In the March 14, 2006 edition of the Chicago Tribune appeared “Swan Song for an iPod,” by a Kevin Pang, whose device had crashed. The author recalled all the “good times” he and his iPod shared. These
included the time that he “jogged along the lakeshore with Outkast blaring its Deep South brand of hip-hop” and the time he escaped the chatter of office life aided by Coldplay. The panhandlers on the
streets of Chicago his iPod helped him ignore. In other words, Pang’s world did not encompass the crash of the waves of Lake Michigan, the humanity of office life, or the tragedy of a beggar, but rather an alternate reality created through portable modern media.
The Age of Technology
During the thousand years between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance, what defined human life in the Western world was the Christian religion. People’s daily actions and experiences aligned to the
liturgical calendar, which itself proceeded throughout the year in harmony with the rhythms of the natural world. People knew that this life was preparation for the next, but they also knew that this
world was a part of the world to come. The great political and cultural achievements—the magnificent cathedrals, the poetry of Dante—could only have been created in such an age. Historians call this
time the Middle Ages, but a more accurate term would be the Christian Age.
The Christian Age began to pass as the Renaissance begat Protestant rebellion, the Enlightenment (or perhaps more accurately, “Endarkenment”) begat revolution. Human life no longer was informed at its center by worship of God but by worship of man. Whole nations exhausted themselves and shed horrifying amounts of blood in pursuit of promises impossible to fulfill: man’s autonomy and man’s perfectibility.
In his book Progress and Religion, Christopher Dawson shows that the age of the worship of man has also passed and that the age in which we now live—The Age of Technology—is its effect. Storytellers from Aldous Huxley to George Orwell, from Mary Shelley to Dean Koontz, have grappled with the horror of man’s effort through technology to become—as our first parents sought to become—gods. In the process man has become a slave. C.S. Lewis called this “the abolition of man,” and his book thus titled explained how three technologies—the radio, the airplane, and the contraceptive pill—all promised greater freedom for mankind but instead became the means for a few to control the lives of the many. Lewis saw these inventions serving the designs of totalitarian regimes. Half a century later,
many of us have of our own choosing surrendered our freedom to technology.
Faithful Catholics see well enough the tyranny of technology in the wicked laboratories where human reproduction is torn asunder from human love. They recognize that the first device aimed at this end, the contraceptive pill, is the bastard offspring of the previous age’s two lies: the perfectibility of man (eugenics) and the total autonomy of man (unlimited sensual gratification without consequences). Where Catholics are less able—or less willing, perhaps—to see technology’s tendency to enslave is in the operation of the machines and systems of modern communication technology: computers, iPads, smartphones, e-mail, social-network pages, chat-rooms, blogs, Web forums, Twitter, the Internet, texting, and so on. We have given our lives over to these devices and habits. My colleague Aaron Wolf has coined a term for this condition: e-slavery.
These devices and systems too often deliver, like the contraceptive, the opposite of what they promise. They promise freedom but create dependence. Rather than strengthening human relationships, they make them more trivial and more abstract. They addict us to novelty. Far from making the truth easier to uncover, they make the truth harder to discern. Worst of all, they are obstacles to our relationship with the divine.
The personal, social, cultural, and spiritual costs of living in the Age of Technology are interrelated, and they demand more analysis than a single article can offer, but the reflections of G.K. Chesterton on the technology of his own day provide an excellent point of departure for reconsidering what we have so uncritically welcomed into our lives.
The Solvent of Tradition
When computers became common more than a generation ago, their makers promised more efficient living and thus more leisure time. You might ask yourself if your own experience bears out this promise. The constant expectation to check and respond to messages, the habit of flitting from one Internet page or computer program to the next or from one device to the next, and the steady barrage of images and information assaulting the intellect make life more frenzied. However, something even more sinister lurks in the false promise of more leisure through technology: dependence.
