Franklin Foer on Technology’s Surprising Threat to Humanity

Contemplating the Importance of Contemplation

Franklin Foer has a new book coming out this week. It’s titled, World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech.

I haven’t read it yet, but this morning, on returning from a family camping trip, I read Foer’s essay in today’s Washington Post and a recent interview with The Verge (as, of course, there’s no better time to contemplate the existential threat of technology than right after a weekend in the woods).

According to the interview in The Verge, Foer writes in the book: “the tech companies are destroying the possibility of contemplation.”

This premise is one I obviously support, having written an entire book on why we should fight to retain our diminishing ability for sustained attention.

But whereas my main issue with digital distraction was limited to issues of personal satisfaction and productivity, Foer, in elaborating his contemplation quote, goes much broader in his concern:

“We’re being dinged, notified, and clickbaited, which interrupts any sort of possibility for contemplation. To me, the destruction of contemplation is the existential threat to our humanity.” [emphasis mine]

In using this strong language, Foer is hitting on an increasingly urgent point that I’ve also seen fruitfully explored in Matt Crawford and Jaron Lanier’s humanist critiques of the attention economy.

Whereas I’m often focused on the immediate practical concerns of new technologies, an increasing number of thinkers like Foer, Crawford and Lanier are exploring a bigger point: when we allow ourselves to be washed away by the latest gadget or app designed to extract some more dollars from our attention, we’re not just losing some time, we’re actually losing something more fundamental about what it means to be an autonomous human.

When you hear an argument enough times, it probably makes sense to start taking it seriously.

(Photo by Alyson Hurt; this is where I was camping this weekend.)


Blog – Cal Newport

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *