It’s a moment that has resonated with me for over a decade, crisply illustrating our modern malaise. We want the clarity of a decision that can cut through the noise. We want some semblance of meaning that can steer the rudder of our lives. We want to hack through the commercial and technological maximalism that defines our time. In short, we want what Merton described as an ascent to the active passivity of understanding and love and the more urgent relationship that Heidegger sought with Being.
It is unclear whether we can find our way toward these lofty goals. But if we are to make this journey, then surely the first step is to clear out the invasive overgrowth of our digital lives.
“In short” and Heidegger typically do not inhabit the same sentence. Amusing paradoxes aside, when I moved out of my parents’ house at nineteen, I spent the next ten years without TV. We had a VCR for watching the occasional video, which we didn’t do often. I didn’t get a personal computer until 2003 (though a friend had actually given us a WebTV a few years earlier). Naturally, leisure mostly involved reading, though I honestly read more voraciously now, even though I’m far busier overall. Life wasn’t better or worse in my youthful Luddite phase; it was just a little different.
My then-girlfriend was (and is) a permanently dissatisfied, miserable person. Wherever she went, there she was, and she was always unhappy in her own skin. She was the type to become a proselytizing vegan, only to backslide in a big way once the initial surge of moral superiority began to fade. She was forever coming up with some radical new idea to change habits or circumstances, and forever re-discovering that none of them could make her happy. As far as I know, she still blames everyone and everything but herself for her congenital inability to be content. I would not be at all surprised to hear that she had embraced the digital minimalism trend.
She was an extreme example. I don’t dispute that many people are unbalanced and could use some strong discipline in their digital practices. But we were often inattentive and superficial long before we had smartphones to blame. “In short,” what we want is to always be somewhere else doing something else. We’re always scenting purer water not here but anywhere. Our digital dilemma is not unique, but pretending it is allows us another opportunity to stimulate our egos. Sort of like developing an addiction to likes and retweets, in fact.