A humanity-altering tech revolution has exploded across the globe in the past two decades or so. Time sucking streaming services, sticky toddler dedicated tablets, and phablets crammed into skinny jean pockets are the new norm. Consumers are entangled in a web of USB cords and stare at varying sized screens for most of their waking hours. The word addiction is thrown around, but the line between addict and average user is no longer clear. So much has changed, so fast. But is their a way to mitigate this onslaught of technology in our daily lives?
An Ancient Solution to a Modern Problem
Let’s zoom out. Modern humans have been around for about 200,000 years. Now, that’s a good long while. Nowhere near how long crocodiles have been around, which is about 200 million years. Both timespans are difficult to grasp since we have such puny lifespans. Today's levels of industrialization and the rate of tech progression would have been unimaginable a little over a century ago. And yet, it might be a faction of freethinkers from ancient Rome who can help navigate us through our current day high-tech fog.
Stoicism is a Hellenistic philosophy that was founded in Athens in the early 3rd century B.C.. The philosophy was popular throughout Roman Greece and all the Roman Empire. It's most notable practitioners were the philosopher Seneca and Emperor Marcus Aurelius. The philosophy’s modern day proponents include entrepreneurs and authors Tim Ferriss and Ryan Holiday. Among its key tenets are self-control, objectivity, altruism and wisdom. Adherents of the philosophy strive to be imperturbable and accept that all in life is ephemeral.
More to our question are Stoicism’s ideals of self-control and in turn, minimalistic aspirations. In Letters from a Stoic, Seneca says, “Until we have begun to go without them, we fail to realize how unnecessary many things are. We’ve been using them not because we needed them but because we had them."
At the heart of Stoicism is self-reflection, to face and analyze one’s emotions. “Things,” as Seneca calls them, are the distractions that numb us and prevent rumination. They are the external factors that disrupt our internal equilibrium. Many of the world’s distractions that Seneca cautioned against are still around today. Only now, the distractions of the world can fit into your front pocket, providing users a powerful and instant anodyne.
The Stoic philosopher Epictetus, a successor of Seneca, said, “A person should so live that their happiness shall depend as little as possible on external things.” It's quite clear that a majority of today’s society relies on technology for their daily addictive hit of dopamine, aka instant gratification. Have a look at one of your social feeds after the HBO Sunday lineup airs or navigate through a busy sidewalk of screen-glued pedestrians. Observe a teenager for a mere five minutes and you’ll wonder if they came out of the womb with a smartphone in their hand.
Countries like Japan have established “fasting camps” for screen-addicted kids. In America approximately 3,000 teens are killed each year from texting while driving accidents. Facebook has become a leading cause in divorce cases and of course there's porn addiction, which is its own deep dark rabbit hole. It would seem that as the tech revolution rolls on these former societal aberrations are becoming more and more everyday.
Our technology not only buffers us from our emotions and what matters, but it tends to induce snowballing anxiety. Yuvel Noah Harari, author of "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” says, "One of histories few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations.” Our bursting inboxes, infinite social streams and buzzing messages via three different chat services inundate users with micro-tasks and increase stress. The compounding effects of this constant assault wreaks havoc on a person’s most base instincts and emotions.
A Stoic Evolution
The question is how does one dull the destructive side of this double-edged sword?
The Stoic advises that we reflect on how we spend our time and purge ourselves of fecklessness. Withdrawing from technology for short periods of time is one method practiced by the likes of Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates. But these so called e-tox’s are nothing new. Marcus Aurelius states in Mediations, "A key point to bear in mind: The value of attentiveness varies in proportion to its object. You’re better off not giving the small things more time than they deserve." You heard the emperor. It’s time to cut back on the damn Snapchat.
Of course tech isn’t void of value. The Stoics would praise innovations such as the Internet, long range telescopes that reach deep back into time, the Human Genome Project and the smorgasbord of other advances that have occurred since their age. In fact, the glut of wisdom and the proliferation of humanitarianism brought about by such gains would blow these ancient philosopher’s togas right off their tanned Greek bodies. Even to modern man today’s latest innovations can be mind-boggling.
Stoics would also admire such smaller advances as time management software, meditation apps and video chat services. Time management tools are used to track what the Stoic considers man’s most precious asset, time. Meditation apps help to achieve mindfulness, an aim that’s at the heart of Stoicism. Video chat services such as FaceTime and Skype would be lauded for their ability to cultivate and maintain human connections, a top priority during Seneca’s life. There is no need for Stoicism and technology to be at odds with one another.
It can be said that like everything in life our day-to-day tech should be used in moderation. The existential angst humans face and our soporific technologies will never disappear. Stoicism posits that the individual can and should function in a state of sanguinity regardless of external factors. So, some will spend way too much time playing Candycrush, while others will program the course for the spacecraft that delivers the first colonizers of Mars. C'est la vie. In the meantime we can all benefit from incorporating a little more Stoic mindfulness into our lives.
Adam Lisabeth works in advertising as a copywriter and lives in Brooklyn, NY. Inquisitive about different cultures, futurism and design, he has a passion for analyzing the world around him.