Tag Archives: Socrates


I use a flip phone. My parents recently got smartphones. Droids. Then they got new smartphones. It’s part of the family plan. My mother gave me her old smartphone. She said “here, switch over to this one. I’ll pay for the data plan.”

Data plan.

At first I said no. Then I said yes. Then I looked at my girlfriend. I said no again. I said yes. I said no. My mother rolled her eyes. We were going to Rosh Hashanah services. We wore suits and ties. She said, “We’ll go to the Verizon store after services.”

I stood with the smartphone in my hand. “Okay,” I thought. “This is going to happen eventually and I can’t help it–all my friends have them–and I can use it for various things. Tweeting. I’ll use it to tweet. I have four Twitter accounts. I can pay more attention to them. And getting lost. I won’t get lost. I’ll know where I am. And a calendar. I screw up appointments a lot. This will help me that.”

Then I asked myself, “this is late capitalism, right?”

Then I answered, “Yes. It is.”

I stopped. I decided to do something that cellphones and smartphones have made extremely popular among my peers: I decided to decide later.

I asked a philosopher friend if I should get the smartphone. He said no. Smartphones make you less smart. The capacity for memory, the interest in living questions, the constant (mis)direction of attention away from the present moment–just don’t. You don’t want to mess with that. You’re better without it.

I already have an iPad. I stare at it for hours. Every day. Mostly reading PDFs I download for school. Hobbes, Plato, Foucault, etc. This week it’s Adam Smith.

I see people walking down the street on their smartphones. I see them eating dinner, the smartphone sitting in front of them next to their food. I see them playing games on their smartphones on the train. Reading the newspaper. Checking email. Facebook. The New York Times. The best tweeters I know couldn’t do what they do without a smartphone. Richard Nash. Andy Carvin. Also Maud Newton made this connection: ancient humans used to carry smartphone-sized tablets with poetry and scripture carved into them. In Cuneiform.


I can see them walking around in cloaks and sandals with their faces hunched over their smartrocks after written language became vogue. The people that thought too much probably got nervous and talked with their friends about what they should do. Should we trust writing? Should we trust these scratches that everyone in the market is staring at? What will happen to our memory? What will happen to the truth of voice, of sound, of memory? Plato wrote a whole Socratic dialogue about it called Phaedrus.

Then he will not seriously incline to “write” his thoughts “in water” with pen and ink, sowing words which can neither speak for themselves nor teach the truth adequately to others?

Should I trust this smartphone that can neither speak for itself nor teach the truth adequately to others?

Marshall McLuhan says media technologies are ablated mental states. It’s like a slice of my mind fell onto the table one day after breakfast and kept doing whatever it was doing when it was in my brain. It turned into writing, a telegraph, a telephone, a television, a computer. When I stare at the computer and write it’s like when people used to sit and think about Homer’s poetry. Now I can hold whatever was happening there in my hand. I can push its buttons.

Obsessing with technology is just self-obsessing. It’s narcissistic. But it’s just like any mental state. I have the option to be well-disposed towards it. If I get angry when I’m walking because I hate when people pull their dogs while they’re trying to pee, and I obsess over that anger, it’ll consume me. It’ll ruin my day. It’ll make me be a jerk to the dog-owner, who might need a gentle reminder, sure, but not my sass. Other people don’t deserve shitty treatment because I can’t deal with myself in a non-shitty way. Same with smartphones.

We’ve been dealing with this problem for a long time. How do I treat myself well around other people? How do I not become obsessed? How do I reach a balanced happiness? How do I lead a good life? Etc.

Will a smartphone lead to a good life? I don’t know yet. The smartphone arrived  like anything else from the universe. A stubbed toe. My father’s laughter. A death in the family. A political debate. A fungus on my little finger. A love poem.  Do any of these lead to a good life?

They’re just life, I think. What makes a good life is a good me in life. Can I be a good me in life with a smartphone? I hope so.

Yesterday morning I woke up and my phone wasn’t on. I always leave it on to wake me up in the morning because I don’t trust myself to wake up at the right time without it. I tried to turn it on. It gave me a message:

“Please use genuine battery power or phone will shut down.”

