As the author, I have been told I have a very subtle sense of humor.
This page is a work of satire, inspired by the likes of The Onion and early incarnations of The Onion Dome.
It is not real news.
Redmond, AP. Microsoft is preparing to release an update to Windows XP offering better "truth in advertising" for one of Windows XP's most important dialogs. From a leaked screenshot:
A Microsoft fan commented, "There may have been one or two glitches along the way, but XP was great—and Windows 7 will be the best Windows yet!" A Unix wizard muttered something about the tallest of the seven dwarves, before saying: "I know that some features are really advanced and it takes a long time to get them working, but did you know that old unfriendly Unix has offered users a choice between meekly asking a program to be kind enough to wind down, and forcing a program to immediately quit, since before the eighties? Since before Windows was a gleam in the future Sir Gates's eye?"
"That may be," the Microsoft fanboy said, "but Microsoft has the best ads. You have to admit that those Seinfeld ads were classic!"
The Unix guru opened his mouth, closed it, and refrained from further comment.
Virtual Tour is a CGI script meant to let webmasters take pictures and assemble them into an interactive tour. I invite you to see it in action in the Virtual Tour 'Impressions of Cambridge', whether or not you're a webmaster. It's worth a visit!
License: This project is free software, available under your choice of the Artistic, GPL, and MIT licenses. If you like this software, you are invited to consider linking to CJSHayward.com.
A reference Virtual Tour is available in my 'Impressions of Cambridge'. I would encourage you to play around and see how Virtual Tour ticks, how it looks when it is put together.
You can log in to your script's administrative pages by adding '?mode=edit' to the end of the URL: if you have a script at 'http://example.com/cgi-bin/virtual_tour', then 'http://example.com/cgi-bin/virtual_tour?mode=edit' will let you log in and set up the pages.
Views and Places
There are (virtual) places one might stand, and virtual views. One place will normally have more than one view. (You can stand in one place, and look around and see different things while you stay in the same place.) The left and right buttons do not mean "Move left" or "Move right"; they mean, "Staying where you are, turn left" and "Staying where you are, turn right." The forward and backwards buttons mean, "Move forward/backward while facing the same way." In other words, the backwards button means "Back up," not "Turn around." This is not the most consistent way of handling directions, but it seems to provide more intuitive play.
Grids and Paths
If you want, you can manually connect all of the views, but the script provides two shortcuts. The first shortcut is a grid: if you set a Full View Name of "St. John's College 0 0 W", that means, "On the St. John's College grid, at the coordinate (0, 0), facing West." Virtual Tour will look for a picture in 'St_Johns_College_0_0_W.jpg', stripping out the period and apostrophe and converting the spaces to underscores, then adding '.jpg' to the end (or any other image suffix you've asked it to add). Note that this is case sensitive; don't leave your computer looking for '.jpg' files if you have your pictures stored in '.JPG', or give a room of "St. John's College 0 0 W" while your image is stored in 'st_johns_college_0_0_w'. The title given to the user will be something like "'Impressions of Cambridge': St. John's College: 0 East, Zero North (Facing West)." Note: by paying attention to the view titles when visiting 'Impressions of Cambridge', you can tell what the coordinates are. Virtual Tour will automatically link a view with other views at the same place (if the user turns around), and will also link one place to adjacent places on the grid. It should not be necessary to specify too many links manually; normally it should be enough to manually connect e.g. grids with paths, and then let Virtual Tour handle all of the links within a grid or a path.
Note: 'link', as I'm using the term, does not mean an HTML link <a href="CJSHayward.com">like this</a>. I am using to denote the setup behind what the user will intuitively understand as, "At the end of this path, I can move around in this grid." In other words, the nuts and bolts of navigation. Usually this refers to links you specify manually, not the ones that Virtual Tour will automatically create between parts of a path or a grid that are next to each other.
A path is similar to a grid, except that it is one-dimensional. Rather than having two coordinates, it only has one, indicating how far you are along the path, and instead of letting you face 'N', 'S', 'E', and 'W', you can face either 'F' (for 'Forward'), or 'B' (for 'Backward'). A sample Full View Name might be "King's Parade 3 B", which would load the image Kings_Parade_3_B.jpg.
Normally, I created either all or none of the views for a point on a grid or path. In other words, "St. John's College 0 0 N", "St. John's College 0 0 E", "St. John's College 0 0 S", and "St. John's College 0 0 W" should all exist if at least one exists, and likewise "King's Parade 1 F" and "King's Parade 0 B".
Coordinates for grid points, and positions along a path, must be integers.
Manually Linking a Grid and a Path
What I did to connect "St. John's College 0 0" with "King's Parade 3", so that "King's Parade 3" is intuitively south of "St. John's College 0 0", is to create four links from four different views:
Go to the "Room View" screen for "King's College 0 0 S" and set the "Forward" link to "King's Parade 3 B".
Go to "King's Parade 3 F" and set the "Forward" link to "St. John's College 0 0 N"
Go to "St. John's College 0 0 N" and set the "Back" link to "King's Parade 3 F".
Go to "King's Parade 3 B" and set the "Back" link to "St. John's College 0 0 S".
The last two steps help make Virtual Tour behave the way a player would expect when he tries to back up. This sets the path's forward direction to the grid's North. Various directions need to be adjusted if the path's forward direction is to the grid's South (basically, the 'B' and 'F' portions of the path are swapped), or the path leaves from the grid's North, East, or West. Basically, if you're not sure, try to work it out (or take a guess), test it, and expect to get it wrong the first couple of tries, but you'll be getting the hang of it before too long.
This is most easily done after the views are all created, not as you are adding views.
I know that this is cumbersome and slightly confusing; I'm sorry, but I haven't taken the time yet to make a simpler and more intuitive way of doing this.
Directories, Files, and Images
The virtual tour will look for images in '/var/www/html/virtual_tour/' (if you installed from an RPM), or whatever place you told it to store its HTML files in (if you installed manually). If you're not sure where it is, go to the home page ('http://example.com/cgi-bin/virtual_tour' for an RPM install, or what you specified for a manual install), right-click on one of the images, and select "View Image." That should let you see the image's URL in your browser's URL bar, which will be in the same directory as where you need to put your pictures.
The default image size (640x480 at installation) can configured from the 'Miscellaneous' menu, and you can override this for individual images if you want.
That's what you need to know to set up a Virtual Tour, even if it's tersely stated. Play around with it, and if you're a programmer, think about what would be needed to produce something that behaves like 'Impressions of Cambridge'. And, if you think of something important that should be here but isn't, please contact me so I know what else to add.
If you're reading this text, there's a good chance that you are already halfway to being an anthropologist. Note: for the purposes of this chapter, 'anthropology' is used to refer to cultural anthropology. Other anthropological disciplines exist, but it is cultural anthropology and its techniques which are most directly relevant here.
How could an author know that you are probably at least half an anthropologist? Let's turn the question around, and suppose you are a Python hacker. Why are you reading this article? Visual Basic .NET has enormous marketing muscle behind it, possibly eclipsing the marketing budgets for all open source technologies put together. Guido van Rossum holds a dim view of marketing, as does much of the Python community. Monster.com lists three thousand Visual Basic positions, almost five thousand .NET positions, but only one thousand Python positions. Why are you reading a "usability for hackers" article when you could be reading a title like Completely Master Visual Basic in Thirty Seconds or Less?
Not that any of these is necessary to be a hacker, but together these common trends point to a personality profile that can learn the anthropological style of observation relevant to usability work much more easily than the general public, or even Joe Professional Programmer who regards learning new technologies as a necessary evil rather than a joy, works in Visual Basic .NET after being swayed by advertising, goes home and watches TV after work, has probably never heard of ThinkGeek, and would probably rather do gift shopping at Walmart even if he does know of ThinkGeek.
All of this is to say that the culture surrounding you is not like water to a fish. It is a basic fact of life that you don't automatically share the perspective of others. Cross-cultural experience or ethnic minority status may accentuate this, but this is true even if you're not (regarded as) a minority. And this kind of experience provides a very good foundation for anthropological ways of understanding exactly how you are not a user and users don't think like you.
Anthropological usability techniques
An introductory example: Card sorting
One basic challenge for organizing a site's information architecture is the taxonomy, or way of breaking things down. If one is asked what an example of a good taxonomy, one example of a taxonomy par excellence is the biological taxonomy that organizes all the way from kingdoms down to species or subspecies and varieties. And indeed that is one kind of taxonomy, but it is not the only possibility. If one is asked to break down a list of a fork, spoon, plate, bowl, soup, and macaroni and cheese, one obvious way is to put the fork and spoon together as cutlery, the plate and bowl together as dishware, and the soup and macaroni and cheese together as food. But this is not the only basic way, and it can make sense to put the fork, plate, and macaroni and cheese together as representing one complete option, and the spoon, bowl, and soup together as representing another basic option. Stores and websites that have adopted the latter approach, such as a gardening store or website that organizes its products according to the type of garden a customer is trying to make and what the customer is trying to do, see a significant increase in sales. Even biology could use other complementary technologies: a taxonomy that classified organisms according to both ecosystems and their roles within their ecosystems and ecological subsystems could say something very valuable that the eighteenth century classification wouldn't.
In terms of websites, an information architecture that corresponds to the organization's org chart is never a helpful choice. Even when we are talking about an intranet intended only for organizational insiders, one section or subsite for each department is not the right choice: one better option would be to support workflow and design around the tasks that employees will be doing with the intranet.
What is the best information architecture? That's not a question to answer by looking something in a book or even thinking it out; it is something that we should work out based on what we observe doing research, even if we also read and need to do a bit of thinking. And this is the best practice across the board for usability.
One valuable exercise to help guide information architecture design is called card sorting. In this exercise, we get a stack of index cards, perhaps 3x5", and write the individual names of different pieces of functionality the website should offer, trying to name things neutrally so that the names do not have common terms suggesting how certain parts belong together. Then we shuffle and lay out the cards, and individually ask subjects (people who will participate in an experiment and who are not insiders, whether employees of your organization for an external website, or information technology professionals) to organize them so that cards that belong together are put in the same stack.
Then we note which cards have been placed together, thank the subject, and move on to the next person.
On looking through the notes, we may see a few things. First, not all people think the same. We will likely see some breakdowns that are very similar, but there will likely be two or more breakdowns as fundamentally divergent as our breakdowns of the fork, spoon, plate, bowl, soup, and macaroni and cheese. Second, there will probably be a breakdown that simply catches us off guard. And this is good; it means the exercise is working.
After doing this, we can go about looking for a preferably standard information architecture that will gracefully serve the major ways we observed of breaking things down.
Focus groups: Cargo cult research for usability
With an eye to how to best approach observation, we would like to take a moment to talk about Coca-Cola's blunder with "New Coke" and explain why focus groups, bringing in a group of people and asking them what they want, are deprecated as a recipe to make products that look good on paper but don't wear well in normal use. For those of you who don't remember the uproar some years back, the Coca-Cola company announced that it was switching to a new and improved formula, and there was massive public outlash from people who wanted the old Coke back. (Now the company sells both the old formula as Coke Classic and the new formula as Coke II, and Coke Classic is vastly more popular.)
Why would the Coca-Cola company announce it was terminating its cash cow? The answer is that it did naïve marketing research, ran taste tests, and asked members of the public which they would choose: the formula today sold as Coke Classic, or the formula today sold as Coke II. The rather clear answer from the taste tests was that people said they would rather have the new formula, and it was a clear enough answer that it looked like a sensible course of action to simply drop the second-best formula. It wasn't until everybody could see that the Coca-Cola company had given itself a PR black eye that the company woke up to a baseline observation in anthropology: the horse's mouth is a vastly overrated source of information. Most anthropological observation, including the kinds relevant to usability, are about paying close attention to what people do, and not be too distracted by their good faith efforts to explain things that are very hard to get right.
Anthropological observation: The bedrock of usability
There is more than one way to see the same situation
The kind of observation needed is probably closest to the anthropological technique of participant observation, except that instead of participating in using software or a website, we are observing others as they use software. Half the goal is to understand how the same thing can be observed differently. To quote from James Spradley's Participant Observation, which is an excellent resource:
One afternoon in 1973 I came across the following news item in the Minneapolis Tribune:
Nov. 23, 1973. Hartford, Connecticut. Three policemen giving a heart massage and oxygen to a heart attack victim Friday were attacked by a crowd of 75 to 100 people who apparently did not realize what the policemen were doing. Other policemen fended off the crowd of mostly Spanish-speaking residents until an ambulance arrived. Police said they tried to explain to the crowd what they were doing, but the crowd apparently thought they were beating the woman.
Despite the policemen's efforts the victim, Evangelica Echevacria, 59, died.
Here we see people using their culture. Members of two different groups observed the same event but their interpretations were drastically different. The crowd used their cultural knowledge (a) to interpret the behavior of the policemen as cruel and (b) to act on the woman's behalf to put a stop to what they perceived as brutality. They had acquired the cultural principles for acting and interpreting things this way through a particular shared experience.
The policemen, on the other hand, used their cultural knowledge (a) to interpret the woman's condition as heart failure and their own behavior as life-saving effort and (b) to give her cardiac massage and oxygen. They used artifacts like an oxygen mask and ambulance. Furthermore, they interpreted the actions of the crowd in an entirely different manner from how the crowd saw their own behavior. The two groups of people each had elaborate cultural rules for interpreting their experience and for acting in emergency situations, and the conflict arose, at least in part, because these cultural rules were so different.
Before making my main point, I would simply like to comment that the Spanish-speaking crowd's response makes a lot more sense than it would first seem. It makes a lot of sense even on the assumption that the crowd did in fact understand the police officer's explanation that they "apparently did not understand." What the article explicitly states is that the police officers were using an oxygen mask, and that is a device that needs to be pressed against a person's face and necessarily cover the same parts of a person's face one would cover to try to cause suffocation. If you're not expecting something like that, it looks awfully strange. Furthermore, although I do not know whether this actually happened, it is standard operating procedure to many emergency medical technicians and paramedics who perform CPR to cut off the person's top completely, palpate to the best place to place one's hands, and mark the spot with a ball-point pen. This may or may not have happened, but if it did, it is appropriate enough for neighbors to view it as an extreme indignity. Lastly, although today's best practices in CPR are more forceful than was reccommended in the past, "heart massage" is a technical term that does not refer to anything like softly kneading a friend's shoulder. The people I have met who do CPR regularly say they crack ribs all the time: cracking ribs may not be desirable on its own, but if a responder is doing good CPR with enough force to be effective, breaking a patient's ribs is considered entirely normal and not a red flag that CPR is being done inappropriately. Furthermore, the woman's age of 59 raises the question of osteoporosis. Racism is almost certainly a factor in the community's memories; the community had quite probable stories circulating of bad treatment by police officers and possible police brutality. I know that the police tried to explain what they were doing, but if I saw police apparently trying to suffocate a member of our community, possibly saw an offensive indignity in that a senior's shirt and underwear had been cut away, and saw an officer keep on forcefully shoving down on her chest and probably heard ribs crackling with every shove, it would take quite some believing, almost a reprehensible gullibility, to believe the other officers who tried to explain, "No, really, we're trying to help her!"
