Simone Weil’s Blasphemy Against Popular Culture
When Steve Jobs died on October 5, 2011, there were numerous public outpourings of grief. Makeshift shrines dotted the globe. There is no doubt that his less-is-more technological aesthetic improved the technological and aesthetic experience of many people. When his engineers presented plans for a mouse with three buttons, he insisted that they pare them down to one. When other operating systems required users to memorize arcane codes to accomplish the most rudimentary tasks, he led a team to create a simple and visually engaging interface that has remained the industry standard. After his company seemed to be yesterday’s news and the mobile phone industry seemed immune to substantial innovation, he masterminded an entire genre of devices as powerful and versatile as they are compact. In short, Steve Jobs led his company to develop hardware that was beautiful and easy to use.
This is a bad thing. Here is why. We already live in an era defined by a shortage of time and an excess of distraction. Those of us affluent enough to own an iSomething – and yes, relative to the standards of the rest of the world, this is a mark of affluence – face an even greater degree of temptation. When you feel happy, it may be more tempting to share that information rather than embrace the fullness of that moment and that feeling, as the recent story of the distracted driver and ensuing car wreck illustrate.
I am free. I can use my technology however I choose. I am responsible for how I use, misuse, and overuse my tools. To the extent that I use my iThings too much, I am to blame, not Steve Jobs. And yet I recognize that my classrooms include many students who neither know that they can ignore their smart phones nor how they might go about doing so.
They are missing out on living fuller and more meaningful lives, especially in terms of caring for others. All major religions and many atheists and agnostics recognize the essential practice of cultivating awareness of those around you. What Buddhist monk Thich Naht Hahn calls “the miracle of mindfulness” and novelist David Foster Wallace calls “paying attention” has been perhaps best explained from a Christian perspective by Catholic activist philosopher Simone Weil.
According to Weil, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” When we exercise attention toward God, it is prayerfulness; toward ourselves, reflection; and toward others, compassion. These are not mere rote actions but genuine striving to understand God, yourself, and your neighbor. Because none of us finds this easy, such generosity is truly rare; yet it may be the only form of generosity that, in the end, really matters.
When we orient our attention toward the suffering of others, we truly begin to live. To be truly open to the struggles of others, you must know yourself and your own struggles. The exercise of empathy creates the opportunity to truly live beyond yourself and your own limited experience of the world. To truly live is to live for others by caring about and truly understanding others, warts, weaknesses, and all.
This takes time and practice. Most iThings make this harder, rather than easier, simply because they make it so easy to be focused on broadcasting information about me, my, I. Until we orient ourselves beyond the limited walls of self and self-concern, we have not actually begun to live. In this way, Steve Jobs made true life harder, not easier.