Essays on Technology and Culture

Digital Epicureanism

As technology becomes more omnipresent in our lives, there is the natural backlash of those who feel that something valuable is being lost in the transition. Make no mistake, something is being lost—something is lost in every transition—but are we over-romanticizing what our lives were like before these changes? Almost certainly. We maintain a romantic notion of the past, even when presented with evidence to the contrary. Even Socrates bemoaned the concept of written language, claiming that writing “will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.”

That quote so often comes to mind when I read the works of digital ascetics, [1] who opt to disconnect as much as possible. I’m not about to argue the contrary position. I’ve written before about the benefits of skepticism, and the problem with naysayers. Yet, even I look at certain trends in technology, such as the insistence that wearable computers are the future, and moan. We don’t need ubiquitous computing and omnipresent information strapped to our bodies, and we don’t need displays in our peripheral vision at all times. Disconnection, even temporary, is anathema to the proponents of always-on technologies like Google Glass. [2] To provide contrast to the digital ascetics, let’s call this technology worldview digital hedonism. It seems an apt term for a philosophy that espouses constant exposure and connection.

There exists a happy medium between these philosophies. Perhaps we could call it digital epicureanism, though I fully expect someone with more than the cursory college education in philosophy I’ve had to call me out for misapplying the term “epicureanism.” Digital epicureanism is a philosophy of a judicious middle path, seeking to maximize the benefits of the technologies we use today, but with a cautious eye towards how these tools will affect our futures. I base this idea on the assumption that a tool is neither good or bad—only its application can be given moral consideration. To put it another way: a hammer can be used to build a house, or it can be used to break bones. It’s all depends on the intent of the one holding it. The hammer is a neutral party.

It’s never a bad idea for us to evaluate technology on its terms and decide for ourselves the role—or lack thereof—it should play in our lives. As technology changes, and as technology changes is us there is a place for those who eschew some of these changes, just to show us what we’ve given up in exchange. It is then up to us to decide if it was worth it. If you don’t feel the need for an Internet-enabled device to be on your person at all times, by all means give up your smartphone for a “dumbphone,” [3] or nerf your iPhone As long as you’ve evaluated the value proposition and know that your life is not improved by it, you’re perfectly validated in your choice. Your choice, however, is not one that makes you superior to the rest of the masses who have decided they want these things. And vice-versa.

  1. No insult meant to J. D. Bentley.  ↩

  2. I know Google Glass isn’t always on, but that’s a limitation of battery life and performance, not of design.  ↩

  3. I wish we had a better term for cell phones that serve as merely devices for voice and TXT communication.  ↩