Time and Technology

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Chalice Lighting

It’s Sunday morning.
You probably don’t need to work today.
It might be a calmer schedule than your usual.
And yet, many of us feel rushed.
We’ve answered emails and texted.
Maybe checked on social media to see what’s going on.
The news streams onto our devices and into our hearts.
This candle flame,
It burns unhurried. Steady. Constant.
By this light, let’s remember to slow down.
Let’s be sure to take space to reflect.
Space to feel. Space to be human again.
Space to care.

Reading: Pursuit, by Stephen Dobyns

Each thing I do I rush through so I can do
something else. In such a way do the days pass—
a blend of stock car racing and the never
ending building of a gothic cathedral.
Through the windows of my speeding car, I see
all that I love falling away: books unread,
jokes untold, landscapes unvisited. And why?
What treasure do I expect in my future?
Rather it is the confusion of childhood
loping behind me, the chaos in the mind,
the failure chipping away at each success.
Glancing over my shoulder I see its shape
and so move forward, as someone in the woods
at night might hear the sound of approaching feet
and stop to listen; then, instead of silence
he hears some creature trying to be silent.
What else can he do but run? Rushing blindly
down the path, stumbling, struck in the face by sticks;
the other ever closer, yet not really
hurrying or out of breath, teasing its kill.

Reading: Now I Become Myself, by May Sarton

Now I become myself. It's taken
Time, many years and places,
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people's faces,
Run madly, as if Time were there,
Terribly old, crying a warning,
"hurry, you will be dead before -----"
(What? Before you reach the morning?
or the end of the poem, is clear?
Or love safe in the walled city?)
Now to stand still, to be here,
Feel my own weight and density!.....
Now there is time and Time is young.
O, in this single hour I live
All of myself and do not move
I, the pursued, who madly ran,
Stand still, stand still, and stop the Sun!

Message by New Unity member Rebecca Fiebrink

I’d like you to think about some of the ways you really love to spend your time—not things you do on holiday, but things you might get to do on an average day if you’re really lucky. For me, these things are reading a good book, learning something new, spending time with my wife or talking to my niece on skype, or making something. I don’t do these things nearly as often as I’d like to, but I’m getting better at making time for them. And today I’m going to talk about how the way I spend my time and the way I think about my time has changed over the past few years.

Now, I mentioned I love making things: the thing I love most is making software. I have a PhD in computer science, and I teach computing at a university. I chose to do this with my life because I find it incredibly fulfilling to make something that brings someone joy. And throughout my life, I've used so many technologies that have brought me joy and meaning! When I was 12, my family moved to a new city, and got a dial-up service called Prodigy—this meant I could email with the ONE person I knew who also had Prodigy—a friend I’d left behind. It was SO EXCITING to log on and see I had a new email in my inbox!! In my teens, the internet allowed me to connect with other queer youth even though I didn’t know anyone who was LGBT where I lived in Ohio. In my twenties, my wife and I had to live in different countries for six years because of discriminatory immigration laws, but we kept our relationship going by talking on Skype every day. And when we moved to London 5 years ago, I thought, thank goodness for Facebook—I didn’t feel like I was really leaving all my friends and family behind.

But then, a couple years ago I realised that a lot of my interactions with technology were not as meaningful as they used to be. Email had long ceased to be exciting; instead, opening my inbox would fill me with anxiety, and often I’d spend hours answering emails only to see that the number of unread messages ended up being higher than when I’d started. And I found myself opening Facebook on my phone first thing in the morning, ostensibly to connect with all those people I cared about, but half an hour later I’d still be scrolling through, and not remembering a thing I’d seen.

I’m going to guess that I’m not alone in feeling that email and social media technology aren't great at making me feel socially connected or fulfilled. So I want to share some things I’ve learned that have helped me make sense of why using these technologies was making me feel this way, and I’ve ended up changing the some of the ways I spend my time.