(And, for reasons below, I would be very wary of saying that she probably would have survived if only the crowd hadn't intervened.)
I may pause to note that neither group, nor apparently the authors of the newspaper article or anthropology text, appears to grasp how the situation would be viewed by a doctor. "Heart massage" is now more commonly known as "Cardio-pulmonary resuscitation," or CPR, recuscitation being an otherwise obscure synonym for resurrection or returning from the dead: in French religious language, for instance, resuscitation is the term one uses for Christ returning to life after death on a cross. There is, to the purist, some fundamental confusion in the marketing-style slogan, "CPR saves lives." Clinically and legally, death occurs when a person's heart stops beating. If a person is still alive, and if there is any chance of saving the person's life, then CPR is both premature and inappropriate.
Once a person enters a state of "cardiac arrest," meaning death, then there might be a possibility of getting that person back by cardio-pulmonary resuscitation, even if that is a long shot. CPR at its very best is a third as effective as a heart beating normally, and even under ideal conditions can slow deterioration to give the emergency room perhaps a 5% to 10% chance of getting the person back. And that is assuming that ideal conditions are possible: in reality ideal conditions don't happen. Though most people giving CPR do not have to deal with a crowd interpreting their efforts as assault, hoping to deliver perfect CPR is like hoping to become a good enough coder that one need not contend with debugging: Eric Raymond implicitly showed great maturity as a programmer by saying he was dumbfounded when his first attempt at Python metaprogramming worked without debugging. The person who does CPR in a public setting will contend not only with the difficulties of CPR itself, but an "uh-oh squad," bystanders who second-guess one's efforts and create a social dynamic like that of giving a speech to an audience of hecklers.
Now there is no question of blows or physical restraint when it comes to the idea of CPR or cardiac massage as a way to save lives that is apparently shared by the newspaper article author, the anthropology author, and possibly the police, and the medical view that CPR is "only indicated in the case of cardiac arrest," meaning that it is premature and inappropriate unless a person has already died, but can preserve a remote chance of getting a patient back after the patient has crossed the threshold of clinical death. Emergency room doctors who view CPR as slowing deterioration and holding onto a slender chance of getting someone back will be quite grateful for CPR performed by police officers and other members of the general public who view CPR as a skill which saves lives. But the understanding is still fundamentally different, and differences like this come up in how computer interfaces are understood: differences you will want and need to appreciate.
Applying this foundation to usability
The core of usability testing is designing some sample tasks, asking users to do them, and observe, as a fly on the wall, without helping. If you can record sessions, great; if not, a notepad, notebook, or netbook works well. (The advantage of recording sessions is that almost invariably people will say, "There's no way the user could have that much trouble with our design," and a five-minute video of a user looking everywhere on the page but where users are intended to look, is worth a thousand arguments.) Usually studying five users is sufficient.
There is a saying in customer service of, "The customer is always right." One may read the cautionary tale of a salesperson who kept on winning arguments with customers and somehow never closed a sale. And the principle is very simple. A customer who is wrong is to be treated as a valued customer as well as a customer who is right, and whether your customer is right or wrong, you treat each customer as a valued customer. Unless you are talking about an abusive customer, in which case it is appropriate to draw a line in the sand, you don't send a message of "I'm right, you're wrong."
That's not what I am talking about when I say, "The user is always right." Anyone who teaches programmers or remembers what it was like to begin programming remembers hearing, "There's no way the computer can be right! The computer has to be running my code wrong, or the compiler isn't working right!" And it is a slow and at times painful lesson that the computer is in fact (almost) always right, that no matter how right your code seems, or how certain you are, if your code is not working, it is because you did something you did not intend, and your code will begin working when you find out how your code does not obviously say what you think it does, and adjust that part of your code. Bugs in libraries and (more rarely) compilers and interpreters do exist, but one important threshold has been crossed when a programmer stops blaming the tool for confusing bugs and begins to take responsibility personally.
And in the same sense that the computer is always right, and not the sense that the customer is always right, the user is always right about how users behave. If the user interacts with the user interface and does something counterproductive, this means the same sort of thing as code doing something counterproductive if it's been compiled. The user, who is always right, has identified an area where the interface needs improvement. The user should be regarded as "always right" just as the computer should be regarded as "always right," and when the user is wrong, that's good information about where the user interface has problems.
It was a deft move for Google to give Chrome a single search and URL bar, but the main reason may not be the one you think. Searching was heavily enough used that Firefox made life easier for many users by adding a second bar to the right of the search bar so that we could search without first pulling up the Google homepage; for heavy users, simplifying the URL bar and the search bar into one full-width piece is the next refinement. But this is not the main reason why it was deft for Google to give Chrome a unified search/URL bar, or at very least not the only reason.
My own experience helping others out with their computers has revealed that something obvious to us has been absolutely nonexistent in their minds. Perhaps you have had the experience, too, of telling someone to enter something in a page's text field, and they start typing it in the URL bar, or vice versa typing a URL into a page's search field. What this unearths is that something that is patently obvious to web designers is not obvious to many web users: "Here is an important, impenetrable dividing line, and all the chrome above that line belongs to the browser, and everything below that line (above the bottom chrome, and excluding any scrollbars) belongs to the website." This division of labor is obvious enough to most web designers that only experience could teach them that there are some people who don't understand it. But the real world has many users who do not have any such concept, and behaviors like typing search terms in the URL bar (years before Chrome was available) are clues to "This is something that's out there."
And if you think, "Ok, but users are more sophisticated now," you might go through your website's search logs and see how many website addresses you can see. It won't be nearly as many as ordinary search terms, but have you ever wondered where the addresses to MySpace and porn sites in your search logs come from?
It's just like (hard) debugging
I would like to make one closing parallel to debugging. There are several types of debugging I am not talking about: for instance, a missing close parenthesis causes an immediate error that makes it fairly quick work to find out what is wrong and what line of code it is. A traceback can also provide an excellent starting point for quick and effective debugging. Although debugging a failed unit test may not be quite so easy, a unit test is not just a tool to say that something is wrong, somewhere; it is a tool that should point a finger, and usually narrow the search field significantly. And many other bugs that are neither syntax errors nor resolved with the help of unit tests are still easy enough to fix that we need not be terribly aware of them; when we think of debugging we may only think of the few hard bugs rather than the majority of bugs which better programmers resolve without really thinking about it, like we turn on light switches on entering a darkened room, or unzip a coat outdoors when the day warms up, without giving the matter too much conscious thought or vividly remembering that we do this. (This is, incidentally, somewhat of an ethnographic observation of good programmers.)
What I am talking about, as hard bugs, are bugs where you go through every investigative tool you can think of, and still cannot pin down what is going on. (This may include a relatively small proportion of bugs that also generate tracebacks or unit test failures.) Observing the bug seems like observing, not a miniature ship in a bottle, but a ship in a seamless glass sphere: there's no way you can tell that the ship could have gotten in there, but it is quite clear that the ship in fact is in a glass container that has no openings that you can imagine the ship getting in through.
Isaac Asimov said, "The most exciting sound in science is not, 'Eureka!' [I've found it!], but 'That's funny,'" and the history of science bears him out. Today, X-rays are widely known among scientifically literate people to be a very high-energy, short-wavelength radiation belonging to the same spectrum as visible light, but it was not always so; the name 'X-rays' is itself a holdover from when they were a fascinating and mysterious mystery, with the 'X' in 'X'-rays referring to something unknown. It was known that they were radiation of some sort, but they passed through some opaque material and in general did not fit into anything people had a conceptual place for.
In the middle of efforts to understand this mystery, there was one physicist who stumbled upon a golden clue that X-rays might be something like light: he left unexposed photographic plates near a source of X-rays, and upon using and developing them, observed that they had all been partially exposed. His response, however, was to contact the photographic supply company and demand that they replace the photographic plates as defective. As Winston Churchill observed, "Man will occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of the time he will pick himself up and continue on."
In debugging, hard bugs, the kind that remain unresolved after we have investigated all the usual suspects, are rarely solved because we go looking for the right error and find exactly what we expected to find. With the analogy of the ship in the sphere, it is more like deciding there has to be some kind of concealed seam from gluing or otherwise sealing an aperture big enough to allow the ship to enter, at least in pieces, and after looking the glasswork over, using magnifying glasses and lights, and still finding no trace of a seam, you stop ignoring something you had noticed along the way: the ship itself appeared surprisingly glossy. When you stop to look at the ship for a second, you realize that it is not made of the wood and cloth you expected (and that it appears to be at first glance), but as far as you can tell is shaped out of colored glass. And, after doing a little more research, you learn of a glassblower who makes colored glass ships and forms seamless glass spheres around them. In this case, you were not wrong in saying there was no seam; there is still no way that such a thing could have been crafted at room temperature, and there is in fact no ultra-subtle seam that you failed to notice in our efforts to find the seam to an aperture through which the ship could have been inserted at room temperature, even in pieces. But that's not the point. The ship in a globe was made at glassblower's temperatures, and there it is possible to create a seamless sphere around a colored glass ship.
Hard bugs are debugged successfully when you learn to stop when you stumble over the truth. And the same is true in the anthropological side of usability techniques: some things you can know to look for, and find, but the much more important competency is to recognize when you have stumbled over the truth, and stop and pay attention to something you don't know to look for.
Almost all of the difference between doing user observation badly and doing it well hinges on learning to recognize when you have stumbled over the truth.
Lessons from Other Areas
Live cross-cultural encounters
Learning and observing in cross-cultural encounters is an excellent way to learn how to pick up cues the way a user interface developer needs to. There are two basic cross-cultural encounters I recommend as particularly valuable. The first of these, as it takes shape in the U.S., is to spend time volunteering with an English as a Second Language program and tutor on computer basics. Or find out if you can tutor in classes at your local library. (If possible, work in an adult computer class that has seniors and not too many young people.) This may or may not be the most pleasant experience, but it is some of the most valuable. I remember one experience where I was working with a Sudanese refugee, quite possibly an escapee of the genocide against Christians, who had just had his life uprooted under presumably traumatic circumstances and was learning to deal with living in the U.S. all at once, which would presumably be trauma in itself. I remember in particular one moment when we had very slowly typed a word or two in a word processor, and ticked the button to close a document, and were staring at a dialog box asking if we wanted to save the document before closing. And I remember a slow dawning realization that not only did he not know the quite substantial cultural concepts involved in recognizing that this was how culturally one asks a question, expecting an answer in the form of a click on one of two areas of the screen to answer "Yes," "No," or "Mu" ("Cancel"), but the question itself, "Do you want to save this document before closing?" was a question that did not exist at all in his culture, and even if I spoke his native language I would probably not be able to explain the question on terms that would make any sense to him. That was probably my most difficult teaching experience, and the one where I have the most doubts about whether I succeeded in teaching anything at all. But it was a profoundly valuable experience to me, and helped me see how things could "go without saying" to me but be baffling to others.
The second of these two cross-cultural encounters is whatever you already have. Few if any of us have no cross-cultural encounters; whether one is ethnically or (a)religiously a majority or a minority, an immigrant or a native citizen of one's country, or considering face-to-face encounters or Internet connections, most of us have at least some experience in cross-cultural encounter. The differences are there; if you have learned something from cross-cultural encounter, the experience can help us more readily recognize the cues you need to recognize.
While I am wary of reducing history to merely an apparatus to understand the cultures of previous times, most historians arrive at a fairly deep understanding of a culture that is not their own, and may arrive at a sensitivity to the ways, all to easy to ignore, in which historical texts veto modern assumptions. There was an experiment in which a question concerning Abraham Lincoln and a number of historical primary sources were given to a number of elementary school teachers, plus one historian of Lincoln, and a historian whose specialties were unrelated. During the time of the experiment, the elementary school teachers started with a wrong conceptual framework that imposed today's basic categories on the texts, and did not progress to anything better. The historian of Lincoln started with a highly accurate conceptual framework and very quickly arrived at the answer. But what is particularly interesting is the other historian, who was trained as a historian but had little directly relevant knowledge to Lincoln. He started with the same conceptual framework as the non-historians, but by the end he had corrected his framework to the point of reaching where the Lincoln historian had started.
This latter historian is perhaps the most interesting, not because he was initially right, but because he was self-correcting: even though his starting framework was no better than the schoolteachers, he was able enough to adjust his perspective from cues based on the text so that he reached the framework the Lincoln historian started with. And, one would imagine, the Lincoln historian would have had a similar self-correcting sensitivity to the texts had he been asked the same kind of question about a historical setting he did not initially understand.
Getting history right is relevant to us in two ways. First, one understands one, or perhaps many, other cultures more or less well. Second, when one trips over a clue that one is wrong, one stops and learns from it, instead of hoping it will go away. Both of these strengths are a powerful foundation to usability.
Old Books and Literature
Books can be a very good place to sharpen anthropological competencies through meeting other cultures. However, I might clear the ground of some distractions if it is tempting to say, "But I meet other cultures in all my favorite books! I'm an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy."
All science fiction is not created equal in terms of cultural encounter. There is a marked difference between reading Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land and watching Star Trek. Heinlein understood both culture and culture shock, and though his book only treats one alien culture, it is written to create culture shock in the reader, and challenge us in assumptions we didn't know we had. "Whaaa—? They can't do that!" is a normal and intended reaction to several parts of the book. In Star Trek, there are many races, but culture shock in the viewer is almost nonexistent even when the plot is intended to surprise. To put it more pointedly, the average American's culture shock from watching years of Star Trek is probably much less than the average American student's culture shock from a few months' experience in a foreign exchange program, perhaps less than the culture shock in the first month of that program. By comparison with a live encounter with another human culture, the alien races in Star Trek have less their own alien cultures than a shared personality profile we can already relate to even when we don't like it.
