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In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, there's an interesting warning about dark magic: Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can't see where it keeps its brain.

I have a similar warning: never trust anything that can make its own meaning if you can see where it keeps its soul. Yes, you read that right. Unlike intelligence, with meaning-making capability, a legible locus is cause for distrust rather than trust. Here, I'm using "soul" loosely as a metaphor for meaning-making ability.

The idea of a horcrux in Harry Potter is part illegible brain, part legible soul. The intelligence of Tom Riddle's diary is suspiciously illegible -- it seems to embody more brainpower than a book can hold. But by my principle, it is doubly untrustworthy because it is suspiciously legible as an embodiment of a soul (or 1/7th of one). Unlike intelligence, a soul (metaphoric or literal) isn't supposed to take on such a tangible form factor or exist as a set of discrete, countable bits in specific substrates locked down in known, secure places, protected by dark spells.

The other horcruxes in Harry Potter are not quite as intelligent as the diary, but are equally legible as countable 1/7th pieces of soul. The ring in Lord of the Rings is a purer example of a suspiciously legible soul. Unlike Voldemort's horcruxes, it lacks intelligence, but is definitely up to some dark no-good business that Frodo better be wary of.

Meaning-making entities -- humans, and organizations -- can only be trusted if they don't seem to know for sure where their soul is. And if they seem to constantly be striving to catch new glimpses of it out in the wilderness of the universe, with each glimpse forging a stronger connection between you and the universe. 

Believe it or not, this nebulous philosophical allegory is central to the seemingly mundane question of how much time you should be spending staring at the screens of digital devices.

Interestingly though, it is NOT our digital devices that are the untrustworthy horcruxes in this story. The true horcruxes are the objects that waldenponders believe are more deserving of your attention: the Walden ponds.
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In the last few years, a seemingly banal question of lifestyle hygiene -- how much time, attention, and energy to devote to the screens of our digital devices -- has somehow become overloaded with all sorts of angsty philosophical baggage. In those same few years, I've become an increasingly vocal critic of a particular reaction to that angst that I've labeled waldenponding, a broad tendency to retreat from, and artificially limit, digital life. I've gone from thinking of it as an annoying but mostly harmless tendency to viewing it as an actively dangerous one.

I've gone from muttering about it under my breath, to subtweeting and arguing with well-known waldenponders, to writing increasingly polemical essays and twitter threads about it. To be clear, I don't think waldenponders are bad people, let alone Dark Lords. I think they are sincere and well-intentioned.

They're just wrong in dangerous ways that makes them unwittingly complicit in Dark Stuff.

The Practical Questions

The underlying practical questions don't worry me at all. They are legitimate and we should all be asking and answering them as best as we can, and stealing each other's answers for.

  • Eyestrain from staring at devices? Sure, adopt better physical habits of looking away periodically, limit time as needed, use the black-and-white screen and night mode features, and take breaks.
  • Possible long-term health effects from radiation? Sure, track the research as it evolves, same as you might do for coffee, cigarettes,  or sun exposure.
  • Evil UX designers trying to hack your attention with dark patterns? Sure, avoid/adopt specific services based on actual judgments of whether their interfaces seem designed with malicious or benevolent intentions.
  • Particular companies or products bother you as having particularly unethical business models or terms of service? Sure, choose what to use the same as with any other consumption category.
The designers of our digital lives are only human, with entirely human levels of competence, idealism, and cynicism. They're not saints, and they are not irredeemable sinners. They are not noble wizards like Gandalf or Dumbledore, nor are they dark lords like Sauron or Voldemort. 

And most importantly, you aren't an NPC -- non-playing/playable character -- in the battle for your own attention. You have tools ranging from ad blockers to cognitive reframes. If you're letting your attention get "hacked", it's because you're choosing to. If you think the only kind of agency you have is the agency to uncritically withdraw to save your soul, you've been pwned, but it isn't by the tech platforms. 
 

Waldenponding as Horcrux-Making

None of the practical concerns actually merits the near-religious reactionary movement against digital life that I've dubbed waldenponding.

No, what bothers me is what I see as a primitivist, fetishistic fear of screens as demonic objects. A way of relating to digital devices that seems shaped by a fearmongering vision of them as soul-sucking pumps, and their designers as Dark Lords who are far too powerful for you, mere mortal,  to actively resist. Your only reliable weapon, they say, is the off switch.

The fear-mongering reminds of those (possibly apocryphal) stories about African tribes who were once fearful of photography because they were afraid cameras would steal their souls. I am also reminded of the thinly disguised religious evangelism lurking under programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, which insist that you admit you are "powerless" and acknowledge belief in a power greater than yourself (except in this case it is a Dark Power).

Yep. Bothers the hell out of me. So let me try to unpack and explain why I have such a viscerally negative reaction to waldenponding behaviors and evangelism.