Let’s start with email: email-based misery is perhaps the easiest to explain. I have a friend who was so stressed about email that he went a therapist to talk about it. And the therapist quickly and wisely told him: you know the problem’s not email, right? The real problem for him—and for me, and maybe many of you—is that we’re expected to do a huge number of things in a finite amount of time. And email enables anyone—line-managers, co-workers, friends, random people on the internet you’ve never met—to add anything to your to-do list at any time of day or night. And every time you look at your inbox, you see a literal count of the number of ways you’ve failed to do everything that you’ve been asked by these people.

A wonderful article in the Guardian a couple years ago describes your inbox like this: “Your emails are manifestations of larger, more personal dilemmas. Which paths will you pursue, and which will you abandon? Which relationships will you prioritise, during your shockingly limited lifespan, and who will you resign yourself to disappointing? What matters?” No wonder email is stressful. The same Guardian article interviewed Merlin Mann, a professional productivity expert who invented the idea of “inbox zero”. (If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a productivity system that was supposed to give us all clean inboxes and clean consciences, if we only worked hard enough at it.) He gave up his own inbox zero system, saying “Eventually I realised something. Email is not a technical problem. It’s a people problem. And you can’t fix people.”

I can’t tell you how relieved I was when I read this last year. Today, my inbox is still a mess. It still stresses me out. But I have the satisfaction of knowing that I’m stressed because I'm confronting decisions about what really matters in life. Today, I spend less time on email, and I don’t feel so bad not doing every single thing that someone asks me to do in an email—because I’ve decided to do things that matter more, at work and in my personal life. I’ve also redirected a lot of my anger away from email and toward the systems and people who are, say, causing me to have to choose between spending a Saturday night doing email and spending it with my family and friends. I’ve become active in my union, for one thing. I may not be able to burn Outlook to the ground, but I at least have a fighting chance of changing some of the culture around email and stress in my own workplace.

Now, let’s talk about social media. Why do I spend time on Facebook looking at posts from people I care about, and not leave feeling happy afterwards?

Well, one part of the answer is that Facebook and all the other major social media platforms are constantly running little experiments to improve their users' experiences. They’re constantly collecting data from us about what content we like to see online, and then they’re showing us more of that content. They don’t have to ask us what we want to see, and Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t get to decide for us. Instead, Facebook’s algorithms just observe what we click on, what we share, what we “like” or retweet. Every time we do that, we’re giving Facebook a signal saying “Yes! Please show me more of this!” Sounds good, right? 

Well, I just ran one of these experiments on all of you: I showed all of you a bunch of new newsfeed stories, and they looked like this [holds biscuit]. How many people took one? This data tells me that what you really want in life is biscuits and haribo, and I should keep giving them to you. If I’ve watched closely, I’ve also learned about which type of biscuit each one of you prefers. Next week I could try bringing some different kinds, and I could learn over time what food each of you, individually, is most likely to take if I offer it for free.

Of course, there’s a problem here! The data you gave me doesn’t tell me what you really value. Most of you probably value your health, or living a long life. Yet the data you gave me tells me that what you really want is sugar and fat, and that if I want you to keep taking my free product, I should put sugar and fat in it. And this is natural: we’re humans, we’re not always great at acting in ways that align with what we really want, especially when someone offers us free short-term gratification. 

Likewise, you may value spending time with family, or reading a book, but the data you’re giving to social media platforms is telling them exactly what content they can show you to keep you from doing those things. And it’s not just content: They do this with the colours on the site, the fonts, the notifications, too: every time you get a notification on your phone and you follow it onto Facebook or Twitter, you’re telling that platform, “hey, thanks! the wording and colours and sound and timing of that notification is exactly the way to get me back on your platform and away from whatever else I was doing.” Social media is offering us free biscuits in our very favourite flavour, day and night— they are building us the perfect addiction machine. 

And that’s not the only problem. Guess what kind of content people tend to click on and share? Human nature seems to be that we react more strongly to things that make us angry than to things that make us happy. We tend to click on and share content that makes us mad or afraid. Content that affirms our biases and doesn’t challenge our prior beliefs. Content that allows us to advertise that we’re part of a tribe, by proving that people on the other side of a political issue are all idiots and that we’re better than they are. So social media platforms are more likely to show us this type of content.

