“The Joy of Quiet” is a pensive op-ed that is somewhat negative on the social implications of modern technology, in particular the internet and social media. It’s the kind of article that comes out about once a week, or maybe every other week if you restrict yourself only to The New York Times. I’m drawn to these articles like a moth to a flame, hoping to stumble upon something insightful but usually leaving with a bad taste in my mouth. This time, though, was somewhat less bad than usual.
The piece, written by Pico Iyer, is a variation on the theme “technology takes away our quiet time,” whether that be family dinners, reading a book, ruminating in the workplace, or taking a vacation. The theme is a dead horse partly because it’s true, and easy to see. But Iyer makes a diagnosis that is missing from a lot of other, similar pieces:
The central paradox of the machines that have made our lives so much brighter, quicker, longer and healthier is that they cannot teach us how to make the best use of them; the information revolution came without an instruction manual.
It’s a problem of technology writing that it’s easier to blame machines or media than to take let the onus rest on our own shoulders. But as is often the case, our technology woes have to do with our very human difficulty managing and coordinating things that are themselves useful – email and text messaging being just two examples that Iyer brings up. It’s a more moderate tone than that taken by, say, Jonathan Franzen – who wrote earlier this year that technology’s “ultimate goal” is the replacement of the natural world and the “commodification of love,” a philosophy which needless to say makes your visits to the App Store much more fraught. Franzen’s essay has some nice points, but the scapegoating of technology isn’t one of them. You don’t have to be a technophile to shy away from laying too much blame for any kind of social dysfunction at the feet of the Internet; presumably if it’s a problem worth writing about, it’s a problem worth getting right. And technology is an easy target.
That’s why it’s nice to see Iyer’s piece both remind us about the usefulness of modern technology, and emphasize that the downsides are more unintended consequences than bogeymen of the modern world. The rest of the editorial isn’t perfect. A technology essayist who has never used a cell phone, Twitter, or Facebook is a bit like a travel writer who has never left his house: there might be something worth reading, but it’s probably second-hand. It does explain, though, why some mundane statistics are quoted as if to be alarming – is it a sign of our lack of attention spans, or fast search engines, that most web pages are visited for less than 10 seconds? If I go to Google, type in the name of an article I want to read, and click the first link, I’ve stayed less than 10 seconds on the first two pages I’ve visited but could spend half an hour on the third. So, you won’t miss out if you don’t read it – but there was enough thoughtfulness there that I’m glad I did.