I know exercise is good for me. I have a gym membership. But I don't feel like exercising.
I should call my mom. I have a phone. But I don't feel like talking to anyone.
I understand the need to reduce plastic use. I can cook. But sometimes I order food delivered in plastic containers.
In the above instances, I understand what I need to do, recognize why my actions matter, and have the agency to accomplish my goals but have no desire to care. We are repeatedly taught that caring about self, others, and Earth is the right way to live. When caring is proposed as a necessary ethical and moral action—what one ought to do—a common reactionary impulse is the rush to label not caring as the problem to be fixed. In this column, I highlight a specific case of when humans don't care with respect to doing ecologically engaged research and design. Resisting the urge to frame not caring as the problem to be solved, I foreground the notion of acedia as an absence of desire to care. By focusing on acedia, I aim to critically reexamine assumptions about not caring and invite further communal discussion. Usage of the term acedia can be traced to early Christian religious and spiritual contexts by monks in monasteries. Kathleen Norris opines that "much of the restless boredom, frantic escapism, commitment phobia, and enervating despair that plagues us today" is because of acedia . Experiencing acedia makes us want to be elsewhere doing something else perpetually (frantic escapism) while being unable to be fully present and care here and now (restless boredom). Queer theorist Ann Cvetkovich examines acedia to "unsettle received wisdom about depression as a medical condition," underscoring that the "longing to escape is not just spatial but temporal" . "When life becomes too challenging and engagement with others too demanding," Norris posits, acedia "offers the ease of indifference" . But why talk about acedia in this forum?
Our current ecological imbalances, exacerbated through global health pandemics, war, exploitative labor practices, climate-change-related disasters, deforestation, pollution, and declining biodiversity, have pushed us into a collective crisis of care. Many of us use terms like tired, burned out, exhausted, and depressed to describe how we feel as we wake up every day to watch with disbelief, horror, and, at times, numbed indifference as yet another ecological crisis unfolds. Doing ecological activism involves repeatedly exposing oneself to and engaging with interrelated systems of oppression and exploitative practices while witnessing atrocities committed against fellow humans and various forms of life . Environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht introduces the word meuacide to indicate the "extinction of emotions" that happens "as rich and diverse emotional connections to place and home at all scales are erased [and] they are replaced with feelings of numbness, torpor, emptiness, paralysis, nonfeeling, inertia, alienation, and deadness" . Researchers advocating for an interrelated ecological worldview are confronted with declining biodiversity at unprecedented levels. Pörtner et al. write, "Limiting global warming to ensure a habitable climate and protecting biodiversity are mutually supporting goals, and their achievement is essential for sustainably and equitably providing benefits to people" . If we truly believe that other living beings are members of our ecological family, whose existence matters for our own, how do we emotionally cope with the catastrophic collapse in biodiversity? I do not have answers but do believe that sometimes people don't care simply because they might be too exhausted.
Sometimes people don't care simply because they might be too exhausted.
The sociological concept of burnout and the psychological concept of depression share overlapping territory with acedia. The trouble with acedia is not just a lack of care but an absence of desire to care, that is, not caring that one does not care. Norris remarks that acedia is not merely an affliction of monks; it "can strike anyone whose work requires self-motivation and solitude" and "anyone who is determined to stay true to a commitment that is sorely tested everyday in life" . Similarly, Cvetkovich observes that acedia is "strangely resonant with the experiences of both activists, whose political disappointments can lead to 'a loss of faith' in collective ideals and goals, and academics, who often question the solitary life of intellectual work" . Engaging with ecological issues such as climate change demands long-term planning, care, and commitment from researchers spanning multiple decades through challenging periods and inevitably includes human moments of uncertainty, despair, and dejection. Robert Hirschfeld and Stephen Blackmer explore acedia with respect to the climate apocalypse, arguing that "eco-acedia is that seductive pull that denies the reality of global climate change and humanity's contribution to it" and "denial of human complicity in the degradation of the planet is itself evidence of acedia" . Therefore, I propose that acedia warrants a closer look by researchers interested in the design of technology for responsibly engaging with existing ecological crises and how to care for our planet in the long run.
