As best as we can tell, the universe is almost fourteen billion years old. Earth, itself, is about four and a half billion years old. There is exposed rock in the Grand Canyon that is two billion years old. I can’t wait to see it myself later this year.
At up to 80 or 100 years, a human life is just a small sliver of time in comparison to the age of the planet we live on and the rest of the universe we find ourselves in the midst of. The writer of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible describes human life as fleeting as the mist out of a spray bottle–there and then floating invisibly into the next phase.
With just a vapor of time to work with, we owe it to ourselves to think about the course we want our life to take–to figure out how to “suck the marrow out of life,” as Thoreau once said.
No one can have the whole thing planned out at the beginning, of course. Many of us grow up dreaming of becoming a fireman or the president or an astronaut–only to end up doing something much different. Even within a year’s time a lot can change.
But I would argue that there is a way to think about how to live a life that might help you get the most out of it, and it’s pretty simple. Dream in years. Live in days.
The bigger moves and chapters of your life take time. Anyone who decides to go to college rarely chooses to do so on a whim. And college itself takes a handful of years to complete–let alone graduate school if you keep going. Despite its prevalence in film and television, most people don’t decide to get married on a whim either. There’s a slow, sometimes agonizing unfolding of dating, rejection, doubt, dating again, engagement, wedding planning, and then eventually, marriage.
So dream in years. Where would you like to be a few years from now? Another country? Married? In a tiny house you built?
Who would you like to be a few years from now? More compassionate? Less stressed? An artist?
Use your imagination to set a horizon to journey toward.
And live in days. Imagining your future–dreaming in years–will set the path of where you’re trying to go. Living life out, day by day, is how you’ll actually get there. No day can be taken for granted. Life is fragile and unpredictable. “The best-laid plans often go awry.” You have to suck the marrow out of today, not just days in the future. So do the things now that will help you get closer to what you’ve imagined for the years to come, but let the day also feel full and complete on its own. Save up to move if you’re dreaming of moving. Start the degree if you need the education. Take a cooking lesson so you can make more of your own food. Get drinks with that person that you’ve been meaning to get to know better. And laugh, sweat, rest, dance, eat, love, breathe, watch, reflect. Some of the best days can feel like a whole lifetime.
You don’t need a doctorate in philosophy to resonate with Socrates’ lesson that the unexamined life is not worth living. By dreaming in years and living in days, I’m confident you’ll be off to a good start writing chapters of your life that you’ll be truly grateful for. You’ll leave layers of your time in the universe as remarkable as the rock of the Grand Canyon.
Over the weekend, with some loving criticism from my brilliant non-nerd wife, I started to sense that I got a bit ahead of myself with this blog. Right now it just kind of exists without any explanation for being. I hope that the posts that have been coming out were enjoyable to read. With some reflection and hindsight, though, I’m realizing some things. Most of them are a little too abstract or lacking real application—a bit boring even. Some of those single posts would have been more interesting or made more sense if they were broken down into 3 or 4 smaller posts in a series. I also didn’t leave much space for you as the reader to really engage what’s there; it comes across a little like some seemingly clever ideas shouted through a megaphone. It’s OK if you think that; I do too.
Since it’s new, I’m learning a lot about how to write and run this blog as I go. Without a doubt, there are going to be posts that are duds—at least for you as the reader. Sorry about that. No one likes chocolate-covered turds—me included. But I hope that in time I’ll get a much better sense of what’s interesting to you and how to present it well, because I have a strong feeling why this blog exists and why anyone might invest time reading it.
I’m fascinated by the relationship(s) between people and technology. Not just in a what’s-going-on-in-the-market kind of way: the latest gadgets being bought and sold. There are a lot of helpful websites for that (we can talk about them if you want). And not merely in a highbrow-philosophical, possibly-put-you-to-sleep kind of way either. There are some expensive academic journals for that (we can talk about those too if you’d like).
I’m most interested in what technology does to us and for us as people in our everyday lives, what sorts of things we expect from technology, and ultimately what that says about what we think it means to be a person.
Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT, writes in her book Alone Together:
We make our technologies, and they, in turn, shape us. So, of every technology we must ask: does it serve our human purposes? It’s a question that causes us to reconsider what these purposes are. Technologies, in every generation, present opportunities to reflect on our values and direction.
It seems to me that there’s a void (and therefore an opportunity) for us to think and talk about these kinds of things in a commonsense, thoughtful and critical way. I’m not an expert on the business side of technology, nor part of any university’s pantheon of academics. But I do have a decent background in philosophy, religion, sociology, and other humanistic fields of study that might add some helpful perspective to the plain-spoken conversations we would have together if we were chatting over beers. And I’m also just a regular, confused, addicted, disappointed, frustrated, optimistic user of all the same devices you’re probably using. Let’s talk about it.
To be clear right out the gate, I don’t think all technology is evil. This blog is not Let’s Build a Band of Luddites and Burn Everything in a Fire. It’s Upgraded Humans—as in, what sorts of upgrades, literal or metaphorical, make us better people? Most technology has pros and cons—not just one or the other.
Marshall McLuhan, eccentric media theorist, famously talked about The Four Laws of Media—an intimidating name for four simple questions to ask that reveal the effects of any piece of technology. (The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture by Shane Hipps is a solid resource on McLuhan’s most essential ideas, which is paraphrased here).
First, what does it extend? Every technology enhances, amplifies or extends some human capacity. A coat enhances our ability to regulate a stable body temperature in inclement weather. A telephone greatly extends the distance over which we can converse. So, when Apple or anyone else releases something, the first question to ask is what human ability does it extend? What thing can we do better, or more, or at greater distance, or faster, etc.?
Second, what does it make obsolete? Every new technology makes an older one obsolete. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the old one disappears—just that its function is different. Perhaps the most famous example is the horse and buggy, which went from the primary means of transportation to a quaint way to take a date through a park when the automobile (the “horseless carriage”) was created. Are we cool that that’s what a horse and buggy does now?
Next, what does it revert into? This is where we think most about the downside, the negative effects, or the dangers. In its extreme, any technological creation reverses into its opposite intention. A car, in its most extreme, reverses into annoying traffic jams or horrifying collisions. A smartphone in the extreme keeps us perpetually busy or anxious—always on—or, differently, becomes the preferred but shallow way of interacting with other people where we can choose how much of ourselves we want to share with them and disconnect whenever we don’t like how it’s going. Togetherness, yet solitude, as Turkle puts it. Maybe there are good reasons for a technology not to exist, or at least to make it different than what it is to prevent such regressions.
Finally, what does the technology retrieve? Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible contains the well-known idiom there is nothing new under the sun. No technology or other similar human creation is entirely new. Each retrieves in some way something from before. The tweet or the text message largely retrieves what the telegraph did decades ago. Surveillance cameras retrieve the city wall and its guards from the medieval era. I’m sure you can think of many more interesting examples. Are there things we need to retrieve? Is this particular thing retrieving something we were glad to be rid of?
(Still tracking with me? You’re halfway to being a communication theorist).
These are the questions I’m interested in asking. Not necessarily in a formal, thoroughly researched way. Simply, what do we learn about ourselves and about this or that thing we use if we ask questions like this? There’s good and bad. It all shapes the people we are and the kind of people we will become.
I’ll probably revisit common themes or the same piece of technology sometimes, because they’re not going away anytime soon and the issues they present won’t change overnight. The iPhone 12 will be just slightly different than the iPhone 11 (and millions of people will line up to replace their 11s), but those changes might be important to talk about. New forms of social media are emerging all the time. I’ll do everything I can to make sure I’m not boring or repetitive.
Most of all, I want to know what you want to talk about. What has technology made better for you? What has it made harder? What do you expect from technology—right now, or what it might do for you in the future? What do you care about most as a person, and how do devices and a culture saturated in technology encourage or impede those things?
Please comment, email, Tweet, and Instagram me. Sign up on the email list so you get the latest posts right away and can jump in on a conversation about them. Send me interesting or ridiculous ways people are using technology. Let me know what you care about, what you want me to write about, and what you think. I’m genuinely interested and eager to talk.
Thank you for reading and being part of the Upgraded Humans tribe.