History, Psychology, recent

Build Your Own Intellectual Oasis

Two years ago I started an experiment I would like to recommend to you. At the urging of my best friend, concerned not just about my happiness but my mental health, I went dark. Perhaps if enough people give this a try it could help pull our troubled culture out of its downward spiral.

What do I mean by going dark? I’ve enjoyed a four-decade long career as an engineer, entrepreneur, and venture capital investor working with many others to help build the digital world in which we now live. As the years passed I became more of an “activist,” devoting increasing amounts of time, money, and attention to various issues and causes impacting the body politic. For 25 years I wrote regular opinion columns for publications like Network Computing and Communications Week, back in the pre-web days, transitioning to Forbes.com, the Huffington Post, RealClear Markets, the Daily Caller, and the Foundation for Economic Education in the digital age. As my tech career began winding down I spent half a dozen years as a fellow at a Washington DC policy think tank, three as a radio show host on Bloomberg Radio where I had the pleasure of interviewing Claire Lehmann when Quillette was just a gleam in her eye, a couple of years as a roving lecturer on college campuses, all seasoned with a smattering of talking head appearances on TV. I had also been deeply engaged in social media since the phenomenon first emerged.

Then in January of 2018 I abruptly shut it all down, because my best friend was right.

First I deleted my Facebook and Twitter accounts, agents of digital dysphoria that were turning me and countless others into crazy people. But I didn’t stop there. I cancelled all my newspaper and periodical subscriptions, including the Wall Street Journal, a once but no longer trusted news source I had read every morning for more than 30 years. Then I gave up writing opinion columns. I stopped listening to NPR. I deleted all the browser bookmarks I had accumulated for news and commentary sites that kept me “informed,” including inflammatory volcanoes of vituperation like Zero Hedge. Banishing the loathsome CNN/Fox two-headed beast was not an issue because I stopped watching TV back in the 1980s when Diane left Cheers. I did everything I could to decouple from the 24-hour news cycle, including relegating directly to the trash all of the “Have you seen this outrage? Pass it on!” emails that used to fill my inbox. I unsubscribed from all the echo chambers I’d come to frequent. I did all of this cold turkey over the space of a few days.

It took a few weeks for the fog in my head to clear. As light and fresh air started pouring in, I began examining the quality of my own life and stopped spending time and energy worrying about everyone else’s. Though I am a sixty-five-year-old Baby Boomer that had somehow never tried meditating, I started practicing daily mindful meditation. I haven’t found anything magical yet, but it’s been helpful getting a bit of quiet time every day to hush the incessant voice in my head that spent 25 years suggesting column topics.

I began a course of directed reading mostly centered around history, philosophy, religion, and psychology—all the stuff I missed as an engineering student in college and never had enough time to dig deeply into during my career. By last count I’ve consumed close to 100 books since this two-year experiment began. Oddly enough for a guy that has always been supremely sure of himself, the more I read the less I feel certain I know. I filled the various interstices of my day with history podcasts, nowadays playing directly into my Bluetooth hearing aids whenever I’m behind the wheel, riding the T, or in the gym. These range from Mike Duncan’s “History of Rome” and “Revolutions” to Dan Carlin’s more dramatic “Hard Core History” to Scott Rank’s whimsical “History Unplugged” to more academic podcasts like “Ancient Greece Declassified” and “The Hellenistic Age.”

The experiment was not just about looking inward. I reached out to dear old friends that life had scattered across the planet, scheduling regular “Virtual Cocktail Hours” over Skype where we would gather in small groups to chew the fat. Most importantly, and getting to the title of this column, I invited a select group of friends and colleagues, amounting to some fifty people out of the 10,000 contacts I had accumulated in my personal rolodex, to join me in a private email discussion group for the purpose of engaging in civil discourse on important issues. And by important issues I don’t mean discussing what Trump tweeted today. I mean asking questions like who are we, where did we come from, how does one live the good life, why are so many people around us going crazy, is there anything to be learned from previous madness-of-crowd transitions the human race has been through, where is digital technology taking us, and what kind of world are we going to leave behind when we shuffle off this mortal coil?