Sociologist Hans Zetterberg defines scientific acedia as "an occupational hazard among men of learning that takes the form of a gradual withdrawal of motivation for research and an increasing alienation from science" . While there are problematic, outdated, and gendered assumptions in his work, Zetterberg offers two insights that can be useful. First, acedia is "located not in the scientist, but in the social setting in which he works" —markedly different from depression, which is still predominantly diagnosed as located in the individual. Like Cvetkovich , cultural theorist Mark Fisher contends "that many forms of depression are best understood—and best combatted—through frames that are impersonal and political rather than individual and 'psychological'" in late-capitalist societies . Second, Zetterberg situates acedia as a form of anomie—"what prevails outside of the range of the rewards to which we become accustomed" . When the rewards for our actions are too big or too insignificant, we struggle to make sense of our experiences meaningfully. If acedia is a form of anomie, Zetterberg observes, "we would expect to find it among scientists whose rewards have suddenly become either excessively small or excessively great" . While it may seem counterintuitive, sudden big career rewards or successful completion of a difficult project might lead to acedia, an absence of desire to care, because we might struggle to make sense of our achievements. Acedia then cannot be attributed to failures alone but can also sometimes be triggered by success. What does this mean for HCI?
Acedia is at existential odds with assumptions about persuading someone to change their behavior for the better through rewards (as motivation) and information about their progress (as evaluation). Motivation and evaluation are important concerns for researchers interested in the design of technology. For instance, there is a rich body of HCI scholarship striving to understand what motivates people to behave the way they do and create meaningful evaluations of complex sociotechnical interactions through interdisciplinary approaches. Acedia taunts the limits of rational choice theory and torments the logic that if we provide people with the right information at the right time, enable them with appropriate tools, and encourage them with rewards, then we can reasonably expect that people will care enough to do the right thing. Exploring the interplay between acedia, evaluation, and motivation, Sergio Tenenbaum notes, "This kind of phenomenon seems to be devastating for theories of practical reason that aim to maintain a tight connection between motivation and evaluation, and, in particular, for any theory according to which judging something to be good or valuable necessarily gives rise to a corresponding desire in the agent" . Those who experience acedia may understand the value of something to be good but not always have the desire to care owing to various reasons. Tenenbaum emphasizes that "a desire should be identified not with judging or believing something to be good, but rather with conceiving it to be good from a certain evaluative perspective" [9, italics original]. To conceive something to be good and want for oneself involves volition. While experiencing acedia, "we have an agent finding things valuable but having no motivation to pursue them" [9, italics original]. Some, if not many, of us might relate to this experience of understanding something to be valuable but having no motivation to pursue it, both in our professional and personal lives, while coping with our current ecological reality.
is an old Tamil proverb. Roughly translated, it means: The ladle can only serve what is in the pot. One cannot serve from an empty vessel. The wisdom in this old proverb hints that we can serve others better when we ourselves feel nourished, supported, and replenished. Addressing acedia experienced by ecologically engaged researchers and designers is a complex challenge worthy of further exploration and communal discussion. Sometimes people don't care not necessarily out of ignorance, malice, or lack of empathy but simply because they might be too exhausted to. Moving beyond self-care as individual consumerism and private therapy, it is necessary to explore ways of collectively grieving for our ecological losses
I would like to thank Kasper Heiselberg and Mikael Wiberg for their thoughtful and timely feedback on this work.
1. Norris, K. Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life. Riverhead Books, 2010.
2. Cvetkovich, A. Acedia, history, and medical models. In Depression: A Public Feeling. Duke Univ. Press, 2012, 85–114.
3. Kannabiran, G. Queerious futures. Interactions 28, 3 (2021), 22–23.
4. Albrecht, G. Meuacide; https://bit.ly/3oWlFM5
5. Pörtner, H.O. et al. Scientific Outcome of the IPBES-IPCC Co-sponsored Workshop on Biodiversity and Climate Change. IPBES Secretariat, 2021. DOI:10.5281/zenodo.4659158
6. Hirschfeld, A.R. and Blackmer, S. Beyond acedia and wrath: Life during the climate apocalypse. Anglican Theological Review 103, 2 (2021), 196–207.
7. Zetterberg, H.L. Scientific acedia. Sociological Focus 1, 1 (1967), 34–44.
8. Fisher, M. Good for nothing. The Occupied Times of London. Mar. 19, 2014; https://theoccupiedtimes.org/?p=12841
9. Tenenbaum, S. Accidie, evaluation, and motivation. In Weakness of Will and Practical Irrationality. S. Stroud and C. Tappolet, eds. Clarendon Press, 2003, 147–171.
Gopinaath Kannabiran is a design educator, HCI researcher, and sexual rights activist currently working as a postdoc at IT University of Copenhagen. [email protected]
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