Pop Up Philosophy and Pop Up Technology: Allies or Enemies?

André Spicer with his Pop Up Philosophy gig.

André Spicer, a professor at the University of London has an interesting article on Aeon about whether any of us have the time to just stop, think and relax. And in a world built on busyness, exhaustion, stress and deference to those “above” us, it’s certainly a fair question. But the article also runs into some all-too-easy prescriptions for cures and causal explanations for why we don’t have that time as much as used to.

Overall, I think Spicer’s experiment is good and worth discussing at length, so let’s get into it.

Pop-up philosophy.

Stop, sit down and just think. That’s what I wrote on a whiteboard – then I took it outside and propped it next to a small folding chair near the entrance to my office at City, University of London.

First off, this is a wonderful idea.

I think there needs to be more people who advocate for people to just sit and relax in society in a very open way. Now I’m thinking about what it would mean for me to do something like this in one of the bigger city parks. But given the fact that the city I live in isn’t very big itself I don’t know if it’d get enough people to make the experiment worth it.

Plus, as a trans person, I have to be careful in public as it is, even without putting a big sign next to me. So I’ll say that, as with many things, it’s pretty easy to ask folks to sit next to you and be in these busy commutes if you have a lot less to worry about in terms of harassment. And even Spicer mostly got people taking pictures and laughing, not engaging.

I remember when I wrote on a white board during my stint at college (one semester) a question: What does freedom mean? Some people wrote interesting and thoughtful things and one person just wrote some nonsense about the military giving us our freedoms and that we should be thankful for that, etc. Public experiments like this are always interesting.

Universities support cultures that encourage faculty to work late into the night researching and writing scholarly papers that will be read by a small handful of other hyper-specialized experts. What they rarely support is time to think.

This is a great point and it’s nice to see someone, especially someone who is inside the culture itself, speaking out about how academic culture revolves around near-endless production. Both for the students and the teachers it seems like contemplating is never a part of the curriculum. Heck, even for the philosophy classes I’ve never even heard of (let alone seen) a philosophy professor who encourages their students to take some time for themselves and just think.

A handful of colleagues joined me, quietly sitting. ‘It’s nice to be able to think for once,’ one said.

‘I spent most of the day writing reviews of pointless research papers,’ another noted. ‘That’s pretty mindless,’ he added.

Another told me: ‘It’s like being at my summer-house back in Finland. That’s when I do my thinking.’

I spend almost every day (almost) meditating and that’s usually my time to sit and self-reflect on how I’m feeling. I’ve gone on and on about my meditation before and so I won’t bore recurring readers with a rehash. But basically, that’s my time to think about whatever I feel I need to for 30 minutes. I think (although I don’t know for sure) that it’s helped me keep calmer in a lot of situations and it reminds me to breathe in important times.

But I realize that doing this has somewhat spoiled me. I can’t imagine reserving a place for where you do your thinking. I try to do my thinking wherever I can and for at least 30 minutes a day. I don’t always do it (today I’ve slacked on it and instead watched a bunch of Angie Tribeca) but it’s a nice sensation that I’m never in a hurry to end.

Some of this seclusion from contemplating is down right frightening:

A recent study by psychologists at the University of Virginia asked subjects to simply sit in a room and ‘just think’ for 6 to 15 minutes. In the room was a button allowing subjects to electrocute themselves if they wanted. The researchers found that the majority of subjects would rather electrocute themselves than just sit quietly and think. One person electrocuted himself 190 times during this short period.

This made me audibly react in surprise. I can’t believe that someone would be so against silence and contemplation that they would electrocute themselves even once, let alone almost 200 times. To me, that seems really wild, but then again people have different needs and many of us have been conditioned to constantly be on the go. I suppose it isn’t very surprising that college students can’t just sit quietly and think and…no wait, that’s very surprising and counter-intuitive.

Some of this article, took the easy way out; blaming technology:

The vast army of electronic devices surrounding us has proven an able ally to our fear of thinking. Only a decade or two ago, everyday life held many small parcels of time in which we would be marooned with our thoughts: queuing, sitting on public transport, idling in a traffic jam, or even just waiting for a friend.

I don’t think this is true since a decade ago people still had Nintendo handheld devices and early smartphones were definitely a thing then. Though, obviously less people used them then they did now since they weren’t as accessible. And even past those things there have always been books, radio, newspapers, conversation and iPods (or Walkman).

People like keeping their mind occupied for one reason or another, but smartphones are not necessarily one of the central causes. People have been busying themselves with external objects instead of just sitting and thinking quietly for a long time now. And I’d much rather have a world wherein people have the choice and do what works for them, then not.

Although I will say that this part was helpful:

Mixing electronic devices with activities such as working, playing with children or having sex means that we are dividing attention between multiple tasks. Although some of us think that we are great at multitasking, the reality is that we are not. Neuroscientists have found that no one, properly speaking, multitasks. People just ricochet between different tasks, doing each less than well…

This passage helped me realize that when I thought I did an OK job “facing” (AKA straightening out the store, merchandise, etc.) while I was listening to a podcast, I wasn’t. I thought I was focusing on my job much more than I actually had been, but my manager robbed me of that illusion the next day. It was a bummer, I have to tell you.

So full points to Spicer on this one.

Also, I’ve talked about this before in my chapter by chapter review of Autopilot as well (see here).

Some of Spicer’s points didn’t resonate with me at all though:

Knowledge-intensive organisations already hum with distractions.

Many meetings, phone calls, messages and queries from colleagues are meaningless requests that impede thought. Open-plan offices usually make matters worse by inviting all manner of interruptions, from the overly talkative colleague to the intrusive manager. This prompts employees to switch tasks frequently.

According to a study by Gloria Mark at the University of California, Irvine, employees in an office switch task on average every 11 minutes or so. Once they have been interrupted, it takes employees on average 25 minutes to get back to their original task. The figures are frightening.

I agree with the first and second passage but I disagree with the conclusion that this is necessarily “frightening”.

This would only be frightening if work itself was not frightening to begin with. But unfortunately many of those distractions are craved by employees who would rather be anywhere than their job. And they would rather think or do just about anything else that isn’t stimulating their brains in the least. And in that situation, instant gratification can be king.

Getting back to the pop up philosophy gig Spicer did, I found some of his remarks off-putting:

Pop-up philosophy was more of an occasion for selfie-snapping than self-reflection.

There’s this running vein through modern intellectuals, as if thoughts begin and end once technology involves itself. But I wonder how Spicer knows if these people didn’t take the selfie and then do self-reflection later? Or maybe when they posted them on Facebook, they engaged in some self-reflection or perhaps a friend who saw and engaged them on it?

I think Spicer is selling technology and its ability to encourage leisure a little short here. While it’s true that technology can contribute to our workload, if done right it can also contribute to our ability to engage with ourselves.

After all, I use my laptop for every meditation session I do.

Oh, darn it, I brought it up again.

I hope I don’t become one of those people, geesh.

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