National Catholic Register

Commentary

Smartphones, the Internet and the Soul

BY Benjamin Wiker

October 24-November 6, 2010 Issue | Posted 10/15/10 at 5:00 PM

 

As Register readers well know, the Church is not afraid of communications technology. The Vatican launched its website in 1995, when the Internet was still new, and, in his final apostolic letter (To Those Responsible for Communications, 2005), Pope John Paul II pointed out that the Church is “not only called upon to use the mass media to spread the Gospel but, today more than ever, to integrate the message of salvation into the ‘new culture’ that these powerful means of communication create and amplify.”

But the Church isn’t just practical. It’s prudent, too. In the 2002 document “Ethics in Internet,” the Pontifical Council for Social Communications warned of the dangers unique to users of new media.

It’s easy to point out obvious dangers, from pornography to predators to manipulation to misinformation. But the important argument about the dangers of corrosive content and willful misuse shouldn’t distract us from the perils of the very gadgets themselves.

The Church needs to increase its awareness of the growing pile of evidence pointing out the baneful effects of undisciplined use of the Internet and smartphones. We might sum up the peril in one sentence: We are being formed — or better, deformed — in the devices’ image. We are becoming the machines that we use — and that is most unbecoming.

As usual, we must call in G.K. Chesterton to make the point most pointedly. “nstead of the machine being a giant to which the man is a pygmy,” he wrote, “we must at least reverse the proportions until the man is a giant to whom the machine is a toy.”

Let’s cut to the chase. Do we have a weird, unsettled, hollow feeling when we are not on the computer? Are we as agitated as an alcoholic when we are even momentarily deprived of Internet access? Do we flit from site to site — scanning this headline, checking e-mail, clicking this link, checking e-mail again, zipping to a blog, checking e-mail again — and suddenly find that, two hours later, we haven’t done the work in front of us, haven’t talked to our wives or husbands, haven’t read to the children, haven’t walked out into the sunshine on a cool fall day?

Do we find that we pick up a book and find that we can’t sustain our concentration beyond the first page? Do we obsessively check our smartphones for messages? Blog posts? Tweets? Do we find ourselves only able to talk with someone for 30 seconds before our phone buzzes with a call, text message or e-mail?

I know what some of you are thinking here, because I hear it all the time: Every time some major new technology comes along people experience it as a shock to the system. Then they get used to it, make peace with it and, eventually, come to wonder how they ever got along without it.

One example technophiles like to trot out is the printing press. Its naysayers said it would lead to nothing but evil — mass misinformation and manipulation: sound familiar? — and usher in the end of order in the world. “Can you imagine a world without books?” sayeth the technophiles. “Where would we be without books?”

Would that it were that simple, and a simple experiment shows why it isn’t. Pick up a copy of St. Augustine’s Confessions and read it, say, for an hour. The effect of reading a good book is to push away all other distractions, concentrate the mind, gather its powers, and draw down deeply into the mind, the soul, of the author. Reading a good book is a lot like prayer. Prayer requires self-control; the pray-er needs to orient his attention toward God and away from distraction. Both prayer and reading demand quiet of soul. The medium of book and prayer, as modes of communication, both depend upon and produce the power of attention. Attention is the opposite of distraction; reading deeply is the opposite of surfing the surface.

Now pick up another book, Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. We are embodied beings, an intimate and essential union of soul and body. What we do with our immaterial minds causes real effects in our physical brains. Carr’s claim is that continual Internet use actually reforms the brain so that the neuronal connections that used to map out the deep connections and allow for sustained reflection literally atrophy like unused muscles. Meanwhile, the quick-zip connections that flick on and off like so many disconnected surfed screens muscle up. The brain has become the machine. The medium has taken over the mind and made it like unto itself.

To return to our experiment with St. Augustine, that is why, if you are a “normal” user of the Internet and a smartphone, you didn’t get very far in Confessions before your brain fatigued. The medium demands a different muscle and you ain’t got it any more. The latest neuroscience tells you why. And if you ain’t got it for reading, then you sure ain’t got it for prayer, because reading and prayer, as the Church makes clear in the Mass itself, are closely related activities.

This is why making a simple equivalency between two distinct machines, the printing machine and the Internet-access machine, is not valid. We really are dealing with a new information and communication medium. It’s different not just in degree but in kind as well. It isn’t more information that makes the difference, but the way the information is delivered.

St. Augustine’s Confessions is available on the Internet, so you can even get it on your BlackBerry. Try reading it for an hour on this device without checking your e-mail, without answering a call, without blipping off on a Google chase after some related topic, without clicking over to your favorite website or blog. Difficult, isn’t it? The medium bends you to its design.

What about you, Wiker? I ask myself on your behalf. You warn, but how do you live? Fair question. My family does not own a smartphone. We do have Internet access, but the computer is in my office in a little shed about 100 feet from our house. (Even out there it causes its fair share of trouble.) As a writer, I use the Internet for communication with editors and for research. (The nearest library is 15 miles away.) My books sell on Amazon because they do no good if nobody reads them, and I have set up a very modest website so those interested have a way to contact me for speaking engagements.

And yet, despite all the care and caution, I am by no means immune from the dangers I’ve described — including the danger of falling into hypocrisy.

So, what should we do? We could invite back some old-fashioned virtues, powers of the soul that the Church has declared fundamental for living a good human life and, beyond that, preparing us to receive eternal life — prudence, courage and temperance. Prudence is the intellectual virtue that determines the best means to the true human good in one’s own particular situation. Courage is the power to act for the good even, and especially, when it is painful. Temperance is the power to resist false pleasures, pleasures that destroy and deform, and instead enjoy pleasures that are actually good for us. All these virtues are necessary for us becoming giants again so that the Internet and smartphones can become tools that are little toys.

Author and speaker Benjamin Wiker is online at BenjaminWiker.com.