The Silicon Rule

Cover for The Luddite's Guide to Technology

I have stated, in The Luddite’s Guide to Technology, a lot of theory and analysis, and I would like now to give some of what I practice myself.

Taking a second look at asking, “What would Jesus do?”

I looked down on the “What would Jesus do?” fad when it was hot, and I have never had nor wanted a pair of W.W.J.D. Christian socks; for that matter, I have never asked that question. However, now much later, I wish to offer a word in its defense.

The Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is not just a directive from the Bible; most or all world religions at least touch on it. And it is ethically very interesting in that is a simple and short ethical directive that sheds quite a lot of light over a very broad collection of situations. That’s a feat. Furthermore, it is also a feat represented by W.W.J.D. If you read the Bible regularly at all, the question “What would Jesus do?” brings clarity to many situations.

And I would like to provide another rule.

The Silicon Rule

The Silicon Rule, as I propose it, is a rule for guiding technology choices:

What do Silicon Valley technology executives choose for their children?

Now “What would Jesus do?” is only meaningful if you have some picture of what Jesus was like, and “What do Silicon Valley technology executives choose for their children?” may surprise you, although a search for “humane tech” might hit paydirt.

Jean-Claude Larchet, towards the end of his must-read The New Media Epidemic: The Undermining of Society, Family, and Our Own Soul talks about a fashionable private school and quotes glimpses of the private lives offered to children of Silicon Valley technology executives in Steve Bilton’s summary:

The Waldorf School of the Peninsula, in the heart of Silicon Valley, is rare in that it is not connected [to the Internet]. Three quarters of the pupils are children whose parents work in the area, with Google, Apple, Yahoo, or Hewlett-Packard. These people who work to develop the digital economy and propagate it into every level of society are especially glad that in this school, their offspring are completely sheltered from computers, tablets, and smartphones right up till eighth grade.

“So, your kids must love the iPad?” I asked Mr. Jobs […]. The company’s first tablet was just hitting the shelves. “They haven’t used it,” he told me. “We limit how much technology our kids use at home.”…

Evan Williams, a founder of Blogger, Twitter and Medium, and his wife, Sara Williams, said that in lieu of iPads, their two young boys have hundreds of books (yes, physical ones) that they can pick up and read any time.

So how do tech moms and dads determine the proper boundary for their children? In general, it is set by age.

Children under 10 seem to be most susceptible to becoming addicted, so these parents draw the line at not allowing any gadgets during the week. On weekends, there are limits of 30 minutes to 2 hours on iPad and smart-phone use. And 10- to 14-year-olds are allowed to use computers on school nights, but only for homework.

“We have a strict no screen time during the week rule for our kids,” said Lesley Gold, founder and chief executive of the SutherlandGold Group, a tech media relations and analytics company. “But you have to make allowances as they get older and need a computer for school.”

Some parents also forbid teenagers from using social networks, except for services like Snapchat, which deletes messages after they have been sent. This way they don’t have to worry about saying something online that will haunt them later in life, one executive told me.

Although some non-tech parents I know give smartphones to children as young as 8, many who work in tech wait until their child is 14. While these teenagers can make calls and text, they are not given a data plan until 16. But there is one rule that is universal among the tech parents I polled.

“This is rule No. 1: There are no screens in the bedroom: There are no screens in the bedroom. Period. Ever,” Mr. Anderson said. […]

I never asked Mr. Jobs what his children did instead of using the gadgets he built, so I reached out to Walter Isaacson, the author of “Steve Jobs,” who spent a lot of time at their home.

“Every evening Steve made a point of having dinner at the big long table in their kitchen, discussing books and history and a variety of these things,” he said. “No one ever seemed to pull out an iPad or computer. The kids did not seem addicted at all to devices.”

Examples could easily be multiplied, even if one is only quoting Larchet. This is, quite briefly, what Silicon Valley technology executives want for their children.

My own working model

I remember, on environmental issues, someone talking softly about how “subdue the earth” in Genesis 1 originally meant a very gentle mastery. That was everything I wanted to believe, and I’d still like it to be true, but it has been said that the Hebrew has the force of, “trample it under foot!” In the Orthodox Church’s Greek Bible, the word here translated as “subdue,” κατακ&upsilonριω (katakurio) is the same verb that in the New Testament for how Orthodox leaders are not to relate to the rank and file, and can be translated “lord it over.” κυριοσ (kurios) is the basic word for “lord,” and the prefix κατα (kata) in at least some places gives the word significantly more force.

Should we lord it over the earth? That’s one thing I think we have done disproportionately well. However, I bring this up for a reason. I believe we can, should, and perhaps need to lord it over technology, and the basis for our interactions, above the assumed life in the Church and frequent reception of sacraments, is the bedrock to how we should relate to technology. We should reject most use of technology along marketing positions. Possibly I will be under the authority of an abbot and be directed not to engage in electronic communication at all. For now, I have the usual technologies, apart from any working smartwatch.

One way I have tried to explain my basic attitude is as follows. Most of us, most of the time, should not be calling 911. And my understanding is that you can get in trouble with the law without having what the law considers appropriate justification; you don’t call 911 because you’re bored and you want someone to talk to. However, the single most important number you can call is 911; if you are in a medical emergency or some other major problem, being able to call 911 can be a matter of life and death.

My prescription is, in caricature, carry a smartphone but only use it when you need to call 911.

Apart from the smartphone, I try to avoid TV, movies, radio and so on. Michael in Stranger in a Strange Land said that he had questions about what he saw on the “g**d**-noisy-box”, and I really don’t think I’m losing out by not being involved in them. Television has over the years grown a heavy dose of MSG; watching even a clean movie hits me like a stiff drink. Silence is something precious, and it has been called the language of the world to come.

