The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 21, 2023 - 4:26:39

A Recovering Luddite Looks at the Internet

Devra Torres, Jun 14, 2012

Last week, I reflected on the startling lack of satisfaction the vast array of affordable material goods seems to produce in the American consumer.  What, I wondered, could possibly illustrate Kierkegaard’s “possibility unchecked by necessity” better than your local Walmart Supercenter?

But then I thought of something.

The internet.

There you have it: endless possibility, held in check only by the finite stamina of the mouse-clicking finger.

Now, I’m really not a luddite. 

Or I try not to be.  I aspire to be a Pauline kind of person--and mother-- one who “tests all things and holds fast to what is good” rather than preemptively forbidding all things in case they turn out to be not so good.  If I do sometimes think of the internet as the embodiment of Kierkegaardian despair, though--well, I have my reasons. 

True, my luddite inclinations are kept in check by my ready acknowledgement of the positive side of the e-world.  I’m in constant communication with beloved relatives and friends, including a traveling husband.  I’m even in occasional contact with people who, before the internet, I could only have regarded as distant celebrities (I don’t mean Justin Bieber; I’m talking about, say, homeschool guru Mary Pride and poet Joseph Bottom). 

In my teenaage backpacking-around-Europe days, I spoke to my parents only occasionally.  I’d go to the one building in Rome that had international phone access for foreigners, wait in line, buy my tokens, argue with the high-strung little man at the desk, and then wait in line some more for my turn in the little booth. 

My own far-flung kids can just open up Facebook or Skype.

So, yes, the internet is the vehicle for a lot of fun, joy and intellectual enrichment.  And bonding.  And apostolate.  Or it can be. 

On the other hand, of course, evidence is mounting that it’s bad for your physical health (flexing the mouse-clicking muscle, studies indicate, is not quite enough to keep you in tip-top shape).  And it can be bad for mental health.  And for marriage (every time I check my email, must I be invited to ogle all those eerily cheerful, yet apparently broodingly lonely, local guys?).  It can be bad for friendship, too—at least the real-life kind.

Health, marriage and friendship: surely these are some of the most fundamental personal realities of all.

The data is starting to come in, too, about what all that pornography and Playstation has done to a generation of young men.  Impulses that used to be channeled towards marriage--or at least interpersonal acts of fornication and adultery—are no longer directed to another human being at all, but to an image on a screen. 

The ambition and aggression that used to be channeled towards making one’s mark on the world and supporting a family are now focused on achieving an ever more awesome score at Lego Batman II. 

Hasn’t it enhanced education, though?  Optimistic bureaucrats have been working hard to get the internet into the hands of every schoolchild.   It was supposed to look like this:

“But ‘access is not a panacea,’ [says] Danah Boyd, a senior researcher at Microsoft.  And ‘the reality is that [computers'] use for education or meaningful content creation is minuscule compared to their use for pure entertainment,’ [says] Vicky Rideout, author of [a] decade-long Kaiser study.

Even if there's no intrinsically evil content, the sheer quantitiy of time spent staring at ever-more portable screens is still mindboggling.   The effects are not always obvious, though--precisely because you don’t experience the time not spent reading to the kids, socializing with friends, playing outside, or just living "mindfully."

 It's far too easy to treat life as a spectator sport.

Still, for good or ill, the web is not going anywhere.  To cavil about it feels like raging against the internal combustion engine.  It would be silly to refuse to appreciate the sheer mindbogglingness of it all—and the artistic merit of much of it, and the potential for enhancing human relations.

You might conclude: Look, it’s like the telephone.  It’s not intrinsically good or evil.  Sure, it takes some self-control and some discipline to use it well, but if you lack those qualities, don’t blame the technology itself.  As Kevin de Souza has pointed out, that would be

...tantamount to people saying that fast food joints are the cause of putting on weight. With this erroneous logic, the solution is to shut down all fast food restaurants. Burgers and fries don’t make us fat unless we lack the self-control that it takes to say,‘Enough!’

You’ll get no argument from me.  The real solution always lies within the person,

and never in simply providing or restricting options external to him. 

But just as there’s such a thing as “structures of sin”—ways of ordering society that ease the way for evil individual decisions—there are ways of ordering our individual and family lives that encourage technology addiction.    

Because it is addictive.  Not just for people who have a genetic physiological weakness for it, but for just about everybody.

Communicative people can use it to communicate; shyer ones, to avoid the chore of communication.  Extroverts use it to socialize, introverts to avoid socializing.  Productive, organized people use it to enhance those skills; lazy, incompetent people can use it to put off the hard work of getting organized.  (Don't ask me how I know.)  Writers, readers, movie buffs, lefthanded redheaded trombone players in need of a support group…there’s something for literally everyone.

But addictions are poison to personal self-determination.  St. Paul sums it up:  “For the good that I would, I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do." Who can understand this better than someone who's been telling himself for an hour, or three, to go to bed, or start supper, or get a little fresh air, but finds himself still sitting and staring at the glowing rectangle

Or how about all those people who, it turns out, are paying good money to stay in “black hole resorts”--the selling point being their lack of online access.  Or those who purchase “software that disables their internet connections for up to eight hours at a time.”  

Of course they could get the same results cost-free by using self-discipline and willpower.  It’s possible to resist wasting time on the internet.  In fact, it's possible to use it positively.

So let’s wholeheartedly embrace its good side and clear-headedly acknowledge the effort it takes to use it well.  You don't have to be a luddite.  You just have to admit that they don't call it a web and a net for nothing.