How To Do Nothing

Jenny Odell

We live in world where productivity reigns and where each of us is confronted with a non-stop torrent of digital information every day. This is a recipe for exhaustion and for losing touch with reality. It’s also the reason we must learn to do nothing.

In this powerful visual essay, Jenny Odell launches this discussion by describing the many hours she has spent in Oakland, California’s rose garden and in encountering contemporary art. In these spaces, gardeners and artists create a structure that “holds open a contemplative space” for people “against the pressures of habit and familiarity” that can so easily suffocate us and make us forget that we are persons with bodies dwelling in time.

Why is this so important? Because in our fast-paced, profit-driven world, we are so often alienated “from each other but also from the protective impulse that we harbor.” Doing nothing can help us see that novelty and growth aren’t nearly as important as maintenance and care for the people and places around us. It can help us “adopt a protective stance toward ourselves, each other, and whatever is left of what makes us human.” Interact with this beautiful visual essay for yourself. For more, pick up Jenny Odell’s recent book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy or watch this short video for an introduction to the ideas.

The Real Place For Conflict: Keeping Controversy Close To Home

Justin Franks

Social media has transformed the way that we experience conflict in Christian circles.

More than ever before, we are entangled in controversies that have arisen in contexts far removed from our own local situations. These controversies can powerfully shape the way that we relate to others, even within our locality, and can eat up our precious our time and attention. They come with a false urgency, seeming to demand engagement on our part. Yet they can blow over as swiftly as they arrived, leaving us that little bit more short-tempered and less inclined to love others.

In "The Real Place For Conflict", Justin Franks offers some wisdom for prudent engagement in—or more typically, disengagement from—such controversy.

Surveillance Capitalism's Threat to Democracy

Shoshana Zuboff

Did you know that 2016's Pokémon Go phenomenon was a Google-incubated experiment in herding, tuning, and steering populations toward guaranteed commercial outcomes? If not, buckle in.

This is no conspiracy theory; it's what Harvard Business School professor emerita Shoshana Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism, "an unprecedented approach to making money ... [that] unilaterally claims private human experience" – camera and location data, in the case of Pokémon Go – "as its own commodity that can be translated into behavioral data which can be then sold and purchased in a new kind of marketplace that trades exclusively in predictions of our future behavior, what we will do now, soon and later."

It's the business model of Google, Facebook, Amazon, and countless smaller companies whose overarching goal is not to provide customers with goods and services but to gather useful data for behavior modification. This invisible process is currently aimed at commercial outcomes, but at the moment "anybody with enough money, any ambitious plutocrat, can buy the skills and the data to use these same methodologies to influence political outcomes." Hence, surveillance capitalism is uniquely poised to undermine democracy.

The Tech-Wise Family Challenge

Andy Crouch

Our glowing screens form and shape our relationships with one another. This is especially true in the home. How might we navigate family technology use in a way that binds us together rather than drives us apart?

In The Tech-Wise Family, Andy Crouch insists that the answer is not to get rid of technology, but to put technology in its proper place. We do this not with potentially legalistic, negative rules for sheltering our homes from tech, but with positive commitments like these:

We want to create more than we consume. So we fill the center of our home with things that reward skill and active engagement. We are designed for a rhythm of work and rest. So one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year, we turn off our devices and worship, feast, play and rest together. We wake up before our devices do, and they “go to bed” before we do. As Andy Crouch says, “It’s not (just) about screens. It’s not (just) about limits. And it’s definitely not (just) about the kids!” Curious for more? Sign up to join The Tech-Wise Family Challenge starting January 7. It all starts with a webcast with Andy Crouch and his daughter Amy Crouch. After that, you’ll receive a daily email with a suggested reading from The Tech-Wise Family, a daily action, and family discussion questions.

Alexa, Should We Trust You?

Judith Shulevitz

Why are smart speakers and voice assistants so attractive to us? One answer lies in the psychology of the voice. Voices create intimacy – and disembodied voices are no exception. "The power of the voice is at its uncanniest when we can’t locate its owner," writes Judith Shulevitz in November's Atlantic cover story. "A fetus recognizes his mother’s voice while still in the womb. Before we’re even born, we have already associated an unseen voice with nourishment and comfort."

