I hate Henry. I hate the way he gets caught against the door-frames of my house. I hate the sight of one mocking eye studying me with contempt. I hate the way his electric flex always catches around his wheels. I hate the way his hose intermittently kinks and blocks off suction. I hate the way his clips disengage when picked up, dumping his base onto the floor. I hate the way he inexplicably rolls upside down when pulled. Henry seems hell-bent on opposing my will every time we interact. Vacuuming with Henry is never smooth, never straightforward, never a pleasure. And so, every time I do the housework, I find myself cursing under my breath… at a vacuum cleaner.
These responses are not rational or proportionate. I excuse myself that since Henry has a face, it is legitimate to hate him. It is not legitimate. I anthropomorphise Henry and accuse him of opposing me. He does not oppose me. He is not a he. Henry, AKA Numatic HVR 200-11, is a piece of plastic and metal, inert as a rock.
This ‘hatred of the it’ is not isolated to my feuds with my vacuum cleaner. I have vented spleen at loose paving slabs, electric flexes that weren’t quite long enough, plectrums dropped into the soundhole of the guitar, puddles of water under my socks, tupperwares avalanching out of the kitchen cupboard, the stream of milk that splashes onto a single bran flake and elegantly arcs all over the kitchen counter, the one seized up nut that won’t unscrew, the falling chunk of plaster that accompanies any attempt to hang a pictures on my crumbling walls, the overladen rubbish bags that won’t quite fit into the bin. In all these situations, I externalise my frustration, venting my wrath at whatever inanimate object I think is defying me. But really, such experiences shine the spotlight on me.
One of the side effects of our hyper-connected lives is the increasingly limited time most of us spend in extended engagement with the non-digital world. In this brave new era of smartphones, tablets, streaming video, social media, immediate answers, online news, blogging and instant messaging, we digital natives have partially transcended our physical boundaries. Geographical distance has been compressed, and a world of information brought to our virtual threshold. The digital world is the closest thing we have created to an extension of our own minds; a vast interconnected web of fibre-optic neurones, alive with the chatter of data. This pulsating network has in a sense co-opted our consciousnesses, ever drawing us away from our brute interactions with the non-digital ‘mundane’ world.
All the research charts our daily time spent on networked devices creeping ever upwards. What is this shift doing to our relationships with the mute matter upon which our lives depend? How has our immersion in the digital life changed our interaction with the world we touch and hold; the soil, rock, bricks, mortar, wood, metal, fabric and plastic of mundane life encased in space and time?
Of course the digital world is itself ‘physical’ in a certain way. At the basic level its data networks and devices are explicable entities, fusions of physics and problem solving. The digital world does not strictly speaking share in the mystery of our consciousness. Yet, more than almost anything else we have made, the internet and the devices it serves have co-opted the way we think and behave. The digital revolution is enabling forms of information sharing and engagement that are powerfully moulding our patterns of expectation. What we have built is in turn profoundly re-building us. The creeping unease at the heart of the TV series Black Mirror feeds off this uncomfortable realisation: we are not fully in control. The master has, in a sense, become the servant. The ingenious architect now sits submissive and round-shouldered, bathed in the perpetual blue light of his creations.
The current vogue around cryptocurrencies masks a much more significant digital economy, one in which our attention is the commodity. The competition for this lucrative raw material is fierce. The cream of the Ivy League’s tech graduates, snapped up each year by Silicon Valley, are not employed to librate us. They are employed to devise ever more potent neuroscience-laced cocktails of device, design and dopamine to keep us clicking, swiping, gazing and engaging. Humans have always tried to control one another, but perhaps never before has so much brilliant brain-power been directed so effectively at working out how. The utopian ideal of the early internet – a democratic shared-space of free connection and expression – has proven to be naive. Our attention is up for sale – along with our data and often much more besides – yet few of us exercise much self control as we roam these deeply non-neutral virtual spaces. Like the tractor beams of old sci-fi dramas, the glowing blue lights draw us in regardless.
Part of the seductiveness of our virtual worlds is the sense of transcendence they appear to offer. In the lush designs of our games, we are set free from our physical limitations, roaming unencumbered in exotic worlds. Our texts and emails obliterate national borders, billions of messages streaking across continents at the speed of light. Innumerable blogs and news sites seem to pour everything of significance directly into our minds. Every possible stimulation, distraction and novelty is laid out in a smorgasbord before us. Compared to our non-virtual existences encased in space and time, where we are often painfully aware of our lack of transcendence, this endless possibility is revelatory. In the digital domain, if in no other, we can finally feel free.
