“A deliberate life.” Michael Harris on the marriage of trust and technology.

Oct 30th, 2017

Man in top hat looking out of the window by Xopher Wallace

When Thoreau left the comforts of 19th-century life and tramped off to live in the woods, he was seeking what he called a “deliberate” life. And what a perfect word he chose. Deliberate. If our tech-drunk lives often fail to make us entirely healthy and happy, if the lofty promises of Silicon Valley sometimes run aground on the shores of lived experience, it must be because we passively consume these wonders, and we passively create them. We fail to make deliberate choices.

Here’s one way to look at it: temes. A “teme” is a technological meme. (A meme is a cultural gene…) Darwin taught us that any gene with a knack for replicating must rise to dominance. Richard Dawkins then extended Darwin’s argument and discovered the meme—bits of culture (tunes, styles of dress, etc.) that master the replication game and rise to dominance. Susan Blackmore was the one who suggested to me that technologies operate on the principle of Darwinian evolution, too. Technological evolution, of course, takes place at a far speedier rate than mere biological or cultural evolution. Temes also enjoy a much higher rate of fidelity when they copy themselves—this is important because the ability to propagate grows as fidelity rates increase.

This notion of temes explains why our technologies become increasingly prevalent and addictive with each iteration. Given a million pieces of technology, one will be more addictive and this one will naturally move forward in just the way a competitive gene would.

Now. Let’s breathe. The end result of all this replication and rapid evolution is not necessarily some Matrix-style singularity where humans become unwitting servants to a rapidly evolving machine world.

Richard Dawkins points out in The Selfish Gene that humans aren’t always slaves to their genes. For example, our genes want us to have lots and lots of babies but we still buy condoms. We can thwart our genetic masters. Similarly, our technologies may (in a sense) want us to do all sorts of things. But, with a little of Thoreau’s deliberateness, we can choose not to go along with their game.

We can curate for ourselves a healthy media diet that includes connection and disconnection. We can walk out of the apartment without our phones. We can feel a buzz in our pockets and decide to keep looking forward. Just as we choose not to consume all the fats and sugars our bodies were designed to hoard, we can choose not to indulge in too much of the social grooming that our minds were designed to cover.

These are—to use Thoreau’s word—deliberate choices. If we remain passive, the tide of technology’s own evolution may sweep us toward its own depths. And can we happily swim there? There’s no guarantee that a technology’s evolution is in sync with our own.

If we refuse to be passive in all this, we’ll design our own media diets and we’ll drop those childish fears about being left out, left behind.

If we choose to play an active role, that will mean devising a balance. Thoreau saw no contradiction in wandering back to his village every now and again, remember. He had friends visit him at his cabin in the woods. He was no hermit. He was simply a man unafraid to decide how many hours he spent in the company of others and how many hours he spent in solitude. Our deliberate maintenance of our lived experiences—the invention of healthy media diets—is what will allow our miraculous inventions to exist for us, instead of the reverse.

Michael Harris, Author of  The End of Absence.