Likewise, not all fantasy is created equal. J.R.R. Tolkein and C.S. Lewis were both Oxford-educated medievalists who knew medieval literature intimately. The genre of fantasy that appeared in their wake, if you have seriously read medieval literature, seems by comparison like the opening rant in the movie Dungeons & Dragons, where a supposedly medieval character gives an impassioned "Miss America" speech about how horrible it is that the realm's government is unlike a U.S.-style democracy. Today's genre fantasy reads like the story of Westerners from our time who happen to be wearing armor; by contrast, in The Chronicles of Narnia some of the characters are indeed from the twentieth century, but in terms of how the story is put together there is something a bit medieval, and not individualist, about their characterization.
If our cultures' science fiction and fantasy are not the best place to be challenged by another encounter, and to develop that kind of sensitivity, where can we go? One obvious response is to look to be challenged by books like the Dao De Jing and the Bhagavad-Gita. Those are both excellent places to look to be challenged, but if we assume that we can be challenged by the Bhagavad-Gita but not Plato, we are selling both of them short. The image in Plato of climbing out of the cave with its shadows and looking at the sun is something that a Hindu commentator on the Bhagavad-Gita can quite easily relate to, and in a certain sense Plato has more in common with that kind of Hinduism than with his disciple Aristotle.
What does it look like to read a text to see what one can pick up culturally? Consider the following text:
QUANTUM THEORY, THE. As recently as the opening years of the present century the vast majority of physicists still regarded Newton's dynamical laws as something established for all time. And they were not without solid grounds for this faith. Many phenomena were indeed known, chiefly those which may be classed under the heading radiation, e.g. black body radiation and line spectra, which refused to accommodate themselves to any sort of theory founded on Newtonian principles; but it was generally believed that such phenomena would, sooner or later, be completely accounted for without any departure from the classical principles of physics. Even the theory of relativity developed by Lorentz, Einstein, Minkowski and their successors was regarded only as a widening or generalization of the Newtonian basis of physics. It was the culmination of classical physical theory. These phenomena we now believe, cannot be accounted for on the basis of classical physical theory, whether Newtonian or Einsteinian. The first act of sacrilege was committed by Max Planck, until recently professor of theoretical physics at the University of Berlin, about the end of the year 1900, when he initiated the quantum theory. One of the problems engaging the attention of physicists during the closing years of the last century was that of the radiation from a black body...
The reconciliation of these two aspects of the phenomenon, namely the independence of the energy of the ejected photo-electrons and the intensity, on the one hand, and the wave character of the radiation on the other, constitutes one of the most formidable problems which physical science has ever encountered...
Now I would like to make a couple of points. I could, for instance, have chosen an interminable fight narrative from a medieval Arthurian legend to say, "We look on Arthurian legends as mysterious tales of wonder. Did you know that a large portion of those legends is actually quite dull to the modern reader?" Some readers may be wondering, "This is a scientific article, not a cultural area where anything goes." But, even if science is not a domain where anything goes, there are cultural issues here, and it may be possible to date the article by cultural markers as well as by values given for physical constants (Avogadro's number appears to be given as 6.06 * 10^23, not today's 6.022 * 10^23, and the unit of electrical charge is reported to have current values consistent with initial measurements, despite the fact that the initial reported experimental value was erroneous and subsequent experimenters fudged until it was found acceptable to report what is now believed to be the correct value.)
In the quoted text, there are two significant markers that date the text as showing significant cultural difference from how things are viewed today.
A physicist or philosopher today would say that Newtonian physics, Einsteinian physics, quantum physics, and for that matter superstring theory are fundamentally irreconcilable on an ontological plane but happen to predict the same behaviors for the kind of experiments one would expect of a high school physics lab: the predicted results for each of these theories are vastly smaller than even a top-notch experimental physicist doing high school experiments could possibly observe. But the reasons behind those differences are irreconcilable, like the difference between saying "You see this OS behavior because it is running natively on your computer" and "You see this OS behavior because it is being emulated under virtualization with several levels of indirection that are extremely slippery to understand." The behavior predicted is interchangeable, but the reasons proposed for the behavior are fundamentally irreconcilable. Furthermore, this is not just true if one compares quantum physics with Einsteinian or Newtonian physics; it is also true if one compares Einsteinian with Newtonian physics: to today's take on things, it is a bit astonishing to say, "on the basis of classical physical theory, whether Newtonian or Einsteinian." The usual way of presenting things in a physics class today is to present Einstein's theory of relativity as the first in a stream of foundational upsets after Newton reigned unchallenged and apparently eternally established for centuries. Today we would expect to need to dig a bit to find more examples of Einstein's theory referred to as a further expansion developing Newton, which should still be considered "classical physical theory."
The second quoted paragraph refers to how light (and, it may be mentioned, practically everything else as seen in quantum theory) behaves as a particle when treated in some ways and as a wave as treated in others. This duality has since hit the rumor mill well enough that a favorite illustration from science in theology programs is how light exists as both a particle and a wave, which reflects the extent to which the duality of light as particle and wave remains unresolved but is no longer regarded as, "one of the most formidable problems which physical science has ever encountered."
Our point is not to deride the article, which is written at a higher level of sophistication and detail than, for instance, the Wikipedia. Apart from its certitude in the existence of an "aether," slightly surprising in light of the fact that the Michelson-Morley experiment dates to 1887 and the article refers to 1900 as a past year, its picture of quantum physics portrays the same core science one would expect of a physics text today. But, even in physics, which is not in any sense a field where just anything goes, culture is present, and for that matter in this article the cultural cues alone are most likely sufficient for an historian of 20th century physics to closely date it.
This kind of cue is what you can practice learning in reading old books, and this kind of cue is what you need to be able to pick up in observing for good user interface development.
The way you observe that a user doesn't share an understanding that is obvious to you is by the same kind of cue that can clue you in that a text doesn't share an understanding that is obvious to you.
The last other area: Whatever you have
Whatever else you have is probably a resource you can draw on. Do you love birding? Birding is a hobby of observation. Do you do martial arts, for instance? A common theme in martial arts is harmony between opponents, and if you can attune yourself to a sparring partner, you should be able to attune yourself to a user. Comedy or performing arts? You're not a good comedian if you're insensitive to your audience. Have you made a lot of mistakes, and learned from them, or at least started to learn? Wonderful news! (Are you an amateur or professional anthropologist? That one doesn't need explaining!) There is some connection between any two areas of life; let other skill support and strengthen your usability work.
Understanding the User
A lesson from optimization
Knuth said, for the novice programmer, "Don't optimize," and to experts only, "Optimize later." Always writing for optimization is a recipe for bad, unreadable code, and for that matter slow code, compared to code written for clarity that is later optimized using that clarity. And Knuth also said, "Premature optimization is the root of all evil."
In one production system I was working on, I wrote one search with the realization that the implementation I was using was extremely inefficient, and had to deliberately refrain from optimizing it, to leave for later. When the whole system was put together, it took a couple of seconds longer than was acceptable, and I began mentally gearing up to optimize the inefficient search. Before doing so, I did some testing, and found to my surprise that my inefficient search implementation took very little time to run, and when I began mapping things out, found the root problem. I had called a poorly chosen method, and with it made a purely preventable network call, and that network call took a few seconds. When that problem was fixed, the remaining code ran at acceptably fast times for even the largest accounts.
This story is my own version of something that keeps on being retold in the programming literature: "Our system was running slowly, and we had reasonable ideas about what was going on here, but our reasonable ideas were wrong. We didn't know what the real problem was until we dug into some observation."
This basic lesson in optimization is a fundamental phenomenon in usability as well. We will have reasonable ideas about what the usability issues are, and our reasonable ideas will be wrong. We won't know what the real issues are until we dig into some observation.
What's wrong with scratching an itch, or, you are not your user
The open source community is largely driven by scratching itches, but scratching a programmer's itch is a terrible way to approach user interface design.
The story is told of a program used in an office where a popup window appeared and said, "Type mismatch." And the secretary obediently typed M-I-S-M-A-T-C-H, a perfectly appropriate user response to an inappropriate error message. (This kind of thing shows up in many more subtle ways, some of which are not so obviously wrong.)
Designing a user interface that makes sense to someone who understands its inner workings, and designing a user interface that makes sense to its intended audience, are not the same thing. A mechanic's understanding of how a car starts is very elaborate and detailed, but a user should be able to get by thinking, "I turn the key and press the gas, and the car starts" without necessarily thinking anything about what's under the hood. If users need to understand what's under the hood to operate the car, the car needs improvement.
Worst practices from the jargon file
The jargon file defines the extremely pejorative "PEBKAC" as:
[Abbrev., "Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair"] Used by support people, particularly at call centers and help desks. Not used with the public. Denotes pilot error as the cause of the crash, especially stupid errors that even a luser could figure out. Very derogatory. Usage: 'Did you ever figure out why that guy couldn't print?' 'Yeah, he kept cancelling the operation before it could finish. PEBKAC'. See also ID10T. Compare pilot error, UBD.
And the particular example is unfortunately revealing of an attitude user interface people need to avoid like the plague.
The example given in the jargon file's definition of "PEBKAC" is, "'Did you ever figure out why that guy couldn't print?' 'Yeah, he kept canceling the operation before it could finish. PEBKAC.'" For a long time, at least, attempting to print from a GUI gave something that looked like a modal dialog box, but for this "modal dialog lookalike", there is one important difference in behavior. When you click on the button to make it go away, it destroys your print job.
This is not a case of a problem existing between the user's keyboard and chair.
It is a case of a problem existing between the user interface designer's keyboard and chair. PEBKAC.
To pick on the jargon file a little more, "Drool-proof paper" is defined as:
Documentation that has been obsessively dumbed down, to the point where only a cretin could bear to read it, is said to have succumbed to the "drool-proof paper syndrome" or to have been "written on drool-proof paper". For example, this is an actual quote from Apple Computer's LaserWriter manual: "Do not expose your LaserWriter to open fire or flame."
Let's ignore the fact that this sounds less like a technical writer trying to be easy to understand, than corporate legal counsel trying to ward off ambulance chasers.
There is a very user-hostile attitude here, the basic idea that if your system is too difficult for your users to understand, the users must be too stupid, and making something user-friendly is a matter of stretching to meet people you shouldn't have to cater to. Stories and terms like this circulate among programmers. I might suggest that terms like these, for your software's audience, are little, if any, better than a racial slur. They reflect an attitude we don't need.
Python and usability
You do not really understand Python until you understand something about usability as it appears in Python. Usability is the soul of 'Pythonic'.
It's not all about the computer!
There is something genuinely different about Python, and to explain it I would like to discuss the advantages of C.
If you want to nano-optimize every ounce of performance you can get, there is little serious competition to C. You can write assembler for different platforms, or write in a C++ that is multiparadigm like Python and have some parts of your program use high-level features like objects, templates, and operator overloading, while still writing almost unadulterated C for parts that are performance-critical. And the group of programmers that "vote with their keyboards" for using C this way, includes Guido van Rossum, who created Python. The first and canonical Python implementation is written in C, and a Pythonista underscoring the point that Python's switch statement is a very efficient dictionary will explain that Python's dictionary is implemented in tightly optimized C.
But this kind of advantage comes at a price. In the canonical list of ways to shoot yourself in the foot in different programming languages, C is "for people who want to load their own rounds before shooting themselves in the foot." In one Python forum, a wannabe 133t hax0r asked how to write a buffer overflow in Python, and a wry Pythonista replied apologetically: "We're sorry, but Python doesn't support that feature." But C does support the "feature" of buffer overflows; its default string handling never leaves home without it. With manual memory management and manual handling of pointers, C also supports "features" including all kinds of memory leaks and subtle pointer errors that can be extremely difficult to debug. Python closes this Pandora's box, although Python is hardly the only language with the wisdom to do so. Python, PHP, Ruby, Perl, Tcl, and Java all close the Pandora's box that must be wide open if you are to have tightly optimized C.
C has been called a language that combines the power of using assembler with the ease of using assembler, and I know of no compiled language that surpasses C for power over bare metal, or for corresponding possibilities for tight optimization. However, this is not the only way to keep score. Python keeps score by another metric: programmer productivity.
The one overriding concern motivating decisions in Python is not how you can get the tightest control over the computer's productivity. It's how to let the programmer be most productive, and it has been said of this relentless pursuit of programmer productivity that capital sentences are passed with less thorough deliberation than obscure Python features. And if you've used Python, the difference you have experienced is precisely because of this one overriding concern, this relentless pursuit. The people in charge of Python have decided that Python isn't about what to do to optimize the computer; it's about what you do to empower the programmer.
If you're interested in usability, you have a good working example of usability to look at. To put Python's strength a little differently, Python is a language where the one overriding concern and relentless pursuit is usability for you, the programmer. If you are working on usability, you are working to give end-users the same kind of thing that Python gives you. You are making a product more Pythonic to use, as opposed to giving the more C-like experience of an interface that lets users load their own rounds before shooting themselves in the foot.
Usability is about how to go from giving C user interfaces, to giving Pythonic user interfaces.
This project works with archaic browsers, like FireFox 3 or (shudder) Internet Explorer 6. It does not seem to work well with current browser versions, and it is being left partly as a historical detail, with a clear reference implementation of how one would do this with today's browser.
The basic enhancement of allowing this for e.g. Gnome Terminal appears to be in the Gnome Terminal bug tracker, and so this functionality may be available someday in standard terminal programs by setting one's font to Verdana.
Design, typography, and terminals: Not-so-good, better, best
Those of us involved in web design and usability know that fonts are not created equal. The first incarnation of my own website used fixed-width fonts for almost everything, because I didn't know what I was doing. Since then, I've joined the rest of the web in recognizing the benefits of using a font optimized for on-screen reading.
In the spirit of the sort of makeover done by Tufte in books like Envisioning Information, I would like to look at three different terms; the last one is the one offered here.
This is a (cropped) screenshot of the default term (xterm) that shipped with my EeePC. It has a black background, like ancient VT100's:
What this is optimized for is densely packing information into a tight space, and for serious coding this is seriously answering the wrong question.
Let's look at a terminal that shows much better typography and design:
This has a more readable font, and it makes productive use of space: more specifically, it uses space to enhance usability and readability, not cram in as many bits per pixel as can still technically be read. The font, unlike even the Mac Terminal, is deftly anti-aliased, and to a designer the font appears to have been clearly designed for usability.
But we can do better by breaking out of the grid and using web-based typography as a starting point, and tweak the spacing for reading code:
I've looked at a lot of code this way, and the difference is remarkable. If your code is formatted well, it is easier to read and you can tell more at a glance and then zero in on what you need. It has just a little of the magic of of moving from find/grep/xargs to ack, ordiscovering Python. Having tried it, I really don't want to go back.
