I’m a Spotify Premium customer, which means I have access to all the music a normal person could ever want and more than enough for a lifetime of listening. With all this choice I’ve discovered a few new artists, but I mostly stick to what I know, shifting between themed playlists and hours of ambient focus-fodder. Spotify Premium also offers all this at Very High quality, which, while sounding no different to my ears, eats through my 2GB of monthly mobile data. High-bandwidth infinity, it seems, is wasted on mortals like me.
Most digital media, from Spotify to Facebook to smartphones, offer a functional everything to each customer: Here’s the only device/app/service you’ll ever need! The pitch aggravates FOMO (the fear of missing out) by ostensibly offering to fix it. Facebook makes sure no one misses those baby photos and Netflix promises to recommend the next series you need to watch. This is the exact opposite of the constrained experience offered by analogue tools.
Last year, I bought a second-hand Sony Walkman from the year I was born, 1989. Yes, one of those big yellow bricks that plays audio cassettes. And it’s not a dusty collector’s item. I use it regularly for the runtime of the average Bruce Springsteen album. When I brought home this prize, it was in rough shape; it didn’t just work. So, after securing a discount, I got to work at my kitchen table.
I’m not what people call handy but the object before me was comprehensible. I could see its (missing) hinges and mechanisms. As an object this Walkman was the antithesis of the modern “smart” device, which are presented as frictionless portals. In place of a scrying stones whose technological wizardry is indistinguishable from magic, I held mere matter in my hands, and I worked my will upon it. I cut a length of paper-clip with pliers, bending it back on itself, and inserted my makeshift hinge. After some shimmying, the door that secures the tape deck clicked into place. A small act, maybe, but one that reminds me of my personal agency within an increasingly inscrutable world of black-box devices and services.
A More Comprehensible World
Ivan Illich, writing in Tools for Conviviality, helped me to make sense of why fixing my Walkman feels different from fiddling with settings on my iPhone, and why human-scale experiences just feel different. First, the structure of the tools in question matter a great deal. For Illich, “the less [tools] are convivial, the more they foster teaching.” This means the less personal and creative agency enabled by a tool, the closer we move to “a monopoly of understanding.”
In limited and well-integrated tribes, knowledge is shared quite equally among most members. All people know most of what everybody knows. On a higher level of civilization, new tools are introduced; more people know more things, but not all know how to execute them equally well. Mastery of skill does not yet imply a monopoly of understanding. One can understand fully what a goldsmith does without being one oneself. Men do not have to be cooks to know how to prepare food. 1
Crucial to my experience was the ability to comprehend the object in front of me. The Walkman’s operation was largely comprehensible to me. I could see where the consequences of the missing hinge and imagine a solution, just as I could see gunk on the tape-head I could clean away, improving the sound of my music. The same cannot be said of my interactions with the Spotify app. When a ‘connecting…’ alert hangs, or even when I change the quality of the stream, all I can do it shrug my shoulders. I have little to no say in its operation apart from my discrete choices. Which is appropriate, since I simply pay for access to content.
It’s a strange experience in 2020 to value the constrained experience of an old Walkman more than the everything-now value proposition of Spotify. Does food you have a hand in preparing taste better? Sometimes, when attended to with care and practiced skill, yes, it does. And while Illich’s critique above is directed towards industrial-scale education, it holds wisdom for how we interact with the world. Illich goes to sketch a roughly inverse relationship between increasing complexity and decreasing human agency. He offers the example of the city child, who is connected to “thousands of systems, but only peripherally with each.” She knows how to operate the Smart TV and ask Alexa questions, “but their inner workings are hidden.” In this now familiar technological environment, “learning by primary experience is restricted to self-adjustment in the midst of packaged commodities.” We adapt to our tools instead of adapting them to our use and, like the child in Illich's example, “[feel] less and less secure” in straying from corporately sanctioned use-cases. This, asserts Illich, affects the “balance of learning,” skewing it towards formal and mechanistic education and away from the competence-building effects of experience. In this world, “people know what they have been taught, but learn little from their own doing,” thereby creating in them a need for formalized, and in Illich's view, industrialized forms of education.
Ours is a culture that values an education over learning and the collecting of facts over the cultivation of knowledge.