Here's the thing: demonization of digital devices -- perfectly ordinary objects governed by the laws of physics and designed by mere humans --  is something like a magic trick, where the magician wants to misdirect your attention. While you're busy worrying about the evil rectangles of light stealing your soul, you are missing the real danger: the horcruxes they are tempting you to create and trust with legibilized, dead bits of your soul.

Waldenponding is a search for meaning that is circumscribed by the what you might call the spiritual gravity field of an object or behavior held up as ineffably sacred. The associated literal pattern of religiosity is idolatry. Today, the "idol" in question is generally characterized by negative definition as "almost anything other than the profane digital device screen." It can take a variety of forms: the in-person conversation, the board game, the hike in the woods, the session of manual labor, the construction project, the family dinner, the paper book.

All are excellent things, to be valued for what they literally are. But as suggested repositories for bits of your soul, they are incredibly dangerous.

Waldenponding is as old as technology itself. Take the minor cult classic Shopcraft as Soulcraft (2010), or similar older books like Zen in the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) or the OG work in the genre, Thoreau's Walden (1854). Ironically, the cutting-edge technology of the previous generation can often turn into the waldenponding fetish object of the next. It is a kind of trailing-edge techbro sensibility.

In each of these books (and I'm admittedly unfairly caricaturing these books a bit), you can spot the horcrux where the protagonist keeps a suspiciously legible piece of their soul -- in the workshop, the motorcycle, or in a cabin by a pond in the forest. In each case, the loci at the hearts of the narratives are more than mere motifs or synecdoches for larger spiritual quests. They serve as physically embodied focal points around which the quests themselves revolve, like strange attractors. Though the protagonists may, through the narrative, explore the universe in much more expansive ways, you can see where they keep bits of their souls locked down; the zone that keeps drawing them back; the idol that prevents them from wandering too far.

Each in its natural form is a perfectly fine thing. It is only when transformed into sacralized fragments of "soul" that they turn into dangerous Dark Magic objects. Waldenponding is dangerous because it encourages you to do exactly that.The effect is particularly insidious because it is presented as a way to do the opposite.

Horcrux Analysis: Classic Waldenponds versus Digital Devices

Here's a list of 7 classic walndeponding objects/behaviors:

  1. Log cabin in the woods, chopping wood/carrying water (OG)
  2. Motorcycle/motorcycle maintenance
  3. Board game night
  4. Family dinner
  5. Hike in the woods
  6. Paper book
  7. Woodworking

In each case, let's apply our 2 horcrux tests.

Do you know where it keeps its brain?

Nope! Each object/activity pair is usually portrayed by waldenponders as a client device connected to a vast cloud of inherited cultural intelligence. And they are right! Each of these objects/behavior is a classic horcrux candidate because it is old enough for illegible, unplottable patterns of cultural intelligence to have formed around it. You cannot probe this intelligence, only surrender to it through ceremonial, mythologized behaviors (Chesterton's Fence is a test designed to be impossible to pass. It is the Kobayashi Maru of traditionalism; the only solution is to cut the Gordian knot; never mind if you can't parse this impossibly mixed meta-metaphor).

Does it seem to embody a "soul" in more tangible form than you'd expect from our everyday casual-spiritual sense of the term?

Yep! Waldenponders talk of these things as tangible embodiments and reliable catalysts of ineffable states of mind. A log cabin is not just a log cabin. A motorcycle is not just a motorcycle. They are both secular equivalents of temples.

Now apply the same pair of tests to any digital device.

Do you know where it keeps its intelligence?

Of course. Part of it is in local RAM, part of it is in local persistent storage, and part of it is on a server somewhere in a datacenter. You may not know exactly where, but it is definitely in a specific place.You could probably find out fairly accurately if you truly cared. 

Is it a legible piece of soul?

Absolutely not. You use these devices to immerse yourself in streams of flowing information and conversation on social media. You might catch a glimpse of soul in a particularly sparkling twitter exchange one day. You might find another in a hidden treasure of a website another day. While there is definitely a soul to digital life, it definitely does not have an exact address or form or a predictable way to find it. The locus of "soul" in digital media is so nebulous, our entire experience of online life is necessarily built around search functions. Every day you must head out and look for a fresh glimpse of it, expecting it in unexpected places.

So if there's horcruxes in the picture here, it ain't the phones. It's the waldenponds.

Organizations can waldenpond too, and I distrust them the same way when they do.

Sometimes the soul is visibly maintained in an explicit document, like a a mission statement. Other times, it is visibly maintained in a particular "original" factory, a "classic" version of a product, or a "beloved" mascot. The opposite of such organizations is not mercenary or soulless organizations, but ones that see the continuous renewal of their sense of the sacred as part of the function of their daily operations. A part of how they approach the future rather than a growing burden of baggage they carry along from the past.

