Invisibly, almost without notice, we are losing ourselves

Physicist, novelist, and essayist Alan Lightman has added his own manifestoIn Praise of Wasting Time. Of course, the title is ironic, because Lightman argues that by putting down our devices and spending time on quiet reflection, we regain some of our lost humanity, peace of mind, and capacity for creativity—not a waste of time, after all, despite the prevailing mentality that we should spend every moment actually doing something. The problem is not only our devices, the internet, and social media. Lightman argues that the world has become much more noisy, fast-paced, and distracting. Partly, he writes, this is because the advances that have enabled the much greater transfer of data, and therefore productivity, have created an environment in which seemingly inexorable market forces push for more time working and less leisure time.

Lightman starts his book with an anecdote from his recent time in a rural village in Cambodia. When he asked a villager how long it took her to bike daily to the market ten miles away to barter for food and goods, she replied that she had never thought about it. Lightman is “startled” at this, and jealous. He points out that we in the “developed” world (his scare quotes) have carved up our days into minuscule portions, not a single one to be wasted. He admits that “from the instant I open my eyes in the morning until I turn out the lights at night, I am at work on some project. First thing in the morning, I check my email. For any unexpected opening of time that appears during the day, I rush to patch it, as if a tear in my trousers…” 

Lightman points to several productive, creative individuals who routinely had unstructured time in their days. A fellow physicist at MIT, Paul Schechter, used to sit for hours daydreaming on park benches, which he credited with helping come up with important ideas, including a formula for the number of galaxies with different luminosities. Gertrude Stein used to drive around in the country every day and find a place to sit and write; much of that time was not spent writing, but gazing at cows. Mathematician Henri Poincaré, after a few weeks of fruitless work on functions, drank coffee one evening and in his sleeplessness found that “[i]deas rose in crowds; I felt them collide under pairs interlocked, so to speak, making a stable combination. By the next morning I had established the existence of a class of Fuchsian functions . . . “

Lightman feels we are in a “dire” situation:

Invisibly, almost without notice, we are losing ourselves. We are losing our ability to know who we are and what is important to us. We are creating a global machine in which each of us is a mindless and reflexive cog, relentless driven by the speed, noise, and artificial urgency of the wired world.

~ Anitra Pavlico, from “Alan Lightman On Wasting Time” (3quarksdaily, January 7, 2019)


Photo: Financial Times

Comments

  1. Many astounding facts here. Nice share.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. what a dire observation, and so true. to prove a point, it is 5 am and i am catching up on my blogs and emails. when i am on summer break from teaching, the way i know that i’ve truly moved into ‘vacation’ mode, is when i lose track of what day it is. this means i have nothing that i am obligated to do for a time. yes, to the children playing. quite often i find that new kinders have a very hard time just sitting and playing, with blocks, with crayons, in dramatic play, for a while. they are so used to constant movement, noise, stimulation, electronics. we work on this all year, and most, by the end , are able to really play for 45 minutes, a huge leap, and it is a struggle still for some.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. So teach your kids to go outside from a young age with you!! Parents constantly whinge about this problem while they scroll and press ‘like’ on their own phones. 🙄

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Interesting that in Silicon Valley, the most prestigious elementary schools don’t use computers, iPads, etc – and the parents endorse the policy. I do too – though I realize I’m a Luddite.
    That said, I come from professional services, where one’s time is billed in increments of minutes in an hour. I am not sure that provided a sense of time’s value in any sense other than monetary…and that’s very skewed thinking too

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Reblogged this on Views from the Edge and commented:
    “Invisibly, almost without notice, we are losing ourselves,” says the quote at the end of this thoughtful reflection. I think of Kosuke Koyama’s metaphor of the three-mile-an-hour God. Why three-miles-per-hour? Because that’s the pace of a human being walking.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Fascinating piece. During our recent move, I was unmoored from regular routines and my ‘normal’ work schedule, to the point that I actually Alexa (that in itself speaks volumes, but I digress…) what day it was. Made me realize how rare it has become for me to just roll with natural rhythms instead of with the insistent nudges of my Outlook calendar, Fitbit buzzes, and smart phone notifications. Not proud of it and trying desperately to avail myself of new surrounds in order to move the needle. It. Is. Tough.

    Liked by 4 people

  7. Gary severson says:

    My feelings exactly Gordon. On my blog I have a piece from Bernard Steiger, the French philosopher, that I met a few years back at the U. His notion of the “war for attention” is all about social media’s process of hijacking our consciousness for commercial, etal purposes.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. an addendum to previous thoughts.
    Others have called it “surveillance capitalism”, ala, Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook using phones as listening devices to direct ads to us. Remember this whole technology was funded via Silicon Valley’s libertarian techs like Zuckerberg by the Pentagon’s “Defense and Research Projects Admin., aka DARPA. Surveillance of dissent is the real “M.O.” of this tech with the smokescreen of commercial uses being a more acceptable public dynamic. All of this warrants Frenchmen Bernard Stiegler’s use of the term,”the war for attention”. I am also reminded of a comment I heard Arthur C. Clarke make back when I was a college student at UND in the 60s that alluded to the idea that the meaning of AI is an evolutionary process of man evolving himself away from organic existence into a disembodied life form. He wasn’t agreeing with this but was referring to the inherent evil in this project to escape human death. As Tillich has said, “capitalism is the manifestation of the Devil”.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Reblogged this on Julian Summerhayes and commented:
    We all know that things are speeding, but how is it improving our lives? A thoughtful post.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. It seems that every technological advance brings an equal share of something gained and something lost. Will generations growing up with technology even question what it’s done to us, having nothing to compare it with?

