The Spiritual and Communal Menace of Technology By J. Milburn Thompson

In the developed world, the blessings of technology have been real, but ambiguous. For most there is less drudgery in everyday life, and yet paradoxically less time to enjoy life. Geographical and social mobility are surely beneficial, yet mobility can fragment families and fracture communities. Miracles of healing take place in acute-care hospitals, yet people too often die surrounded by beeping, blinking machines rather than by loving family and friends. The energy that fuels the modern economy also pollutes the environment, which is creating a climate crisis. Technology has given us nuclear medicine and nuclear energy as well as nuclear weapons.

The smartphone in your pocket is a technological wonder that gives you access to incredible amounts of information. Information, however, is neither knowledge nor wisdom. Data can be false, misleading, or trivial. Privacy goes out the window when our digital footprints are virtually permanent and widely accessible. Dating apps can enhance our social lives, but diminish genuine relationships. It is convenient that our smartphone performs the function of maps, compasses, calendars, address books, calculators, watches, music collections, and libraries. Yet too many of us seem addicted to our gadgets, living with ear buds in both ears, staring at our phones, oblivious to our surroundings and to other people.

Sherry Turkle, a clinical psychologist and a professor in the Science, Technology, and Society program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been studying the psychology of online connectivity for over 30 years. In Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (2015) she argues that we need to engage in conversation if we want to be empathetic, relational human beings capable of intimacy and community.

In “Left to Our Own Devices” (The New York Times Book Review, October 4, 2015), an insightful review of Turkle’s book, Jonathan Franzen summarizes her “call to arms” this way: “Our rapturous submission to digital technology has led to an atrophying of human capacities like empathy and self-reflection, and the time has come to reassert ourselves, behave like adults and put technology in its place.”

Turkle is an empiricist who notes that studies of conversation demonstrate that when a phone is present or even in our line of vision, it changes both the depth of conversation and the degree of connection we feel. Studies have also found a 40 percent decline in empathy among college students. Because dialogue is one of the most human and humanizing things we do, and because solitude and self-reflection are key to bringing an authentic self to conversation, Turkle suggests that we use our phones and digital devices with greater mindfulness. We can choose not to carry our phones all the time, put them aside or away to focus on something or someone else, carve out digital-free spaces. Technology can even be redesigned to facilitate releasing us rather than keeping us attached (a suggestion Franzen finds naïve in a hyper-capitalist culture). Turkle wisely prescribes a “talking cure” for our preoccupied, apathetic, anxious, superficial, supposedly connected society.

When Pope Francis reflects on media and the digital world in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’: On Caring for Our Common Home, he observes:

Furthermore, when media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously. In this context, the great sages of the past run the risk of going unheard amid the noise and distractions of an information overload. Efforts need to be made to help these media become sources of new cultural progress for humanity and not a threat to our deepest riches. True wisdom, as the fruit of self-examination, dialogue and generous encounter between persons, is not acquired by a mere accumulation of data which eventually leads to overload and confusion, a sort of mental pollution. Real relationships with others, with all the challenges they entail, now tend to be replaced by a type of internet communication which enables us to choose or eliminate relationships at whim, thus giving rise to a new type of contrived emotion which has more to do with devices and displays than with other people and with nature (#47).

We need contemplation and communal connections if we want to live a meaningful and purposeful life. We should take control of our technological gadgets, rather than being controlled by them. Think of how much more each of us could accomplish if we could sit down to write, read, create, compose, practice, dialogue, share a meal without having to check our Facebook newsfeeds every five minutes!

Andrew Sullivan provides a moving and thought-provoking account of his struggle to address his smartphone addiction in his essay “I Used to Be a Human Being” (New York, September 19, 2016). Near the end of his story he admits to backtracking on some of the disciplines and commitments aimed at controlling his addiction and giving him new life. He concludes:

I haven’t given up, even as, each day, at various moments, I find myself giving in. There are books to be read; landscapes to be walked; friends to be with; life to be fully lived. And I realize that this is, in some ways, just another tale in the vast book of human frailty. But this new epidemic of distraction is our civilization’s specific weakness. And its threat is not so much to our minds, even as they shape-shift under the pressure. The threat is to our souls. At this rate, if the noise does not relent, we might even forget we have any.

Mastering the role and place of tempting technology in our life is a spiritual struggle in which our humanity itself is at stake.

Milburn Thompson is professor emeritus of theology at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky, and author of the recently published third edition (2019) of Justice and Peace: A Christian Primer by Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York.

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