Note that I'm not talking about cargo-culting here. Waldenponding is a more sophisticated behavior than cargo-culting. It does not require belief in demonstrably untrue theories of causation. Only in an ineffable sense of sacredness crystalized into particular objects and behaviors that define zones of retreat when the anxiety of living fully gets to be too much. Think of it as ordinary, harmless sentimentality metastasized into cancerous form by fear of novelty.

Stream Souls

If you've read my writing for a while, it might seem like I'm reversing my normal position, and supporting a sterile, authoritarian high modernism over an illegible, living human culture.

Nope, I'm being entirely consistent. The illegible, rich, living reality I want to protect is the emerging wilderness of digital life, with its seemingly endless frontier and endless mysteries.

The authoritarian high modernists who seek to impose legibility on the human search for meaning are in fact the waldenponders. It can be hard to see that because they adopt the guise of protectors of traditional modes of meaning-making.

They want us to become cartoon versions of ourselves, puppets of historical memories of the meaning-making activities of previous generations. Hallmark movie characters who sit around playing Sacred Board Games and having Sacred Boring Conversations with the possibly awful people who might be available to hang out with locally, over shitposting on Twitter with genuinely fascinating virtual friends whom you might never, ever meet in person. They want us to go on hikes, but certainly not with drones hovering behind our shoulders recording our actions. They want us to build things in woodworking shops, but not while talking to a camera that's streaming the activity to a YouTube audience.

It is certainly fair to also argue that the big platform companies also have authoritarian high-modernist intentions towards human sociability and meaning-making. In fact it would be dumb not to presume that they want to make our social and spiritual lives highly legible and track our every move so they can show us ads. But it's one thing to be clear-eyed about their (transparent) business models and incentives, and quite another to paint them as demons you must flee from, into the comforting arms of saintly meatspace infrastructure providers who clearly only have your best interests in mind in everything they do.

Of the two competing authoritarian high-modernist forces, the forces of tradition are vastly more powerful. Compared to the physical world of objects and behaviors they seek to sacralize and protect forever, the digital life is a weak, low-powered thing that's barely got a toe-hold in our individual and collective psyches, and could easily be destroyed. The Internet today is still more threatened than it is threatening. The Internet might have lead to distorted election results, but the physical world in many places is threatening to entirely shut down the Internet. In the last 2 years we've seen so much agonizing about the damage digital world has possibly done to the old world, we're at risk of missing the damage going the other way.

You want to talk about attention hacking dark patterns? Look no further than the institutions of meatspace, many of which have been hacking our attention for hundreds or even thousands of years. Schools, churches, temples, government agencies, traditional media, the music industry, and yes, board-game makers.

But we are not powerless against these old, traditional sources of attention hacking, any more than we are powerless against the UI designers building out the scaffolding of our digital life experiences. A clickable button is no more or less a threat than the shape of a board-game counter, the design of a newspaper, an ideal of family life, or the layout of the roads of a city.  

Technology is about constantly creating new vistas of experience, new unpaved territories for us to explore with cowpaths that then get paved. Some present tougher growth challenges for humans than others, but no particular type or generation of technology has a monopoly on soul-destruction, preservation, or enrichment.

To live richly is to trust your soul to the universe at large, and the experiences it offers that we build technology to access more of. The opposite of keeping your soul in a known safe space is constantly looking for signs of it in the stream of experiences that constitute life itself, and digital life is a particularly rich new part of that stream. Our challenge is not to keep returning to a  sense of the sacred in the same predictable place, but to keep rediscovering that predictable sense of the sacred in new places.

Every day, you go and immerse yourself in the stream.

Some days, you catch a glimpse of a piece of yourself reflected in the soulstream of experience that the universe offers you. The objects and behaviors associated with such glimpses become suffused with significance in your memories, but chances are, returning to them yield more glimpses with diminishing frequency. They are accidental props of that particular day, not dowsing rods guaranteed to find you meaning every day. Some days, your phone is the prop. Other days, it is your motorcycle or a board game. None is a particularly privileged object. None is worthy of idolatrous regard.

Other days, it's just another unmemorable day of grinding out an existence with a bunch of objects of no particular significance.

There is no guarantee whether any particular day will be soul-enriching or soul-crushing, but over a lifetime, if you consistently approach rather than retreat from the universe, soul-enriching stuff will dominate.

On the other hand, to snowclone a line from P. T. Barnum about public relations, a very scary thing happens if you retreat from life into fearful waldenponding...

Nothing.

Feel free to forward this newsletter on email and share it via the social media buttons below. You can check out the archives here. First-timers can subscribe to the newsletter here. More about me at venkateshrao.com

Check out the 20 Breaking Smart Season 1 essays for the deeper context behind this newsletter. You can follow me on Twitter @vgr
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