April 2023: On Engaging Our Humanness
those curious about the intersection of the speed of technology and the courage it takes to be truly human
And then what?
This question keeps cropping up for me these days, especially with the breathless headlines covering different AI tools lately released.
(I got an email announcing the AI beta for Miro. Miro! Even my beloved Notion platform has an AI helper. Oy vey. Can we all just admit that AI is Clippy’s sophisticated cousin and move on.)
But it’s the speed with which with everyone races toward AI, and that we expect from it in our work and play. I grow old, I grow old. I no longer feel the need for speed in my life.
Here’s my half-baked thesis on AI thus far. The danger is not that we’re heading for the Singularity. Rather, it’s that we’re throwing out the window our ability to reason, communicate, relate, and add meaning to the world because of a tool that simply collects and collates more data faster than unaided human brains can do. Finis.
We skim news articles, speed-read the latest book to catch our interest, play a movie in the background while we’re toggling between podcasts, and skip through songs while checking social feeds. Apparently some folks like to listen to audio at double-speed, which…what? How is that even possible? 1
I truly hate the way we talk about media these days: as “content” to be “consumed.” It makes us all into maw-mouths, mindlessly infinite and infinitely mindless devourers of anything and everything in our paths. (Of course, we could also be this guy. Just look at how things have worked out for him!)
It’s a constant race to get through this merely to consume that2 an ever-constant “pull to refresh.”
And then what?
In recent years, I’ve nursed a frustration over my shortened attention span and easy distractibility, especially when compared with my pre-internet self capable of reading multiple books within a couple of days. So, I tried the nose-to-the-grindstone approach: making myself read the books on my list, only the books on my list, and at least a half-hour every day, no matter what.
It sucked my soul.
What’s the point in grinding through one book after the next? Just to say I did it? Just to consume as much new-new-new as possible?
And then what? Who cares?
I’d love to know: what book, article, video, or podcast has your attention right now?
Hit reply to this email and tell me what you think I should look at next!
Lest you think me a crotchety old fart in a rocking chair, muttering endlessly about what we did “back in my day,” I’m really just trying to slow my roll here. I want to increase my signal-to-noise ratio, so to speak, to actually engage with things in a focused and sustained way.
Joel J. Miller ruminates on the idea of books (or movies, or songs, or art) as friends, suggesting that a precondition for any friendship is spending time with the other. Only by giving each other sustained, careful attention can we begin to open up to one another, to imagine and enter other experiences, other lives. Books are doors into other worlds.
What I love about art in any form is its reality as a means of communication from its creator. Any book, movie, song, painting, photograph, essay, what-have-you that resonates with us does so because of the authorial intent behind it. Art first arises out of the human desire to share something meaningful, to communicate something of the pain, beauty, struggle, and joy of living at this moment, in this spot on our spinning third rock from the sun. 3
These days I have two goals for reading: to be captured by a good story, and, to learn something new about the world and myself that changes how I move through my life.
I’m a fast reader when it comes to fiction. When it comes to non-fiction, though, I take it super slow. I’m trying a different process these days: if it resonates, if I’m intrigued by what the author has to say, I engage a chapter at a time. I read first for introduction and comprehension of the general ideas and themes, pencil-marking anything that “pops” for me in the moment.
Then, I give it a day or so before going back over the chapter and my marks, reading around them. I see if there’s anything that continues to “stick,” that tickles my brain and makes me want to keep engaging it. With those “sticky thoughts,” I then transcribe direct quotes into my Notion database, like ye olde index cards in the analog research era. (But any toolset will do. The point here is the process.) I also write notes “in the margin” of these quotes, making connections with other writers and ideas floating around my brain. In this slow process of engagement, I try to take seriously the author’s ideas and see if we might become friends, or at least friendly acquaintances.
Only then do I move on to the next chapter, having given my time and attention to this particular phase of the friendship and ready to receive the next signal from another world.
And then what?
Hopefully, I glean some insight, some nugget of wisdom that helps me take some small, meaningful action that connects me ever more to the person I want to be.
And then I introduce my new friends to my old ones.
April 2023 Curations
- How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell
- I enjoyed reading Odell’s book, especially her description of making friends with two crows from her apartment balcony: Crow and Crowson. Odell weaves her experiences as an artist together with her efforts at paying attention to her bioregion, learning about birds, plants, history, and relationships in and around Oakland. Woven together with lessons from political activism, internet decentralization, and psychology, How to Do Nothing helped me see the value of “resisting in place.” Which is to say, learning to pay attention to where I am, and finding ways to exercise and build the muscle of resistance to what distracts and consumes indiscriminately within my ordinary, everyday life.