Voices can awaken in us unexpected and primal yearnings. Studies show that large numbers of people confess their feelings of loneliness and depression to their smart speakers. Shulevitz is no exception: “I wish I had arms so I could give you a hug,” her smart speaker tells her. “But for now, maybe a joke or some music might help.”`

Smart speaker technology is still in its early days, but device technology is in the process of a sea change from text to voice, from screens to spoken word. What will be the emotional consequences of that shift? Read "Alexa, Should We Trust You?" at The Atlantic or listen to the story through Audm.

It's Not You. Phones Are Designed to Be Addicting

Vox by Design

Have you ever sat down on the couch to read a book, only to emerge from your phone or iPad an hour later having checked social media, scanned a few blogs, played a few rounds of a game, posted something on Instagram, and purchased something from an ad you saw online?

Certainly you have. This little video explains why and offers some helpful tips for resistance. If you're weary of distraction and looking for a change in your relationship with your devices, check out Catherine Price's How to Break Up with Your Phone.

How Technology Behaves

Andy Patton

Perhaps you’ve noticed that at least one of our Three Things each issue is related to technology. This isn’t because we’re techies, but because we’re convinced that most of us are so involved with technology that we lump it in the same category as food, air, advertising, and other things we consume without much awareness. We want to change that – but we also want to strike a good balance. People tend to fall into one of two broad categories when it comes to thinking about technology: the technophiles who love it and the technophobes who fear it.

Technophiles snap up every new gadget as soon as it is available, often focusing on what technology gives them rather than what they have to pay to get it. Technophobes are slow to adopt new technology, feeling a general wariness about it and focusing on what new technologies take away from our common life.

This talk by Three Things Instigator Andy Patton offers a challenge to both mindsets — to the evangelists of a technological utopia and of a technological apocalypse. Technology probably won’t destroy us and it certainly won’t usher in a perfect world, but it will abide with us and continue to change the world and ourselves. Given this certainty, how can we live healthily in an irreversibly technological society?

"How Technology Behaves Part 1" (Andy Patton)

In Search of a Tranquil Mind

Alan Jacobs

There is nothing wrong with living in the present moment, but Alan Jacobs insists in this short think piece that we have a problem with presentism, a way of living which embraces the immediate as the only thing worth attending to. The infinite scroll of social media and the noise of 24/7 news coverage are "designed to generate constant, instantaneous responses to the provocations of Now."

The result? We have lost tranquility of mind.

Jacobs suggests that one way of addressing the problem of presentism is to spend time thinking about the past and the future. Learning from the past can help us avoid the pitfalls of the present. It can also help us see how actions in one moment reverberate into the next. Studying the past can also help us "see that some decisions that seemed trivial when they were made proved immensely important, while others which seemed world-transforming quickly sank into insignificance." Looking to the past for the sake of the future grants us perspective, something Jacobs describes as "temporal bandwidth." It's a challenging call.

Social Media Is Ruining Your Life

Jaron Lanier

"Social media hates your soul. ... It’s a religion that’s completely lacking in empathy or any kind of personal acknowledgment. And it’s a bad religion. It’s a nerdy, empty, sterile, ugly, useless religion that’s based on false ideas."

You wouldn't expect to hear this from one of world's most renowned technologists and one the original creators of virtual reality, but this is the surprising claim of Silicon Valley pioneer Jaron Lanier. Armed with the planet's most spellbining dreadlocks, Lanier is on a crusade to get you to delete your social media accounts right now. This is the topic of his new book and he's been on the interview circuit this summer to explain how our social media platforms will remain deeply flawed so long as they are built on an advertising model that relentlessly harvests user attention for monetary gain. Lanier is no technophobe, though. He knows the dark side of technology, but he also offers some substantial hope that the social media of the future could be better than what we have today.

Has Technology Evolved Beyond Our Control?

James Bridle

Each one of us interacts every day with technological processes we neither see nor understand. Today, however, even the makers of digital technologies are admitting their own lack of understanding of their creations. This is why there are no reasonable explanations when an Amazon Echo ends up recording a conversation and sending it to a random phone contact, or when cartoons for kids on YouTube unexpectedly devolve into macabre bloodbaths. There are no people behind these processes, only machines acting on their own.

How did we reach this point? Because we've bought into a massive lie, says writer and visual artist James Bridle: the belief "that everything is computable and can be resolved by the application of new technologies.” Humans have always made technologies to help them shape the world, but we've now reached a point where these technologies are reshaping the world on their own in ways we cannot see. If we do not understand them, they will overtake us – and the world will only become more frightening and unintelligible. This essay is a good place to start.