Seneca’s Smartphone: Stoic Principles for Managing Digital Distraction by Jack Reeves

I hope this isn’t a spoiler alert: Lucius Annaeus Seneca did not have a smartphone.

Marcus Aurelius didn’t wear an Apple Watch; Musonius didn’t take selfies; Epictetus, not  once, to my knowledge, fired off a gChat. Stoicism’s architects lived before any of these modern day ubiquities.

But what if they hadn’t?

Stoicism is, in many ways, a product of its time, but it’s also a universal and timeless philosophy that can be adapted to the challenges of today. No Stoic is better suited to this adaption than Seneca, whose work often mines the mundanities of everyday life (exercise, parties, going to bed) for insights on the construction of the virtuous soul.

No, Seneca never explicitly tells us to take fewer selfies. But with a little tweaking, Seneca’s wisdom can be used to forge a healthier relationship with our digital devices.

I speak from experience. Seneca helped me grapple with a digital distraction crisis of my own. His practical advice on dealing with distraction, over-information, and mob mentality, among other hazards made me rethink how I used my technology. It enabled me to negotiate a healthier, more purposeful relationship with my digital devices.

All it took was imagining Seneca’s smartphone.

What is digital distraction?

I gave a version of this talk at Stoicon X 2017 in Toronto. I started by asking a few questions:

  1. How many people here own a smartphone? (Every hand went up).
  2. How many people take their smartphones with them everywhere except the shower? (Every hand stayed up).
  3. How many of you take it in the shower, too? (Some laughter — but hands still stayed up!)

A roomful of people with smartphones isn’t out of the ordinary today, but it’s remarkable how quickly the technology has proliferated. Mere decades ago, few people owned a cell phone. Today, over 80% of Americans carry these palm-sized supercomputers, which deliver gobs of information, entertainment and stimulation 24/7.

Smartphone saturation is only one aspect of a broader information revolution that is transforming life as we know it. The internet, computers, smartphones, wearables, public WiFi, and a proliferation of new media, social networks, streaming services and the like have radically changed how humans engage with their world.

Walk into a coffee shop, public park, boardroom, airport, classroom, museum or subway car. Or just examine yourself. You’ll find a species fascinated by glass screens. We hunch over our computers and crane our necks down at our smartphones. We don’t even bother to put them away on the sidewalk or in the bathroom. Why bother?  There’s a whole universe of stimulation behind those screens — and it’s faster and more enticing than the reality around us.

To be clear, I’m in no position to judge. I own (and use) a smartphone, a tablet, and even an Apple Watch. (Yes — I’m one of those guys). But in recent years, I’ve managed to reshape my my relationship with digital devices to be ordered and purposeful, not mindless.

What changed? I found Stoicism — and then I consciously applied its lessons to my digital habits.

How Seneca helped me beat digital distraction

I used to be a hardcore digital junkie. I toggled continually between inboxes, social media channels and news sites, gorging myself on information, overloading my brain with stimulus. I spent each day in a frenzy of buzzes, chimes and notifications.

  • If something happened in the world, I knew about it first (and probably hit the comments section to make sure everyone knew how I felt).
  • If I had a thought, quip, or pleasant/unpleasant experience of any kind, I immediately fed it into social media for immediate validation.
  • If I had a spare moment, I filled it by reaching for my phone and hunting through texts, email, and social media, until some pleasant little morsel provided a hit of reward.

I lived in a state that I now realize was digital distraction. It was a “love of bustle,” as Seneca writes, that wasn’t industry—it was “the restlessness of a hunted mind.” (Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, Ltr 3 (trans. Richard Mott Gummere).

Digital distraction is everywhere, but the symptoms are easily recognizable. When we find ourselves staying up at night compulsively surfing social media, or peeking at our phones during quality time with loved ones, or getting overwhelmingly distraught over the latest news headline that popped up on our home screens—that’s digital distraction.

Seneca, while never dealing with digital distraction, tackled the challenge of leading a virtuous and productive life while dealing with temptations and adversaries both internally (ego, avarice, hatred) and externally (fate and the amoral universe).

With that in mind, I ran a thought experiment: what might Seneca think about the smartphone? (Ignore, for a moment, that he’s been dead for two millenia). After all, much of his work touches on the same issues that lie at the root of digital distraction.

Seneca devotes considerable ink to things like money, socializing, and food, which are both necessary to life, and yet equally capable of causing great amounts of suffering. I suspect he would view digital tools in a similar light. The line between use and distraction is not always clear. We must, therefore, employ philosophy to guide us.

Seneca is also interested in cultivating a well-ordered mind. He continually explores the relentless tug of distraction, egoism and vanity, among other influences—and he gives us plenty of advice on how to deal with them. If the smartphone offers powerful distraction and egoism, then Seneca’s wisdom will help us manage it.

Challenges & Adjustments

Below are four guiding principles, drawn from Seneca’s writings, that I have used to negotiate healthier relationship with my digital devices.

To help organize things, each principle has a challenge—how digital distraction can make things difficult. And then, I’ll suggest adjustments—tactics that I’ve used to troubleshoot the distraction.

