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Impractical utopians: a bit more on the smartphone conversation

I have an longstanding interest in what could be called alternative modes of living. Examples:

In fact, I participated in an alternative mode of living by growing up in a radically fundamentalist Christian church that practiced separation from the world through strict rules for living. (When Rachel and I married we had neither wedding rings nor a television!) Having lived through experiences of what can only be called religious abuse, I believe I possess some clarity about the dangers of these exercises.

One trait I retained from that background is a dissatisfaction with the status quo. I left behind the paranoia and heavy-handed moralism but I have never shaken the feeling that to live conventionally is to fail to take up the necessary struggle of life. I’m aware, of course, that some people will now dismiss everything I have to say on this subject as internalized religious trauma. And that could be true—though I don’t think it’s that simple. You don’t have to grow up as a paranoid separatist to be dissatisfied with the world these days.

I am interested in these alternative modes of living because they present possibilities. They serve the same value as utopias: they undermine the supposed inevitability of the status quo.

They are also, at the same time, impossible. That is, they do not work as models of living for everyone or for society in general. That is not their purpose. Their purpose is to induce the dynamic tension required for a new way of living to emerge. That new way of living will be neither this nor that, but something else, and unforeseen.

Over the last few days there has been an ongoing conversation about the dangers of smartphones and whether we should all move to flip phones. Yesterday, I advocated for a third way that avoids the binary choice of status quo smartphone usage or smartphone abstinence.

One of the things that I believe gets missed in these discussions is precisely what I’ve said above: those who have traded their smartphones for flip phones are engaging in an alternative mode of living. They are undermining the status quo, which is quite obviously deeply unhealthy. You are not required to imitate them but you ought to pay attention to them.

When we have collectively recovered from our current insanity, we will neither be continually staring at our damned screens nor giving up useful technology altogether. Something new will be happening, incorporating both the mistakes of the past and the wisdom of those impractical, impossible utopians.

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