How did I do that? By standing on Antoine Lesuisse's shoulders with Ajaxterm (download). A few CSS tweaks, and there is a terminal that takes advantage of the web's advances in typography and usability.
License: All changes from Ajaxterm 0.10 are free software in the hopes that they may be useful but with ABSOLUTELY NO WARRANTY, WITHOUT EVEN THE IMPLIED WARRANTY OF MERCHANTIBILITY AND FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE, available under your choice of the Artistic, GPL, and MIT licenses. If you like this software, you are invited to consider linking to CJSHayward.com. Ajaxterm itself is not my work, but is in the public domain, except for its included Sarissa materials, which are LGPL.
(These instructions are for Unix/Linux/Mac; on Windows, I would try Cygwin.)
If you have trouble logging in, and this makes sense in your security situation (by default, Ajaxterm listens on localhost, and firewalls can block 8022 from access by other machines ensuring Ajaxterm is only available locally), you can pass ./ajaxterm.py the argument "--command=bash" and possibly have connections to http://localhost:8022/ simply served bash as the user running ./ajaxterm.py.
Many people are concerned today with harmony with nature. And indeed there is quite a lot to living according to nature.
But you will not find something that is missing by looking twice as hard in the wrong place, and it matters where one seeks harmony with nature. In monasticism, the man of virtue is the quintessential natural man. And there is something in monasticism that is behind stories of the monk who can approach boar or bear.
Being out of harmony with nature is not predominantly a lack of time in forests. There is a deeper root.
Exercising is better than living a life without exercise. But there is something missing in a sedentary life with artificially added exercise, after, for centuries, we have worked to avoid the strenuous labor that most people have had to do.
It is as if people had worked for centuries to make the perfect picnic and finally found a way to have perfectly green grass at an even height, a climate controlled environment with sunlight and just the right amount of cloud, and many other things. Then people find that something is missing in the perfect picnic, and say that there might be wisdom in the saying, "No picnic is complete without ants." So they carefully engineer a colony of ants to add to the picnic.
An exercise program may be sought in terms of harmony with nature: by walking, running, or biking out of doors. Or it may be pursued for physical health for people who do not connect exercise with harmony of nature. But and without concern for "ascesis" (spiritual discipline) or harmony with nature, many people know that complete deliverance from physical effort has some very bad physical effects. Vigorous exercise is part and parcel to the natural condition of man.
Here are two different ways of seeking harmony with nature. The second might never consciously ask if life without physical toil is natural, nor whether our natural condition is how we should live, but still recognizes a problem—a little like a child who knows nothing of the medical theory of how burns are bad, but quickly withdraws his hand from a hot stove.
But there is a third kind of approach to harmony with nature, besides a sense that we are incomplete without a better connection to the natural world, and a knowledge that our bodies are less healthy if we live sedentary lives, lives without reintroducing physical exertion because the perfectly engineered picnic is more satisfying if a colony of ants is engineered in.
This third way is Ascesis, and Ascesis, which is spiritual discipline or spiritual exercise, moral struggle, and mystical toil, is the natural condition of man.
The disciples were joyous because the demons submitted to them in Christ's name, and Christ's answer was: "Do not rejoice that the demons submit to you in my name. Rejoice instead that your names are written in Heaven." The reality of the disciples' names being written in Heaven dwarfed the reality of their power over demons, and in like manner the reality that monks can be so much in harmony with nature that they can safely approach wild bears is dwarfed by the reality that the royal road of Ascesis can bring so much harmony with nature that by God's grace people work out their salvation with fear and trembling.
The list of spiritual disciplines is open-ended, much like the list of sacraments, but one such list of spiritual disciplines might be prayer, worship, sacrament, service, silence, living simply, fasting, and the spiritual use of hardship. If these do not seem exotic enough for what we expect of spiritual discipline, we might learn that the spiritual disciplines can free us from seeking the exotic in too shallow of a fashion.
The Bible was written in an age before our newest technologies, but it says much to the human use of technology, because it says much to the human use of property. If the Sermon on the Mount says, "No man can serve two masters... you cannot serve both God and money," it is strange at best to assume that these words applied when money could buy food, clothing, and livestock but have no relevance to an age when money can also buy the computers and consumer electronics we are infatuated with. If anything, our interest in technology makes the timeless words, "No man can serve two masters" all the more needed in our day.
Money can buy everything money can buy and nothing money cannot buy. To seek true glory, or community, or control over all risk from money is a fundamental error, like trying to make a marble statue so lifelike that it actually comes to life. What is so often sought in money is something living, while money itself is something dead, a stone that can appear deceptively lifelike but can never hold the breath of life.
In the end, those who look to money to be their servant make it their master. "No man can serve two masters" is much the same truth as one Calvin and Hobbes strip:
Calvin: I had the scariest dream last night. I dreamed that machines took over and made us do their bidding.
Hobbes: That must have been scary!
Calvin: It wa—holy, would you look at the time? My TV show is on!
But this problem with technology has been a problem with property and wealth for ages, and it is foolish to believe that all the Scriptural skepticism and unbelief about whether wealth is really all that beneficial to us, are simply irrelevant to modern technology.
There was great excitement in the past millenium when, it was believed, the Age of Pisces would draw to a close, and the Age of Aquarius would begin, and this New Age would be an exciting dawn when all we find dreary about the here and now would melt away. Then the Age of Aquarius started, at least officially, but the New Age failed to rescue us from finding the here and now to be dreary. Then there was great excitement as something like 97% of children born after a certain date were born indigo children: children whose auras are indigo rather than a more mundane color. But, unfortunately, this celebrated watershed did not stop the here and now from being miserable. Now there is great hope that in 2012, according to the Mayan "astrological" calendar, another momentous event will take place, perhaps finally delivering us from the here and now. And, presumably, when December 21, 2012 fails to satisfy us, subsequent momentous events will promise to deliver us from a here and now we find unbearable.
If we do not try to sate this urge with New Age, we can try to satisfy it with technology: in what seems like aeons past, the advent of radio and movies seemed to change everything and provide an escape from the here and now, an escape into a totally different world. Then, more recently, surfing the net became the ultimate drug-free trip, only it turns out that the web isn't able to save us from finding the here and now miserable after all. For that, apparently, we need SecondLife, or maybe some exciting development down the pike... or, perhaps, we are trying to work out a way to succeed by barking up the wrong lamppost.
No technology is permanently exotic.
When a Utopian vision dreams of turning the oceans to lemonade, then we have what has been called "a Utopia of spoiled children." It is not a Utopian vision of people being supported in the difficult ascetical pursuit of virtue and ultimately God, but an aid to arrested development that forever panders to childish desires.
Technology need not have the faintest conscious connection with Utopianism, but it can pursue one of the same ends. More specifically, it can be a means to stay in arrested development. What most technology offers is, in the end, a practical way to circumventAscesis. Technological "progress" often means that up until now, people have lived with a difficult struggle—a struggle that ultimately amounts to Ascesis—but now we can simply do without the struggle.
Through the wonders of modern technology, we can eat and eat and eat candy all day and not have the candy show up on our waistline: but this does not make us any better, nobler, or wiser than if we could turn the oceans to lemonade. This is an invention from a Utopia of spoiled chilren.
Sweetness is a gift from God, and the sweeter fruit and honey taste, the better the nourishment they give. But there is something amiss in tearing the sweetness away from healthy food, and, not being content with this, to say, "We think that eating is a good thing, and we wish to celebrate everything that is good about it. But, unfortunately, there is biological survival, a holdover from other days: food acts as a nutrient whether you want it or not. But through the wonders of modern science, we can celebrate the goodness of eating while making any effect on the body strictly optional. This is progress!"
Statistically, people who switch to artificial sweeteners gain more weight. Splenda accomplishes two things: it makes things sweeter without adding calories, and it offers people a way to sever the cord between enjoying sweet taste, and calories entering the body. On spiritual grounds, this is a disturbing idea of how to "support" weight loss. It is like trying to stop people from getting hurt in traffic accidents by adding special "safety" features to some roads so people can drive however they please with impunity, even if they develop habits that will get them killed on any other road. What is spiritually unhealthy overflows into poorer health for the body. People gain more weight eating Splenda, and there are more ways than one that Splenda is unfit for human consumption.
The Ascesis of fasting is not intended as an ultimate extreme measure for weight loss. That may follow—or may not—but there is something fundamentally deeper going on:Man does not live by bread alone, and if we let go of certain foods or other pleasures for a time, we are in a better position to grasp what more man lives on than mere food. When we rein in the nourishing food of the body and its delights, we may find ourselves in a better position to take in the nourishing food of the spirit and much deeper spiritual delights.Fasting pursued wrongly can do us no good, and it is the wisdom of the Orthodox Church to undergo such Ascesis under the direction of one's priest or spiritual father. But the core issue in fasting is one that matters some for the body and much more for the spirit.
Splenda and contraception are both body-conquering technologies that allow us to conquer part of our embodied nature: that the body takes nourishment from food, and that the greatest natural pleasure has deep fertile potential. And indeed, the technologies we call "space-conquering technologies" might more aptly be titled, "body-conquering technologies," because they are used to conquer our embodied and embedded state as God made it.
Today, "everybody knows" that the Orthodox Church, not exactly like the Catholic Church allowing contraceptive timing, allows contraception under certain guidelines, and the Orthodox Church has never defined a formal position on contraception above the level of one's spiritual father. This is due, among other factors, to some influential scholarly spin-doctoring, the academic equivalent of the NBC Dateline episode that "proved" that a certain truck had a fire hazard in a 20mph collision by filming a 30mph collision (presented as a 20mph collision) and making sure there was a fiery spectacle by also detonating explosives planted above the truck's gas tank (see analysis).
St. John Chrysostom wrote,
Where is there murder before birth? You do not even let a prostitute remain only a prostitute, but you make her a murderer as well... Do you see that from drunkenness comes fornication, from fornication adultery, and from adultery murder? Indeed, it is something worse than murder and do not know what to call it; for she does not kill what is formed but prevents its formation. What then? Do you despise the gift of God, and fight with his laws? What is a curse, do you seek it as though it were a blessing?... Do you teach the woman who is given to you for the procreation of offspring to perpetrate killing? In this indifference of the married men there is greater evil filth; for then poisons are prepared, not against the womb of a prostitute, but against your injured wife.
The Blessed Augustine devastatingly condemned Natural Family Banning: if procreation is sliced away from marital relations, Augustine says point blank, then true marriage is forbidden. There is no wife, but only a mistress, and if this is not enough, he holds that those who enjoin contraception fall under the full freight of St. Paul's blistering words about forbidding marriage:
Now, the Spirit expressly says that in the last days some will renounce the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and the teachings of demons, through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences have been seared with a hot iron: for they forbid marriage and demand avoidance of foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.
Augustine absolutely did not believe that one can enjoy the good of marriage and treat the blessing of marriage's fertility as a burden and a curse. Such an idea is strange, like trying to celebrate the good of medical care while taking measures to prevent it from improving one's health.
Such condemnations stem from the unanimous position of the Church Fathers on contraception.
Such words seem strange today, and English Bible translations seem to only refer to contraception once: when God struck Onan dead for "pull and pray." (There are also some condemnations of pharmakeia and pharmakoi—"medicine men" one would approach for a contraceptive—something that is lost in translation, unfortunately giving the impression that occult sin alone was the issue at stake.)
Contraception allows a marriage à la carte: it offers some control over pursuing a couple's hopes, together, on terms that they choose without relinquishing control altogether. And the root of this is a deeper answer to St. John Chrysostom's admonition to leave other brothers and sisters to their children as their inheritance rather than mere earthly possessions.(This was under what would today be considered a third world standard of living, not the first world lifestyle of many people who claim today that they "simply cannot afford any more children"—which reflects not only that they cannot afford to have more children and retain their expected (entitled?) standard of living for them and their children, but their priorities once they realize that they may be unable to have both.)
Contraception is chosen because it serves a certain way of life: it is not an accident in any way, shape, or form that Planned Barrenhood advertises, for both contraception, "Take control of your life!" For whether one plans two children, or four, or none, Planned Barrenhood sings the siren song of having your life under your control, or at least as much under control as you can make it, where you choose the terms where you will deal with your children, if and when you want.
Marriage and monasticism both help people grow up by helping them to learn being out of control. Marriage may provide the Ascesis of minding children and monasticism that of obedience to one's elder, but these different-sounding activities are aimed at building the same kind of spiritual virtue and power.
Counselors offer people, not the help that many of them seek in controlling those they struggle with, but something that is rarely asked: learning to be at peace with letting go of being in control of others, and the unexpected freedom that that brings. Marriage and monasticism, at their best, do not provide a minor adjustment that one manages and is then on top of, but an arena, a spiritual struggle, a training ground in which people live the grace and beauty of the Sermon on the Mount, and are freed from the prison chamber of seeking control and the dank dungeon of living for themselves.
"Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, nor about your body, what you will wear. Isn't there more to life than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air. They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than them? And why do you worry about the lilies of the field: how they grow. They neither toil nor spin;" they have joy and peace. The height of technological progress in having pleasure without losing control—in artificial sweeteners, contraceptives and anything else—utterly pales in comparison.
Technology is not evil. Many technologies have a right use, but that use is a use to pursue maturity and Ascesis, not an aid to living childishly.
Wine was created by God as good, and it has a right use. But the man who seeks in wine a way to be happy or a way to drive away his problems has already lost.
One classic attitude to wine was not "We forbid drinking wine," or even "It would be better not to drink wine at all, but a little bit does not do too much damage," but goes beyond saying, "The pleasure of wine was given by God as good" to saying: "Wine is an important training ground to learn the Ascesis of moderation, and learn a lesson that cannot be escaped: we are not obligated to learn moderation in wine, but if we do not drink wine, we still need moderation in work, play, eating, and everything else, and many of us would do well to grow up in Ascesis in the training arena of enjoying wine and be better prepared for other areas of life where the need for the Ascesis of moderation, of saying 'when' and drawing limits, is not only something we should not dodge: it is something we can never escape."
The ascetical use of technology is like the ascetical use of wine. It is pursued out of maturity, and as a support to maturity. It is not pursued out of childishness, nor as a support to childishness. And it should never be the center of gravity in our lives. (Drinking becomes a problem more or less when it becomes the focus of a person's life and pursuits.)
The Harvard business study behind Good to Great found that the most effective companies often made pioneering use of technology, but technology was never the center of the picture: however many news stories might be printed about how they used technologies, few of the CEOs mentioned technology at all when they discussed their company's success, and none of them ascribed all that much importance to even their best technology. Transformed companies—companies selected in a study of all publicly traded U.S. companies whose astonishing stock history began to improve and then outperformed the market by something like a factor of three, sustained for fifteen years straight—didn't think technology was all that important, not even technologies their people pioneered. They focused on something more significant.
