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Photo by Marc-Olivier Jodoin / Unsplash

Thoughts build your everyday existence. Technology affects your thoughts. The implications? Ask Marshall McLuhan.

Sometimes I’m Gothic. Other times, Tudor-ish. In the morning I might be Romanesque, but by the afternoon I’m Bauhaus.

The architecture of my mind changes day-to-day, hour-to-hour, sometimes minute-to-minute. I generally want to live a life of good deeds, uplifting counsel, and noble thoughts. But as a typical human being, the mental architecture of a particular day or hour might be more inclined to make me obsess about money, be loud, or tell ribald jokes.

The most troubling thing: the architecture I wake up with or shift into during the day isn’t a conscious choice. I don’t wake up and say, “Well, yesterday I was Gothic: grand, prayerful, elevated in thought, word, and deed. Today, I want to be Victorian-like: noble, demur, of refine appearance. Tomorrow, I’ll be Romanesque: sleek, elegant, and a temple to the pursuit of money.”

It doesn’t work like that. I wake up or find myself in the middle of the day with a mental architecture I didn’t choose.

Pretty much the only thing I can do is work with it the best I can. The ease or difficulty of working with it depends on what I want to do.

If the architectural style that day is Romanesque and I want to make a lot of money, it’s a great fit. But if I want to be in my study, meditating with the Stoics? That’s tough. It’d be like living a life of chastity at the Playboy mansion.

Control your thoughts

Our mental architecture is crucial to determining whether we’ll be kind or rude, noble or mean, courteous or abrupt. Although we don’t have control over the architectural form like we do our day’s clothes, we can sway it.

We can supply the building materials that cause us to find ourselves in a Gothic structure with flying buttresses, pointed arches, detailed with gargoyles. Or we can supply the materials to be Modernist: plain, flat roofed, black and white.

The building materials are our thoughts.

One thing modern psychiatry has shown us: we choose our thoughts and it’s important to choose carefully and control one’s attention.

It’s nothing new. Spiritual masters across the spectrum have observed the same thing. The need to take control of one’s thoughts is the universal rule of all spirituality:

It is impossible to gain any control over circumstances without first obtaining control over the ideas in one’s mind, and the most important — as well as most universal — teaching of all the religions is that vipassana (to use a Buddhist term), clarity of vision, can be attained only by him who succeeds in putting the “thinking function” in its place. E.F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed

Thoughts are the building materials of our everyday existence. They grow and morph into attitudes, dispositions, words, and deeds.

But I think there’s more to it than that. I think it’s also McLuhanish.

The media maven

Marshall McLuhan was a household name in the 1960s. He built a career around examining the way “media” — extensions of ourselves, from wheels and roads to phones and computers — change the way we think and behave, altering us in ways we often don’t perceive.

His message can be illustrated well by the saying, “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

A hammer is a type of media, an extension of ourselves: it increases the power of our muscles. The man who buys a hammer normally does so for a set purpose: to strike a nail. But if he carries it around with him enough, everything will start to look nailish. Perhaps a stuck bolt, maybe the skull of a boor.

Imperceptibly, the man with a hammer starts thinking differently.

Every medium has that effect. Problem is, a lot of people don’t realize it, and even those who are aware of it often have a hard time figuring what the effect is. And if they figure it out, they can’t explain it convincingly to others. In efforts to examine the effects of a medium, a person normally relies on introspection, anecdotes, and other forms of evidence that don’t translate well empirically.

But I think the effects of media merits more consideration, especially today.

If our contemporary world has one dominant characteristic, it’s media. New tools, machinery, technology, toys. They flow out of corporate R&D like water from a fire hose. Every calendar year brings a handful of novelties that could be standard household items in a few years.

The need for speed

What are the effects of these media on our mental architecture?

All the popular technology from the past 30 years has one thing in common: speed. The Internet: speed of information. Email: speed of written communication. Digital music and streaming services: speed of access. Blogs: speed of publication.

Even those media whose primary improvement isn’t speed offer greater efficiency, which is simply a kind of speed. Cell phone use isn’t speedier than its landmine ancestor, but the overall efficiency associated with it (constant access and voicemail) saves time.

Speed and efficiency are the products of the new technology. We use the new technology and become speedier and more efficient. We also start valuing speed and efficiency. I know I have, often to the point of frenzied living.

By contrast, what are the inputs of, say, an intellectual or spiritual life?

Picture these things: writing in a journal, contemplating a poem, reading a serious book, monks walking in their gardens, meditating.

Those things conjure up certain images, and they’re not images of speed and efficiency. The images are of slow and deliberate things. Calm things. Not frenzied.

How does modern media affect the intellectual and spiritual life? More precisely: how does a person who swims like a fish in the water of modern media’s speed and efficiency greet the slowness and deliberateness of the spiritual and intellectual life?

I’m afraid the slowness and deliberateness will cut against the grain that has been quietly grafted onto the modern person’s existence by the speed and efficiency, making her ill-suited for studious or spiritual pursuits.

Don’t get me wrong, all the new technology can help. My Evernote app has seven journals of pithy insights that help get me through the day. It is difficult for me to write by hand, so word processing software has been my staple for 25 years of writing and journaling.

But I’m not interested in how an item of technology is used. The observation that each technology can be used for good or bad is so commonplace that it barely needs stating.

I’m interested in how technology shifts our mental architecture. What role does it play in the type of mental architecture I’ll wake up with tomorrow or find myself in tomorrow afternoon? Those are the most interesting questions.

And for people who enjoy the modern technology but also savor the quiet and studied life, the kind of life necessary to create great art or writing, they’re crucial questions, even if a bit disconcerting.