And likewise, social media rewards us for posting and sharing this type of content ourselves. The more people who like your tweet or your Facebook post, the better you feel, right? Watching that little number of likes or retweets grow higher, you feel loved and important. So after years of using Facebook, I know I’m going to get lots of positive attention if I’m showing off, or if I post some witty attack on conservatives that gets all my liberal friends on my side. I’m not going to get lots of positive attention if I post the sort of things that I would say to a friend in person. This means that social media gives us incentives to act in ways that are less nuanced, less honest, less humble; we don’t get rewarded for those things with likes and retweets. 

So what do we do about this?

As a computer scientist who wants to see more joy in the world, I wish I knew. There are organisations like the Time Well Spent movement who are putting pressure on technology companies to make products that give us more meaningful interactions, rather than just making us addicted to something of questionable value. I’m hopeful that they’ll have an impact, but big tech companies aren’t going to change overnight. So in the meantime, I have made some changes in the way I use technology.

I still use social media, despite its problems, mostly to maintain connections to people I care about. But I’m trying to more consciously use it in ways that are in line with who I want to be. For instance, if I’m using it to offer encouragement to a friend, I think that’s a good use. I like the New Unity Facebook group; it makes me feel more connected to other people here, and being able to share joys and sorrows when we’re not all together is important. 

Still, most of the time, I don’t really want to be on social media. So I've installed an app on my phone that prevents me from opening social media first thing in the morning, in the hour before bed, and all day on Sundays. Some people do a weekly “digital sabbath” in which they completely disconnect from tech— I’m trying to work up to this, and we’ll see if I get there. But I’ve also begun to do internet-free holidays: no facebook, no email, no news—and it’s been amazing.

I’ve also made a private WhatsApp chat group for my whole family, so that I can communicate with them in a casual way throughout the day. It’s similar to how I used to interact with them on Facebook, but more nuanced and personal. We can do things like send each other photos of things that happen during the day, or just say hello.

And I've made it easier for myself to spend my time in ways I know make me happy. I’ve filled up my phone with ebooks and podcasts. This means that when I’m on the overground, for instance, it’s easy to get on social media or check my email, but it’s equally easy to learn something new. In fact, a lot of my thinking about the topics I’ve talked about today has been shaped by podcasts I’ve listened to. I’ll put links to these in the text of the message that will posted on the website so you can check them out.

And finally, I’m taking some comfort in the fact that this is far from the first time in history that people have been concerned about technology destroying our social relationships. The television, the radio, and even the telegraph have all been forecast to be the downfall of civilisation at some point in history. And for millenia, philosophers from Seneca to Nietzsche have bemoaned the fact that human beings are often just really bad at spending our time in meaningful ways.

So, I’d like to finish by bringing you back to thinking about the ways that you really love to spend your time, whatever those may be—I hope you get to do them, and I hope I’ve given you some ideas about how to keep technology from getting in the way.

Links:

“Why time management is ruining our lives,” by Oliver Burkeman, published in The Guardian 22 December 2016.

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/dec/22/why-time-management-is-ruining-our-lives

Tristan Harris, founder of Time Well Spent/ Center for Human Technology, speaking with Ezra Klein in February 2018:

https://www.vox.com/technology/2018/2/19/17020310/tristan-harris-facebook-twitter-humane-tech-time

Jaron Lanier on “Six reasons why social media is a bummer”, in The Guardian 27 May 2018

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/may/27/jaron-lanier-six-reasons-why-social-media-is-a-bummer

And Jaron Lanier again speaking about this with Ezra Klein:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o7XigVwjD1Y

 Shoshana Zuboff, Moira Weigel, and Christopher Lydon discuss “Facebook and the reign of surveillance capitalism” on Radio Open Source

http://radioopensource.org/facebook-the-reign-of-surveillance-capitalism/

Closing Words by Rev Andy Pakula

Technology has made it possible for us to do more in less time
It has allowed us to befriend and connect across great distances
And maintain the connection that sustain us
But it tempts us toward over-engagement
Disrupts us with distraction
Relationship matters. Reflection and simply being matterMake time for going slow.
Make time for yourself.
Make time for depth
Make time for love