Good to Great leadership saw their companies' success in terms of people.
There were other finds, including that the most effective CEOs were not celebrity rockstars in the limelight, but humble servant leaders living for something beyond themselves. In a study about what best achieves what greed wants, not even one of the top executives followed a mercenary creed of ruthless greed and self-advancement.
If people, not technology, make businesses tremendously profitable, then perhaps people who want more than profit also need something beyond technology in order to reach the spiritual riches and treasures in Heaven that we were made for.
The right use of technology comes out of Ascesis and is therefore according to nature.
In Robert Heinlein's science fiction classic Stranger in a Strange Land, a "man" with human genes who starts with an entirely Martian heritage as his culture and tradition, comes to say, "Happiness is a matter of functioning the way a human being was organized to function... but the words in English are a mere tautology, empty. In Martian they are a complete set of working instructions." The insight is true, but takes shape in a way that completely cuts against the grain of Stranger in a Strange Land.
One most immediate example is that the science fiction vision is of an ideal of a community of "water brothers" who painstakingly root out natural jealousy and modesty, and establish free love within their circle: such, the story would have it, provides optimal human happiness. As compellingly as it may be written into the story, one may bring up studies which sought to find out which of the sexualities they wished to promote provided the greatest pleasure and satisfaction, and found to their astonishment and chagrin that the greatest satisfaction comes, not from any creative quest for the ultimate thrill, but from something they despised as a completely unacceptable perversion: a husband and wife, chaste before the wedding and faithful after, working to become one for as long as they both shall live, and perhaps even grateful for the fruitfulness o their love. Perhaps such an arrangement offers greater satisfaction than trying to "push the envelope" of adventuresome arrangements precisely because it is "functioning the way a human being was organized to function."
People only seek the ultimate exotic thrill when they are unhappy. Gnosticism is a spiritual porn whose sizzle entices people who despair: its "good news" of an escape from the miserable here and now is "good news" as misery would want it. Today's Gnosticism may rarely teach, as did earlier Gnostic honesty, that our world could not be the good creastion of the ultimately good God, but holding that we need to escape our miserable world was as deep in ancient Gnostics' bones as an alcoholic experiences that our miserable world needs to be medicated by drunkenness. Baudelaire said, in the nineteenth century: "Keep getting drunk! Whether with wine, or with poetry, or with virtue, as you please, keep getting drunk," in a poem about medicating what might be a miserable existence. Today he might have said, "Keep getting drunk! Whether with New Age, or with the endless virtual realities of SecondWife, or with the ultimate Viagra-powered thrill, as you please, keep getting drunk!"
What SecondLife—or rather SecondWife—offers is the apparent opportunity to have an alternative to a here and now one is not satisfied with. Presumably there are merits to this alternate reality: some uses are no more a means to escape the here and now than a mainstream business's website, or phoning ahead to make a reservation at a restaurant. But SecondWife draws people with an alternative to the here and now they feel stuck in.
It is one thing to get drunk to blot out the misery of another's death. It is another altogether to keep getting drunk to blot out the misery of one's own life.
An old story from African-American lore tells of how a master and one of his slaves would compete by telling dreams they claimed they had. One time, the master said that he had a dream of African-American people's Heaven, and everything was dingy and broken—and there were lots of dirty African-Americans everywhere. His slave answered that he had dreamed of white people's Heaven, and everything was silver and gold, beautiful and in perfect order—but there wasn't a soul in the place!
Much of what technology seems to offer is to let people of all races enter a Heaven where there are luxuries the witty slave could never dream of, but in the end there is nothing much better than a Heaven full of gold and empty of people.
"Social networking" is indeed about people, but there is something about social networking's promise that is like an ambitious program to provide a tofu "virtual chicken" in every pot: there is something unambiguously social about social media, but there is also something as different from what "social" has meant for well over 99% of people as a chunk of tofu is from real chicken's meat.
There is a timeless way of relating to other people, and this timeless way is a large part of Ascesis. This is a way of relating to people in which one learns to relate primarily to people one did not choose, in friendship had more permancy than many today now give marriage, in which one was dependent on others (that is, interdependent with others), in which people did not by choice say goodbye to everyone they knew at once, as one does by moving in America, and a social interaction was largely through giving one's immediate presence.
"Social networking" is a very different beast. You choose whom to relate to, and you can set the terms; it is both easy and common to block users, nor is this considered a drastic measure. Anonymity is possible and largely encouraged; relationships can be transactional, which is one step beyond disposable, and many people never meet others they communicate with face-to-face, and for that matter arranging such a meeting is special because of its exceptional character.
Social networking can have a place. Tofu can have a place. However, we would do well to take a cue to attend to cultures that have found a proper traditional place for tofu. Asian cuisines may be unashamed about using tofu, but they consume it in moderation—and never use it to replace meat.
We need traditional social "meat." The members of the youngest generation who have the most tofu in their diet may need meat the most.
Today the older generation seems to grouse about our younger generation. Some years ago, someoone in the AARP magazine quipped about young people, "Those tight pants! Those frilly hairdos! And you should see what the girls are wearing!" Less witty complaints about the younger generation's immodest style of dress, and their rude disrespect for their elders can just as well be found from the time of Mozart, for instance, or Socrates: and it seems that today's older generation is as apt to criticize the younger generation as their elders presumably were. But here something really is to be said about the younger generation.
The older generation kvetching about how the younger generation today has it so easy with toys their elders never dreamed of, never seem to connect their sardonic remarks with how they went to school with discipline problems like spitwads and the spoiled younger generation faced easily available street drugs, or how a well-behaved boy with an e-mail address may receive X-rated spam. "The youth these days" have luxuries their parents never even dreamed of—and temptations and dangers their parents never conceived, not in their worst nightmares.
Elders have traditionally complained about the young people being rude, much of which amounts to mental inattention. Part of politeless is being present in body and mind to others, and when the older generation was young, their elders assuredly corrected them from not paying attention in the presence of other people and themselves.
When they were young, the older generation's ways of being rude included zoning out and daydreaming, making faces when adults turned their back, and in class throwing paper airplanes and passing notes—and growing up meant, in part, learning to turn their back on that arsenal of temptations, much like previous generations. And many of the older generation genuinely turned their backs on those temptations, and would genuinely like to help the younger generation learn to honor those around with more of their physical and mental presence.
Consumer electronics like the smartphone, aimed to offer something to youth, often advertise to the younger generation precisely a far better way to avoid a spiritual lesson that was hard enough for previous generations to learn without nearly the same degree of temptation. Few explains to them that a smartphone is not only very useful, but it is designed and sold as an enticing ultra-portable temptation.
Literature can be used to escape. But the dividing line between great and not-so-great literature is less a matter of theme, talent, or style than the question of whether the story serves to help the reader escape the world, or engage it.
In technology, the question of the virtuous use of technology is less a matter of how fancy the technology is, or how recent, than whether it is used to escape the world or engage it. Two friends who use cell phones to help them meet face-to-face are using technology to support, in some form, the timeless way of relating to other people. Family members who IM to ask prayer for someone who is sick also incorporate technology into the timeless way of relating to other people. This use of technology is quiet and unobtrusive, and supports a focus on something greater than technology: the life God gave us.
Was technology made for man, or man for technology?
Much of the economy holds the premise that a culture should be optimized to produce wealth: man was made for the economy. The discipline of advertising is a discipline of influencing people without respecting them as people: the customer, apparently, exists for the benefit of the business.
Advertising encourages us to take shopping as a sacrament, and the best response we can give is not activism as such, but a refusal of consent.
Shopping is permissible, but not sacramental shopping, because sacramental shopping is an ersatz sacrament and identifying with brands an ersatz spiritual discipline. At best sacramental shopping is a distraction; more likely it is a lure and the bait for a spiritual trap.
We may buy a product which carries a mystique, but not the mystique itself: and buying a cool product without buying into its "cool" is hard, harder than not buying. But if we buy into the cool, we forfeit great spiritual treasure.
Love the Lord your God with all of your heart and all of your life and all of your mind and all of your might, love your neighbor as yourself, and use things: do not love things while using people.
Things can do the greatest good when we stop being infatuated with them and put first things first. The most powerful uses of technology, and the best, come from loving those whom you should love and using what you should use. We do not benefit from being infatuated with technology, nor from acting on such infatuation.
The Liturgy prays, "Pierce our souls with longing for Thee." Our longing for transcendence is a glory, and the deepest thing that draws us in advertisements for luxury goods, does so because of the glory we were made to seek.
But let us attend to living in accordance with nature. Ordinarily when a technology is hailed as "space-conquering," it is on a deep level body-conquering, defeating part of the limitations of our embodied nature—which is to say, defeating part of our embodied nature that is in a particular place in a particular way.
Technologies to pass great distance quickly, or make it easy to communicate without being near, unravel what from ancient times was an ancient social fabric. They offer something of a line-item veto on the limits of our embodied state: if they do not change our bodies directly, they make our embodied limitations less relevant.
A technology can conquer how the body takes nourishment from food, for instance, and therefore be body-conquering without being space-conquering. But whether celebrated or taken for granted, space-conquering technologies are called space-conquering because they make part of the limitations of our embodied nature less relevant.
There is almost a parody of Ascesis in space-conquering technologies. Ascesis works to transcend the limited body, and space-conquering technologies seem a way to do the same. But they are opposites.
"The demons always fast:" such people are told to instill that fasting has a place and a genuine use, but anyone who focuses too much on fasting, or fasts too rigidly, is well-advised to remember that every single demon outfasts every single saint. But there is something human about fasting: only a being made to eat can benefit from refraining from eating. Fasting is useful because, unlike the angels and demons, a man is not created purely a spirit, but created both spirit and body, and they are linked together. Ascesisknows better, and is more deeply attuned to nature, to attempt to work on the spirit with the body detached and ignored.
Even as Ascesis subdues the comforts and the body, the work is not only to transfigure the spirit, and transform the body.
In a saint the transfiguration means that when the person has died, the body is not what horror movies see in dead bodies: it is glorified into relics.
This is a fundamentally different matter from circumventing the body's limitations. There may be good, ascetical uses for space-conquering technologies: but the good part of it comes from the Ascesis shining through the technology.
The limitations of our embodied existence—aging, bodily aches and pains, betrayal, having doors closed in our face—have been recognized as spiritual stepping stones, and the mature wonder, not whether they have too many spiritual stepping stones, but whether they might need more. Many impoverished saints were concerned, not with whether their life was too hard, but whether it was too easy. Some saints have been tremendously wealthy, but they used their wealth for other purposes than simply pandering to themselves.
Some might ask today, for instance, whether there might be something symbolic to the burning bush that remained unconsumed which St. Moses the Lawgiver saw. And there are many layers of spiritual meaning to the miracle—an emblem of the Theotokos's virgin birthgiving—but it is not the proper use of symbolic layers to avoid the literal layer, without which the symbolic layers do not stand. If the question is, "Isn't there something symbolic about the story of the miracle of the burning bush?", the answer is, "Yes, but it is a fundamental error to use the symbolic layers to dodge the difficulty of literally believing the miracle." In like fashion, there are many virtuous uses of technology, but it is a fundamental error to expect those uses to include using technology to avoid the difficult lessons of spiritual Ascesis.
Living according to nature is not a luxury we add once we have taken care of necessities: part of harmony with nature is built into necessities. Our ancestors gathered from the natural world, not to seek harmony with nature, but to meet their basic needs—often with far fewer luxuries than we have—and part of living according to nature has usually meant few, if any, luxuries. Perhaps there is more harmony with nature today in driving around a city to run errands for other people, than a luxurious day out in the countryside.
Some of the promise the Internet seems to offer is the dream a mind-based society: a world of the human spirit where there is no distraction of external appearance because you have no appearance save that of a handle or avatar, for instance, or a world where people need not appear male or female except as they choose. But the important question is not whether technology through the internet can deliver such a dream, but whether the dream is a dream or a nightmare.
To say that the Internet is much more mind-based than face-to-face interactions is partly true. But to say that a mind-based society is more fit for the human spirit than the timeless way of relating, in old-fashioned meatspace, is to correct the Creator on His mistaken notions regarding His creatures' best interests.
People still use the internet all the time as an adjunct to the timeless way of relating. Harmony with nature is not disrupted by technology's use as an adjunct nearly so much as when it serves as a replacement. Pushing for a mind-based society, and harmony with nature, may appeal to the same people, especially when they are considered as mystiques. But pushing for a mind-based society is pushing for a greater breach of living according to nature, widening the gulf between modern society and the ancient human of human life. There is a contradiction in pushing for our life to be both more and less according to nature.
There is an indirect concern for Ascesis in companies and bosses that disapprove of clock watching. The concern is not an aversion to technology, or that periodically glancing at one's watch takes away all that much time from real work. The practical concern is of a spiritual state that hinders work: the employee's attention and interest are divided, and a bad spiritual state overflows into bad work.
In terms of Ascesis, the scattered state that cannot enjoy the present is the opposite of a spiritual condition called nepsis or, loosely, "watchfulness."
The problem that manifests itself in needing to keep getting drunk, with New Age and its hopes for, at the moment, 2012 delivering us from a miserable here and now, or needing a more and more exotic drugged-up sexual thrill, or fleeing to SecondWife, is essentially a lack of nepsis.
To be delivered by such misery is not a matter of a more radical escape. In a room filled with eye-stinging smoke, what is needed is not a more heroic way to push away the smoke, but a way of quenching the fire. Once the fire is quenched, the smoke dissipates, and with it the problem of escaping the smoke.
Nepsis is a watchfulness over one's heart, including the mind.
Nepsis is both like and unlike metacognition. It observes oneself, but it is not thinking about one's thinking, or taking analysis to the next level: analysis of normal analysis. It is more like coming to one's senses, getting back on course, and then trying to stay on course. It starts with a mindfulness of how one has not been mindful, which then flows to other areas of life.
The man who steps back and observes that he is seeking ways to escape the here and now, has an edge. The same goes with worrying or other passions by which the soul is disturbed: for many of the things that trouble our soul, seduce us to answer the wrong question. This is almost invariably more pedestrian than brilliant metacognition, and does not look comfortable.
Metanoia, or repentance, is both unconditional surrender and waking up and smelling the coffee. It is among the most terrifying of experiences, but afterwards, one realizes, "I was holding on to a piece of Hell!"
Once one is past that uncomfortable recognition, one is free to grasp something better.