Almost a century ago, Chesterton wrote:
[T]here is another strong objection, which I, one of the laziest of all the children of Adam, have against the Leisure State. Those who think it could be done argue that a vast machinery using electricity, water-power, petrol, and so on, might reduce the work imposed on each of us to a minimum. It might. But it would also reduce our control to a minimum. We should ourselves become parts of a machine, even if the machine only used those parts once a week. The machine would be our master, for the machine would produce our food, and most of us could have no notion of how it was really being produced. (Illustrated London News, March 1, 1925)
Anyone who feels obliged to respond quickly to text messages knows how easy it is to surrender freedom to the mobile phone. Anyone who has ever has ever “surfed the ’net” and then wondered where
the last 90 minutes—or 190 minutes—went knows that computers can lead us around in far more subtle and dangerous ways than merely obligating us to correspond. Yet Chesterton is talking about a kind of dependence even more difficult to shake off because his Leisure State machine erases knowledge by replacing the human acts through which skill, tradition, understanding, and belief are preserved and transmitted. Technology is the solvent of tradition: Practical knowledge of food production once passed from one generation to the next; in the Leisure State it is dissolved in the machines of agribusiness.
Is calling attention to the disappearing of human skills and traditions mere romantic longing for the past? Or is it acknowledging the merits of and beauty in the incarnational acts that have, for centuries, formed and inspired human hearts and bound generations?
Writing or Processing?
Consider the skill of writing with a pen and paper. Which is more likely to be treasured in the human heart: a handwritten letter or poem, or an e-mail or text message? Another skill is lost at the keyboard, a cognitive one. Writing with a keyboard is different from writing with a pen. The former can be an endless series of fits, starts, and revisions. The latter requires coherent, measured thinking, at least a paragraph at a time. Of course, that is why we do not call this action writing anymore; we call it word processing because it is done with a device that has fundamentally altered a human act.
Word processing promised easy revision and therefore better writing, but our own time has not produced essayists of the caliber of H.L. Mencken or Paul Elmer More, much less Chesterton. Not one shred of evidence exists that the common American today writes with more clarity and style than did previous generations who had no word processors.
Indeed, there is every indication that the opposite is true, and computers are largely to blame. Punctuation, capitalization, salutations, and spelling are casualties of e-mail, and the deliberately misspelled shorthand of text messaging commonly appears in the writing assignments of students. Internet chat-rooms, comment threads, and Web forums are the graveyards of grammar and—even worse—human interaction.
Stronger Human Bonds?
The story goes that when Evelyn Waugh at last succumbed to having a telephone installed in his home he answered it this way, “Is this an emergency? If not, write a letter!” None of us could get away with that now, but Waugh, even if he was not what we would call a “people person,” recognized the effect of communication technology on human relationships. It lowers discourse to the trivial.
Scroll through a day’s worth of teenage texting. Read the Tweets or blogs of those whose vanity has convinced them that the whole world is interested in their shopping and sexual habits. Watch the cell phones come out the moment your airplane lands, or read the posts on any Web forum. You will realize that, as Chesterton says, “[i]t is the beginning of all true criticism of our time to realize that it has really nothing to say, at the very moment when it has invented so tremendous a trumpet for saying it” (“The Proper View of Machines,” Illustrated London News, February 10, 1923).
Not only are our conversations rendered more trivial as we make more use of these devices, but our relationships are similarly rendered more abstract. Face-to-face conversation gave way to telephone chats, which have been replaced by e-mail messages and text shorthand. Hiding behind avatars—which is really nothing more than lying—chat-room and Web-forum members imagine they are building friendships with one another, as they recycle URLs and trade meaningless one-liners.
Where office colleagues once hammered out their differences in person, they now fire off impatient e-mails. Even the goofy phone conversations that once helped foster adolescent friendships have fallen prey to newer technologies. Teenagers today prefer texting and Facebook posting to the telephone, and they seduce one another by “sexting” suggestive messages and digital images. Even our sins are less human in the Age of Technology.
