In LARB, Taylor Fayle reviewsDigital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport.
WRITING IN THE LATE 1940s, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton described how technology seeps into and reorganizes the internal life of modern human beings. “Certainly it would seem,” he wrote, “that TV could become a kind of unnatural surrogate for contemplation: a completely inert subjection to vulgar images, a descent to a sub-natural passivity rather than an ascent to a supremely active passivity in understanding and love.” This sentiment reflects a similar one made a few years earlier by Martin Heidegger. Riffing on Plato’s concern with what we lose when we move from the spoken to the written word, Heidegger declares that, yes, the typewriter is the new culprit: by veiling the essence of writing and script, the typewriter “withdraws from man the essential rank of the hand, without man’s experiencing the withdrawal appropriately and recognizing that it has transformed the relation of Being to his essence.”
As we flounder in our digitally saturated environment, these observations seem impossibly quaint. That both Merton, in his Kentucky monastery, and Heidegger, in his Black Forest “hut,” spent most of their adult lives unplugged and off the grid makes me wonder what — if any — measures we could now take to escape our brave new virtual world.