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Did modernity kill contemplation?

I don’t want to go super deep on this because it’s a pretty nuanced topic, but I just want to try and frame the edges here if I may.

First I want you to consider this quote:

Even more alarmingly, Foer writes, big tech increasingly influences not just what we know, but also how we think and what we do, by gathering vast quantities of our personal data and utilizing artificial intelligence to continually prod us to consume. In the process, Foer charges, they’ve created a world in which people are continually being observed and distracted. “The tech companies are destroying something precious, which is the possibility of contemplation,” he writes.

Yep. This point has been made before.

Contemplation and work

Work is very much a trade-off between “reaction” and “response.” Reaction — hastily firing off an email, claiming something is urgent, etc. — usually wins out. “Response,” or relatively thoughtful repose, usually loses out. It’s very important to be seen as busy in most white-collar jobs. Busy is a currency. It’s a badge of honor.

Busy means tasks, and tasks take time — even if the time has no true objective other than “complete this task.” If most of your time is on tasks, where’s the room for contemplation? Where’s that walk we all supposedly cherish taking?

Contemplation and personal life

Impossible to scale this section/discussion because every family handles their stuff differently. But a lot of the middle class (such as that exists) white-collar world is also about tasks and activities: “The kids have this…” or the like. There’s a lot of jamming up.

We’ve also got this deal now where many of us have some interaction with social media — 62% of Americans apparently get their news there, and it’s higher in other countries. Social media is literally all about confirmation bias.

Now bring reaction and response into that. You see a post and BAM, you react. Gotta get your worldview out there. It’s a lot of quick hits, likes, shares, soccer games, the fun selfie drinking on a Tuesday night, etc.

Again: is contemplation really there?

“The lost art of thinking in organizations”

Back to the work side of this discussion for a second: read this.

How do you get promoted/advanced at most jobs? Tasks. Relentless execution. Most organizations do not value thinkers, in large part because:

  • Thinkers are often a threat to the existing status quo
  • Thinking implies something isn’t being done, and stuff being done is the more important thing

That’s the amazing paradox of modern work: we claim to prize innovation and entrepreneurship, but in reality most companies want box-checking drones in 80% of roles. The other 20% can do cool shit with robots.

Thinking and contemplation are pretty linked concepts. If thinking is dead, isn’t contemplation?

We’re obsessed with being busy

… it’s a status symbol.

If your focus is being busy — or seen as busy — there’s not much room for contemplation therein. Maybe you sit down and think on the big discussions in life, sure — mortgages, kids’ education, whether to stay together, a new job, all that — and there’s contemplation in those moments.

But is it normative?

I’d argue no.

Push and pull

A lot of us get notifications all day — emails, apps, offers, games, whatever. Schedules.

This is all about “push” and “pull.”

Notifications and red numbers are “push,” meaning it feels like something we gotta check immediately.

See again: reaction/response.

In a world with a lot of “push,” where’s the time for thinking and contemplating?

It’s mostly “Oh, gotta read this, gotta forward this, gotta get this offer,” etc.

Just in the course of writing this paragraph — about contemplation, no less — I’ve answered two text messages and looked at the Wikipedia for Chance the Rapper.

Multi-tasking? Hardly. Sidebar: that’s a myth anyway.

Instead I’m just responding to various pushes. I’m hardly being contemplative, even while blogging.

What else might you add on the intersection of “our busy lives” and the possibility of increased contemplation?

And if contemplation is decreasing/dead, what does that mean for humanity?

See: heady topic, so I just tried to paint the edges.

Ted Bauer

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