What I’m realizing lately is that it’s a good mental exercise to apply a Stoicism overlay to any theme: How would a Stoic react to [x]? I’ve enjoyed reading others analyze such diverse topics as suicide, waiting tablesand Angry Birds. In that spirit of discovery I thought I’d take on technology and our complex relationship to it.

Technology is a pretty broad notion, so I’ll narrow it to digital technology, the internet, and social media. Maybe there’s a better umbrella term, but I’m thinking of the means we have of being connected to a ceaseless flow of information that ignores natural circadian rhythms.

Even though the digital revolution is relatively young, it’s already a cliché to say that constant connectedness is exhausting and unnatural. As I look around my commuter train, “everyone is on their phone” (also a clichéd phrase).*

Even a cursory examination of the four cardinal Stoic virtues reveals this trend is problematic. Out of wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance, I see problems in the wisdom and temperance areas. We’re taking things too far, and it’s unwise.

As this terrific essay notes, we are witnessing an epidemic of sleep disorders because of our refusal to heed the body’s, and mind’s, need for adequate time at night to rebuild and recharge–and our primeval need for the transcendence that the world of sleep affords. Part of the problem is our addiction to digital devices and the constant flow of information. (See this article for more on blue light.) Lack of sleep causes chronic inflammation, a risk factor for a host of diseases. It also puts the psyche at risk; inflammation is commonly found in people with depression.

Even if we were getting enough sleep, the information and connectedness overload has to be taking a psychic toll. As William Irvine noted in A Guide to the Good Life, the Roman Stoics professed that the result of a Stoic life would be tranquility. We are headed in the opposite direction, although you can sense a strong undercurrent of yearning for tranquility. It’s clear when you hear someone talking about how they “actually” got sleep last night, or how “crazy busy” they are, that people are exhausted–but far from tranquil.

Ironically, as many have observed (I am gathering clichés), we are more isolated from other humans than before. Here is a good read from The New Yorker about the overwhelming prevalence of headphone use (connected to smartphones, of course) as people crave a solipsistic experience rather than face the possibility of interacting with others. This was not Marcus Aurelius’s notion of a person’s role in society when he wrote that “We were born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower.” Med. 2.1.

So where do we go from here? I’ve been struggling for a while to find a balance and am just starting to look to the ancients for some answers, even though I suspect even their minds would be blown (initially) if they were transported to our age and handed smartphones.

The starting point: dichotomy of control. Is the current state of things under my control, or not? Certainly not. What is up to me? Epictetus says, “Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions–in short, whatever is our own doing.” Handbook 1. 

My usage of technology does at times feel like giving in to a strong impulse and desire. Things I can control include time spent, ways I spend it, boundaries I set regarding use of technology, etiquette, and my mindset when I am engaging with it.

It feels like swimming upstream, but I can simply try to ignore the “always-on, always-connected” paradigm. I didn’t invent it, and nobody asked me whether I wanted to live like this. I don’t, so I won’t.

Some concrete goals for myself:

  • There should be a cutoff, in the morning and evening, so there is no spillover into “real” life. Digital life does not feel like real life. It should be limited to, say, typical work hours. Otherwise it’s hard to wake up in a peaceful state, and it’s hard to unwind after work.
  • There should be a rough time limit, or content limit, during one sitting. I like going online–I have to be honest. I’m always finding interesting things to read. However, it’s too taxing on the brain to skim twenty long-form articles in a day on space, technology, literature, music, philosophy, health, and so on. If I were a scholar, that would be one thing, but I have a full-time regular job. So I’d like to limit my online sessions to a fixed amount of time, and I’d like to focus on reading and maybe re-reading an article or two a day. Then something might sink in.
  • Etiquette: if my husband and child are nearby, I should get offline. I’m addicted to reading, so I’m sure I’ll still read books when they’re around, but that’s much less absorbing and frenetic than being online, switching among ten different apps, blog posts, Facebook updates, and articles.

We should keep in mind that our devices are designed to be addictive. We are consumers, and companies want ad revenue and want us to spend as much time as possible on our phones or online. Let’s not fall for it. We are humans first and foremost, not consumers. Here is an eye-opening article that informed this current paragraph. One of the designers they discuss is also co-director of an initiative called Time Well Spent. Their website discusses everything I’ve just mentioned and more, and better.

Next blog post I’ll dig more deeply into our favorite ancient texts, but it’s just too hot this week for that kind of discipline. Feel free to comment below or drop me a line at russella897[at]gmail.com with any thoughts. Thanks for reading.

*Everyone except me–I’m writing this on a piece of paper to get into an altered state of mind for this post. But normally I’d be on my phone.

2 thoughts on “A Stoic response to the digital onslaught

  1. Great points on the “cutoff” and “etiquette!” On of my “Stoic” exercises lately has been to ban myself from blogs and social media three days a week, and limit it to one hour on other days. It’s hard. For instance, I’m breaking the 1-hour rule right now (shame on me!).

    Aside, though, I’m struggling with a different aspect of the Stoic response to technology: how are those of us who work professionally in technological fields supposed to understand our duty to the cosmopolis?

    Seneca is very direct in Letter 90 that the Sage is not interested in inventing new machines for their own sake. “Wisdom… is not, I insist, a maker of tools for everyday needs. Why do you attribute such trivial things to wisdom?” (90.27).

    Technology and science *can* be a way to benefit humanity virtuously. But, as with any economic activity, it’s awfully hard to tell whether the work we do is helping us achieve a virtuous end, or simply providing more kinds of wealth that end up encouraging vice.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You should definitely limit the time you spend reading this blog. It may cause inflammation.
      As for work, that’s another tricky matter. There was a thread titled “Work like a Stoic?” on Reddit last month that was pretty interesting. Most of us aren’t rich like Seneca and have to do something to pay the bills. Even he had to answer to Nero and that seems crappy to me. 🙂 We can’t really control the activities or goals of our employer but can only control our own work ethic and how we interact with colleagues. Utilizing our intelligence and skills is living in agreement with nature.
      I think the Stoic sage is an unrealizable ideal. Useful as an ideal but I don’t want to feel bad about myself because I can’t pursue wisdom for a living.
      I’m reading J. Kabat-Zinn on mindfulness and it’s very helpful to realize you can bring heightened awareness to every moment. It’s a bit different from prosoche but same general idea, that awareness should permeate our days. I don’t know how much more we can do.
      My profession is much-maligned so I’ve had to do mental gymnastics to find a virtuous path!


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