The Pursuit of Novelty
The introduction of ever-changing devices for communicating illustrates another way technology can enslave: trapping us in the pursuit of novelty. We imagine that the next gadget—the thing we do not have—will bring us fulfillment, and our desire for novelty only increases as the types of devices multiply. As Chesterton explains, this sin is as old as the Garden of Eden:
For of all the utter falsehoods, the most false, I think, is this notion that men can be happy in movement, when nothing but dullness drives them on from behind. . . . [If ] ever there was a whisper that might truly come from the devil, it is the suggestion that men can despise the beautiful things they have got, and only delight in getting new things because they have not got them. It is obvious that, on that principle, Adam will tire of the tree just as he has tired of the garden. (“If Don John of Austria Had Married Mary Queen of Scots,” London Mercury, February 1931)
The pursuit of novelty fueled by modern communication technology is one reason why media such as the World Wide Web and television are doubtful agents for beneficial social or political change. Even the best content swiftly grows old and is forgotten. And most of it is forgettable to begin with. The Glenn Beck groupie whose blood boils when his hero exposes the latest cultural disaster should try to remember what it was that Beck was in a lather about the week before. Or the day before.
In chasing novelty we forget the past (or never bother to learn it), and moving images fill our imaginations with an alternative. Read widely on a subject and learn the truth. Watch the movie and, as Chesterton argues, imbibe the version that the man who made the movie has contrived for his audience:
My contempt boils over into bad behavior when I hear the common suggestion that a birth is avoided because people want to be “free” to go to the cinema or buy a gramophone or a loud-speaker. What makes me want to walk over such people like doormats is that they use the word free. By every act of that sort they chain themselves to the most servile and mechanical system yet tolerated by men. The cinema is a machine for unrolling certain regular patterns called pictures, expressing the most vulgar millionaires’ notion of the taste of the most vulgar millions. . . . The gramophone is a machine for recording such tunes as certain shops and other organizations choose to sell. The wireless is better; but even that is marked by the modern mark of all three: the impotence of the receptive party. It is all a central mechanism giving out to men exactly what their masters think they should have. (“Babies and Distributism,” The Well and the Shallows)
“The impotence of the receptive party”: The phrase perfectly describes man’s servile relationship with the images and sounds of modern communication technology. Moving images so influence our lives that we conform our tastes, our clothes, our manners, and our behavior after that of our favorite stars. Some of us are perpetually starring in the movie about our own life, and our iPods provide the neverending soundtrack for this alternate reality.
The Din of Idle Chatter
Chesterton objects to modern media because before them ours is a posture of suggestibility and because their content is centrally produced. But the content of the World Wide Web comes from all over the place. There must be close to 200 million distinct Web sites. Can these not offer the means for us to bypass the notions of the vulgar millionaires so that we can get at the good, the beautiful, and the true?
So far, they have not. Far from making the truth more available, the Internet has made it more difficult to find. Far from stopping gossip, it has accelerated it, as the barrage of forwarded e-mails spreading urban legends testifies. “It actually takes the truth a very long time to trickle through,” Chesterton said, “the tangle of rumors and reports, in spite of all the supposed promptitude and practicality of modern communications” (Illustrated London News, May 9, 1931). His criticism was leveled at a press that still maintained a system of editing and fact-checking. No such system regulates the World Wide Web.
Bloggers spew into cyberspace, often echoing themselves or others. Little of it is good or edifying. Catholics are not above this activity. In Catholic chat-rooms wives, hiding behind avatars, share with the world too much detail about their enthusiasm for the Theology of the Body or gripe about their husbands’ multiple shortcomings.
But what if I spend my time blogging and chatting about the state of the Church? That’s good, right? There are ample blogs for me to spend my hours lamenting the troubled condition of the Bark of Peter. I can sound off on this wicked archbishop’s affair or that seminary that is more like a brothel. I can forward to others the sordid details of the scandal surrounding the founder of some religious congregation or comment on a Catholic journalist’s marital infidelity. Perhaps I’m above that prurience. If so, I can weigh in on the obvious failure of the Holy See to reconcile with this or that traditionalist society. Or I can blame the hardheadedness of the leaders of that society for failing to reconcile with Rome. No matter my brand of Catholic curiosity, there’s a place for me on the Web.
St. Augustine identified this human failing long ago, in Book Ten of his Confessions. He called it the lust of the eyes. Our desire to know about these things only drives us further from the divine because they crowd our imaginations when our imaginations should be filled with the contemplation of God. As long as I stay plugged into the noise, the flashing images, and the gossip, I do not risk facing the terrifying silence during which I would be forced to confront that which is most real—the state of my interior life. If my iPod headphones are blaring, I need not acknowledge the supplication of the beggar. If my iPod headphones are blaring, I will not recognize the beggar that is my soul.
