This past spring a documentary was released in conjunction with the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. This film was mostly made up of found footage from NASA of the crew and support staff during the mission. It was an amazing film. I brought my boys to see it in the theater because I thought it was important that they get some understanding of such a historical event. They sat entranced by what they saw on the screen while I sat and quietly cried. As I watched I was struck by the concerted, focused effort of everyone at NASA to make this mission happen and the contrast that we do not do things like the Apollo program anymore – or at least it seems that way. Yes, times are different now, but it is not like 1969 was the epitome of peace time. In the previous year there were two assassinations of major national figures along side a tense and sometimes violent national election. The civil and women’s rights movements were in full swing, the summer of love and Woodstock were about to happen and, not to be left out, there was the issue of the Vietnam war and its skyrocketing body count. Yet in the midst of all that the NASA engineers and staff kept their focus and made it to the moon. Students of the Apollo program will tell you that Apollo 11 was not a perfectly run mission, but it was close enough to be completed successfully. As I watched the film I kept thinking about the feeling of doing a great thing well, the feeling that no doubt everyone at NASA felt when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon for the first time.
In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport argues that without a space and time for sustained, focused work we are unable to achieve great things. This book is quite similar to his other book Digital Minimalism in its effort to encourage people to unplug from the distractions of digital life and find a place away from it where focused effort can be made.
In the deep recesses of my being I know that Newport is right, that I need to unplug because the digital life is destroying my happiness. But the surface bit of my being is more than happy to be distracted by whatever shinny new thing that shows up on my phone’s notifications. I wonder if the trick is not to become a digital hermit and eschew all media, but rather to find the balance that allows the digital connections, but also to find a space where phones are not dinging and televisions are not flashing. As a computer programmer I have found that I need to have hobbies that are physical and do not rely on a screen. I bake, usually out of a cookbook. I make wood furniture from hand drawn schematics. Those two activities give me the time to separate myself from the frantic-ness of the digital life, while still allowing me to go back to it once I am ready to engage it again.
It will take a people who are willing to find a space in between the social norm of social media and the digital hermits to see us to the next major accomplishment. It will be difficult, but I believe those people are out there who will not be so consumed by media that they will be able to focus long enough to set foot on Mars or see the climate crisis avoided. It is those people who will get to feel the wonderful feeling of doing a great thing well and make another giant step for humankind.