A noted philosopher’s argument for signing off social media … and enjoying ‘the brief time’ you have left


(REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)

Alain de Botton is a beloved (and prolific) pop philosopher, with a shelf-full of books and two very popular TED talks to his name. So when the Swiss-born author tweeted to his 443,000 followers on Monday night that they should delete Twitter for the sake of their “inner conversation,” many took his words seriously — promising to delete the app from their phones, responding with impassioned defenses of the medium, and, ironically (!), retweeting de Botton’s message in droves.

Maybe that response isn‘t all that surprising. Increasingly, it seems like anxiety about social media is as much a hallmark of modern life as social media itself: We have “digital detox” retreats and summer camps, apps that force users to sign off Facebook — even a “National Day of Unplugging,” celebrated (or not) on March 7. De Botton’s critique of social media fits neatly into that tradition. It’s crowding out contemplation, he suggests. It’s filling our short lives with meaningless clutter.

But unlike the alarmists and technophobes preaching “unplugging,” de Botton has a more nuanced take on the issues. He uses Twitter frequently himself — just not, apparently, from his phone. His so-called School of Life, an institution “devoted to developing emotional intelligence,” teaches classes on Internet dating — in addition to more analog self-help topics, like “how to spend time alone.” De Botton isn’t opposed to technology, he’s just an advocate for moderation. Which, when you think about it, makes lots of sense.

We contacted de Botton to further expand on his philosophy of social media. What he had to say was, frankly, pretty compelling:

Twitter is of course a wonderful thing, but it is also the most appalling distraction ever invented. It sounds so harmless. But it wants you never to be in touch with yourself again and never to have time to catch up on ‘updates’ from the person you really need to keep close to you: yourself. It denies us that precious non-specific time in which you can daydream, unpack your anxieties and have a conversation with your deeper self.

There are countless difficult things hiding away deep within us which we should give some thought to even though the desperate temptation is to keep tweeting and RTing. We need Twitter sabbaths. We need long train journeys on which we have no wireless signal and nothing to read, where our carriage is mostly empty, where the views are expansive and where the only sounds are those made by the wheels as they click against the rails. We need plane journeys when we have a window seat and nothing else to focus on for two or three hours but the tops of clouds and our own thoughts.

We need relief from the Twitter-fueled impression that we are living in an age of unparalleled importance, with our wars, our debts, our riots, our missing children, our after-premiere parties, our IPOs and our rogue missiles. We need, on occasion, to be able to go to a quieter place, where that particular conference and this particular epidemic, that new phone and this shocking wildfire, will lose a little of their power to affect us – and where even the most intractable problems will seem to dissolve against a backdrop of the stars above us.

We should at times forego the Twitter feed in order to pick up on the far stranger, more wondrous headlines of those less eloquent species that surround us: kestrels and snow geese, spider beetles and black-faced leafhoppers, lemurs and small children — all creatures usefully uninterested in our own melodramas; counterweights to our anxieties and self-absorption.

A flourishing life requires a capacity to recognise the times when Twitter no longer has anything original or important to teach us; periods when we should refuse imaginative connection with strangers and hashtags, when we must leave the business of complaining, insulting, haranguing, exclaiming to others, in the knowledge that we have our own priorities to honour in the brief time still allotted to us.

Agree? Disagree? You could leave a comment. Or you could let that all marinate, de Botton-style, in the vacuum of your own head.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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Caitlin Dewey · June 4