    I can’t imagine a childhood (or adulthood too!) that does not include playing in the dirt.

    Liked by 3 people

  11. Reblogged this on It Is What It Is and commented:
    Oh, m’lord … if only all would realize!! … Physicist, novelist, and essayist
    Alan Lightman added his own manifesto, In Praise of Wasting Time. ‘Of course, the title is ironic, because Lightman argues that by putting down our devices and spending time on quiet reflection, we regain some of our lost humanity, ‘ … if only ALL would listen!!

    Liked by 2 people

  12. And in the space of moments we can find ourselves.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. In the villages along the Annapurna Trail in Nepal, people live as they did a hundred years ago. Their lives are hard and most are subsistence farmers. However, I realized that life’s natural pace, even when working the land, includes a lot of down time. We have filled this space with artifice and a fictitious urgency that make us feel important. Hiking the trail cured my insomnia because I went to bed when it got dark and awoke with the sun. I ate real foods the screens were gone, and I lived communally. I have been having such a hard time adjusting back to our alpha-oriented society. I continue to resist, but the siren call is so loud.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Back in the early 1900s & maybe earlier we had mail delivery 3-4 times a day so the need has always been there for communication with the mobility of modern society dispersing friends & family across the horizon. The form of empire economy we have created has caused this dispersal of pre-modern culture. This was Heidegger’s having never left the Black Forest to protest the disintegration of folk society. Of course he shot himself in the foot by backing Hitler because he thought Hitler was for real & not just riding the wave of the mass rebellion against modernity.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Make choices 🤓 soon we will outsource our will power…seeing my screen time use is good for me ☺️ have a happy day outside here it’s -28 😳 smiles Hedy

    Liked by 1 person

  16. That’s why we try to escape our everyday rat race — to find ourselves again. With our phones in our pocket. And checking for WiFi. I’m ashamed. Heh..

    Liked by 2 people

  17. I think he’s right, but he’s talking to the wall. Sorry to sound so pessimistic, but from what I see around me, it doesn’t look like anyone cares about what’s really going on around them. I love technology too, but ….

    Liked by 2 people

  18. Natalie Roberts says:

    New rule implemented in our home this year…no electronic devices, except a radio alarm without bluetooth capabilities, in our bedrooms. Phones, ipods, computers turned off before you go to bed. Bed time is no later than 10 on school nights. Archaic…to some for sure, but for us = healthy growth…….let’s see how long this lasts 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  19. The French philosopher I mentioned a few posts back proposes not withdrawal from social media but engaging in it to fight back through conscious collectives.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. I was horrified and shocked (and have no kids) to see the NYT’s daily advice column advise (?!!!!!) how to manage screen time for…wait for it….toddlers and very young children.

    I am so saddened to see very small kids, everywhere, staring into screens.

    I make it a point to just sit still, silent, no screens, as often as possible. How else can one THINK?????

    Liked by 2 people

  21. Wrote this in the AM…As I sit here eating a pieces of milk chocolate w/hazelnut shaped like hedgehogs (made in Delta, BC) my husband is showing me a live cam from Time Square …he points to a window and says if that was our apartment the curtains would have to be shut at all times…all the lights, the busyness, the noise (he said he’d never want busy)…even though he grew up in a town of 10,000 until ten years ago the county’s population per square mile was lower single digits & to think they had the influence of MTV in the early 80’s before we did! (technology & cams have there place & can enlightens us to much beauty & aid us in our everyday life) he was looking at the California Condor nest cam yesterday. Generally, the cams are of natural landscapes. Alan Lightman says “We are creating a global machine in which each of us is a mindless and reflexive cog…” such a sobering thought.. Our sparsely used prepaid cell phones do not accept apps, or have voice mail set up…he has had a cell for maybe 5 years and he doesn’t know how to text and doesn’t care to learn …We have a very flexible household, time is our own…one days we go out in the car we strive to return home by 2-3pm. When we go out of town or even spots in town are dead zones, so when we travel we often find no cell service though sometimes internet access for emails (sometimes neither) Its all about balance & choice.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Utopia!

      Like

    • It’s all about choice but that is why there is a “war for attention” raging all around us. Schools have adopted I-Pads for all students which acclimates/normalizes students to living in/with screen time for interacting with the world. Parents are making choices to continue paying their property taxes in support of school board desire to lower costs of instruction by eliminating text book costs through the use of tech & eventually to automate lesson plans to replace teacher with monitors. 30 ears ago a top administrator at the U.S. Dept. of Ed told me that was their goal. The “war’ is really designed to capture the young’s attention for the rest of their & their children”s lives. It is also called “surveillance capitalism”.

      Liked by 1 person

  22. Thanks for posting my article! – A. Pavlico 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  23. I thought of this a few days ago on Thursday. I was paying bills online..so I unzipped my little wallet thing about 4×5 zip pouch…to retrieve my debit card and I said oh, my cell is in here. The last time I’d even seen my cell or thought of it was Monday when I went to the gym…needed it as my hubby was to call when he reached the parking lot to pick me up…he didn’t bother using his cell he just stood inside the door and figured I’d see him from the upstairs perch of the treadmills, which I did!

    Liked by 1 person

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