These fifty people represent a wide variety of world views including liberals, conservatives, and libertarians, God believers, agnostics, and atheists, global warming alarmists and skeptics. The group includes teachers, scientists, lawyers, engineers, entrepreneurs, doctors, writers, economists, and investors, septuagenarians and twenty-somethings, multi-millionaires, middle class salarymen, poor students, and retirees living on fixed incomes. My objective was to collect a group of people, all known to me though not necessarily to each other, with diverse backgrounds and perspectives who I believed were capable of engaging in intelligent and well-informed civil discourse. Make no mistake about it, this was an entirely selfish act. I didn’t do this to change the world. I did it to change me.

The unwritten rule in my little oasis is that what happens on the list stays on the list. None of our conversations are for public consumption. In the beginning I moderated all the posts, determined to create a culture that eschewed ad hominem attacks and intellectual dominance games. It didn’t take long before everyone got the idea and I was able turn the moderation off. Not everyone in the group posts, many lurk. While I initially assumed this signaled disinterest, I’m surprised and gratified whenever I see some of the lurkers socially and they tell me how much they enjoy the discourse. Fine, pipe up if and when you feel like it. Message me or anyone else on the list directly if you want to dig into a deeper one-on-one conversation. This is our shared safe space where no one has to worry that a careless word or incorrect opinion might bring down a Twitter mob on their heads, an experience you have to live through to understand how awful it can be.

Since beginning this exercise we have added a few people I didn’t already know recommended by other group members. But not many. Yes, the group is dominated by educated white males, but that’s a reflection of the professional and social communities where I’ve spent most of my life. It’s not my job to fix that. It’s not my job to fix anything except myself.

What a relief it has been to come to that realization! Our natural and laudable social instincts that lead us to be interested in and concerned about others have been hijacked and weaponized by forces we can’t control and don’t yet understand. More of us need to break the spell so we can gather our wits. Wouldn’t the world be a better place right now if more people minded their own business instead of running around like packs of howling lunatics triggered by whatever contrived threat or outrage our politico-media complex pumps into the atmosphere 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year?

That being said, I haven’t totally disengaged from the big picture, having recently joined the Center for the Study of Digital Life. The goal is to gather our wits through a deep analysis of how shifts in media from oral to scribal to print to electric and now to digital have transformed society through the ages.

Meanwhile, going dark has made me a happier, more well-adjusted person. I’m no longer angry all the time. That diffuse anger, at the state of the world that serves no purpose but to pull you into disputes with people who disagree on how to set things right, has left. Redirecting my time and energy away from that scrum has opened so many new worlds of thought and learning that I feel like a college freshman again.

Give going dark a try. I bet it does the same for you. Live your own life, worry about your own problems, and let others worry about theirs. Find joy connecting with real friends, not angst watching hordes of digital simulacra doing St. Vitus’s dance to the tune of a dysfunctional and desperate media industry in its death throes. If you have a mind to, build your own personal intellectual oasis populated with whomever you choose. And rest assured that despite being told otherwise you will cease being part of the problem to the extent that you stop believing you must be part of every solution.

 

Bill Frezza is a former columnist living in Boston.

Comments

  1. That was quite interesting, I admire the work done here.

    Unfortunately having a small business I have to have FB and the like. I also need a smartphone to be a hotspot so I can have internet in my garage gym; in the next few months broadband’s supposed to come and I hope to be able to get rid of it.

    Unfortunately, nobody answers their phones anymore. It’s all FB messenger and the like.

  2. That is an excellent and in a way very traditional course of action. In Hinduism, that is precisely the task of the latter part of life; famously illustrated in Kipling’s wonderful short story “The Miracle of Purun Bhagat”.

  3. Good article. My own experiences are somewhat different. Despite being a former ‘super-user’, I never really subscribed to the digital revolution. I use emails and the web, build my own PC’s and actually have accounts on Facebook and Twitter- but I don’t really use them, other than to make sure family members have landed safely when flying abroad. I don’t even own a mobile phone (people kept ringing me, the one time I tried it).

    Quillette is my first and only experience at joining an online community, apart from participating in Tech and Hobby/Interest forums. I believe that I am fundamentally more sane individual, as a result. Ironically, I think that my reticence towards social media all stems from one piece of Management philosophy that I encountered in the mid 90’s. The idea is that if you have one foot in the past, and the other in the future, then you are pissing on the present. Fundamentally, it’s a message about distraction and has parallels when looking at Clear Desks, and the fact that productive people maintain clear desks because they understand that having more than one item in your line of sight can lose you 15 to 25% of your productive time…

  4. Given the association between “going dark” and the “intellectual dark net”, it doesn’t seem far-fetched to me to draw this connection.