- You are You. We Live Here. This is Now. by Freddie deBoer
- This one broke my heart. I’m realizing more and more how the vitriol we’ve come to experience with online interactions poisons the well of regular, “IRL” interactions. We’re no longer sure who’s “safe,” who’s able to steward the vulnerabilities we offer each other, who’s willing to take on the responsibilities of relationships in all their complexity. This, combined with the deliberately addictive, random-reward design of social media, leads more and more of us to conclude that it’s simply easier to live with digitally buffered selves in a virtual space. And yet. It’s in genuinely connecting with one another that we learn what it means to be ourselves.
- “A lot of people reach out to another and have their hand slapped down. And that’s scary. But to keep trying is to declare to the universe that you will have the courage to be human, when everyone and everything tempts you to be otherwise.“
- The Church After Innovation: Questioning Our Obsession with Work, Creativity, and Entrepreneurship by Andrew Root
- I got this first as an e-book, then highlighted the ever-lovin’ stuffin’ out of it, to the point that I basically highlighted the entire thing. So I bought a hard copy. :::facepalm::: TCAI requires a very slow engagement, because Root throws a lot into the blender before spinning it up.
- I’m especially struck by the insight that one of the moves made in neoliberal capitalism is to make every person an entrepreneur, effectively shifting risk from the organization to the individual. This goes a long way toward opening up why everyone has become “a brand” online, also connecting with Jonathan Crary’s observation in 24/7 that we now conceive of ourselves “as being of the same consistency and values as the dematerialized commodities and social connections” in which we’re immersed. Yikes. Be a human, not a brand, please? 4
- Celebrating Our Creaturely Limitations with Kelly Kapic and Preston Sprinkle
- I’ve come to enjoy how Sprinkle approaches his interviews, primarily as conversations in which he’s genuinely curious to listen to and learn from his guests. This conversation with Dr. Kelly Kapic is no exception. I especially loved the exchange at the very end of the interview, where Sprinkle asks Kapic what he sees as the next challenge on his horizon. Here’s part of Kapic’s answer:
- “It’s always the challenge, that our technological advances tend to go quicker than our ethical reflections. […] When you ask about the future, I think Christian discipleship in the future is about helping people reconnect with what it means to be truly human, which is surprisingly becoming more and more difficult. […] And the goal of the Christian life is not to make you super-human, it’s just to make you truly human. That’s all we’re doing. And to be truly human is to be in communion with God and our neighbor on the earth.”
- Reconnect with what it means to be truly human. That’s a really exciting vision to me. And if there’s a better description of what I’d love to build in my little corner of the world, I don’t know what it is.
- The Answer is Not More Information by L. M. Sacasas
- If AI is basically a supersonic data collator, it’s going to be tempting to think that all we need to do is ask it questions and get the “right” answers for whatever question or decision we have at the time. But, I can think of several moments in my life in which I hesitated for want of MOAR INFO (or is it more cowbell?), when what I really needed was more “chest.” That is to say, I needed the willingness to commit to a choice, “with all the risk, responsibility, and promise that this entails,” a willingness and a commitment bolstered by “courage, patience, practical wisdom, and perhaps most importantly, friendship.”
- Faith, Hope & Carnage by Nick Cave and Seán O’Hagan
- Recently finished this, as in yesterday. I’ve dipped into it off and on since late last year, mainly because there’s so much beauty and pain contained within these pages that it takes some time to absorb. I’ve eavesdropped on Cave’s The Red Hand Files for a couple of years now. I always come away with the sense of deep tenderness from Cave and his tremendous kindness in holding a space—for and with others—to be vulnerable, intimate, and human. Faith, Hope & Carnage provides some insight into Cave’s creative process, personal history (and recent tragedies), and above all, is a terrifically unflinching look at the courage it takes to be truly human.
- The Future by Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats
- I started collecting vinyl this year and intend to focus on the blues and classic rock. So far, I only have three albums, but they’re all really good. This is the latest addition, and I’m looking forward to becoming better friends with it. (If you haven’t yet listened to or watched the video for the band’s song “I Need Never Get Old,” here ya go.)
Let’s be hopeful, creative, and wise—together.
1 No, seriously. How do you do that?
2 When did engaging new ideas and creations become a problem? (Perhaps when we all started becoming 24/7 sharers of every thought…hmmm…ahem.)
3 Which is why we can say that, as much as we ask questions of artwork, it also asks questions of us. A thread to tug on for another time.
4 Jonathan Crary, p. 99.