Ask people of working age what makes them anxious about technology, and it won’t take long for the topic of time to come up: how little time they have, how hard it is to disconnect, how crowded life has started to feel inside their heads. This isn’t surprising. In an age of weightless, infinitely reproducible media, time remains as scarce as ever. From smartphones and tablets to desktops and laptops, our digital tools are endlessly adept at helping us spend time, but they have nothing to say about what we should spend time on.
I have noticed, for example, that I think and feel differently depending on whether my cell phone is switched on or off. The knowledge that I am potentially contactable subtly alters the texture of my time. According to a Pew Research Center survey, 67 percent of American adults have experienced “phantom” rings, thinking that their phones are vibrating or ringing when they aren’t. I now try to build some uncontactable time into each of my days—not because I fear technology but because feeling able to say no as well as yes helps me take ownership of my decisions. Without boundaries, without friction, value slips away.
I sometimes write in longhand simply to re-create some of this friction. When I write with a pen on paper, words flow with the sense that they exist just half a sentence ahead of the nib. The mechanical slowness of writing helps me feel words as objects as well as ideas, with a synesthetic pleasure in their arrival. Composing into a physical notebook helps writing and reverie mix, often unexpectedly: sentences and phrases arrive out of the blue. Pens and paper are themselves simply the technologies of another era. There’s no magic in them, no fetish to worship. It is the experiences they enable—not what they are in themselves—that I value, alongside the gifts of more recent innovations.
Yet I struggle to live up to my own plan. I check my e-mail too often. I ache for the tiny endorsement of a retweet. I panic at an hour’s loss of cell-phone reception. I entrust ever more of my life and library to third parties, from Amazon to Apple, whose “ecosystems” seem to absorb me.
Where is the still point of the turning world where I might stand, understand, and take back control? For the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, our relationship with time could never be so straightforward. “Life must be understood backwards,” he argued in 1843. “But then one forgets the other principle: that it must be lived forwards. Which principle, the more one thinks it through, ends exactly with the thought that temporal life can never properly be understood precisely because I can at no instant find complete rest in which to adopt the position: backwards.”
Perfect rest and understanding alike will always elude us, while the space we possess for action is bounded by habits, obligations, and seductions. As the possibility of accessing everything everywhere begins to converge with the possibility of nothing’s meaning anything, despair flickers, portraying us as neurological automata in our creations’ images. This is the greatest danger of all, a form of accounting that treats our time as already spent.
The ethics of designing automated systems—and the politics of our relationships with them—are vast questions for the present. But we can only answer hopefully if we don’t concede defeat before we have begun. And no matter how enticing the urge, opting out of modernity in search of some authentic elsewhere is no answer. Rather, making the most of our present means learning how to bring into it the best lessons of our past—which, in turn, means refusing to make a fetish of our tools and their capacity either to condemn or to save us.
At my twitchiest and most data-saturated—when the phantom message tingles, or I lie half-dreaming of deadlines and e-mails—I hold on to this. No matter how tightly we find ourselves enmeshed in certain systems, there remains a space for negotiation where we may transcend encoded expectations and embrace the anxiety of freedom.