Cover StoryTop Fold Story

New Evangelists and Digital Natives

Convocation Address 2017

Amidst the whirlwind of words with which Pope Francis’s Laudato sí was received, it would be pardonable if one were to have overlooked that document’s commentary on digital media as a part of our contemporary cultural landscape and environment. In the encyclical’s forty-seventh paragraph, the Holy Father registered his concern that “real relationships with others . . . 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.” “Today’s media,” he continued, sometimes “shield us from direct contact with the pain, the fears and the joys of others and the complexity of their personal experiences. For this reason, we should be concerned that, alongside the exciting possibilities offered by these media, a deep and melancholic dissatisfaction with interpersonal relations, or a harmful sense of isolation, can also arise.” Toward the end of Laudato sí, the Holy Father returned to this theme and insisted that the first step toward repairing our treatment of the environment as well as our relationships with other men and women is the attainment of an interior peace that consists in “an attitude of the heart, one which approaches life with serene attentiveness, which is capable of being fully present to someone without thinking of what comes next, which accepts each moment as a gift from God to be lived to the full.”[1]

This kind of interior peace is today achieved by relatively few men and women. It is now common to observe, with sociologist Matthew B. Crawford, that we are living through a “crisis of attention.”[2] It is not difficult to pinpoint its principal cause. The inattentiveness to and, at times, isolation from others that is routinely associated with the habitual use of smartphones is now so proverbial that it is an object of popular humor and even cartoons. Our headlines are plastered with anxious questions such as the one that recently confronted readers of The Atlantic, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”[3] Studies of digital distraction and addiction are multiplying rapidly, as are books offering advice as to how to gain the mindfulness or attentiveness that more and more people are admitting that they yearn to recover. It seems reasonable to suggest, then, that the digital media devices that have been invented in the twenty-first century and are now in daily use by the vast majority of youth and adults in the United States and Western Europe may, in fact, define a new way of life, that is, a new culture.

One way of speaking about the digital age has been provided by sociologist of technology Sherry Turkle, who has applied the label “digital natives” to those of our contemporaries for whom, as she put it, “life in a media bubble has come to feel natural.”[4] Following the venerable imperative to “become all things to all men” that we “might by all means save some” (1 Cor 9:22), it is well for us to ask what New Evangelists must be like if they are to be effective heralds of the Gospel to digital natives. Let us first consider the interior landscape of the new digital culture so that we can better appreciate the suggestion of Pope Francis that Christians today have the opportunity and the challenge of offering to the world a gift of their “serene attentiveness.”

The emerging culture of the digital age confronts us with three striking oppositions. Digital natives are technologically adept, but (whether accused by others or confessed by themselves) liable to being habitually distracted by and even addicted to their devices. Digital natives are strikingly well-informed—even up-to-the-minute—but highly susceptible to anxiety. Digital natives are connected to one another, but less often physically or emotionally present to their friends and families. Each of these oppositions is paradoxical and perhaps even tragic. As to the first, we know that individual tools are meant to extend our freedom, and that technological culture as a whole is for the sake of expanding our leisure, so if internet-enabled devices demand our attention and exhaust our free time, they risk being the antithesis of useful. With regard to the second, we note that knowledge is the quintessential human good; we think that we act most freely when we are most aware of the circumstances, ends, and potential consequences of our choices. The expansion of our knowledge, then, should contribute to our peace of mind and confidence in action. So if a demonstrable effect of the habitual use of digital media—especially social media—is to make us more anxious, then we may wonder whether the media is in fact informing us of what we need to know.[5] Conversation, finally, is the very medium or substance of friendship; a relationship just is a conversation extended through time. If the habitual use of digital media harms our ability to listen and to be attentive to others when we are in their presence, it may be that its promise to keep us in contact with our friends is not altogether true.

At the heart of these oppositions is the internet-enabled media device itself, whether held in the hand, worn on the wrist, or open on the desk or table. The promise of the device is to make present to us information or persons otherwise at an unapproachable distance, and to connect us to that information or to those persons in real time. The chime of What’s App lets us know what our siblings are doing half a continent away, various social media feeds connect us with our treasured causes and social circles, and all the while we are able with one eye to keep tabs on an office now being redefined as that of the Tweeter-in-Chief. In study after study, we Americans chronically under-report our habits of using our smartphones. Without entirely realizing it, and certainly without coming to terms with it, we have become a nation of constant checkers.

