noted on chalkboard, dozens of fresh loaves of bread are baked daily, customers’ tabs are written neatly in a little black notebook, and ice cream cones still cost $1.50. Esther greets us cheerfully and asks how we have been keeping. As we chat, I (Ruth) cannot help but ask about the rules around cell phones for Mennonites, as I noticed that they at times make an appearance in the palms of some of the occupants of the horse buggies. She explains that each fellowship sets their own rules regarding cell phone use, but that they always do include strictures around filters.
“Do you have a cell phone?” I ask.
“Oh, no!” she smiles.
“Do you ever miss not having one?”
“I wouldn’t know what I am missing”, she laughs “at times I think it might be convenient, but we always find a way to make do without it.”
Inwardly you may have the same thought that occurred to me: You are not missing anything.
Even though Esther and I were over a century removed from each other in the modern conveniences we choose to use, we shared the same conviction that technology is making us less human.
“We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. There is nothing progressive about being pig-headed and refusing to admit a mistake. And I think if you look at the present state of the world it's pretty plain that humanity has been making some big mistake. We're on the wrong road. And if that is so we must go back. Going back is the quickest way on.”
from Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
Although Lewis penned this quote in reference to Moral Law, it seems to capture the current moment perfectly: somewhere in history we took a wrong turn on the road of technology, and it’s time for a course correction.
The problem is, nobody seems sure where to turn. Do we go back in time and, like the Amish or Mennonites, draw a bright clear line about what technologies we accept into our lives? Should we all become digital “minimalists”? Should we move away from the cities, and seek refuge in nature?
Of recent technologies none have thrown us off course, none have penetrated the human mind, so profoundly as digital devices. We’ve all experienced this penetration in different ways. No relationship, no intention or goal, no commitment in our lives, no appointment, no schedule, no conversation, not even God, is sacrosanct when we’re in front of a screen, or near a screen, or just thinking “Where did I put my device?” Our mental awareness and concentration—the very essence of human consciousness—drifts toward our screens, as if carried on an irresistible breeze. As if we are all turning into mere feathers, floating on the breath of Big Tech.
Almost nothing in life escapes this intrusion on our minds. We see it everywhere, from our homes to our institutions, and it happens in every age group. A steady irresistible push has conditioned us to accept that portable, digital technology is an indispensable oxygen required for all aspects of our daily lives from coupon savings to choosing a dating partner, from social affirmation to soothing babies with screens in their cribs.
But if we need a course correction, then where? What is the turn in the road that—if we make it—could spare us from the negative impact of technology, keep us rooted in reality, and deepen what it means to be human?
Most importantly, this turn should be so fundamental that it can be followed by anyone, irrespective of whether they live in a condo tower in Toronto, or deep in the northern forests, and span the “ecumenical trenches” of religious belief, or even non-belief.
This sounds like quite a big promise. Yet, we are not suggesting a complete solution, but instead have outlined three essential guideposts that may help reorient us toward embodied reality, face-to-face relationship, and living more fully within our human parameters. It is so basic, we decided to call it the 3Rs of Unmachining.
Guidepost 1: Recognize
“And in the naked light I saw, Ten thousand people maybe more
People talking without speaking, People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share, No one dared
Disturb the sound of silence.”
from “The Sound of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel
Recently we drove along a busy stretch of road, bustling with university students making their way from fast food plazas to the campus. As our car came to a halt, we looked over at the bus stop. There were around a dozen students waiting, each had their head bent toward their device. We had been listening to a Simon and Garfunkel CD, and as lines of The Sound of Silence resounded, they were displayed for us in a living tableau. Our 11-year old commented that it was “The Look of Silence”.
This scene reflected perfectly the observation of Father Martin in’s The Benedict Option, that many people’s faces seem vacant:
“When the light in most people’s faces comes from the glow of the laptop, the smartphone, or the television screen, we are living in a Dark Age…They are missing that fundamental light meant to shine forth in a human person through social interaction…Love can only come from that. Without real contact with other human persons, there is no love. We have never seen a Dark Age like this one.
We have both written extensively on the negative effects of digital technology on our minds, relationships, and human fabric (see for example From “Dark Flow “ to Crossing Wendell’s Bridge and From Feeding Moloch to Digital Minimalism). It is sobering to recognize the effects1 of the substitution of embodied social interaction with online simulated connections:
73 % of Generation Z sometimes or always feel alone.
71 % of heavy social media users report feelings of loneliness.
School loneliness increased between 2012–2018 in 36 out of 37 countries and was high when smartphone access and internet use were high.
The loss of social connection triggers the same system as physical pain.
Time spent on social media is a significant predictor of depression for adolescents.
66% is the increase in the risk of suicide-related outcomes among teen girls who spend more than 5 hours a day (vs. 1 hour a day) on social media.
In the “race to the bottom of the brain stem”2 children are the most vulnerable contestants. Their minds are part of a relentless digital colonization. What is particularly disturbing, is that their understanding of human relationship is warped into a manipulative, disembodied competition for social status3.
In our digital relationships we share snippets; we are atomized, never fully human. We avoid dull moments, boredom, the tedium of life. When we meet people in real face-to-face encounters we falter in moments of silence and reach to the phone to share a meme, or take pictures of each other with funny filters.
In our virtual, curated social selves, we are never fully known.