Then it gave me a count-down. 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1. Then it turned off. It did the same thing when I tried it again. I spent the day without a phone. I panicked. I went to the Verizon store after I inadvertently stood a friend up for lunch.  They said it was water damage. That I’d have to get a new phone. They asked me, “Do you have a phone we can transfer your information to?”

I said, “Yes. I have a smartphone.”




A Problem: Polanyi Defeaters

Let’s say there are two ways to understand the world: materially and spiritually.

Material understanding thinks in real, practical, commoditized, gain-oriented, market-going, exchange-valued, utilitized, consequence-based, pragmatic, luxurious, wanting, surplus-seeking, growth-inducing, ambition-promoting, what-can-I-get-for-X terms. Generally, material understanding sees the world economically.

Spiritual understanding thinks in ideal, divine, ascetic, use-valued, subsistence-seeking, need-based, balanced, sustainable, transcendence-promoting, virtuous, appreciation-of-X-for-its-own-sake terms. Generally, spiritual understanding sees the world socially-religiously-aesthetically.

A Polanyi defeater poses an epistemological problem for those that think they can understand spiritual statements. Karl Polanyi argues in The Great Transformation that the market system has been embedded in our social relationships since the Industrial Revolution; literally, that our society is an economy, wherein we interact with one another economically and not socially. If this is true then it seems relevant to wonder if our language, the expression of our social relationships, has been similarly affected by the market system. I think it has.

In a market any statement is understood economically. We explain and understand what we mean when we speak in terms of gain and exchange. If we accept that the market system is embedded in our social relationships, and language is an expression thereof, then we must understand or explain every statement economically. Furthermore if language constitutes our thought in some essential way, then by extension our thought is economic in nature–founded in material gain and exchange.

This is a problem. If it’s true, then I can never truly understand or express, rationally or irrationally, any spiritual statement. For every spiritual explanation I can give of a statement I can produce a Polanyi defeater explaining it materially. Any statement about truth, beauty, friendship, love, virtue, or justice can be expressed in terms of material gain and exchange. I can try to understand a spiritual statement, but since understanding requires thought, and thought is economic, then any attempt to do so will fail. And since language is the expression of social relationships, then this holds for anyone that speaks the language I do.

Granted, language is an historical artifact. Another language may be safe from the Polanyi defeaters depending on its history. But given the extent of globalization from early colonial imperialism up through our own contemporary  neo-colonial cultural imperialism, the chances of finding or generating such a language are slim. Even if I do find such a language there’s little hope, if I translate it into mine–try to understand it in terms of my own–the possibility of spirituality disappears immediately. Materiality is built into the fundament of my thought. The structure of my consciousness is material and market-oriented. No matter what I do, so long as I’m thinking, I can’t be spiritual.

For example: “Lily is my friend because she enjoys my company.”

Whether or not this is true, I cannot know whether the statement refers to some deep, spiritual feeling of friendship that Lily has or if she’s is using me for some end. I have no way of knowing if this is the case.

“The sky is blue.”

Again, whether or not this is true, ‘sky’ and ‘blue’ are linguistic entities. It may be the case that the sky and blueness are transcendent properties of an actually existing, divinely or naturally created world. But these words are subject to the market system and may have been constructed and formed over time to get me to see the world in a particular way for some purpose.

“Philosophy seeks wisdom.”

This, for me, is incredibly problematic. I can produce a Polanyi defeater for it such that the only reason philosophy seeks wisdom is for some kind of material gain. Though Socrates died for the idea that the unexamined life isn’t worth living, it turns out that in our cultural moment–if you’re reading this and understanding it–then we have no way of understanding what he was talking about. We can only think about it in terms of commodity and gain because our thought is economic.

The same goes for this blog post. It’s doomed. Tragically. I have no way of understanding if what I’m writing refers to something in the world or, because I’m looking to gain something from what I’m describing, I’m just using this “reality” as a resource for my own material gain.