Sufficiency

Sometimes — often times — abundance is overwhelming. The limitless freedom, the constant liberty to choose all that is needed for a full and rich life. It’s what makes scarcity so attractive and so dangerous.

[God] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness…” -2 Corinthians 12:9

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in recent weeks — well, months and years, really — as we in the United States collectively come to terms with all of the various ramifications the 2016 General Election cycle thrust into our conversational life. (And this is not about the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, DC.)

My father is an electronics engineer by hobby and trade. Like his peers and contemporaries “of a certain age,” his interest was piqued during his Space Age childhood. Some of his Heathkit creations still survived into my own childhood, and as I’m at my parents’ home this Advent morning, dad has been working in his basement shop to repair the power supply of an old Apple Lisa from before I was born.

From my dad, I learned a combination of curiosity and creativity. We differ, rather substantially, in our approach: he is interested in how things work simply for the way in which they work. I am far more interested in their application, and want to know enough of their workings to consider the many possibilities of implementation. Dad works with hardware; I work with software.

Dad started high school the same year Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. I started high school at the very peak of the Dot-Com bubble. We both had our lab spaces for making and tinkering in the house: his had soldering irons and lighted magnifying glasses, and mine had multiple computers with terminal lines and notepad windows.

As the information economy rebounded from the early-2000s recession, a different landscape emerged. Web 2.0 came of age, a gentrification of the old Web 1.0 land. Newer must be better, and convenience was the name of the game. The fabled Pets.com may be a sock puppet memory, yet ads for Chewy.com proliferate the hyper-advertised Internet of Things. Amazon.com, at the turn of the Millennium, could barely be predicted to have turned into a company bigger than Walmart less than a generation later.

Of course, heavy programming skills were never going to be required for the mass-market adoption of the Internet, yet by the time I graduated college in 2006 even the most rudimentary tasks were being abandoned in favor of convenience and centralization. When my college campus received expansion invites to thefacebook.com in late 2004, it was as elite as receiving a beta GMail invite.

Folks like my dad spent years engineering equipment and painstakingly writing lines of code to bravely provide the infrastructure that would literally transform the world — a place where walls simply could not exist, a place of bold, pure democracy, without a single central node that could be controlled by any one player.

And then folks figured out how to build walls anyway. Governments, oppressive and otherwise, realized the threats this freedom posed to their control. Businesses and elites, even from the best of intentions, created ways to trap users on ‘platforms,’ creating an unprecedented incursion into the most intimate details of a person’s existence: travels, purchases, conversations, relationships, correspondence. And from all of that, a different Internet rose from the ashes of Web 1.0.

In the past fortnight, settled fact includes revelations that Facebook allowed particular companies access to the private messages between Facebook users. This joins the settled fact that authoritarian and autocratic governments utilized social media platforms to influence political activity in the United States, and that even more progressive democratic governments such as the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia capture metadata of their citizenry every single day — made easier in the consolidation from the ‘Wild West’ of the Internet to these handful of platforms.

Last night, my mom and I were talking about a particular Christmas gift. When she went to open her iPad to Google directions to a store location that would have this item, it wasn’t even surprising that there were ads for the specific item we were just speaking of at the table embedded in her search results.

So what does all of this have to do with scarcity, sufficiency, and abundance? I’m not quite sure I have a pat answer to that just yet. I can tell you, I feel trapped. In my experience, the feeling of being trapped is a sure sign of scarcity.

  • My email, personal and professional, is touched at least 75% by Google. Likely a lot more. I’m surprised when someone’s personal address isn’t gmail.com — and that doesn’t count those, like my professional domain, the seminary at which I teach, and my undergraduate alma mater which email address I use as my primary personal one, which are hosted by Google’s GSuite.
  • I looked at my Google app on my phone in writing this to see if I could maybe count the number of Google queries I ask a day. I could only see the last 20, and I’m not even sure that got me out of just the past five hours.
  • After text messaging, Facebook owns my peer-to-peer instant communication. Between Facebook’s Messenger (Inbox messages), WhatsApp, and Instagram, I don’t have any other instant communication. Strangely enough, however, I’d say I’m only “a little on Facebook,” because I equate that with the endless scrolling of Facebook’s Feed or my own Profile.
  • In the first six months of 2017, my credit card was compromised so many times that I literally would have a new card sent to me by the issuer and have to cut it up right away because even the new card was somehow hacked. And at this point I sort of just roll my eyes at every automated message that my personal information has been exposed to hackers.

I’ve made the decision, for 2019, that I’m going to release the hold Google and Facebook have on my family life. I’ll be cutting the cord and going “old school.” Party like it’s 1999. I’ve reserved a new domain name for my partner and me and set up new FOSS blogging and photo gallery installations. We have new, private-hosted email accounts. I’m reacquainting myself with Thunderbird and Filezilla. (I’m one of the folks with whom Chrome never really caught on, having been a die-hard Netscape devotee in the original browser wars my loyalty shifted to Firefox and never left.)

Yesterday I spent hours downloading each and every single photo in which I’ve been tagged on Facebook. In the next week I’ll do the same thing, one-by-one, with the photos I’ve uploaded to Facebook. At the end, I’ll download my data and close down my account. A few days ago I deleted the Facebook and Messenger apps from my phone; my thumb still instinctively taps to where they were so I had to shift my other app icons around because I was sick of having to close Pandora every time it happened.

Friends, FOMO is real. When I’ve told some folks what I’m doing, they ask me what scares me the most: that it will be so easy to lose touch with people, because it will take more work to stay connected.

And they’re right.

And that’s OK.

Because the freedom that abundance offers demands a posture of sufficiency.

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