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Defaults, The Road, Fireflies and Starlings

Office Hours


Three weeks ago I deleted the email app from my phone.

It was the final act of a desperate man.

Over the last few years, I've been slowly chipping away at the always-on, pull-to-refresh, dopamine-dispensing slot-machines that call out to me from the device in my pocket—though always with the begrudging, half-willed resignation of a reluctantly recovering addict.

Before you roll your eyes, let me just preface today's Office Hours by reassuring you that this isn't a screed against technology, smart phones, or social media—though I have thoughts, and will no doubt share them, in some future edition of On the Exam?.

I mention the mail app because I have been thinking lately about defaults, and more specifically about how seductive and subtly pernicious they are.

The promise of the default is that it optimizes without requiring an outlay of attention or considered choice. The factory settings, the well-trod path, the established way of working: these are valuable precisely because they benefit from collective experience, and because they remove the need to discover anew the best way forward.

But all too often we don't choose the default, we ... default to it, not noticing that there are other—and perhaps better—possibilities. In this way, the (non-)choice of the default frequently involves a hidden cost: we purchase convenience, or safety, or social acceptance, at the expense of what is truly good for us.

What would happen if I were only to check my email twice a day, and then only on my computer? What if I removed all of the notifications from my phone? Would I be less well-informed? Or would I, instead, be happier, less anxious, and more present? Whom does it really benefit if I keep up my snapchat streak each day, if I'm constantly scrolling Instagram, if I'm blindly following the YouTube algorithm? (Hint: if you're not paying for the product, you are the product).

Though technological-societal defaults are especially addictive (and so warrant a special consideration), my real point is that we move in a sea of defaults in almost every area of our lives.

Here are two examples that come to mind from my own world of university teaching:

I can't tell you how many first-year students—brilliant, interesting, well-read, engaged—tell me that they chose to major in business, not because they love economics, not even because they hope to become rich, but simply because they didn't know what else to do. Never mind that frequently my students are bored in their classes, long for more electives in the humanities, and feel like they are being shuttled from requirement to requirement without much say. Business school is the default.

Now that we're heading into summer break, I ask my students how they plan to spend their months away. Many tell me about a highly coveted internship they have landed in their chosen field. In the Fall, they sheepishly tell me that the internship was unpaid, and that they spent most of their time getting coffee and entering data into spreadsheets. But it was worth it, they assure me, because it gives them a competitive advantage when they eventually apply for jobs. Three years later, when they go on the job market, they discover that their resumes are padded with competitive internships just like everyone else applying for the position. The summer internship is the default.

These days, on the rare occasion that students ask me about career advice, I offer a variation of the counsel given by Matthew Crawford in his seminal essay Shop Class as Soulcraft (now expanded into a book):

Approach college in the spirit of craftsmanship, going deep into liberal arts and sciences. In the summers, learn a manual trade. You’re likely to be less damaged, and quite possibly better paid, as an independent tradesman than as a cubicle-dwelling tender of information systems. To heed such advice would require a certain contrarian streak, as it entails rejecting a life course mapped out by others as obligatory and inevitable.

Notice that last line. Crawford acknowledges that approaching learning in this way—pursuing a liberal education in college, and a manual trade in the summer—is not the default. But he argues that taking some time to question the default, and to consider another path, will lead to a happier life.

Long ago, Socrates argued that the unexamined life is not worth living. He had to make that argument, he felt compelled to bring it to our attention, because—in his time as in ours—the unexamined life is the default.

It took his persistent questions, his ironic humor, and ultimately the courageous witness of his death, to show us that there is another way to live:

A life beyond the default.

The Road

He sometimes felt that he had missed his life
By being far too busy looking for it.
Searching the distance, he often turned to find
That he had passed some milestone unaware,
And someone else was walking next to him,
First friends, then lovers, now children and a wife.
They were good company-generous, kind,
But equally bewildered to be there.

He noticed then that no one else chose the way-
All seemed to drift by some collective will.
The path grew easier with each passing day,
Since it was worn and mostly sloped downhill.
The road ahead seemed hazy in the gloom.
Where was it he had meant to go, and with whom?

"The Road," by Dana Gioia
99 Poems: New and Selected (2016)

Listen to Gioia recite "The Road"

Cultural Event

Fireflies and Starlings

I spent my summers in college as a camp counselor in rural Kansas.

One of my jobs was to do a final safety check at the end of the night, after "lights out" for the campers and staff. After a full day of activities and high-intensity extroversion, I cherished the enveloping dark, the silence and solitude, that accompanied me as I patrolled the many acres of the camp.

As the midwestern summer ripened, each night I would be treated to a profound encounter with natural beauty. My nightly circuit would take me into a shallow valley, which formed a kind of deep grassy bowl rimmed with trees. There I would cut the engine of my four-wheeler, turn off my flashlight, and wait.

Far from all light pollution, the stars above would shine with a density I could scarcely believe: the heavens were full.

And then it would happen: slowly at first, tentatively, a light would blink on, waver, and then extinguish itself. Then another, and another, and soon the curve of my valley was full of twinkling fireflies, a reflecting pool of light that mirrored and amplified the stars above.

Each night I would swim in starlight.

I was reminded of those astonishing nights when I came across this fascinating explanation and illustration of the natural synchronization that occurs among groups of fireflies (best viewed on a larger screen):


The idea is that complexity and order emerges out of random chaos not "from the top down" but rather through the presence of small but significant "rules" of interaction and relationship.

The same principle is at work all throughout nature—for instance, in the undulating murmurations of starlings.

Far from reducing or "explaining away" the astonishing aesthetic power of nature, I would suggest that such scientific investigations into the intelligibility of emergent properties actually serves to deepen our wonder. How marvelous that such small encodings of call and response can blossom forth into such overwhelming beauty.