After seeing Tony Reinke’s high praise for Laurence Scott’s The Four-Dimensional Human, I decided to look it up through my local library, and found a free audiobook through Hoopla. I’ve been listening to it on my morning runs for the last two days, and already, I can see why Tony was so impressed.
Scott treads what is, at this point, well-worn ground about the limits and abuses of the digital tech we swim in today, but he does so in a fresh way. It’s hard to believe the book came out in 2015 (and equally hard to believe how long ago that seems in the scheme of the digital landscape).
The premise underlying the name of the book is that we now live in a four-dimensional world, one where we can easily operate outside of the previous limits of time and space — or at least it seems we can. Digital tech (think iPhones, social media, Skype, etc.) promise to put others in the “same room” as us, even though we are obviously in different ones. This ability to be both here and there at the same time is the fourth dimension.
He illustrates the title and concept by pointing back to a 1959 horror film called 4D Man. Here’s the film’s premise from IMDB:
Two brothers, scientists Scott and Tony Nelson, develop an amplifier which enables a person to enter a 4th dimensional state, allowing him to pass through any object.
You can probably already see the parallel to modern-day tech. Our screens are like that amplifier, allowing us to pass through the normal bounds of physical location to be present with others around the world.
But in the film, Scott soon discovers a problem with his newfound ability: Each time he passes through something, he ages rapidly. While he has found a way to enter the fourth dimension, he realizes he cannot do so without it taking a toll on his body.
And so it is with digital tech today, in my view. We can choose to enter into that fourth dimension through the screen, but we cannot do so without it taking a toll on our bodies, minds, hearts, and souls, and on others. While we feel as if we can be both here and there at the same time, we were made to be here. The fact that we can operate outside of that parameter does not make it untrue, and just because we can be here and there does not mean it is good for us.
My question has always been: “If we limit the amount of time we spend in the four-dimensional world, can we limit its negative effects and live an improved 3-D life?”
This question is also at the center of Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism, which I’m reading right now. I’m 100 pages in, and so far, Cal’s answer seems to be yes, but not without the limits. The limits are everything, he explains, because there is a law of diminishing returns with tech use, just as with certain processes. There are real returns (rewards, benefits) with a certain amount of use, but beyond that point, the returns start to diminish. The input increases but the output decreases.
I find this to be true in my own life. When I use helpful services, tools, or software in small, healthy doses, I typically enjoy the returns, in terms of time saved, connecting with others, etc. These are the times when I understand the fourth-dimensional tools to be in service of my three-dimensional life.
But when I forsake my third-dimensional world for the fourth-dimensional one, those returns begin to erode, until I am giving more and more of myself to something that returns less and less (sounds a lot like idolatry).
I’ll probably be writing more about these two books as I go along, but those are some initial thoughts and reflections.