By contrast, the physical world opposes us at every turn, even in the small things. We stub our toes, we get rained on, we lock ourselves out of our homes, our cars break down, we have to queue, we miss the bus, we can’t get the jam jar open, the vacuum cleaner gets stuck against the door frames. By contrast, our sleek devices respond instantly to each stroke and press, digital soothsayers ever-ready to transport our minds away from whatever mundane place we physically occupy.
It is no surprise that this revelation has so destabilised our relationship with the non-digital world. Our ancestors sought transcendence from the grinding mundanities of physical life through escape to heaven. We are more likely to seek this escape in the potentiality of virtual worlds. Online we experience a pseudo-freedom that is preferable to the wearying necessities of physical life. The trope of the gaming fanatic in a filthy bedroom, surrounded by the flotsam of empty ramen pots and unwashed laundry, is an unkind caricature with a nucleus of truth. Most of us keep up some appearance of order in the physical world, but we crave a form of escape, a means of self-transcendence. In this regard, the digital world can feel like a tantalising extension of the human will, a world of instant agency in which we are freed from the mundane frustrations of bodily life. Our technology brings an immediacy to our actions and gratification that we rarely experience in the non-digital world. It is the parallel universe where we get what we want almost immediately. We do not need to wait, to queue, to trudge. The blatant limitations of physical life are neatly sidestepped. The weak and unimpressive can stride the worlds of a game as a demigod. The cripplingly shy can anonymously watch un-numbered sexual encounters. The self-conscious and misunderstood can curate social media presences that present the way they long to be seen.
Yet, the games we immerse ourselves in, the messaging apps we compulsively check, the social media networks we idly roam, none of these are neutral spaces. These diverse digital pastures on which we graze; all are weaponised to stimulate the reward centres of our brains. Every sound, every colour, every interaction is crafted to extract maximal impact and engagement. “Bright dings of pseudo pleasure” is how Facebook pioneer and ‘Like’ button inventor Justin Rosenberg describes them. Yet, compared to the effort of achieving anything rewarding in the non-virtual world, these neurochemical highs are won very cheaply.
To the extent that our virtual worlds have an infantilising tendency, it is because they accustom us to getting our own way. They acclimatise us to feedback loops that reward a short attention span. We are coached to become impatient with delay and frustrated with obstacles. Like rats in B.F. Skinner’s classic experiment, we are encouraged to keep pressing the buttons that dispense the bright dings of pseudo pleasure. It is not difficult to see how this might influence our interactions with the non digital-world. As our daily time online ticks up, the boundaries of our virtual and non-virtual spaces become increasingly blurred, and the behaviours and expectations of the online world bleed across into the mundane. This is perhaps most shockingly observed in the way pornography is twisting the sexual expectations of an entire generation. Yet in many more subtle ways, a seductive sense of limitless agency, trained by the digital’s demolishing of the constraints of time and space, has changed our sense of what we deserve.
However, though the boundaries between our expectations of digital and physical worlds are blurred, the hard realities of their intrinsic logic are not. When we approach the non-digital world, we find ourselves in a reality that doesn’t obey us, and the abruptness of this insult can be unsettling. The physical world outside the digital realm demands from us an entirely different form of interaction, one which is being increasingly trained out of us. To ‘get on’ in the world of physical things requires something other than the exercise of pure will. As the author John Waters writes, reflecting on the manual work of his blue-collar forbears:
A repairman of the old kind needed to develop a relationship with objects involving a real understanding—not ownership or a claim of dominance, but a sense of how these objects fitted into the logic of the world.1
Doing anything truly worthwhile or useful in the mundane world is difficult, because we find ourselves opposed at every step by intractable realities outside our control. We must submit to logic that is not of our own making, the complex interrelations of objects and forces that cannot be fully known or predicted. For that reason, our dealings with the phenomena of this world are inevitably fraught with uncertainty. The bottom line is that no level of mastery can allow us to avoid disappointment and failure. This is a radical departure from the virtually unopposed agency of our digital grazing: “bright dings of pseudo pleasure” do not exist in our struggles with the objects and forces that surround us. The voguish term ‘life hack’ makes a deliberate and telling allusion to the digital world, offering the promise that the mundane frustrations of physical life can be sidestepped as easily as tapping out a few lines of computer code. Yet this is illusory. Matthew Crawford writes of the comparatively hard graft of achieving anything worthwhile in the physical world:
“The mechanic and the doctor deal with failure every day, even if they are expert… This is because the things they fix are not of their own making, and are therefore never known in a comprehensive or absolute way. This experience of failure tempers the conceit of mastery; the doctor and the mechanic have daily intercourse with the world as something independent…”2
Our digital existences stroke a synthetic sense of mastery, flattering us that we hold more agency and power than we really do. Our this-worldly interactions bring us back to earth with a bump. Pseudo pleasure, pseudo power. The physical world forcibly changes how we self identify, making us realise, reluctantly perhaps, that physical things do not revolve around and bend to our wills in the ways that the contours of the digital world so readily do. For this reason, Crawford believes that the unglamorous practice of restoring and fixing things may be a route out of the kind of narcissism that the digital age so easily fosters in us3. When we engage with the practical tasks of crafting or repairing, we cannot hold the illusion of limitless agency for long. We must wrestle with realities that are, as Crawford puts it, “emphatically not simply an extension of one’s will.”