That "something better" is ultimately Christ, and a there is a big difference between a mind filled with Christ and a mind filled with material things as one is trying to flee malaise.
The attempt to escape a miserable here and now is doomed. We cannot escape into Eden. But we can find the joy of Eden, and the joy of Heaven, precisely in the here and now we are seduced to seek to escape.
Living the divine life in Christ, is a spiritual well out of which many treasures pour forth: harmony with nature, the joy of Eden and all the other things that we are given if we seek first the Kingdom of God and His perfect righteousness.
It was a real achievement when people pushing the envelope of technology and, with national effort and billions of dollars of resources, NASA succeeded in lifting a man to the moon.
But, as a monk pointed out, the Orthodox Church has known for aeons how to use no resources beyond a little bread and water, and succeed in lifting a man up to God.
And we miss the greatest treasures if we think that Ascesis or its fruits are only for monks.
And there is something that lies beyond even ascesis: contemplation of the glory of God.
It has become fashionable to say a bit of nuance when something is compared to a Swiss Army Knife: a Swiss Army Knife is a collection of second-rate tools: the can opener may be better than nothing, but it is a surrogate for a real can opener. At least it seems to be sophisticated nuance, but I write after having opened a can with my Swiss Army Knife when a "real" can opener was right in the drawer in front of me.
A spider's web is small, flimsy, easy to overlook, and in houses something people sweep away as a nuisance. Yet none of these faults are brought to mind when something is compared to the world wide web, or someone discussing history compares the 19th century establishment of nationwide railways crossing the U.S. to the establishment of the web. For that matter, there is a positive connotation to the spider's web that we do not evoke: a spider's web is what provides spiders something to eat, and some of us (including yours truly) are privileged to make a living from the web. The web is an intricate mesh of cross-linking, and the idea of one node connected to the other is the prime metaphor evoked when we speak of the "web."
I carry four Swiss Army Knives, or at least material Swiss Army Knives, besides my wallet.
The first is a Swisschamp my parents got for me in England when we traveled when I was a teen, and I've made a couple of custom modifications to it: I filed away at part of the metal saw/nail file/metal file to make a harder-than-steel blade for cutting at screens, and I also narrowed the end of the tweezers to try and make it work better as a splinter tweezers. I've stopped carrying it once or twice, but so far at least I have gotten back to carrying it again. I know its features by heart: large blade, small blade, metal saw, metal file, nail file, nail cleaner, added harder-than-steel blade, wood saw, scissors, magnifying glass, Phillips screwdriver, pliers, large slotted screwdriver, can opener, wire stripper, small slotted screwdriver, can opener, corkscrew, jeweler's screwdriver, pin, wood chisel, additional slotted screwdriver, hook, reamer, pen, toothpick, tweezers (sadly replaced with a regular tweezers when I sent it in for repairs—I'm sure they meant it well).
The second Swiss Army Knife I carry is one that I purchased in a moment of "sacramental shopping" against my best judgment: my watch was having problems, but I already had a perfectly useful way to tell time. I had quite vulgarly agreed with the contents of my spam folder to believe that I needed an extra special watch and it would make me special. And so I purchased a Casio Pathfinder watch, water resistant to 100 meters, and besides the normal time, five alarms, stopwatch, and timer one might expect of a digital watch, it has a compass, barometer/altimeter, a surprisingly useless thermometer, tells time in other time zones, is set each night by a signal from an atomic clock and is probably within a second of the "official" absolute time without my ever setting it, and recharges by solar power even when I do nothing to make sure it gets light. It has never been below the highest level of charge. Oh, and its color is a military olive green with black highlight, so it fits in with my green and earth tone wardrobe. I have, as it turns out, used the compass, and I do hope it lasts me a while, but I regard the purchase as an ersatz sacrament, vulgar as a "replica luxury watch" hawked in spam.
The third Swiss Army Knife I carry is an iPhone; I upgraded in the recent past from my iPhone 1 to an iPhone 4 because AT&T's rate limiting was getting to be a quite practical limitation; sending a thank-you note after a job interview was like breathing through a straw. I have not upgraded to the 4 S; it sounds impressive, but my present iPhone 4 works as nicely today as when I got it, good enough that the fact that something better is out there does not concern me.
(No, not Android; I've tried Android and didn't like it. I've wished I knew enough video editing to take one of the initial commercials, which said things like "iDon't have a real keyboard", to say all but the last "iDon't", and then edit in, "iDon't have a second-rate user interface," and then let the commercial give its final, "Droid does!")
My fourth Swiss Army Knife, which I use rarely, is/was (it is lost now) an Ubuntu USB key: it can store files and it can boot (or install) Ubuntu Linux. While I use thend as someone answered a forum question, "I've installed Linux, now where I can get some games," and answered, "Linux is the game!" other three Swiss Army Knives all the time, this one is there but there are not too many situations to use it. I did install Linux at a friend's house when he requested it and there was no question of going somewhere else to get media, but the way life moves today I spend little time using it; there may be students storing all their homework on a USB key, but I don't find myself using it often.
Part of the reasons people compare things to Swiss Army Knives (and call Perl "Unix's Swiss Army Chainsaw", Python being a lightsabre that cuts like a hot knife through butter), is that there is a mystique to this one bit of Swiss machinecraft that can do so many things. As a relatively young boy, I believe after addictively watching MacGyver, I was asked what I wanted for Christmas and said I wanted a Swiss Army Knife, and my Mom, who would not have been making the choice out of financial constraint, purchased me a wooden-handled pocketknife with two (literal) blades, and said, "See, I got you a Swiss Army Knife!" I tried to contain my disappointment; it was as if I had asked for a bacon cheeseburger, and imagined a good sit-down restaurant bacon cheeseburger piled high with toppings, and was told in perfect sincerity, "Here's the hamburger you asked for," and been given a tiny White Castle burger.
It was perhaps out of this experience that I made a purchase for a boy at church: his parents had told him, perhaps not strangely, that he could own a pocketknife (I believe he owns a couple), but he could not carry anything dangerous. I think sometime back I had given him a vaguely Swiss Army-like folding tool, but more recently I found out there was a Leatherman expressly designed to be able to be taken through airport security, having been cleared approval with the TSA and 315 airports, and they had rather ingeniously made a mechanical folding pliers that was a bit small, but folded out to a pliers, scissors, nail file, carabiner, and (I believe) a screwdriver designed to work with either slotted or Phillips screws, and a tweezers, but all of this without being like a weapon. And he thanked me for it, once initially as one would expect from politeness, and once a week later (and he showed me its features!). The gift had scored home with him, and I believe my actions were conditioned (though I did not think of it at the time) by my disappointment when my parents admittedly entrusted me with a blade, but did not give the abounding mechanical clockwork-like coolness that motivated my request for a Swiss Army Knife.
Is Orthodoxy a Swiss Army Knife? (Is God?)
The liturgical flow of day and year is intricate, with its ebb and flow and nooks and crannies, and the exact combination of songs, musical tones, readings, and so on for a Divine Liturgy are something that may not be exactly repeated for hundreds of years. And a certain sense you can say that God is a Swiss Army Knife, and the saints are his blades—or, really, the whole race of mankind.
But on a deeper level the image does not fit, and here we run into a basic difficulty in theology. There are two basic modes of theology in talking about God, and they are opposite. One mode, the cataphatic, is to say that God is described by the images of his Creation, that he is King and Father, and so on. And there is some element of truth even in comparing HE WHO IS to solid stone: "Blessed be my rock," the Psalmist bard proclaims. But in a deeper sense these images all ultimately fail, as loudly proclaims apophatic theology. The image of God as stone fails more quickly, but ultimately even the images of a Father and King run dry.
And HE WHO IS, one God in Trinity, is utterly and completely simple, and simple beyond any created simplicity. The beauty of a Swiss Army Knife is that it is amny things folded into its handle; it is a beauty of multiplicity that falls infinitely short of God. God may be seen in many saints, but they are all brought to his oneness. And this oneness reflects down: the virtues may look like a Swiss Army Knife of the soul, and they indeed are in a certain sense, but on a more profound level there is a unity to the virtues (and the vices). The deepest virtue is only one virtue, and indeed Christ names one virtue as the foundation of all Scripture:
Jesus said unto him, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."
The spiritual life is one of simplicity, praying the Jesus Prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner," and the Swiss-like clockwork of the liturgy is paradoxically an entryway into this simplicity.
How would you like to associate your organization with false advertising, illegal marketing scams, snake oil diets, and offensive unsolicited porn? You can—it's easier than you think. You can reach thousands of people for every penny you invest. The only real cost is to your reputation.
What? That doesn't sound attractive to you? Too bad. You're doing all that—and more—every single time you send unsolicited bulk e-mail. It's also known as spam, and for good reason. Why?
In a classic Monty Python sketch, a customer in a restaurant asks what's on the menu. The waitress tells him, "Well, there's egg and bacon; egg, sausage, and bacon; egg and spam; egg, bacon, and spam; egg, bacon, sausage, spam; spam, bacon, sausage, and spam; spam, egg, spam, spam, bacon, and spam; spam, sausage, spam, spam, spam, bacon, spam, tomato, and spam; spam, spam, spam, egg, and spam" (and so on). Then a chorus of Vikings begins chanting, "Spam, spam, spam, spam; lovely spam, wonderful spam." The waitress just doesn't get it, even when the customer repeats that he doesn't like spam.
You may be the victim of false advertising. Many spammers advertise "opt-in e-mail lists" with millions of targeted recipients—but please think for a moment. Would you choose to be on a mailing list that let advertisers fill your mailbox dirt-cheap? Are there millions of people who would choose to have a mailbox with advertisement, advertisement, personal letter, advertisement, family newsletter, and your advertisement? If someone has asked you to read this page, there's a good chance you've patronized spam—and been advertised along with snake oil diets and illegal marketing scams. Don't you think you're in bad company?
Some time ago, a pastor contacted me and asked permission to quote one of my poems. We've been in contact at least occasionally, and he sent me an email newsletter that left me asking him for permission to quote.
When there are many words, sin is unavoidable, but the one who controls his lips is wise. Proverbs 10:19
I recently violated a longstanding position I have held; to avoid all further interaction with social media, particularly Facebook. It wasn't necessarily because of any moral high ground; it was more because I had already mastered e-mail and was satisfied with my online accomplishments. In addition, I didn't have any additional time or interest to keep up with pithy little sayings, videos, cartoons, social life, or even cute kiddie pictures. But now I am happily in the fold of Facebook users (particularly if there is a picture of one of my grandbabies on it). In addition, it has allowed me to discover that there are literally dozens of people who are just waiting to be my friends. However, the real reason I'm on Facebook is work related. Thanks to the good work done by a few of our church members; both of our churches have excellent Facebook pages. In order to access those pages, I needed an account, so—here I am. And though all seems well with the world of Facebook, I am discovering that it is not always the case. For all the "warm fuzzies," and catching up with friends and family it offers ... there is also a dark side.
At a recent continuing education event I attended, the speaker presented some dire consequences to uninhibited use of social media. He reported that social media had replaced money as the number one contributor to marriage problems. He said it wasn't so much affairs that online relationships led to; rather it was the persistent flirting that broke down barriers and hedges, which once protected the marriage. Such interaction often led to a downward spiral, corrupting and compromising the marriage vow. One in five divorces involves the social networking site Facebook, according to a new survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. A staggering 80% of divorce lawyers have also reported a spike in the number of cases that use social media for evidence of cheating, with Facebook by far the biggest offender. Flirty messages and and photographs found on Facebook are increasingly being cited as proof of unreasonable behavior or irreconcilable differences. Many cases revolve around social media users who get back in touch with old flames they hadn't heard from in many years.
PBS recently hosted a webinar, This Emotional Life, about the internet's impact on relationship and marriage.[i] One of the panelists, Theresa Bochard, explored the issue a bit farther in an article originally published on PsychCentral.com. She said that after reading hundreds of comments and emails from people who have been involved in online relationships or emotional affairs as well as the responses on several discussion boards, she concluded that while the internet and social media can foster intimacy in a marriage, it seems to do more harm than good. She reported that an astounding 90% of opposite-sex online relationships were damaging to the marriage. Facebook affairs are threatening healthy couples too.
"I have suggested to myself to write a thank you note to the inventors of Facebook and Myspace because they have been responsible for a significant percentage of my income," says marriage counselor Dr. Dennis Boike. He's not kidding. "I'm having people say I never would have expected me to do this. It's in the privacy of my computer. I'm not going out anywhere, I'm not dressing for it, I'm not smelling of another's perfume. There are no tell-tale signs except my computer record." But a new study suggests Facebook can also help disconnect you from your better half. The site, which boasts more than 350 million active users, is mentioned in over 20% of divorce petitions, according to Divorce-Online.
Prominent Houston divorce attorney Bucky Allshouse can understand why. "It's really kind of shocking what people put on Facebook," says Allshouse. Perhaps it's not so shocking that the social networking site can essentially pour kerosene on "old flames." Most online relationships start out benign: an email from a person you knew in college, friending an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend on Facebook (as suggested by Facebook: "people you might know"), getting to know a co-worker or acquaintance better online. But the relationship can take a dangerous turn very quickly if you're not careful and even more easily if you are doing most of the talking behind a computer.
We have no non-verbals with which to interpret people's conversation when we communicate online. What we say can be misinterpreted and come off in a way we don't intend. Or worse, we purposely allow our conversation to drift into an unhealthy area, where we put out "feelers" to see if the person we are communicating with will do the same. We will text things to people that would make us blush if we said them in person. All too often the end result is flirting, compromising our values, and allowing the secrecy of social media to sweep us off our feet and into a quagmire of social dysfunction. This is not a victimless choice. Many times, inappropriate conversations through social media lead to great pain with children, spouses, parents, and friends.
One such instance occurred when Jonathan found Sharon on Facebook, 20 years after he dumped her one week after their high school prom. She had never married, while he had and was also the father of two teenagers. During months of emailing and texting, Sharon proved a sympathetic listener to his sense of isolation and loneliness within his own marriage. He found they could talk easily, picking up with the friendship they had had years before. They shared feelings they had never shared with others. After a few months, they decided to cross a few states and meet half way. Then, they talked of marriage. Shortly after, Jonathan went through with his divorce and months later he and Sharon married. Not surprisingly, and after only four months, they divorced. What happened? Fantasy was hit hard by reality. They went into a marriage without really spending time to know each other as they are today. Their romance was fueled by their history (as 18-year-olds) not their adult present. The romantic idea of reconnecting with an old lover, at a time Jonathan was unhappy in his marriage, was a recipe for danger.