Hands-on & Walled Gardens
Despite the complexities at play, which I've barely begun to acknowledge above, the experience of tinkering gave me a taste for more. Less a desire of self-sufficiency, it’s a hunger for the rewards of what Cal Newport calls manual competence. Newport, quoting Matt Crawford, reminds us that the digital abstractions of knowledge work often result in ends at odds with more manual work. “The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence,” Crawford writes in Shop Class as Soulcraft, “have been known to make a man quiet and easy.” The sending and receiving of digital ephemera exhausts us.
This isn’t to say that manual work is easy. Competence of any kind takes time, and I’m not the person to call to fix an old Walkman, but there are lessons here for a people conjoined to consumer electronics.
And manual competence isn’t limited to electronics. After getting a taste for tinkering, I turned to pandemic gardening for both a break from screens and unlimited herbs. Whether we get up to our elbows in nuts and bolts or dark earth, there’s value in “manifesting oneself concretely” in our physical environment. But this isn’t about picking a side along the digital/analogue divide. The mindset of manual competence, of mastery over frictionless user-friendliness, has the potential to reframe our relationship to the devices we use to connect (and to consume).
For one, imagine what calls of ‘learn to code’ might mean if they focused on competence and freedom, rather than the simple market value of jobs at Google or Amazon. A former Facebook employee summarized the issue aptly: “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.”Learning to code holds the promise of life beyond the walled gardens of Big Tech, a life of human competence and agency, if only we can break our addiction to convenient consumption. Alan Jacobs, writing of the open web, reminds us that the social media (but also streaming services) “are not gardens; they are walled industrial sites,” on which users live on the bounty of all-powerful CEOs. We are free to make this trade, writes Jacobs, but things get complicated “when, by living in conditions of such dependence, you forget that there’s any other way to live — and therefore cannot teach another way to those who come after you.” More of us need more time away from screens, not just because screens can be bad, but because we have increasingly little say in what our screens and data actually do. In the same way a small garden can make us conscious of the strengths of weaknesses of industrial agriculture, learning to code—even just building a website from scratch—helps us see past the bright façade of the consumer internet. For all their flash, digital-first giants peddle forms of content that are desperately dull.
Towards a Homespun Anti-Capitalism
As a practice, gardening is engrossing. The activity rewards attention, as the gardener becomes familiar with the varied textures and sensory inputs of the ground and their slow transformation over time. Contrast this with boring screens. Yes, boring. For what other reason would so many employ multiple screens. Instagrams of Manchu Picchu are beautiful, but they cannot compare with my backyard for actual engagement — the difference being that no one profits from my picking dead leaves off my marigolds. Engagement via screens is thin. It’s one reason it still feels better to buy physical media, and why the strategy of Spotify, Netflix, and others is to offer everything, right now! Subscriptions to bottomless content lock customers in with a value proposition we can’t refuse while “the purchases occur automatically and the loyalty occurs by default.” Despite the value, digital media incentivize a strange mix of FOMO and maximization that results in a thin experience. Before the consumer cornucopia we, thinking ourselves powerful, are often powerless to resist watching ESPN+ over middling Netflix fare while browsing TikToks on a second screen.
Perhaps our hands are made for more than swiping at brightly coloured glass. Ignore for a moment the role institutional education plays in forming people as workers and consumers and imagine a future where reviving Home Economics classes is radical instead of regressive. While I’m convinced more people should learn to code, if only to inject radical new ideas into software dominated fields, I think it’s more important to favour physical making. Software cannot replace the renewable resource of human skill acting on the physical world. “By institutionalising the instruction of handcraft, students can learn the rules and structures, and then break the rules, subverting them through an experimentation that is undergirded by knowledge of making.” Handcraft classes could exist alongside codecraft instruction in an effort to form citizens who are fully human, capable of manipulating digital abstractions and competent in the creative manual work of making. Practicing both might very well preserve the benefits of each while mitigating the drawbacks—like the fractured attention engendered by digital content and devices. Devaluing convenient consumption, alongside bringing expressive individualism down a peg or two, is how we’ll chart a course towards a human future where the planet, and civil society, remains a safe harbour for generations to come.
This might start with displacing the bottomless content model adopted by digital media. A model that largely exists to keep users “in-app” for the purposes of data collection, creating more value for the controllers than the creators and consumers. Speaking of attention, Matt Crawford suggests we can recover our capacity with a pivot to pursuits centred on manual competence. Engagement with the analogue world, writes Crawford, nurtures “those ecologies of attention that are established in skilled practices—the kind that pull us out of ourselves and allow us to join the world in a mood of appreciative discernment.”
Illich, Ivan. Tools for Conviviality. Marion Boyars. Kindle Edition. ↩︎
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