A free article from the January / February “Social Media” issue of The Angelus:
â€śThat little kid is so smart; you should see him on his computer!â€ť
â€śI got mine a touch-screen tablet for Christmas.â€ť This commonplace conversation between two mothers is going on while the children focus their lively attention on their little Game Boy, unless they are in the process of sending one of their 50 daily text messages.
The last sixty years have witnessed an astonishing evolution in the tools we use every day. In particular, the world of the electronic screen has made its way into our manner of knowing, our way of communicating, our professional relations, our leisure time, and in many cases, it has become the very foundation of our judgment.
All technology brings with it new and marvelous possibilities in which we are allowed to partake. But an honest analysis will allow us to draw the line between theÂ admirable,Â theÂ useful,Â and theÂ harmful.
The Human Way of Life
Man is wonderfully structured to attain the highest forms of understanding.
- His senses allow him direct contact with the world around him, and the intellect is thereby able to grasp the nature of things;
- As man grapples with that reality, he can then assemble his ideas, compose them, and link them together. These ideas lead him to make practical and prudent judgments;
- the role of manâ€™s will, based on these judgments, is then to move toward the good;
- the perfection of the willâ€™s movement is called love;
- the will is meant to regulate the emotions or passions in order to keep them from being as disordered as they would otherwise be, given our fallen nature;
- so structured in this way, man aims at his own perfection, all in respecting that order willed by the Creator which is calledÂ morality;Â what is noblest in morality is in fact a form of love which is calledÂ charity.
These points show how man functions. But the massive presence of new electronic technology has considerably altered these elementary rhythms of manâ€™s psychology; so much so that each one of these points calls for its own treatment.
The Cyber Mind Faces a New Mode of Operation
The widespread arrival of television in the home marked a very clear fault line. We could place that turning point at about 1960. Up until then, man was used to knowing reality as it is, taking itÂ in,Â directly from its source,Â and then exercising his judgment. That contact with reality necessarily set the passions in motion: but sentiments arose at a human rhythm. Education and experience taught man how to use his reason to regulate those emotions.
Now, with the advent of the television, man was suddenly faced with a massive bombardment of pictures generated on the screen. These pictures are specifically moving and thus they possess a particular power of fascination. This bombardment of pictures hyper-activates the emotions, set off by partial glimpses of reality that are all the more deceptive the more realistic the picture.
This omnipresence of images from the screen frustrates the operation of the intellect: generally speaking, the sensibility steps in and replaces it. The process of coming to know is thereby gravely affected. The day-to-day functioning of the childâ€”and later the adultâ€”is thereby atrophied. The diminution of the operation of the intellect has become a common phenomenon, this inability to understand, to judge, to look at reality in perspective, to affirm oneâ€™s personality.
The intellect of modern man is being dragged back to a kind of primitivism in which emoting replaces concrete reasoning or thinking.
Reality the Way We Want It
The computer came twenty-five years after the television, bringing the possibility for a person to â€śinterveneâ€ť in the picture produced on the screen. This intervention happens on very small surfaces, in a simplified manner, and through a personâ€™s fingertips. It cannot be compared to manâ€™s intervention in reality when he approaches and observes a scene before him. What he sees on the screen is no longer life in the concrete, sensible world around him, but only a very fragmentary picture of that world.
Two novelties arise:
- That portion of man which intervenes in this computer world is not the whole being, with all of his members, and all of his personality.
- The intervention itself no longer entails any physical correlation to or responsibility over a real event: with what devastating ease do children grow accustomed to killing on a screen, or adults to plunging themselves into morally despicable situations. (We are speaking of physical responsibility: there always remains a moral responsibility before God, for the quality of an action as good or bad.)
Man is drawn even more radically out of reality. His behavior is dictated by the imagination.
The Eradication of Genuine Thought
All the more so when culture amounts to an Internet cut-and-paste. Many of the assignments given by teachers are really asking for a monstrous caricature of knowledge, since the final product never went through the intellect. No abstraction took place, no comprehension, no judgment in the intellectual sense of the word. How could there be any synthesis, or any rigorous analysis of the essential points of a given topic?