In talking about it later, Jonathan realized he had not intended to start up a romance; he hadn't intended to leave his marriage in the first place. As he and Sharon shared feelings, he felt more cared for by her than by his wife. When asked who raised the issue of marriage, he wasn't sure. "Perhaps she pushed it, but I may have been just been musing something like, 'Wouldn't it have been great if we got married,' and that led her to talk about marriage. I wonder if I led her on. Did I promise more than I had realized and then feel in love with my own fantasy?"[ii]
When we cross barriers that were intended to keep us safely within the parameters of our marriage vows, we start in internal conflict—one that attacks our emotional and mental center. Conversations with people of the opposite sex can lead to flirtations. Flirtations can lead to imaginations which lead to fixations ... and there is a fine line between fixation and passion. Promiscuity is rarely a random act. It is pre-meditated. Something triggers our thoughts. And that something can be social media.
Christians must be wary of intimate conversations with people of the opposite sex; it is a trap that too many good people have been caught in. Paul wrote: "We are casting down imaginations, and every high thing that is exalted against the knowledge of God, and bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ" (2 Cor. 10:5). It is good advice; cast down imaginations ... take every thought captive, because it is often out of our imaginations and thoughts that bad choices are born. Jesus said something similar. Speaking to the disciples he warned, "But the things that come out of a person's mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander" (Matthew 15:18-19). The battleground is not the computer or cell phone; it is the heart and the mind. But secretive messaging avenues like social media offers can help plant the seed for a battle that good people lose every day.
Dr. Karen Gail Lewis, a marriage and family therapist of 39 years and author of numerous relationship books, offers these social networking guidelines for married couples.
Be clear about your agenda in contacting the other person.
Limit the frequency of your time online. This sets a good boundary around the social networking contact.
Don't talk intimately. By not sharing intimacies with your correspondence, you reduce the chance of sending a message that you want a more intimate relationship.
Let your spouse know with whom you are contacting. This openness makes it clear you have nothing to hide. (I would add, especially so if you are contacting a person of the opposite sex).[iii].
Share your outgoing and received emails/texts with your spouse. Sharing communications removes any chance for jealousy or misunderstandings (I would add, share passwords with your spouse; give them full access to your social media sites).[iv].
Do not meet in person unless your spouse is with you. Meeting up with old friends with your spouse by your side is a reminder that you two are a team and removes sending mixed messages to your former lover. This also reinforces the importance of fixing your marriage before playing with the flames of old flames.[v].
Jesus taught us to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves (Matthew 10:16). Social media is a place that Scripture applies. I believe in the sanctity of marriage. I believe a person places their personal integrity and honor on the line in the marriage vow more than anything else in their life. And I believe marriage is under attack from multiple directions. I have officiated at many young couples weddings. I spend time with each one, warning them of the potential pitfalls and dangers; encouraging them to make their marriage a priority each day. Because I know the reality; many of the ones I marry won't make it. It's not because they are bad people or people of no character; but they get caught in a trap, and they can't seem to find a way out. And I also know most of them deeply regret their decisions after the fallout of their choices turn to consequences.
Social media can be a wonderful thing. I love keeping in touch with family and looking at pictures of the grandbabies. Now our churches are using social media to share the gospel. But Christians should be wary of the potential dangers. We must keep up our barriers at all times. James warned, "Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death. So don't be misled, my dear brothers and sisters" (James 1:14-16). Indeed, we must not be misled, rather be guided by the protective barriers God has placed around us; especially so if we are married. We must watch our words carefully and keep our thoughts captive. The sanctity of our marriage vow demands it.
In part, I wondered if my collection in The Luddite's Guide to Technology, was simply wrong. Or if someone might rightly say to me, "What you give in The Luddite's Guide to Technology is helpful up to a point, at least for someone with a similar background to yours. However, regular people need much more concrete guidance." What struck me very concretely about Pastor Vince's article is that it gave very practical advice on how married people can appropriately handle Facebook.
The article reminded me of remarks I'd seen by people interested in making computers that people can actually use that the Apple Macintosh was the first computer worth criticizing. Perhaps some detail of the guidance in the article above could be criticized: perhaps much of it should be criticized: but it may be the first article I've seen on the topic that was worth criticizing.
The concept of "social antibodies": it's not just Facebook
Paul Graham's "The Acceleration of Addictiveness" is worth reading in full. (It's also worth quoting in full, but he's asked nicely that people link to it instead of reposting, which is a fair request. So I am linking to it even though I'd prefer to reproduce the whole article.)
The Acceleration of Addictiveness talks about a little bit bigger picture about things that are addictive. Though he mentions Facebook as something that's even more addictive than television, he's clear that the big picture is more than addictive little Facebook. Graham talks about a concept of "social antibodies" which I think is incredibly useful.
Decades ago, smoking cut through the US like a hot knife through butter. But, while smoking is still dangerous and there still continue to be new smokers, we no longer have glamour shots of celebrities holding cigarettes in some flashy, sophisticated, classy pose. Smoking is no longer "sexy;" over the past 20 years it has been seen as seedy, and "smoker" is not exacty the kindest thing to call someone. (I remember one friend commenting that he could think of a number of terms more polite than "smoker," none of which were appropriate to the present company.) As a society, the US has developed social antibodies to smoking now.
There are many things that we need "social antibodies" for, and we keep developing new technologies, Facebook included, that need social antibodies. The six prescriptions in the quoted articles are essentially social antibodies for how to use Facebook without jeopardizing your marriage. They may seem harsh and excessively cautious, but I submit that they are easier to go through than divorce. Much easier. A piece of cake! And I quote Pastor Vince's article because it's something we need more of.
A helpful parallel to technology: Wine as an example
Simply not drinking alcoholic beverages is an option that I respect more as I think about it, but for the sake of this discussion, I will leave it on the side. I am interested in helpful parallels for "social antibodies" in moderation and restraint in using technology, and as much as I may respect people who do not drink, that option is not as interesting for my investigation. This is especially true because people living in my society assume that you are not abstaining from every technology that can cause trouble. So with a respectful note about not drinking alcohol at all, I want to look at social antibodies for moderate, temperate, and appropriate use of wine.
Wine and liquor slowly increased in strength in Western Europe, slowly enough that societies had at least the chance to build social antibodies. This makes for a marked contrast to escape through hard liquor among Native Americans, where hard liquor blew through decimated nations and peoples like escape through today's street drugs would have blown through a Europe already coping with the combined effects of the bubonic plague and of barbarian invasions. Perhaps there are genetic differences affecting Native Americans and alcohol. A Native American friend told me that Native American blood can't really cope with sugar, essentially unknown in Native American lands apart from some real exceptions like maple syrup. And lots of alcohol is worse than lots of sugar, even if some of us wince at the level of sugar and/or corn syrup in the main US industrial diet. (Even those of us not of Native American blood would do well to restrict our consumption of artificially concocted sugars.) But aside from the genetic question, introducing 80 proof whiskey to societies that did not know how to cope with beer would have been rough enough even if there were no genetic questions and no major external stresses on the societies. If there was something of a stereotype about Native Americans and whiskey, maybe part of that is because hard liquor that had been developed over centuries in the West appeared instanteously, under singularly unfortunate conditions, in societies that had not even the social antibodies to cope with even the weaker of beers.
I cite St. Cyril of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book Two, Chapter II: On Drinking as a model for approaching alcohol (and, by extension, a serious reference point in understanding moderate use of technology), with some reservations. The translation I link to is obscure and archaic, and if you can get past that, the individual prescriptions are the sort that would only be all kept (or, for that matter, mostly kept) by the sort of people who are filled with pride that they observe ancient canons more strictly than any canonical bishop. In other words, don't try these directions at home unless you know you are in agreement with your priest or spiritual father. But the chapter of The Instructor on wine offers a priceless glimpse into real, live social antibodies on how to navigate dangerous waters. This is a live example of the sort of things we need. The book as a whole covers several topics, including clothing and boundaries between men and women, and they could serve as a model for pastoral literature to address the challenges offered to spiritual life today. Not specifically that online interactions between men and women introduce an element of danger. That element of danger has always been there, and always will be there. But online interactions frame things a little differently. This means that people with social antibodies that would show appropriate caution face-to-face might not recognize that you have to compensate when dealing with the opposite sex online, or might not intuit exactly how you have to compensate when dealing with the opposite sex online.
I would like to close this section with a word about wine and why I drink it. The politically incorrect way of putting this point is to say that wine is something which literally and figuratively is not part of Islam. Islam works out, in stark relief, what it means to subtract the Incarnation from Christian faith. It means that not only has the Son of God not become incarnate in Christ, but all the more does God become incarnate in his children. It means that Holy Communion is just a symbol, and wine could absolutely, absolutely neverbecome the blood of God. Water is necessary and wine is not, as St. Clement tells us, but the Orthodox Church that regards Islam as a Christian heresy used fermented wine exclusively in the Eucharist, and condemned heretics' use of pure water for the same purpose. And my reason for drinking a little wine is that wine has an elasticity that bears the meaning of Jesus's first miracle, turning water into even more wine when wine ran out at a wedding where the guests were already pretty drunk, and it bears the meaning of the Holy Mysteries: few if any material substances are as pregnant with spiritual depth as wine. Ecclesiastes is perhaps the most dismal book in the entire Bible, and "Go, eat thy bread with mirth, and drink thy wine with a joyful heart" is close to being the only invitation to joy in the book. I do not say that this is a reason why people who have decided not to drink should change their mind. However, the theological motive to drink in Christianity comes from a higher plane than the admittedly very real reasons to be careful with alcohol, or else abstain. It's deeper.
Is the iPhone really that cool?
The LinkedIn article "Come With Me If You Want to Live - Why I Terminated My iPhone" talked about how one family decided to get rid of their iPhones. The author talked about how the iPhone had taken over their lives. They suggested that trying to use their habit to use the iPhone in moderation was a nonstarter, however enticing it may look. And, on a sobering note, they had earlier tried to avoid using smartphones, even for work. And I am convinced they made the right choice: not having any smartphone use is better than addictive smartphone use, hands down. And while I am cautious about advertising responsible smartphone use to people who can't live without their iPhone—the analogy drawn in the LinkedIn article was, "In hindsight, it's like an alcoholic saying 'I thought I could have it in the house and not drink it.'" But I have iPhone use which is defensible, at least in my opinion; I have drawn a boundary that is partly tacit and partly explicit, and while it can be criticized, it is a non-addictive use of the iPhone. I average less than one text a day; I do not compulsively check anything that's out there. A few of the guidelines I found are,
Limit the time you spend using your smartphone. The general Orthodox advice is to cut back a little at once so you never experience absolute shock, but you are always stretched a little bit outside your comfort zone. That may be a way to work down cell phone use, or it may not. If you compulsively reach for your smartphone, you might leave it in one room that you're not always in. Put a boundary between yourself and the smartphone.
Limit how often you check your cell phone unprovoked. When I'm not at work, I try to limit checking email to once per hour. Limit yourself to maybe once per hour, maybe more, maybe less, and restrain yourself.
When you're going to bed for the day, you're done using your smartphone for the day. I am not strict in this; I will answer a call, but checking my iPhone, unprovoked, after my evening prayers or my bedtime is a no-no.
Don't use the iPhone as a drone that you need to have always going on. This includes music, texting, games, and apps, including Vince's hero, Facebook. Perhaps the single biggest way that this violates Apple's marketing proposition with the iPhone is that the iPhone is designed and marketed to be a drone that is always with us, a bit of ambient noise, delivering precisely what the Orthodox spiritual tradition, with works like The Ladder, tell us is something we don't need.The iPhone's marketing proposition is to deliver an intravenous drip of noise. The Orthodox Church's Tradition tells us to wean ourself from noise.
iPhones have "Do Not Disturb" mode. Use it. And be willing to make having "Do Not Disturb" as your default way of using the phone, and turn it off when you want "Please Interrupt Me" mode explicitly.
Don't multitask if you can at all avoid it. I remember reading one theology text which claimed as a lesson from computer science, because people can switch between several applications rapidly, that we should take this "lesson" to life and switch between several activities rapidly. And in a business world where multitasking has been considered an essential task, people are finding that multitasking is fool's gold, an ineffective way of working that introduces a significant productivity tax where people could be doing much better. Smartphones make it trivially easy to multiask. Don't, unless a situation calls for it.I note with some concern that the most I've been shocked at someone using an iPhone was when 12 and under kids were manipulating the iPhone, not to get something to done, but to activate the iPhone's smooth animations. Looking over their shoulders in shock has felt like I was eavesdropping on a (non-chemical) acid trip. Children's use of iPhones driven by slick animated transitions between applications are even more unhelpful than what the business world means by multitasking. (This feature of kids' use of iPhones has made me kind of wish iPhones were not used by people under 18.)
Now I should post this with a clarification that this is, so to speak, pastoral advice to myself. I've found the basic approach helpful, and priests and spiritual fathers may draw on it if they choose in their best judgment to take something from it, but I have not been ordained or tonsured, and I would fall back on the maxim, "As always, ask your priest." My reason to post them is to provide another reference point beyond those given to "social antibodies" in dealing with technology. With these antibodies, I hold the reins, or at least I hold the reins a little better than if I didn't have these antibodies. But I am aware of something vampiric, something that sucks out energy and life, in even my more moderate use of some technologies, and I am a little wary of comparing my use of technology to moderate and sober use of alcohol. Appropriate use of alcohol can be good, and apart from the risk of drinking getting out of control, it is an overall positive. I'm leery of claiming the same for my use of technology, even if I've tried hard to hold the reins and even if I may do better than average. There is something that has been drained from me; there is something that has been sucked out of me. Maybe I am less harmed than others: but my use of technology has harmed me. I am wary of saying now, "I've found the solution."
In dealing with another passion besides sexual sin, namely anger, people have started to develop "social antibodies:" as mentioned briefly by Vince Homan, we don't have the important channels of people's nonverbal communication, which flattens out half the picture. And when we are angry, we can flame people in emails where there is no human face staring back to us, only letters on the screen that seem so right—or perhaps not nearly right enough!—and write hurtful flames unlike anything we would dare to say in person, even to someone who hurt us deeply. And on that score, people seem to me to have developed social antibodies; I've been in lots of flamewars and given and received many unholy words, but I don't remember doing that recently, or seeing flames wage out of control on many mailing lists, even if admittedly I don't spend much time on mailing lists. But sexual dangers are not the only dangers online, and for online flaming, most of the people I deal with do not flame people like I did when I was first involved in online community. I've acquired some "social antibodies," as have others I meet online. Some social antibodies have already developed, and the case is not desperate for us as a Church learning how to handle technology in the service of holy living instead of simply being a danger.