It may be argued, then, that the essence of digital culture is the implicit claim that we can do two things at once. As a society, we may be in the process of drawing the line at texting while driving—and it may be hoped that our legislators and public safety officials succeed in the attempt—but otherwise we seem to accept that the phone is on and being used for something, more than likely some things, during almost every other activity throughout an ordinary day. The connection between multi-tasking and digital media is the special focus of a book by neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley and psychologist Larry Rosen; they have documented the fact that today’s “typical teen and young adult believes that he or she can juggle six to seven different forms of media at the same time,” in whatever other context they find themselves. The new behavioral norm, as they reported it in 2016, is for smartphone users to be checking their devices on average every six to seven minutes, without ever taking as much as an hour off at any time during the day.[6]

The phenomenon should give us pause. If anything worth doing takes more than six or seven minutes to do, but digital natives habitually interrupt whatever they may be doing at least as often as that, the conclusion is plain: digital natives are putting at risk the most significant accomplishments that they may wish to attain.

There is today a chorus of concern on this point. Nicholas Carr, in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, worries that he can no longer find pleasure in reading long books or following complex arguments. Sherry Turkle, in Alone Together, suspects that our ability to form lasting and intimate personal relationships with other human beings is on the wane. Matthew Crawford, in The World Outside your Head, warns that we are becoming less capable of working according to “settled purposes and ongoing projects,” such as the founding and maintenance of a business endeavor.[7]

These are concerns about ends, that is, about goals to be achieved, but the past few years have also seen an increasing number of concerns raised about the chief means that is being threatened by the habitual use of internet-enabled devices: the human brain.

The insight that our brains and their sensory powers might have natural limits is not a new one. Socrates had trouble keeping the attention of the youth of Athens, and Jesus was more than once disappointed by his disciples’ inability to maintain a proper focus. Both of them sought to instill discipline of mind in their followers, a discipline involving custody of the exterior senses and training in attentiveness and remembering. Our Lord’s repeated calls for watchfulness and vigilance are at the origin of a Christian tradition that places a high premium on ascetical practices that sharpen the senses and settle down our inner selves, chief among them silence.

Another indication of the universality of the truth that learning, retention, contemplation, and discourse make high demands upon our senses and our brains may be had from the valuable witness of John H. Watson, M.D.:

[Holmes’] ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge . . . he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to me to be such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.

“You appear to be astonished,” he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. “Now that I do know it, I shall do my best to forget it.”

“To forget it!”

“You see,” he explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”[8]

Well before magnetic resonance imaging, it was widely understood that the brain is a delicate organ, with possibilities of health or disease all its own.

Holmes’ point is all to the good: we do indeed put our brains at risk by bathing them in data that are not much worth our attention, let alone our remembering. Contemporary students of the brain, however, offer an additional account. Prior to our memory being engaged and activated, we must receive and sift the data that comes to us from our five exterior senses. That function of the brain, or suite of functions, is often spoken of in shorthand as our faculty of attention, which, in the words of one of its leading students, “is essentially a name for the integrated operation of the executive functions of the brain.”[9] The array of sensory and mental processes typically collected under the heading “executive function” includes most aspects of our choice, command, and emotional self-control.[10] We may suspect that in such a list of functions we are running into the limits of neuroscience as an empirical inquiry involving brain scans and realize that we need to seek additional distinctions between what is a cause and what is an effect of our essentially immaterial powers of intellect and will. Nevertheless, the target of the brain scientists is an important one: impairment of these executive functions is the symptom of those who suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder. If the new culture of the digital age results in a similar psychological condition, then we have cause for grave concern.

In their book, which is called The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, Gazzaley and Rosen have offered the valuable testimony that our executive function, or attention, is costly to exercise and that our power or ability to exercise it is limited. The problem with today’s digital media, then, is that it offers us more information than our sensory faculties are able to absorb. “Our brain,” they warn, “simply does not have the infinite parallel processing resources needed to simultaneously receive and interpret all the information we are exposed to at every moment.”[11] Their own laboratory work with subjects challenged to switch quickly from one task to another, that is, repeatedly to interrupt an ongoing task—such as driving a car in a simulator—by some other task that required their attention for just a moment, has convinced them of what they and we are also aware from common experience: we cannot really do two significant things at once. “Many of you have had they experience,” they write, “of trying to check your email while you have a conversation on the phone. At some point you are likely to lose the thread of conversation, and have to reengage without making it obvious that you were not paying full attention.”[12] Their conclusion is framed in stark terms: “Our brains do not parallel process information, as demanded by many of our daily activities, if those activities both require cognitive control.”[13] In other words, we really cannot perform two complex activities at the same time; we cannot do two things at once.