Seek the Tiny Whispering Sound
The highest human act is prayer because it is union with God. It requires, as Msgr. Romano Guardini says, “collectedness,” and collectedness requires silence and a capacity for silence. Like Elijah we need to be silent to hear God’s whispers, but the din of so much electronic noise has pushed God out. “We need to find God,” said Bl. Teresa of Calcutta, “and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence.” Nonetheless, our sanctuaries, especially if we belong to a megachurch, are really auditoriums for sound-and-light shows. Two decades ago—well before the pace of electronic communication reached the frenzy of today, well before smartphones, texting, Facebook, and Twitter—the Holy See’s Congregation for Catholic Education expressed grave concern over the formation of young seminarians reared in a culture of “constant acceleration . . . of instantaneous communication.” The 1986 Vatican document, Guide to the Training of Future Priests Concerning the Instruments of
Social Communication, noted that: “In the past few decades, the instruments of social communication have come to the point of exercising an enormous and profound influence on practically every aspect, sector, and relationship of society” (4). While acknowledging that sins against purity were a considerable part of the culture of modern communication, the document went on to declare that treatment of the “moral aspects of mass media should not be reduced to a consideration merely of sexual morality” (17).
The document identified more fundamental human costs of too much electronic visual and auditory stimuli, and stated the need in seminarian formation to find “remedies for past excessive use or misuse of the mass media” (19).
“As an antidote to time-wasting and sometimes even alienating indulgence in superficial media programs,” the document proposed that the students should be “guided to the love and practice of reading, study, silence, and meditation. They should be encouraged, and be provided with the necessary conditions for community dialogue and prayer. This will serve to remedy the isolation and self-absorption caused by the unidirectional communication of the mass media . . .” (19)
The document prescribed as a corrective to the malformation caused by modern communication technology, that
the students be trained to engage in frequent interpersonal and group conversation, in which they will give special attention to correctness of language, clearness of exposition, and logical argumentation. This will serve as a corrective to the passivity which can be occasioned by the unidirectional communications and images of the mass media. (24)
The document further advised that “[s]tudents should be educated in interior silence, necessary for the spiritual as well as the intellectual life, and to shut out the enervating din of the daily clamoring media of communications” (24).
Tune Out and Turn Off
There is good advice in this document for all Catholics to follow, but it will be difficult. Chesterton wrote, “None of the modern machines, none of the modern paraphernalia . . . have any power except over the people who choose to use them” (Daily News, July 21, 1906). Thus, we should take seriously his counsel that “[it] is always hard to correct the exaggeration without exaggerating the correction” (The New Jerusalem, ch. 5).
Do something radical. Throw your iPod and your smartphone in the nearest body of water. Check your e-mail only once or twice a day, and do not check it at home. Wait a few days before answering an e-mail. Use formal salutations and closings when writing e-mails. Do not send an e-mail when the matter can be discussed face to face. Write letters instead of sending e-mail. Do not use e-mail for thank-you notes. Set your home free from broadband Internet access. Do not answer the phone after 8 p.m. Stop downloading songs from iTunes. Throw your television in the street.
Fill the space and quiet you have created with things that never grow old: the Mass, the Divine Office, holy hours before the Blessed Sacrament. Read and shop for good books. Read books aloud to your children and to your spouse. Learn calligraphy or how to draw. Learn the guitar and some folk songs. Learn “The Ballad of John Henry,” about the man who died in a heroic contest with a machine.
If you must go online and participate in chat groups, use your real name. Anything else is a deception. Look things up online on Tuesdays and Thursdays only. Before dialing up the Internet recite a prayer consecrating your time online to God. Make every Friday a “techfast”: no Internet, cell phones, e-mail, etc.
Read poetry. Memorize poetry. Write poetry. Writing a poem is an incarnational act, even if it’s done badly. “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly,” wrote Chesterton. Even a partial attempt to unplug from the matrix will bring us closer to the people in our lives, closer to our history and traditions, and closer to our God.