It's become something of a commonplace, dare I say a platitude, for cultural commentators to note the fast pace of our modern world, its love of surface, of novelty, of rapid technological change, and caution that it's bad for us, that it's making us unhappy.
One of my favourite writers, the Australian novelist David Malouf discusses this restless aspect of contemporary life in his new book The Happy Life: The Search for Contentment in the Modern World.
One of the chapters, appropriately titled 'Unrest', is, I think, so interesting that I thought it worth quoting extensively: he's got some novel things to say about modern life and the desires new technology stimulates.
Diagnosis and cure, classical and Christian
The chapter's opening pages note that thinkers throughout the ages have long recognised the issue of human restlessness, and discuss the different 'cures' prescribed by two great strands of western culture: the philosophical tradition rooted in classical antiquity; and the contemplative Judeo-Christian tradition.
Philosophers and religious writers agree that human curiosity and restlessness has spurred human innovation and progress, but given rise to a yearning for the infinite, to limitless desires that cannot be satisfied. Referring to one of the characters in a Platonic dialogue Malouf writes:
'What Protagoras identifies as the irritant in human nature that makes the pearl is our essential restlessness, our dissatisfaction, our unrest; a lack in us that has endlessly to be filled. But this 'endlessly' is also the cause, in the individual, of a spiritual disabling that it is the role of philosophy and the rival Athenian schools, in their different ways, to cure.'
'In the classical version, this restlessness is the source of all that is productive in our lives and is to this extent good, but in its negative sense it can be a source of anxiety that is deeply injurious. To this extent it is a disease in need of cure. The cure is philosophy, a long course of study, of argument and analysis, question and answer, through which the individual, by learning to distinguish between real and unreal desires and fears, frees himself from the "busyness" of a world that is endlessly pushing for the new, the more; from engagement, attachment, dependency; from what … in being external takes us away from the sufficiency of the self.'
Malouf goes on to discuss the Christian prescription for chronic dissatisfaction, which is quite different from that of the philosophers: not the attainment of equanimity and self-sufficiency through rigorous self-examination and eventual attainment of wisdom, but the wholesale surrendering of the turbulent self to God, a humble acceptance of one's ultimate helplessness and dependence on the divine. As St Augustine puts it: 'Lord, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.'
'The cure here is resignment from the self,' writes Malouf, ;and submission, without argument, to the Divine Will.'
Malouf goes on to observe that while most people today would by and large accept the classical and Christian diagnosis of the phenomenon of restlessness, they would not find the proffered cures plausible, desirable, or indeed necessary: many would not even accept there is a problem. Many of us actively seek distraction, activity, motion, the free flow of never ending visual and auditory stimulation facilitated by contemporary technology. As Malouf says:
'What is extraordinary, when we come to the present, is the reversal that has occurred in our notion of "unrest" in a century of iPods, mobile phones, multi-tasking; of YouTube, Facebook, Twitter; of news bites, 24-hour news cycles, jump-cut video clips; and the stimulation of our senses at every moment, in public as well as in private spaces, by verbal admonitions and warnings and visual enticements of every sort, from rolling advertisements at bus stops and TV monitors at supermarket check-outs, to plasma screens in bars and pubs.
'Far from being an existential state of anxiety requiring cure, unrest is itself the cure, and for something quite opposite but equally close and pervasive: the fear of inactivity, of stillness; most of all, of the withdrawal of every form of chatter or noise in an extended and unendurable silence.
'As if that terror of "the eternal silence of infinite spaces" that haunted Pascal in the seventeenth century had found its new form on Earth, and had now to be exorcised'.
It's not all bad
At this point one might expect Malouf to lament this contemporary love of surface, of contingency. One might expect him to chastise us for our shallowness and to call us back to the venerable wisdom of the ages; to encourage us to seek to recover the virtues of quietude, stillness, serenity, humility, to find contentment with the ordinary, the everyday.
That's the counsel I've come to expect from reading many diagnoses of the state of the contemporary soul. We're restless and dissatisfied. Wise thinkers from time without mind have identified that as the perennial problem of the human condition, and they offer remedies we need to rediscover and accept.
But Malouf does nothing of the sort. He just accepts the rather obvious fact that many people actually like our fast-changing modern world. Many of us enjoy bobbing along on the fast moving currents of life. We eagerly embrace the new technologies that provide us with constant novelty, entertainment and opportunities for interaction. He says:
'[T]his is a new form of "being" in which the Ego is by-passed not in the old way, by contemplation in the Greek and Roman sense of internal argument, or in the Eastern way through meditation - both of which require and make a virtue of silence - but through an overload that is the equivalent, in mental activity, of those extreme forms of physical activity that are a feature of some sports. We know that the high level of endorphins released by intensive physical activity produce euphoria. Perhaps the exercise of the brain, when it is involved in dealing with rapid stimulus and response, as in video games or in the sort of attention we call upon when we are multitasking, creates in us a similar rush of wellbeing, of exhilaration, elation; an awareness of intense personal presence, in a fast-moving and richly crowded world that we are intensely in tune with, and where a new form of 'happiness' might be found.
'What this suggests is the possibility that the mind - or, more precisely these days, the brain - is still evolving, and at an increasing rate as technology presents it with new forms to master and new stimuli to respond to.'
Malouf doesn't say whether he thinks this fact of modern life is good or bad. He just recognises it, expresses it with customary eloquence, and accepts it.
It's a novel, and I think rather refreshing perspective. I'm so used to social commentators dismissing our modern world - and particularly the web, the field in which I work - in rather patronising and platitudinous terms: contemporary culture is shallow, frivolous, unstable, contingent, our heads too easily turned by shimmering distractions, by the shiny aesthetics and disorientating pace of technological change. We need to get offline, put down our gadgets, slow down and look back to older, simpler, slower patterns of life.
Well, yes: up to a point. Our modern digital world is no utopia. But there's much to love, if you're open to it. If you've got eyes to see, ears to hear. People are not fools: they embrace change, new technology, new forms of entertainment and interaction because they enjoy it, because the ever rushing stream of new images, new sounds, new possibilities for communication is exhilarating. As Malouf puts it, euphoric. How generous, I think, and clear sighted of him to see that.