About a Couple of Books I'm Reading

To deprive individuals of a liberal education, of the chance to learn about and reflect upon the most important questions of personal and public value in a rigorous and systematic way, is to effectively exclude them from the fields of consciousness: the professions that shape the way we think and therefore the way that society looks ... It is to exclude them from the possibility of full political participation ... Or as Woodrow Wilson put it: "We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class ... very much larger ... to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks." Substitute "technical" for "manual," and the sentiment is precisely the same today. It is not the advocates of a liberal education who are the elitists; it is those who would reserve it for the lucky few.

        — William Deresiewicz, The End of Solitude

I've been reading a lot lately. And listening to audiobooks. I have about six going on the fire at once, but two of the more noteworthy titles are The End of Solitude: Selected Essays on Culture and Society by William Deresiewicz and Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport.

The End of Solitude is a collection of essays and lectures on contemporary culture, in which Deresiewicz talks about leadership qualities, the implications of a society hooked on the internet, the value of a liberal arts education, the fallacy of technological salvationism, the fantasy of the ultra-rich heading off to Mars, leaving a dying Earth and its rabble behind them, and so on.

I'm highly sympathetic toward his arguments that we place too much emphasis on technology over the arts, that the arts are critical in defining the values and priorities of a civilization, and that starving the arts of funding, by design, forces creative minds into technical fields which serve principally to enrich the coffers of a ruling class educated to believe it's only right and natural they're in charge of everything, including and especially culture.

Deresiewicz is undoubtedly correct in suggesting we must cease subjecting ourselves to endless online streams of mediocrity and toxic groupthink if we're to have any thoughts of our own. And that we need people with new ideas more now than ever in history.

Along those lines, Digital Minimalism is about how we're all addicted to our phones. Between long tangents about famous people in history enjoying the benefits of stepping away from society to be alone with their thoughts, Newport lays out a plan for one to identify ways to use technology strategically and less overall. Mostly it's tangents.

The book explores the history and market forces driving the so-called Attention Economy, reminding us that Steve Jobs sold us on the iPhone as a hybrid MP3 player and mobile phone combo; and that the business model for sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube requires keeping you engaged, by which they mean staring at your device while logged on to their app, scrolling, scrolling, endlessly scrolling ... forever. To this end, Big Tech companies have gone so far as to employ behavioral psychologists to make their products more persuasive and addictive. On purpose. Comparisons to Big Tobacco are made. Yes, everyone knows all this already. Digital Minimalism serves as a needed refresher because we keep forgetting.

So far, my favorite bit from Digital Minimalism has been learning more about Thoreau's "new economics," in which he argues earning more money is a trap if the result is you have to work more. Thoreau thinks you're better off having less material wealth and more free time.

Amen, brother.

Slow Drag (Remastered 2002/Rudy Van Gelder Edition)