For the older generation, the ever-expanding bazaar of forums, blogs, and other points of exchange on the Internet is, unfortunately, more a kind of zoo because of this absence of reflective thought.
A False Construction of Personality Through the Game
In the natural order of things, the child or the adolescent prepares himself for his future life as an adult in many ways, and games hold a predominant place among those ways. Games immerse the child in a universe that is â€ślike real life,â€ť a kind of unreal reality, if we may use that contrast.
For young people especially, their whole being is involved in the game: body, emotions, intellect, and judgment. In a way, they are digesting the enormous amount of information that they have received and they are testing it out in the real world. Even in the gentlest organized game, like a board game, or in a more elaborate and exciting one, like a soccer match, the whole personality is involved: but here we meanÂ the real personality, in a real world.
Computer games, game consoles, and little electronic games tear young people out of the true perception of reality through sense and intellect, and plunge them into the entirely unreal. These modern players step into the picture, but not into the real world, through an intense and nearly exclusive use of certain senses. The way the players throw themselves into the game is by reconstructing themselves inside a world that has nothing to do with the one that they are called to live in.
These games, therefore, do not serve the purpose of constructing their personalities for the future, as would the traditional games construct the genuine, legitimate behavior of a child.
What is more, the nervous system is thrown off balance in these games by so much jerking around of the attention, the jolts and shocks, the constant flashes of light, and the situations that are often violent.
People Present Who Really Arenâ€™t Present
The modern world seems to be opening onto a vast field of communication and friendships, or so it appears: the bitter irony is that the contrary is actually the case. Notice that when our modern â€śtechiesâ€ť are standing right next to you, they are in the process of communicating with someone else who is totally absent from the scene. These individuals who are not present intrude their false presence, while individuals who are truly present on the scene are ignored and become like strangers. So ultimately, people who are absent are always present, and people who are present are always absent! This schizoid-like orientation to oneâ€™s surroundings is indeed somewhat unsettling.
Two people have just said goodbye, and yet they are immediately calling each other on their cell-phones. Instead of waiting for the next day, two friends communicate at every moment the events of their family life, the emotions they are feeling, whatever is passing through their minds. Inconstancy of thought and impulsiveness become second nature.
In addition, it is becoming impossible to have the effects of normal relationshipsâ€”charity, friendship, patience, or even education. Relationships are no longer only with people who are present: there is always an unknown â€śthird partyâ€ť to be considered. For example, a parent scolds one of his children, and the child can immediately turn and complain to someone else through use of the cell phone; in doing so, the child loses all the fruits of that time of necessary reflection on the parentâ€™s wordsâ€”first in the order of his passions, then little by little in the order of reason. He loses that value bestowed on the personality, which is called education.
At the other end of the spectrum, friendship has another omnipresent new form: all the chains of communication that push young people into relationships with the most people possible, in order to share everyÂ superficialÂ detail of their lives.
Are they really friends? No, it is not possible for them to be friends: a friend is someone you spend time with.
- True friendships are founded primarily on time genuinely spent together, and not through a screen or through trivial messages sent back and forth.
- Friends are by necessity few in number.
- But most of all, it is the friend who discovers who you are, not you showing yourself off. In these days of â€śposting,â€ť a person declares himself to be as he would like to appear. A person is basically creating an artificial character for himself.
Rarely in their postings do young people hurriedly proclaim their virtue, because it is easier and gains more notoriety to advertise the unhealthy things, or sinful things, or barriers you have dared to exceed.
There is a kind of unhealthy sensationalism in these friendships: â€śHe daredâ€¦,â€ť â€śHe did thisâ€¦â€ť â€śShe dresses this wayâ€¦,â€ť â€śHe has this girlfriend…â€ť. There are those many spheres in which the delicacy of the personality learns to recognize what is appropriate to tell and what is inappropriate to tell in the various given circumstances. But in this system, everything becomes public, even the little daily events that should never enter into the particular communication.
We are encountering a gradual loss of all sense: loss of judgment; loss of reserve; loss of good sense; loss of politeness; loss of the meaning of family and friendship. The damage is huge. Certainly, there are cases in which an expansive network of communication is able, by good fortune, to do good in easing someoneâ€™s sufferingâ€¦but at the price of how many other communications and friendships destroyed!