A recent study found that “more Americans [are] suffering from stress, anxiety and depression” than ever recorded. An article from Psychology Today described this increased anxiety as contributing to the fact that “between 1999 and 2014, the suicide rate increased [by] 24 percent.” Nistsu Abebe attempted to diagnose “America’s New ‘Anxiety’ Disorder” in a recent article for New York Times Magazine. The usual suspects have been rounded up: we are anxious thanks to “social media,” thanks to “Trump,” thanks to the lingering effects of the “Great Recession” — and so on.
But before we gulp down another round of Prozac and launch into hazy rant lambasting the President for our digital-age jitters, we ought to be clear on what, exactly, anxiety is. Anxiety is a kind of fear. Fear, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, is “a certain contraction,” a shrinking-inwards, a bodily and spiritual retreat to safer spaces “[arising] from the imagination of some threatening evil which is difficult to repel.” Evil is difficult to repel “due to lack of power.” If we are fearful, then, it is because we lack “power,” ability — the capacity to disperse threatening evils by the strength of our hands.
This seems paradoxical. If any generation is capable of repelling evil, it’s the generation with Google in their pockets. With a few swipes of my thumb I can navigate my way out of a collapsing cave, watch an instructional video on how to kill a bear, and Facetime my mother to tell her I’m well. But even as we solve the problems and difficulties of everyday existence through the power of our devices, we fall prey to a looming, existential lack of power — we increasingly need our devices to avoid evil.
In one sense, this dependence is no different that any other tool-use in human history — we need our tools to live. But our current tool-use is associated with an increase in anxiety because we do not own the tools we use. Digital tools are characterized by the continued presence of their creators who provide the tool to its user by the provision of internet connection, data, design updates, electricity, and so forth. We rent our evil-repelling power from the wealthy. For instance, we have recently transferred the power to repel the evil of being lost (a perennial evil, to be sure) from the personal skill of navigation (a power enacted through a few owned tools, like a map or a compass) to the use of GPS technology (a power rented to us by a combination of designers and data providers). It may be a small thing, but the loss of the skill of navigation is also an increase in fear — a lack of power which renders a threatening evil difficult to repel.
Or rather, it is an increase in fear that we do not feel so long as the skill of navigation is continuously provided to us. To the companies from whom we rent the power to repel evil we might say: “I fear no evil, for thou are with me.” But trading the personal power of evil-repellent for the services of our Silicon Valley shepherds increases our fear of the moment when our corporations will not be with us. Take away our smartphones, and we show all the symptoms of separation anxiety, an affliction designated as nomophobia (no mobile phobia). Our fear takes on the specific character of anxiety, a fear of the “unforeseen evil,” as Aquinas puts it. Anxiety frets in the abstract: what if our providers should fail? What would happen to our capacity for navigation, communication, information, entertainment, sexual arousal, memory, storage, filing, organizing, commerce — and everything else we rent from Google and Co.?
“Do not be afraid!” This is the rallying cry of a Catholic back-to-the-land movement. The idea — which is old as the Desert Fathers and has been espoused by philosophers as recent as Peter Maurin, Dorothy Day and Ivan Illich — is gaining ground in both liberal and conservative circles, with several new farms that express a specifically Catholic vision cropping up on the United States. Perhaps Francis’ vision of “integral ecology” is sinking in. Perhaps a suspicion of “smart-technology” is a natural complement to Rod Dreher’s call for Christians to form intentional, morally supportive communities. In any case, a return to the land is more than a move towards bees, wood stoves and moveable fences. Fasting from our relationships of rent, relearning and repossessing the skills and goods that we currently rent from the wealthy, all of this increases our power to repel evil — allowing us to live with less fear. But it runs into a critique: Surely a life with limited smart-technology is as prone to evils as a life that indulges it? Maps, animals, and gardens: all of these contain their own problems, their own fears.
Dumb technologies — like goats and herb gardens — might baffle at first, but they set their users on a course of education. To take them as our means of living is to tend towards a mastery of their quirks. To live through our apps and iPhones is not to tend toward mastery, but to deeper levels of subservience. A man at the tail end of 20 years navigating a business through an iPad is no more capable of prying open its back and fixing it then he was when he began. His intense use of Facebook does not transform him into an expert. It wears him into a digital serf at the whim of the wealthy who decide, through algorithm and update, how he will hear from and be heard by his friends. This is not some accident of iPhones as compared to sledgehammers — as if a humanly “fixable” wifi router is just around the corner. The difficulties of owned tools and learned skills are our difficulties. The difficulties of smart-technology (like breakdown, disconnection, and obsolescence) are the difficulties of their providers. This is the nature of rent: the one who uses the thing is set at a distance from the thing itself, dependent on providers to know and care for its inner workings.
If the struggle to manipulate our rented goods and skills is characterized by increasing anxiety in the face of unforeseen evils, to struggle with the land is to struggle with increasingly known evils — and thus to be angry. Aquinas argues that to be angry is “to rise up against things contrary and hurtful,” and that a man does not rise up “unless there be desire and hope of revenge.” To characterize the “hope of revenge” in negative terms would miss the edge of the medieval philosopher. Revenge is a kind of justice, a coercive setting-in-order that punishes a clear and present evil — wrestling it into submission and nullifying its effects. We can only hope to administer justice if we have power over the “contrary and hurtful” thing in question. Anger (especially in the form of annoyance and frustration) is the proper response of a man who has power, authority and responsibility over the difficult thing.
Only a romantic could pretend that pre-smartphone society was idyllic, but only a modern romantic could pretend that the difficulties of smart-technology are the difficulties of “just another kind of tool.” To rent our tools and skills from the wealthy is to trade our annoyances for anxieties. We should begin to be suspicious whether this trade is a fair one. After all, anger is not an intrinsically negative emotion.
One can be pleasantly annoyed. The car-guy who hears his engine rattle may grin and curse because his annoyance already contains within itself an anticipation of the victorious bout of mechanical war he’ll wreak come garage-time. As Aquinas puts it, “anger is always accompanied by hope, wherefore it causes pleasure.” I can hope for victory of evil and the right-ordering of the things and stuff through which I live by virtue of ownership. When I trade ownership, with all frustrations, for rent, with its all its anxieties, I negate the possibility of the grinning-curse. No one smiles when their iPhone breaks. No one cracks their knuckles in anticipation as pixeled wheels wobble endlessly in search of an Internet connection. Faced with an unknown obstacle, a man can anticipate no victory. At best, he can hope to pay an expert-owner to triumph over his obstacles. At worst, he despairs.
A Catholic back-to-the-land movement takes the following as given: to “be not afraid” we need to be willing to be annoyed instead — that is, to re-learn and re-own the skills and goods that we currently rent from the wealthy, trading the anxieties of rent for the frustrations of ownership. It promises a grand increase of foreseen evils sparked by a grand increase of problems and solutions placed firmly in our hands — like maps, wood stoves, and pencils that need sharpening. But the hope of those thinking in this direction is that it is better to grin and curse at a stubborn goat than twitch and curse at a stubborn screen; better to be afraid and know what to do, then anxious, hoping that the owners of the world will do well.