Principle 1: Don’t Waste Time

Challenge:

One of digital distraction’s chief symptoms is wasting time on things that don’t matter. We let inbound emails and texts, gossip, inflammatory news stories and the latest social media outrage pull us off course. We spend hours browsing through social feeds or playing brainless tap-tap games.

Our time is precious. Seneca advises us:

In guarding their fortune men are often closefisted, yet, when it comes to the matter of wasting time, in the case of the one thing in which it is right to be miserly, they show themselves most extravagant. De Brevitate Vitae, Ch. 3 (trans. Damian Stevenson)

We hand our time over to digital distraction because the distractions are enticing. Media companies use algorithms to find the most salacious headlines. Social media employs the same tactics as slot machines to keep us “pulling the lever” (swiping down our feeds) over and over, hunting for a payoff.

The result? We disregard Seneca’s advice; we sacrifice precious minutes and hours to a never-ending feed of nonsense designed to harvest our attention for ad revenue.

Adjustments:

  • Install a content filtering app on your digital devices. My personal favorite is Freedom. It lets you configure lists and allow access only at certain times.
  • When you need to do work, put your phone on silent and move it out of easy reach. Properly do the work you intend to do.
  • Purge your phone of the most distracting and time-wasting apps. I’ll play addicting games like Angry Birds for hours, so I just don’t allow them on my phone.

Principle 2: Don’t Drown in Information

The Challenge

The internet has dramatically increased the availability and volume of information, and accelerated the speed at which this information is delivered. Today it’s possible to wake up, grab your iPhone from your nightstand, and ingest more information in a few moments than our ancestors would have encountered in weeks. You don’t have to leave your bed to check your mail, read the news, or see what your friends got up to last night.

Our smartphones and wearables compound this condition by supplying a continual drip feed of alerts and notifications, buzzes and chimes. Breaking news headlines, texts from friends, work emails, IMs and more continually pepper our day with pinpricks of information.

Seneca warns us to avoid “discursiveness,” advising us instead to “linger among a limited number of master thinkers, and digest their works” if we want to enhance our personal wisdom. We should avoid restlessly jumping between information sources because:

everywhere means nowhere. When a person spends all his time in foreign travel, he ends by having many acquaintances, but no friends. And the same thing must hold true of men who seek intimate acquaintance with no single author, but visit them all in a hasty and hurried manner. Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, Ltr II (trans. Richard Mott Gummere).

Bear in mind that Seneca writes in a time when over-information meant reading too many books. The internet and smartphones have opened new frontiers in our ability to overindulge.

The Adjustment

  • Disable all notifications but the most important ones. On my phone, I only get texts and phone calls. Everything else (e.g. emails) is checked on my schedule. I have my computer in “Do Not Disturb” mode.
  • Favor “slow-release” media like books and print newspapers over their hyper-addicting digital alternatives.
  • Enforce phone-free times (the first hour of the day and final hour of the day, at minimum).

Principle 3: Don’t Engage With Crap

Challenge

The internet is full of crap. Mass media has never been a friend to reason, but for many years, human beings were at least running the zoo. Information, whether distributed in books and newspapers, over the radio or on cable TV, was editorially curated. A real person decided what to put out into the world. And it was (relatively) hard to get the word out there — one generally needed considerable resources to get published or to get something on television.

The internet flattened barriers to entry, making it easy for anyone and everyone to produce media capable of reaching millions of people in mere seconds. To manage this huge quantity of information, networks switched from editorial curation to algorithmic curation: non-human lines of code that cycled headlines and links based on clicks and views.

What effect did this have on the media? You’ve seen it:

  • The rise of click-hungry tabloids and content farms like Drudge Report and Huffington Post, which provide emotional roller coasters while purporting to provide “news.”
  • A host of independent blogs, digital “influencers,” and anonymous crowds—creating an outrage culture addicted to mob mentality and cyberbullying.
  • An overwhelming tend towards negativity, resentment, bitterness, complaining and gossip—after all, this is what gets the clicks!
  • Proliferation of clickbait headlines, each one competing to be the most sensational, scandalous or emotionally resonant.
  • Rampant circulation of misleading “fake news” (on BOTH sides of the political spectrum, mind).

Is it any wonder that higher social media usage correlates with a higher likelihood of depression in young adults?

Seneca recognized the alluring, but harmful, nature of crowd psychology. He warns:

To consort with the crowd is harmful; there is no person who does not make some vice attractive to us, or stamp it upon us, or taint us unconsciously therewith.

What are we to do? Choose our company carefully. In the same letter, Seneca advises:

Associate with those who will make a better man of you. Welcome those whom you yourself can improve. Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, Ltr VII (trans. Richard Mott Gummere).

We must be particularly mindful, in our climate of ready outrage, to avoid that which makes us angry. Seneca tells us that the wise, peace-seeking man will:

shun the company of all those he knows are likely to provoke his anger… [and] choose men who are honest, easygoing, and have self-control. De Ira (trans. Leighton D. Reyonlds).