    In a sense, Quillette Circle could be seen as a more accessible, ready-to-join version of Bill Frezza’s intellectual discussion group. You don’t have to know 10,000 people first, from which you can choose your conversation partners. You can just read Quillette’s comments section or even join the Circle to enjoy insightful, entertaining and (mostly) exceptionally polite discussions between people of different backgrounds from all over the world.

    Many thanks to Claire Lehmann and the Quillette team who made this possible! :blush:

  5. Thanks for the proactive article from Bill Frezza. Loved the idea… interested in the actual mechanics or platform recommendation that might make moderating an email group like his, manageable…
    There are quite a few IDW spawned forums available, but not one that seems to be any where near the resolution Bill describes in his 50 distilled contacts…

  6. Yes, the group is dominated by educated white males, but that’s a reflection of the professional and social communities where I’ve spent most of my life. It’s not my job to fix that.

    I agree that the author needed to mention this in order to fully explain what he was looking to accomplish, but there is an apologetic tone here that seems unnecessary. Perhaps an aftereffect of previous contact with Social Justice mobs. A slight, persistent urge to apologize for being an educated white male with a preference for the company of other educated white males whose concerns more closely align with his than, say, those of an educated black woman.

    It’s not my job to fix anything except myself.

    Happily, he seems to be on his way to doing just that. There is nothing to apologize for.

  7. This is what I’m coming to realize as well. Talking politics online can be stressful. Better to focus on improving oneself.

  8. I’ve done the same thing, but with a different methodology.

    First, I’ve never been tapped in like someone generally is who professionally tapped in like the author. The one thing he doesn’t address is the pressure to have a social media presence when you’re building your career. I’m a literary writer (as well as a teacher), and I can’t count the times I’ve been urged to “build my base.” If I were able and willing to Tweet inanities every day, I’d probably have 1000 followers (as a guess, as I’m connected to various other literary people and friends of friends will ‘like’ you) and that probably would help my career or at least my chances of publication. But I just can’t do it. It’s just sooooo stupid. I’ve noticed though that people who use Twitter don’t seem to get that almost no one uses Twitter; they harbor this impression , encouraged by the media, that if Joe Blow in Iowa says a Racist Thing, that is news.

    So the author can pull out of social media because he is 65 and has already established his career. I’d like someone to speak to that. How do you build a career without social media? It’s true you can theoretically just go on and not dip into the insanity but rather Tweet out a photo of trees or your scone recipe. But you do get sucked in.

    At any event, it runs against my grain. I was visiting a friend in Jerusalem and another in Northern Israel this past summer and I found it striking how my stress level decreased significantly even as i was staying a literal stone’s throw from hostile nations who in the past have shot at civilians using long range snipers. I was significantly less stressed–why? I realized it was because all the things the media tells me I should be hysterically worried about were gone, along with the media, and I was left with the reality of the here and now, and free to ponder and think and talk to so many other cultures and peoples.

    When I returned, I vowed to remove myself almost entirely. On FB, I’ve stayed because it’s the easiest way to stay connected with my adult children and my relatives and friends; but over time I’ve adjusted my preferences to the point that now all I get are posts of adorable animals, vacations, fancy dinner tables, and grandkids. I don’t go on Twitter. I never listen to the news as I don’t care to watch Pravda.

    Honestly, sites like these, and a few others (one is a geeky, fun literary group on FB, for instance), keeps me connected. I like the idea of creating your own group though. I’m worried it would devolve into either blandness as people worry about offense, or get hijacked by a few; I guess I’d have to be like the author and get a firm handle on it in the beginning? Food for thought.

    Thanks for the article.

  9. Live your own life, worry about your own problems, and let others worry about theirs.

    Yes, though it sounds a bit overly self-centered. No life is alone, and presumably you have concern about family, friends and your communities.

    While much in politics and culture can be ignored without ill effect, you may occasionally do so at your peril when it comes to trends that will impede upon your life and problems. The growing power of authoritarianism and intersectionality, coupled to the growing rejection or neo-redefinition of western values (Enlightenment, free speech, free association, free contracting, equal protection) is a real concern that will affect you in the future if not directly now. Even the open source movement is starting to believe in censorship or restricting usage for “social good” and the like, showing how good ideas can be twisted and eventually gain in the mindset of others until it’s imposed upon you by force of law and culture.