On my smartphone, I’ve watched maybe a couple of dozen movies and have nothing loaded for it as an iPod. I have no games, or at least none for my own use, nor amusement apps. Its use is governed by silence, which means in large measure that it is used for logistic purposes and not used when I do not have a logistical reason to use it. I only really use part or what appears on my home screen: Gmail, Calendar, Camera, Maps, Weather, Notes, App Store, Settings, Termius (software for IT workers), GasBuddy, PNC, Kindle, Flashlight, Pedometer, Libby, Translate, FluentU (for language learning), DuckDuckGo (a privacy-enhanced web browser), Phone, mSecure (a password manager), and Text. And of those, I do not really use Camera, Weather, Notes, or Kindle.

This may sound very ascetic, but it is a spiritual equivalent of good physical health. Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the ELIMINATION of Television looks about artificial unusuality, about how we connect with the kind of stimulation we receive, and how children not stimulated by television can be stimulated by the natural world. My seemingly austere use of my phone gives me luxuries that would have been unimaginable to Emperors and Popes in the ancient and medieval times. Even in the nineteenth century people were pushing the envelope on keeping toilets from smelling nasty.

One area where I am learning now is to avoid making fake or ersatz connections by computer or phone. I use Facebook and Twitter to announce new postings; arguably I shouldn’t do even that. They are an arena for idle talking, and for fake friendship. Larchet’s term for a person hollowed out by technology is Homo connecticus, Man the Connected. There are numerous ways to be connected, all the time, in a way that is simply not helpful, and in fact an intravenous drip of noise. If I do not have an active conversation, I check my email by default about once an hour; though this might not be a good idea, I have turned off all sound notifications for text messages. In previous years, I had gone on “” and avoided computers and electronic communication for a few days; more recently I have sometimes kept my phone on a permanent “Do not disturb.” As far as my social life, I meet people (and cats) face-to-face when I can.

I also almost categorically try to avoid exposure to advertising, almost as if it were porn; both are intended to stimulate unhelpful desire. I tend to be a lot less likely to covet something and spend tight money on things I don’t need. And really, if I need something only after an advertiser paints ownership beautifully, chances are some

All of this is how, in the concrete, I have tried to trample technology underfoot, and really trample its marketing proposition. This is something of a countercultural use, but it works remarkably well, and if you can rein in yourself, it won’t suck out so much of your blood.

What is the advantage of having a phone then? Wouldn’t it be simpler to not own one? I personally think there is much to commend about not owning a smartphone, but it is a socially mandated technology. You should be able to get along well enough to have a paper planner and pad and a standalone GPS to navigate by, but this is how to skim the cream off of technology and not hurt yourself with its murkier depths.

All of this may sound excessively ascetic, or a feat that it isn’t. Feel free to chalk it up to eccentricity or introversion. However, I would point out that the conversations in Silicon Valley technology executive’s houses are quiet lively. For example, here are ten things you might do, or start doing.

  1. Read a book by yourself.

  2. Read a book and discuss it together.

  3. Take up a new hobby, like woodworking. You can make a lot of interesting things woodworking.

  4. Go to an Orthodox church. After that, take a breather and go to a museum or a library.

  5. Pick one topic and research it as far as you can in a fixed number of days. Share with others what you learned.

  6. Buy a pair of binoculars and take up bird watching. Please note that local conservation society members, park districts, possibly libraries, and so on may have excellent advice on how to get involved.

  7. Spend an hour in silence and just sit, just unwind.

  8. Use older technologies and practices. Drive to visit someone instead of calling. Call instead of texting. Watch old 1950’s movies that are at an F on special effects but an A on plot and storytelling. Go outside and play catch with a ball or frisbee.

  9. Take a walk or a hike, or fish up a bicycle and take bike rides for fun.

  10. Have a conversation about everything and nothing.

And trample technologies underfoot as much as it takes to have a life.

How to get there

What I have listed above is more a destination than a means how. As far as how goes, the basic method is to start whittling away at your consumption of noise bit by bit. If you watch television, you might decide in advance what you want to watch, and stick to only shows you’ve picked out. After that, vote one show per week off the island (maybe one show per month would stick better), until there is only one show, and then cut into the days you watch it. That is much more effective than through sheer force of will to stop watching together until you binge and decide you can’t live without it. And the same principle applies with other things.

An Orthodox priest can be very good at helping you taper down and stop activities, and another perspective can really help. If you want to stick with a book, Tito Collander’s The Way of the Ascetics: The Ancient Tradition of Inner and Spiritual Growth displays the discipline well. However, a real, live encounter with an Orthodox priest gives a valuable second set of eyes, and making the pilgrimage and overcoming a bit of shyness are two good things you should want to have.

One P.S. about motivation

My main motivation in writing this is for you and your spiritual health. Now it might also be good for your body to stop vegetating with your smartphone and start doing things, and it might also be beneficial for the environment in that it encourages a much lighter step in consumption.

Would you take one small step, for yourself?

Read more of The Luddite’s Guide to Technology on Amazon!

Author: C.J.S. Hayward

C.J.S. Hayward is an Orthodox author and Renaissance man with master's degrees bridging math and computers (UIUC) and theology and philosophy (Cambridge). His most prized work is what he writes in Eastern Orthodox, Christian theology and apologetics. Readers of apologists like C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton and Peter Kreeft, contemporary Orthodox authors such as Met. KALLISTOS Ware, and classic authors like St. John Chrysostom will find much food for spiritual reflection.