This truth, expressed by Gazzaley and Rosen in contemporary terms, was known of old to the wise, and was set down in lapidary form by St. Thomas Aquinas in answer to the question of whether pain deprives us of the ability to learn. “As all of the powers of the soul,” he wrote, “are rooted in the one essence of the soul, it must be the case that when the soul’s attention (intentio animae) is strongly drawn to the work of one of its powers, it is withdrawn from the work of the others.[14]

The problem with trying to do two things at once—over and over again, day in and day out—is that we risk becoming less able to attend in a powerful and sustained way to any one worthy object of our attention and concern. Could it be, as more and more are asking, that the typical habit of using internet-enabled devices—that is, the habit of constant checking and dawn-to-dusk multi-tasking—actually harms the brain? If so, we may hope that people will change their habits accordingly, although given how difficult it is for people to escape other kinds of addictions, perhaps we ought not to be so sanguine in our expectations.

How, then, is the culture that confronts us, the way of life of digital natives, to be addressed by bearers of the Gospel? Calmly and without undue alarm. This culture is not the first unhealthy way of life to have been encountered by Christians; digital natives are not the first native peoples to whom missionaries have been sent. To consider but one example, some of the North American tribes encountered by the French Jesuits of the seventeenth century customarily handed down property from mother to children because relationships of paternity were not able to be reliably established. The ramifications of their unstable family lives were, of course, many and far-reaching. How did the Jesuits respond? Certainly, they voiced their disapproval of vice and of self-destructive behavior. Certainly, they scrupulously maintained their own purity and chastity, devoting considerable attention, prayer, and mortification to that end. Yet they also understood that the root cause of the promiscuity was a deep ignorance of the proper good of sexuality and of the most beautiful of all friendships, the life-long marriage of a man and a woman. So, they taught the North American natives about those goods and encouraged their pursuit and, when they could, they found good French Catholic families who were willing to live among the tribes and offer their example of marital fidelity and concord. And, above all, they were patient and persevering, knowing that the work would be lengthy and involve opposition and rejection.

A similar approach is required today. Many of the various goods that are being sought through the habitual use of internet-enabled devices are indeed goods to some degree. The problem is that they are being sought disproportionately and out of order and that they are being sought in patterns of use that are inherently problematic. The eventual solution will, to be sure, include a regimen of self-denial and asceticism. At some point, digital natives must learn to bring their urges under rational control; they must become the possessors of their devices and no longer be possessed by them. In order for them to take this step, however, they must first be able to see the comparative poverty of what constant checking offers to them because they have seen the great beauty of real relationships and the great satisfaction that comes from the sustained consideration and contemplation of the most intelligible things.

Those two goods are found together in prayer, which is thinking about, talking to and listening to God, who is the highest Truth, the most real being, and the inexhaustible font of beauty and love. If by our testimony and witness, we are able convincingly to show digital natives that the knowledge and the love of God constitute the essential human good to which all other human goods are to be ordered, then we will have supplied them with the motive they must have if they are to want to bridle their appetite for what their screens convey. The first task to that end is to give to them—and to give to one another, for we are all digital natives now—the gift of our serene attentiveness, to each other and to the Lord.

 

Christopher O. Blum

Augustine Institute

August 27, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Francis, Laudato sí (2015), ##s 47, 226. Vatican translation.

[2] Matthew B. Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction (New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 2015), ix.

[3] https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/

[4] Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011), xii, 16.

[5] See the study by the American Psychological Association, Stress in America 2017: Technology and Social Media, available from apa.org.

[6] Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen, The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2016), 11.

[7] Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains (New York: Norton, 2010); Turkle, Alone Together; Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head, ix.

[8] Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “A Study in Scarlet,” in The Complete Sherlock Holmes (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1905), 21.

[9] Thomas E. Brown, Attention Deficit Disorder: The Unfocused Mind in Children and Adults (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 21.

[10] See, for instance, Brown, Attention Deficit Disorder, 22.

[11] Gazzaley and Rosen, Ancient Brains, 64.

[12] Gazzaley and Rosen, Ancient Brains, 77.

[13] Ibid, 77.

[14] Summa Theologiae I-II.37.1: quia omnes potentiae animae in una essentia animae radicantur, necesse est quod, quando intentio animae vehementer trahitur ad operationem unius potentiae, retrahatur ab operatione alterius, unius enim animae non potest esse nisi una intentio. Et propter hoc, si aliquid ad se trahat totam intentionem animae, vel magnam partem ipsius, non compatitur secum aliquid aliud quod magnam attentionem requirat. The passage is a difficult one due to the interplay of intentio and attentio, the precise relationship of which may be a matter of some ambiguity in Aquinas. In any event, the claim here about the unity of the soul requiring the unity of intentio must be brought into conversation with his earlier discussion of the possibility our having an ordered series of intentions (see I-II.12).