Sunday, August 1, 2010


The greatest peril to the life of faith is not skepticism, or secularism, or intellectual doubt or the confusion of options. My gravest worry is precisely what you are looking at right now: the wired screen. We are wired, constantly. For decades I could drive to another city alone, but now if I forget my cell I feel panicky; regularly I check email, and Facebook, receive and send texts… but never ask what it all means for how my brain is being reshaped, or how society is shifting inexorably in – well, in what direction?

I went to Brazil and left lots of contact options for people staying here – but why? “I’ve got to be reachable!” God must sigh, and say “Indeed, you’ve got to be reachable” – but if we are constantly peppered with titillating little Facebook posts or texts or emails or blogs or YouTubes or Netflixes (Netflices?), I suspect we flat out aren’t reachable by God. We can’t be with one another: we sit at dinner with a friend but reach for the screen in our pockets… If we can’t be with each other, how can we be with God?

Mandatory reading for any person who is wired, for any person who wants to connect with God, for anyone who harbors a sneaky suspicion we may be rambling rapidly downhill and out of control, is Williams Powers’s Hamlet’s Blackberry. Oddly I read this while I was reading Margaret Atwood’s ominous novel, Handmaid’s Tale, which imagines a society where selfhood is repressed, where freedom is no more… and it occurred to me that Powers is right in his analysis of all we are losing in our technologically-dominated way of life, unexamined, ever more wired and “reachable” – and hence unreachable by all that really matters.

Powers, like me, loves technology, and understands its many benefits; I’m in close contact with lots of people, and can find information quickly. But who are we becoming as a civilization? Powers’s analysis is accessible, funny, and profound. Free time is consumed by relating to dozens, maybe thousands of people via the screens we possess. But the price? “The more connected we are, the more we depend on the world outside ourselves to tell us how to think and live… We don’t turn inward.” What we lose is – depth.

Depth is what makes life fulfilling, and meaningful, but we become increasingly superficial. Home once was a safe haven, a refuge from the busy, frantic world – but now home is even more frantic, for at home we are never alone, and we are never just with our family or friends. We vanish into texts or Facebook, and do not sit and reflect, reminisce, or simply be with one another.

The costs in the workplace are estimated into tens of billions of dollars, as employees flit from email to email, lose focus, and frankly use work time answering personal emails and texts, and surfing sites. The greatest cost is to our sense of self. Powers suggests that our only philosophy now is “It’s good to be connected, it is bad to be disconnected.” “Out there” trumps “in here” every time, and most sadly, our sense of worth is now hinged to whether we receive communications – or not. “The digital medium is a source of constant confirmation that, yes, you do exist and you do matter. However, the external validation provided by incoming messages… is not as trustworthy or stable as the kind that comes from inside. We are forced to go back and ask, ‘Who’s read my post? Who’s paying attention to me now?’”

Powers calls this “needy outwardness,” a far cry from our ancestors’ ability to be alone, to enjoy solitude, to reflect, to become wise, to love, to be present to those with whom we really are present, and who ultimately matter. Do we prefer screens to real people? How might we be people of faith or goodness in such a wired world where we have to “check Facebook,” or can be interrupted by a mere phone vibration?

Powers rifles through history to excavate some ancient wisdom, from Socrates taking a walk outside the city walls (our need for some space, some distance, some down time away), to Seneca’s counsel that we find seclusion even in a crowd, from the advent or printing with Gutenberg and the virtues of private rumination, to Shakespeare’s feelings about little erasable tablets that were all the rage (and the virtues nowadays of jotting down our own thoughts instead of merely absorbing those of others). The chapter on Thoreau is stellar: Thoreau went into the woods to avoid “quiet desperation” in a world that just discovered the telegraph and train. He noted how “we become tools of our tools,” and the way that “when our inward life fails, we go more constantly to the post office” – to look hopefully for a telegraph message! How prophetic of our digital age! Thoreau wrote, by Walden pond, “The man who goes desperately back to the post office over and over to check for a telegraph message is a man who hasn’t heard from himself in a long while.”

Hamlet’s Blackberry includes some simple suggestions: observe an Internet Sabbath, an unconnected day each week. If you are with someone and they reach for their iPhone, simply say “Would you put it aside? I want to be with you.” Work with your hands out of doors; write – on paper, with a pen; cook, commit to two disconnected hours daily, go out and look up at the stars. Trust yourself; go deeply into yourself, or a great book – or the beautiful silence of the world.

I would say read a Bible, close your eyes and pray. The question God asks is, Are you reachable? By being perpetually reachable, we are unreachable – at least by what genuinely matters. The alternative is to wind up like the sorry citizens of Gilead in Handmaid’s Tale, our freedom and joy sacrificed on the altar of a thoughtless conformity to the digital wave.