Adjustments

  • Stop reading cheap, hastily-assembled clickbait crap. Don’t reward it with your attention or emotional investment. Reward high-quality media sources that report the facts.
  • When consuming digital media, ask: “Does this make me a better person?” If you find it stroking your ego, or bringing out the nasty little child inside of you, get out of there!

Principle 4: Use technology purposefully

Challenge

Digital distraction persists because technology is woven into the fabric of our lives.

You might try to look at your phone less, but you get important emails for work. Or, you go for a hike and take your phone for safety — and wind up looking at Facebook when you should be enjoying the view.

Remember, smartphones are powerful stimulants for the reward center. Dopamine, the brain’s feel-good molecule, is released when we encounter (or anticipate encountering) novel data, social information, and emotionally stimulation. All smartphones do is make this reward center activation seamless, which is why we sit in front of them, pecking away like lab rats.

Seneca would advise us not to seek a never-ending source of rewarding pleasure on our phones, but to be satisfied with what we have in the moment. “Nature’s wants are slight,” he writes, “the demands of opinion are boundless.”

When you are travelling on a road, there must be an end; but when astray, your wanderings are limitless. Recall your steps, therefore, from idle things, and when you would know whether that which you seek is based upon a natural or upon a misleading desire, consider whether it can stop at any definite point. Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, Ltr XVI (trans. Richard Mott Gummere).

If you’ve lost an hour (or three) to the rabbit hole of social media and online news, Seneca’s description of “limitless” wandering resonates.

Don’t wander. Be clear and purposeful about your intentions when using technology. Digital devices are tools to be used productively, not sources of infinite (but ultimately unsatisfying) pleasure.

Adjustments

  • Try this experiment on yourself: For a day, when you feel the need to take out your phone, make a mental note of why. No judgements—just self-study.
    • “I’m taking out my phone to check my work email.”
    • “I’m taking out my phone to see if my Instagram post got any likes.”
    • “I’m taking out my phone because I’m bored.”
  • When you catch yourself in a digital rabbit hole — simply stop. Put the phone down, and take a breath. Acknowledge the impulse to keep surfing, but don’t obey it.
  • Consider moving all of your apps off of your homescreen. This is my phone’s default setup. When I activate it, I’m looking at a blank screen with no information. It’s a reminder to pause and set my intention before using my phone.

Concluding Thoughts

If technology is so often the source of bad things, why do we continue to use it? Wouldn’t it be easier to toss our phones into a lake and move to the woods? Of course not. And this is why a Stoic framework for establishing healthy digital habits works beautifully.

Stoicism advocates being more effective in the world, not withdrawing from it. It takes more discipline, Seneca tells us, to mingle with the mob and preserve our virtue than to avoid the crowd entirely. Similarly, I believe it’s possible to construct a purposeful and virtuous life with technology as an aid, and not an obstacle.

But doing this takes work. The human brain did not evolve for a world in which hyper-palatable, hyper-stimulating distractions stalk us from our desktops, our pockets, our wrists. Leading the kind of life we desire necessitates taking a principled approach to our tools.

In this piece, I’ve given you a few helpful principles — but the true results, as always, come from what you do with them. Vale.

 

Jack Reeves is a strategy consultant and writer based out of New York City.  He writes at jackreeves.io

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today

7 thoughts on “Seneca’s Smartphone: Stoic Principles for Managing Digital Distraction by Jack Reeves”

  1. Good advice and excellent application of Seneca.

    One thing to add: I found it very useful to begin targetting one aspect of my smart phone usage while I broadly tried to be more disciplined and focused. I made a rule of never messing on my phone while going to the toilet (which I used to do, and often stay for quite some time). It wasn’t too difficult to achieve this and was the thin end of the wedge.

  2. After reading your piece, I took my son to the playground — without my iPhone. As we played hide-and-seek in the sunshine and the fresh air, I felt shame and regret for all the times I had previously “played” with my children while keeping one eye on the damned phone. But I did make a wonderful discovery: it’s possible to exist for an hour without knowing what stupid thing the American president just said or clicking “like” on my friends’ postings of the latest cutest things their pets have done. Maybe it’s even possible for two hours. . .

  3. To me, the fourth point is the foundational one–the rest are in support of it. To enact the first three, one must have some criteria for judging what is a waste of time, what is crap, what is useful information. All of that is decided by your purpose for being on social media. Whether looking at pictures of my siblings’ kids is a waste of time or not is entirely dependent upon my reason for being logged on–on Facebook it’s one of the main reasons I’m there, while on ResearchGate it would be a waste of time.

  4. Nicely done, Mr. Reeves! I’m happy to say that I am one of the 20% who does not have an “android” or smart phone–just an ancient model that does nothing but make phone calls! Still, as you note, distraction is everywhere, and the internet is rife with lamentable tripe. Seneca’s advice was never more timely. OK, that’s enough online time for me! Thanks again…

    Regards,
    Ron Pies

  5. Wonderfully said, beautifully stated…absolutely true…I’m putting my phone away as soon as I finish this comment…well done Jack Reeves!

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