Build your own intellectual oasis

sailboat

Two years ago I started an experiment I would like to recommend to you. At the urging of my best friend, concerned not just about my happiness but my mental health, I went dark. Perhaps if enough people give this a try it could help pull our troubled culture out of its downward spiral.

What do I mean by going dark? I’ve enjoyed a four-decade long career as an engineer, entrepreneur, and venture capital investor working with many others to help build the digital world in which we now live. As the years passed I became more of an “activist,” devoting increasing amounts of time, money, and attention to various issues and causes impacting the body politic. For 25 years I wrote regular opinion columns for publications like Network Computing and Communications Week, back in the pre-web days, transitioning to Forbes.com, the Huffington Post, RealClear Markets, the Daily Caller, and the Foundation for Economic Education in the digital age. As my tech career began winding down I spent half a dozen years as a fellow at a Washington DC policy think tank, three as a radio show host on Bloomberg Radio where I had the pleasure of interviewing Claire Lehmann when Quillette was just a gleam in her eye, a couple of years as a roving lecturer on college campuses, all seasoned with a smattering of talking head appearances on TV. I had also been deeply engaged in social media since the phenomenon first emerged.

Then in January of 2018 I abruptly shut it all down, because my best friend was right.

First I deleted my Facebook and Twitter accounts, agents of digital dysphoria that were turning me and countless others into crazy people. But I didn’t stop there. I cancelled all my newspaper and periodical subscriptions, including the Wall Street Journal, a once but no longer trusted news source I had read every morning for more than 30 years. Then I gave up writing opinion columns. I stopped listening to NPR. I deleted all the browser bookmarks I had accumulated for news and commentary sites that kept me “informed,” including inflammatory volcanoes of vituperation like Zero Hedge. Banishing the loathsome CNN/Fox two-headed beast was not an issue because I stopped watching TV back in the 1980s when Diane left Cheers. I did everything I could to decouple from the 24-hour news cycle, including relegating directly to the trash all of the “Have you seen this outrage? Pass it on!” emails that used to fill my inbox. I unsubscribed from all the echo chambers I’d come to frequent. I did all of this cold turkey over the space of a few days.

It took a few weeks for the fog in my head to clear. As light and fresh air started pouring in, I began examining the quality of my own life and stopped spending time and energy worrying about everyone else’s. Though I am a sixty-five-year-old Baby Boomer that had somehow never tried meditating, I started practicing daily mindful meditation. I haven’t found anything magical yet, but it’s been helpful getting a bit of quiet time every day to hush the incessant voice in my head that spent 25 years suggesting column topics.

I began a course of directed reading mostly centered around history, philosophy, religion, and psychology — all the stuff I missed as an engineering student in college and never had enough time to dig deeply into during my career. By last count I’ve consumed close to 100 books since this two-year experiment began. Oddly enough for a guy that has always been supremely sure of himself, the more I read the less I feel certain I know. I filled the various interstices of my day with history podcasts, nowadays playing directly into my Bluetooth hearing aids whenever I’m behind the wheel, riding the T, or in the gym. These range from Mike Duncan’s “History of Rome” and “Revolutions” to Dan Carlin’s more dramatic “Hard Core History” to Scott Rank’s whimsical “History Unplugged” to more academic podcasts like “Ancient Greece Declassified” and “The Hellenistic Age.”

The experiment was not just about looking inward. I reached out to dear old friends that life had scattered across the planet, scheduling regular “Virtual Cocktail Hours” over Skype where we would gather in small groups to chew the fat. Most importantly, and getting to the title of this column, I invited a select group of friends and colleagues, amounting to some fifty people out of the 10,000 contacts I had accumulated in my personal rolodex, to join me in a private email discussion group for the purpose of engaging in civil discourse on important issues. And by important issues I don’t mean discussing what Trump tweeted today. I mean asking questions like who are we, where did we come from, how does one live the good life, why are so many people around us going crazy, is there anything to be learned from previous madness-of-crowd transitions the human race has been through, where is digital technology taking us, and what kind of world are we going to leave behind when we shuffle off this mortal coil?

These fifty people represent a wide variety of world views including liberals, conservatives, and libertarians, God believers, agnostics, and atheists, global warming alarmists and skeptics. The group includes teachers, scientists, lawyers, engineers, entrepreneurs, doctors, writers, economists, and investors, septuagenarians and twenty-somethings, multi-millionaires, middle class salarymen, poor students, and retirees living on fixed incomes. My objective was to collect a group of people, all known to me though not necessarily to each other, with diverse backgrounds and perspectives who I believed were capable of engaging in intelligent and well-informed civil discourse. Make no mistake about it, this was an entirely selfish act. I didn’t do this to change the world. I did it to change me.

The unwritten rule in my little oasis is that what happens on the list stays on the list. None of our conversations are for public consumption. In the beginning I moderated all the posts, determined to create a culture that eschewed ad hominem attacks and intellectual dominance games. It didn’t take long before everyone got the idea and I was able turn the moderation off. Not everyone in the group posts, many lurk. While I initially assumed this signaled disinterest, I’m surprised and gratified whenever I see some of the lurkers socially and they tell me how much they enjoy the discourse. Fine, pipe up if and when you feel like it. Message me or anyone else on the list directly if you want to dig into a deeper one-on-one conversation. This is our shared safe space where no one has to worry that a careless word or incorrect opinion might bring down a Twitter mob on their heads, an experience you have to live through to understand how awful it can be.

Since beginning this exercise we have added a few people I didn’t already know recommended by other group members. But not many. Yes, the group is dominated by educated white males, but that’s a reflection of the professional and social communities where I’ve spent most of my life. It’s not my job to fix that. It’s not my job to fix anything except myself.

What a relief it is has been to come to that realization! Our natural and laudable social instincts that lead us to be interested in and concerned about others have been hijacked and weaponized by forces we can’t control and don’t yet understand. More of us need to break the spell so we can gather our wits. Wouldn’t the world be a better place right now if more people minded their own business instead of running around like packs of howling lunatics triggered by whatever contrived threat or outrage our politico-media complex pumps into the atmosphere 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year?

That being said, I haven’t totally disengaged from the big picture, having recently joined the Center for the Study of Digital Life. The goal is to gather our wits through a deep analysis of how shifts in media from oral to scribal to print to electric and now to digital have transformed society through the ages.

Meanwhile, going dark has made me a happier, more well-adjusted person. I’m no longer angry all the time. That diffuse anger, at the state of the world that serves no purpose but to pull you into disputes with people who disagree on how to set things right, has left. Redirecting my time and energy away from that scrum has opened so many new worlds of thought and learning that I feel like a college freshman again.

Give going dark a try. I bet it does the same for you. Live your own life, worry about your own problems, and let others worry about theirs. Find joy connecting with real friends, not angst watching hordes of digital simulacra doing St. Vitus’s dance to the tune of a dysfunctional and desperate media industry in its death throes. If you have a mind to, build your own personal intellectual oasis populated with whomever you choose. And rest assured that despite being told otherwise you will cease being part of the problem to the extent that you stop believing you must be part of every solution.

Bill Frezza is a former columnist living in Boston.