“Just as every technology is an invitation to enhance some part of our lives, it’s also, necessarily, an invitation to be drawn away from something else.” – Michael Harris, The End of Absence.
A Typical Day
It’s 30 minutes before fajr time ends. The alarm on your smartphone starts blaring. You reach over and try to swipe the screen but end up smacking your phone and hope it went into snooze mode. A few minutes later it goes off again. You’re slightly aware that prayer time is ending soon and grab your phone. With one eye barely opened, and the other eye unable to open, you unlock the phone. The bright screen smacks you in the face.
Ding. 27 new emails. You quickly go through them to see if there’s anything important. Even though hardly a single email out of the past 5,000 you’ve received has hardly qualified as such an emergency.
Blurry-eyed or not, your fingers instinctively go to where the Facebook icon is. 3 new notifications. Did anyone like the photo I posted last night? Who left comments and what do they say?
Then Twitter. Instagram. Email again just in case something new popped in. No text messages. Oh yeah… that whole fajr thing.
Work is the same. Sit down. Gmail, Facebook, ESPN, CNN, Reddit, YouTube, Texts, work email, IM conversations .. repeat. How many web browser tabs do you have open at the same time on average? Exactly.
The red light on the drive home – same thing. Waiting in line at the grocery store – same thing.
We are busy being busy giving everything continuous partial attention without a break.
At night, we repeat the same cycle, only putting the phone down after we’re no longer afraid of having enough energy to stay awake – that is, being at the point of completely passing out.
A Unique Time
I’ve always felt that I had a unique perspective on the social media life. After all, I signed up for Facebook back when you had to have a college .edu email address. What I didn’t realize, until reading Harris’ book, was that I am an endangered species.
We have in this brief historical moment, this moment in between two modes of being, a very rare opportunity. For those of us who have lived both with and without vast, crowded connectivity the Internet provides, these are the few days when we can still notice the difference between Before and After. …. [T]here’s a single difference that we feel most keenly … that is the end of absence … The daydreaming silences in our lives are filled; the burning solitudes extinguished ….
If you were born before 1985, then you know what life is like both with the Internet and without … Any younger and you haven’t lived as an adult in a pre-Internet landscape … If we’re the last people in history to know life before the Internet, we are also the only ones who will ever speak, as it were, both languages … Some inventions are more than discreet gadgets; they dissolve into the very atmosphere of our lives. And who can notice air?
Technological progress will not be undone. Social media is a tool just like television before it, and the printing press before that. The tool is not inherently good or evil, it’s how we use it. That point is fairly obvious though.
The deeper question we need to ask is what trade-offs come as a result of using this technology?
Every revolution in communication technology – from papyrus to the printing press to Twitter – is as much an opportunity to be drawn away from something as it is to be drawn toward something ….
As we embrace a technology’s gifts, we usually fail to consider what they ask from us in return – the subtle, hardly noticeable payments we make in exchange for their marvelous service. We don’t notice, for example, that the gaps in our schedules have disappeared because we’re too busy delighting in the amusements that fill them. We forget the games that childhood boredom forged because boredom itself has been outlawed [Harris].
Simply put, we have given up our free time. We’ve given up our cognitive energy. We don’t recite the Prophetic supplications for waking up and sleeping. This is not out of laziness or apathy, but because we haven’t allowed ourselves the mental energy to do so because something else tugs at our attention.
What Are We Giving Up?
Every interruption is rationalized. There are people we need to connect with. Inquiries that demand our replies. Photos that need to be liked. Our expendable hours are given up for simply momentary concessions.
In our rush toward the promise of Google and Facebook – toward the promise of reduced ignorance and reduced loneliness – we feel certain we are rushing toward a better life. We forget the myriad accommodations we made along the way [Harris].
What we fear, as Louis CK observed, is loneliness.
It is an inability to be alone with your own thoughts and emotions. In essence, this is the trade-off. We have lost the ability to reflect.
[This is] a blessed Book which We have revealed to you, [O Muhammad], that they might reflect upon its verses and that those of understanding would be reminded (38:29).
We want the easy solution for how to enrich our salah. We want the magic pill that will bring us closer to Allah (swt). In fact, if this post was titled “3 Ways to Increase Your Khushoo’ in Salah. Reason #2 is So Easy Your Mind Will be Blown” it would probably get 20 times the traffic. The reality is, those huge parts of our faith and spirituality are predicated on our ability to focus, to give cognitive attention, and to reflect. This requires quiet moments.
More than the quiet moments, it demands of us to make a choice. We have to decide what is most important.
I am so irrevocably, damnably, utterly wired to the promise of connection that I have to constantly, every hour of every day, choose which connections matter in a given moment. …, How very exhausting. Yet how very worth it [Harris].
There are no easy action items or easy solutions. We have to take up the exhausting task of being conscious about what we pay attention to. The default, if we do not, is unconsciousness. It is ghaflah.
Indeed, those who do not expect the meeting with Us and are satisfied with the life of this world and feel secure therein and those who are heedless [ghaafiloon] of Our signs (10:7).
Those of us born before 1985 have seen how technology has slowly made trade-offs that others may not see. We see the choices that have been made, that to others look like the default way of living.
Awareness is critical. If we can’t naturally find the moments to remember Allah, we have to engineer them. We have to create moments of solitude and reflection. Dua is not an item we can multi-task. We have to create moments where we can pour our heart out to Allah with full attention – not partial attention.
Instead of squeezing in dhikr and dua when we find time, we should make those devotional acts self-made prerequisites to touching our phones.
We have to reclaim our expendable hours, and make them hours essential to our connection with Allah.
What trade-offs have you made for social media? Have you noticed a direct impact on your relationship with Allah (swt)?