  10. I was very interested in this, particularly because this has echoed some of my own thoughts, though I’ve hardly expressed them. (Ralph Emerson said that in every great work of art - and perhaps we can add “great column” - our own thoughts come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.)

    I am thinking of sending this to some young people in my life who are thoroughly consumed with engaging in the ubiquitous sturm and drang of the digital age.

    All I would add is that when we disengage from a larger world that we can’t much affect anyway, we discover time to improve the smaller real world around us in humble, but important ways.

    Instead of wasting time “speaking to truth to power” online, how about we speak on the phone to a friend or relative who would be delighted to hear from us? How about we ask a relatively isolated person in our neighborhood to join us for breakfast or send a note of congratulation to a young person who has landed his first adult job?

    Gee, we could walk our dog more or plant a garden by a stone wall that passersby could see, and that would be far more useful than reading yet another yammering column or news story or engaging in meaningless social media jousting.

    In the end, most of us aren’t going to be remembered. And everyone we so much wanted to impress will likewise be gone. Accepting that is very freeing! It allows us to get on with what really matters in our own little worlds in the short time we have.

  11. If you think of yourself as somehow an ‘agent of change’ it’s very frustrating to have people disagree with, or ignore you. I don’t. I feel lucky to live in an era where everything has changed so rapidly, I was born in the late 1950s and I was a science fiction fan since I was 10, everything now is science fiction-esque and I feel privileged to be here, now, not struggling like every previous generation of my family. It’s interesting the way things are shaping up, so I pay attention.

  12. It sounds like he discovered humility, a necessary ingredient to wisdom.

    Another wonderful bit of wisdom. Potentially a large source of incivility is the allusion that problems are solved by identifying someone else as the cause.

  13. Great article. Never hurts to be reminded of the serenity that comes from disconnecting from social and traditional media. In the last couple of months since my daughter was born, I have spent very little time on Facebook, and even then only to communicate with family and friends about how my baby is doing. I felt so much better. The political and social memes that dominate my feed aren’t conducive to productive conversation and are often woefully off the mark, so just end up annoying me into giving a sassy one-liner, which then generates a massive shitstorm. I’d open Facebook to dozens of people wishing me ill. It’s too much negativity, and it’s been nice to be away from it.

    I have been lurking more than usual on Quillette, because I need something I can do one-handed for the third of my life I spend breastfeeding. I’m hoping as breastffeeding becomes faster I will spend less time here, maybe learn to work one-handed, but I don’t feel the need to cut Quillette out entirely. I have a lot of respect and even affection for most of the regular commenters here, so this feels like an intellectual oasis for me. Certainly better than the one I could build myself, which would be dominated by the leftists I’m surrounded by in academia.

  14. First I deleted my Facebook and Twitter accounts

    I don’t have to: I never posted anything on them.

    But I would be sore if I couldn’t come here.

  15. It’s an easy thing to fall into, connecting with interesting people by simply opening my ipad. Being basically a fairly conservative type guy I got the message early on that voicing any sort of political opinion was going to bring about a potentially adversarial situation which, while stimulating at the time, never had a satisfying conclusion.

    In the real world people generally aren’t rude to me, and I try to be considerate in return. Online things can get out if hand quickly, cause nobody’s actually afraid of being punched in the virtual nose. Most web sites are just people being rude to each other, or people from Team A talking about how terrible the people are on Team B.

    I don’t really like either team!

    What I do enjoy is listening (or reading) about things that are relevant to my life in particular and the world in general, and then following along with a discussion about the topic from different people with different perspectives, some maybe even pretty well informed about the topic. This used to be what happened in friends basements listening to a new Beatles record! (Yes they were actually new at one point in time).

    But this is really just entertainment, We live in a world that is constantly presenting challenges that often have no solutions. Best case for most things is that we manage as well as we can, with what we have at hand to work with. However, listening to other people discuss things sometimes helps me get a new handle on an old problem, or just pass the time with something that offers at least some contact with the world outside myself.
    That’s all I expect really. Not going to change the world sitting here on my sofa reading Quillette. But it is a good place to come to. And I wish everyone a Happy New Year!

Continue the discussion in Quillette Circle

41 more replies

Participants

Comments have moved to our forum