All of this is invaluable. What is less obvious, however, is the resources I can draw upon when operating as my “unplugged” self: a state we have not had to devote much serious thought to during human history so far but that, if we don’t actively set out to understand today, we may soon find in vanishingly short supply.
Unplugged from media, I am able more easily to think freely without fear of preemption or interruption. I have a licence to let my mind wander in a different way to chasing links and discovering others’ thoughts. I can decide and delegate at leisure, clear my head, look inside myself, reconsider, and pause to analyze the structure of the situations I find myself in.
My thoughts and words, I often feel, belong to me in a different sense when I’m free from the possibility of digital interruption or corroboration. And the attention I am able to offer to those around me shifts with this. As the writer and computer scientist Jaron Lanier put it in a lecture at the South by Southwest conference in March 2010, during which he asked his audience to do nothing while he spoke other than listen: “The most important reason to stop multitasking so much isn’t to make me feel respected, but to make you exist. If you listen first, and write later, then whatever you write will have had time to filter through your brain, and you’ll be in what you say. This is what makes you exist . . .”
All of which is not to say that being plugged into digital devices is a bad thing, any more than it’s inherently good to refuse technology. Rather, it’s about setting out actively to make the most of the different possibilities of each state – and to recognize that this difference exists in the first place.
Charting such differences can be a trickier intellectual business than is often apparent. Consider a metaphor commonly applied today to the online world: that of an “ecology” within which we go about our daily tasks, surrounding us as inexorably as the physical landscape itself.
In recent months, the cohesion of Apple’s “ecosystem” has frequently been cited as part of the reason for its unprecedented profits and worth of over $400bn. There’s plenty of provoking truth in this. But there’s also a dangerous logic encoded in such descriptions, suggesting a mirror image of tech-rejections like Paul Miller’s: the implication that everything from the web to the economics of an App Store is a natural environment we must either exist within or opt out of, and can no more control than skies or oceans.
All tools have their potentialities and biases. Yet to make a fetish of this power concedes too much ground, and risks confusing our own creations with some alien biology to be probed, cautiously, from a distance, rather than an all-too-human arena we can hope to comprehend, challenge and maximise, alongside the other species of time and opportunity in our lives.
No machines can tell us what to do with the limited time at our disposal; they can only help us spend it. It’s up to us, similarly, to ensure that we’re not so busy counting bad web habits we forget to make the most of living itself – and that the only nature against which we ultimately measure success is our own.
How to Thrive in the Digital Age is published on 10 May.