My wrestles with Henry are symptomatic of these ‘nonnegotiable’ facts of the physical world. To a person accustomed to getting what they want at the click of a button, well trained in the predictable feedback loops of the digital world’s inner logic, a fight with a vacuum cleaner is a jarring phenomenon. Henry is not an extension of my will. Because my instinctive desire, even expectation, is for dominance, the abrupt disconnect between what I want and what actually happens is a humbling rebuttal. The physical world does not do what we want, and we must learn to work with it, through patient observation and accommodation to its form and laws.
The title of Matthew Crawford’s book, “Shop Class as Soulcraft”, points to the formative potential of patient engagement with the intractable otherness of the physical world. There is a link here to what James K A Smith has called the liturgical nature of our actions. We are changed in our desires and attitudes not primarily by what we think but what we do. The forms of action and practice that we engage in are always re-making our minds in substantive ways. Just as our online engagement has power to re-form our desires and thought patterns in a certain way, our interactions with the physical world also have a liturgical nature, training us in very different patterns of reflection and thought. Simply put, they have the potential to help mould our character into a humbler key.
Fixing, cleaning and restoring things are examples of the imprecise practices that Crawford (following Aristotle) calls the ‘stochastic arts’. It is exactly the imperfectness of their nature and outcomes (hence ‘stochastic’) that enables them to be a form of training and discipline:
“Because the stochastic arts diagnose and fix things that are variable, complex, and not of our own making, and therefore not fully knowable, they require a certain disposition toward the thing you are trying to fix. This disposition is at once cognitive and moral. Getting it right demands that you be attentive in the way of a conversation rather than assertive in the way of a demonstration. I believe the mechanical arts have a special significance for our time because they cultivate not creativity, but the less glamorous virtue of attentiveness.”4
Such attentiveness is at a low ebb in our hyper-stimulated digital age. Its cost of attainment is substantial, because it can only be trained through long and painful struggle with the blunt realities of the world. Yet, the ‘stochastic arts’ of listening, diagnosing and repairing can form a powerful liturgical pattern, centred around working with the shape of reality as it truly is, rather than attempting to bend it to our wills. To a generation who has such easy access to digital escapism through the portals of our phones and computers, the call is perhaps more difficult than it has ever been. As Jean Vanier puts it:
“We are often frightened of reality because reality can be painful
and a source of disappointment.
We tend to escape into a world of illusions
and to seek refuge in dreams.
We bury ourselves in ideas and theories
or fill our days with distractions.”5
The blunt opposition of our wills by the physical world, of which my battles with Henry are emblematic, is humbling. It is all too easily escaped, at least temporarily, by immersing ourselves in the comforting world of films, tv, memes, articles, games and social media. But the digital world is not true transcendence. We must return to the physical, and the evidence is that we return more frustrated and less attentive to our limitations. The message communicated by vacuum cleaner isn’t one of opposition. Henry is just part of the world outside myself, the external world in which I am called to live. Henry is not an enemy, but rather be a tool with the potential to shape a humbler and more attentive engagement with the world as it really is.
2 — Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work
3 Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work
4 Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work
5 Jean Vanier, Befriending the Stranger, 2005, Darton Longman and Todd, p5