Pastoral guidance and literature needed
I visited Amazon to try to get a gauge on how much Orthodox pastoral resources about appropriate use of computers, mobile, internet, and technology were out there, a sort of The Instructor for technology today, and my search for orthodox internet found 109 resources from Christianity, Judaism, and the occult, none of which seemed to be about "How does an Orthodox Christian negotiate the social issues surrounding computers, smartphones, tablets, the Internet, apps, and technology?" Some other searches, such as orthodox pastoral internet, orthodox pastoral smartphone, and orthodox pastoral technology turned up nothing whatsoever. A search for "orthodox technology" turned up one page of search results with... several connected works of my own. Um, thanks, I think. I guess I'm an expert, or at least a resource, and even if I didn't want to, I should probably make myself available to Orthodox clergy, with my spiritual father and bishop foremost. But this compliment to me, if it is such (maybe it means I'm off the rails) caught me quite off-guard; I was expecting to see at least some publications from people with pastoral authority and experience. But seeing as I'm the local expert, or at least a first author for this particular topic, I'll briefly state my credentials. I have been an Orthodox Christian for a decade, so no longer a recent convert, have works on social dimensions of technology dating back as far as 1994, have two years of postgraduate theology under slightly silly conditions at Cambridge, and two more years under very silly conditions at a sort of "Monty Python teaches theology" PhD program (one Orthodox priest consoled me, "All of us went through that"), but did not complete the program. I grew up with computers back when my home computer access meant going to an orange and black terminal and dialing up a Dec MicroVAX on a 2400 (or less) baud modem, was on basically non-web social networks years before it became a buzzword, have worked with the web since before it went mainstream, much of it professionally. I've been bitten by some of the traps people are fighting with now. And I'm also kind of bright. So I guess I am, by default, a local expert, although I really think a responsible treatment of the issues raised here would see serious involvement from someone with pastoral qualifications and experience. I haven't been tonsured, at least not yet, and perhaps not ever.
But I would ask priests reading this piece to consider a work on a sort of technological appendix to The Rudder, or maybe I shouldn't say that because I have only barely sampled the ancient canons. But I would like to see ideally two pastoral works parallel to The Instructor, Book II: one for pastoral clergy use, and one for "the rest of us faithful." When I was a lay parish representative at a diocesian conference, there was talk about appropriate use of the internet; Vladyka PETER read something that talked about the many legitimate benefits we have received from using computers, but talked about porn on the internet, which is a sewer I haven't mentioned; he said that young people are spending hours per day looking at porn, and it's more addictive than some street drugs, and he commented how porn has always been available, but you used to have to put on a disguise and a trenchcoat, and go leave your car in front of a store with the windows covered up, where now, it finds you and it comes free with a basic utility in the privacy of your home. And the biggest thing I can say about freedom from porn comes from the entry for porn in The Luddite's Guide to Technology:
There is a story about a philosopher who was standing in a river when someone came to him. The philosopher asked the visitor, "What do you want?" The visitor answered, "Truth!" Then the philosopher held the visitor under the water for a little while, and asked him the second time, "What do you want?" The visitor answered, "Truth!" Then the philosopher held the visitor under water for what seemed an interminable time, and let him up and asked, "What do you want?" The visitor gasped and said, "Air!" The philosopher said, "When you want Truth the way you want air, you will find it."
The same thing goes for freedom from the ever-darker chain called pornography, along with masturbation and the use of "ED" drugs to heighten thrills (which can cause nasty street drug-like effects [and a doomed search for the ultimate sexual thrill that decimates sexual satisfaction] even in marriage).
And I would like to suggest some guidelines for fighting Internet porn, quite possibly the most commonly confessed sin among young men today. Sexual sins are among the most easily forgiven: but they are a deep pit. So, in the interest of providing a "dartboard" draft that's put out for people to shoot at. I am intentionally saying more rather than less because it's easier for a pastoral conversation to select from a set of options than furnish arbitrarily more additional options. Here are several things I'd consider, both sacred and secular:
If your right eye offends you, tear it out and throw it away from you: for it is better for you that one part of your body should die than that your whole body should be thrown into Hell.These words are not to be taken literally; if you tore out your right eye you would still be sinning with your left eye, and the Church considers that it was one of Origen's errors to castrate himself. But this is a forceful way of stating a profound truth. There is an incredible freedom that comes, a yoke that is easy and a burden that is light, when you want purity the way you want "Air!", and you apply a tourniquet as high up as you need to to experience freedom.Give your only computer power cable to a friend, for a time, because you can't have that temptation in the house? That is really much better than the alternative. Have the local teenager turn off display of images in Chrome's settings? That is really much better than the alternative. Webpages may look suddenly ugly, but not nearly as ugly as bondage to porn. Only check email at the library? That is really much better than the alternative. These tourniquets may be revised in pastoral conversation, but tearing out your right eye is much more free and much less painful than forever wanting to be free from addiction to porn, but also secretly hoping to give in to the present temptation; as the Blessed Augustine prayed, "Lord, give me chastity, but not yet." There is a great deal of power in wanting purity now, and once you go slash-and-burn, the power is amazing.
Install content-control software, and have things set up so that only the woman of the house knows the password to make exceptions. There are legitimate needs for exceptions, and I remember being annoyed when I went to customize Ubuntu Christian Edition and finding that a site with all sorts of software to customize the appearance of Ubuntu was blocked, apparently because of a small sliver of soft porn in the wallpaper section of a truly massive site. There will be legitimate exceptions, but it cuts through a lot of self-deception if you get the exception by asking your wife.
Don't bother trying to find out how to disable porn mode "Incognito Mode" on your browser; set up a router to log who visits what websites. However much browser makers may tout themselves as being all for empowerment and freedom, they have refused to honor the many requests of men who want freedom from porn and parents who care for their children in many, many voices asking for a way to shut off porn mode. (Even if you found a pre-porn-mode browser version, it would place you at incredible information security risk, and not only because your browser is the #1 way to attack your computer.) But there is something else you should know.Routers exist that can log who visits what when, and if you know someone who is good with computers (or you can use paid technical support like the Geek Squad), have a router set up to provide a log of what computers visited what URLs so that the wife or parents know who is visiting what. The presence of a browser's porn mode suddenly matters a lot less when a router records your browsing history whether or not the browser is in porn mode.
Rein in your stomach. Eat less food. Fast. It is a classic observation in the Orthodox spiritual tradition that the appetites are tied: gluttony is a sort of "gateway drug" to sexual sin, and if you cut away at a full stomach, you necessarily undermine sexual sin and have an easier contest if you are not dealing with sexual temptation on top of a full stomach.And it has been my own experience that if I keep busy working, besides any issues about "Idle hands are the Devil's workshop," the temptation to amuse and entertain myself with food is less. So that cuts off the temptation further upstream.If you eat only to nourish the body, it helps. Even if nourishing food tastes good, cutting out junk like corn-syrup-loaded soft drinks, or anything sold like potato chips in a bag instead of a meal, and moderating consumption of alcohol (none before going to bed; it doesn't help), will help.
Buy and pray with a copy of Prayers for Purity when you are tempted, and when you have fallen. It is an excellent collection and helps when you know you should praying but words are not coming to mind.
If you have been wounded, bring your wound to confession the next weekend. (And try to have a rule of going to church each week.)It can be powerful, when you are facing a temptation, not to want to confess the same sin again in a couple of days.But in parallel with this remember when a visitor asked a saintly monk what they did at the monastery, and the saintly monk answered, "We fall and get up, fall and get up, fall and get up." Fall down seven times and rise up eight: fall down seventy-seven times and rise up seventy-eight: keep on repenting for as long as you need to to achieve some freedom, and know that some saints before you have risen after falling very many times.
Buy a prayer rope, and use it. When you are tempted, keep repeating a prayer for one prayer rope, and then another, and another, if you need it. Pray "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner," or to St. John the Much-Suffering, "Holy Father John, pray to God for me," or to St. Mary of Egypt, "Holy Mother Mary, pray to God for me."
Use a support group, if one is available in your area. If I were looking for a support group now, I would call Christian counseling centers in the area if available. Talking with other people who share the same struggle can help.
Use XXXchurch.com, or at least explore their website. Their entire purpose is buying you your freedom from lust.
God is a pet owner who has two rules, and only two rules. They are:
I am your owner. Enjoy freely the food and water which I have provided for your good!
Don't drink out of the toilet.
Lust is also drinking out of the toilet. Lust is the disenchantment of the entire universe. It is a magic spell where suddenly nothing else is interesting, and after lust destroys the ability to enjoy anything else, lust destroys the ability to enjoy even lust. Proverbs says, "The adulterous woman"—today one might add, "and internet porn" to that—"in the beginning is as sweet as honey and in the end as bitter as gall and as sharp as a double-edged sword." Now this is talking about a lot more than pleasure, but it is talking about pleasure. Lust, a sin of pleasure, ends by destroying pleasure. It takes chastity to enjoy even lust.
When we are in lust, God does not seem real to us. Rejecting lust allows us to start being re-sensitized to the beauty of God's creation, to spiritual sweetness, to the lightness of Heavenly light. Lust may feel like you're losing nothing but gaining everything, but try to be mindful of what you lose in lust.
And that's my best stab at making a "dartboard," meant so people will shoot at it and make something better, and more complete and less one-sided in navigating the pitfalls of technology. This isn't the only trap out there—but it may be one of the worst.
I would suggest that we need a comprehensive—or at least somewhat comprehensive—set of guidelines for Orthodox use of technology. Such a work might not become dated as quickly as you may think; as I write in the resources section below, I unhesitantly cite a 1974 title as seriously relevant knowing full well that it makes no reference to individually owned computers or mobile devices: it's a case of "The more things change, the more they stay the same." Or, perhaps, two works: one for clergy with pastoral responsibilities, and one for those of us laity seeking our own guidance and salvation. I believe that today, we who have forms of property and wealth undreamed of when Christ gave one of the sternest Luddite warnings ever, Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, can very easily use things that do not lead to spiritual health: sometimes like how Facebook can erode marriages that are well defended as regards old-school challenges.
The best I know, secondhand perhaps, is that today's Church Fathers, on Mount Athos perhaps, are simply saying, "Unplug! Unplug! Unplug!" What they want instead sounds like a liberal political-social experiment, where people who have grown up in an urban setting and know only how to navigate life there, will move en masse and form some sort of Amish-like rural communities. Or perhaps something else is envisioned: mass migration to monasteries? Given all that monasticism offers, it seems sad to me to receive the angelic image, of all reasons, only because that's the only remaining option where you can live a sufficiently Luddite life. I have heard of spiritual giants who incomparably excel me saying that we should stop using recent technology at all. I have yet to hear of spiritual giants who incomparably excel me, and who live in places where technology is socially mandated, advise us to unplug completely. For that matter, I have yet to hear of any Orthodox clergy who live in places in the world where technology is socially mandated say, only and purely, "Unplug! Unplug! Unplug!"
The Orthodox Church, or rather the Orthodox-Catholic Church, is really and truly Catholic, Catholic ultimately coming from the Greek kata, "with", and holos, "whole", meaning "with the whole", meaning that the entirety of the Orthodox Church belongs to every Orthodox-Catholic Christian: the saints alike living and dead, the ranks of priesthood and the faithful, and marriage and monasticism in entirety belong to every Orthodox Christian, every Orthodox-Catholic Christian: and giving the advice "Unplug! Unplug! Unplug!" as the limits of where the Orthodox-Catholic Church's God and salvation can reach, is very disappointing. It's comparable to saying that only monastics can be saved.
Total avoidance of all electronic technology is guidance, but not appropriate guidance, and we need advice, somewhat like the advice that began on how to use Facebook, to what I wrote about iPhones or internet porn. A successful dartboard makes it easier to say "What you said about ___________ was wrong because ___________ and instead we should say ____________ because __________." And I am trying to raise a question. I am trying to raise the question of how Orthodox may optimally use technology in furtherance of living the divine life.
Is astronomy about telescopes? No!
I would close with a quote about technology—or is it? Computer science giant Edgser Dijkstra said,
Computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes.
And how much more must Orthodox discussion of how to use technology ascetically be no more about technology than astronomy is about telescopes? The question is a question about spiritial discipline, of how the timeless and universal wisdom of the Bible, the Philokalia, and the canons of the Seven Ecumenical Councils (volume 1, 2).
Resources for further study
All the Orthodox classics, from the Bible on down. The task at hand is not to replace the Philokalia, but to faithfullyadapt the Philokalia (and/or the Seven Ecumenical Councils to a new medium, as it were. The principles of the Bible, the Philokalia, and the Seven Ecumenical Councils are simply not dated and simplydo not need to be improved. However, their application, I believe, needs to beextended. We need ancient canons and immemorial custom that has the weight of canon law: however ancient canons express a good deal more about face-to-face boundaries between men and women than boundaries in Facebook and on smartphones. We need guidance for all of these.
CJS Hayward, The Luddite's Guide to Technology. You don't need to read all of my ebooks on the topic, and they overlap. This one I'm offering because I don't know of anything better in (attempting to) address classic Orthodox spirituality to the question of ascetical use of technology.
Metropolitan Gregory (Postnikov), How to Live a Holy Life. This 1904 title gives concrete practical instruction. The technology is different from today's technology, but it serves an interesting and valuable reference point for today.
Jerry Mander, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. Mander is a former advertising executive who came to believe things about television, with implications for computers and smartphones, For instance, he argues that sitting for hours seeing mainly the light of red, green, and blue fluorescent pixels is actually awfully creepy. Mander has no pretensions of being an Orthodox Christian, or an Orthodox Jew for that matter, sounded an alarm in his apostasy from advertising that is worth at least hearing out. (Related titles, good or bad, include The Plug-in Drug and Amusing Ourselves to Death.
(The only Orthodox articles I mention are my own. This is not by choice.)
CJS Hayward, iPhones and Spirituality. This piece is partly about appropriate use of smartphones and partly what we lose of real, human life when we lay the reins on the iPhone's neck. It was originally a Toastmasters speech.
CJS Hayward, The Luddite's Guide to Technology. This is my most serious attempt at making an encompassing treatment to prepare people for different technologies. Pastor Vince's article helped me realize it was too much of a do-it-yourself kit, appropriate as far as it goes, but not addressing what the proper pastoral application of the principles should be. And that is why I am writing a piece that will, I hope, provoke Orthodox clergy to expand our coverage in pastoral literature.