The dangerous digital Tower of babel
I recently joined Facebook! After years of stoic resistance, I finally relented.
I have come rather late to this form of social media. By contrast, I came very early to the innovation of email, having my own email address over 20 years ago when no-one but the seriously nerdy had taken the digital plunge. I remember at the time being all ready with my new personalised address: email@example.com and no-one to email! By contrast, Facebook, I have resisted until over one billion fellow humans have already joined. I finally decided that the advantages outweigh the dangers.
Why have I set my face for so long against Facebook? Simple answer- because the dangers are real. Perhaps you know nothing of Facebook and have no interest in the online world provided by computers - in which case you may ignore this and instead may I encourage you to continue to enjoy the real life and real relationships that so many of us used to enjoy.
The advantages of technology are many. Skype, Email, Google, and a host of other Internet-based ‘beasties’ can be a great blessing. This summer, in deepest Norfolk, we found a church with an evening service by making use of Google, and as a result enjoyed fellowship with a wonderful bunch of believers. At the same time, we were able to exchange texts and speak to our eldest son in China, through the use of mobile phone apps. The ability to access useful information at our fingertips, and contact our loved ones wherever they may be, is a real blessing. Facebook, for example, can be a useful communication tool (especially good at keeping scattered loved ones in touch) but, to be honest, it can also be self-indulgent (look at me and how much more wonderful my life is than yours) and narcissistic (nothing is more interesting and important than me and my new toenail colour).
Let me suggest there more general dangers to be faced in our digital world, some of which are echoed by the writer Kevin DeYoung in a book entitled ‘Crazy Busy’:
1. There is the danger of addiction. Some people are addicted to the Internet, and, like any addiction, it is life diminishing. In a restaurant recently in St Andrews, I noticed a couple sitting at a table near us enjoying, you might think, a romantic meal together. Not a bit of it. It appeared to me that for the entire meal they were each preoccupied with their digital appendages. It was all they could do to interrupt their web surfing/tweeting/posting to put food in their mouths. I have no memory of them speaking to each other. They might as well have eaten alone. Their lives had been subsumed by the Net. If they had begun that meal without phones and said so little to one another, we might have reasonably assumed their relationship was on the rocks. Sad thing is, it probably is, but it will probably take a comment on Twitter for them to realise it!
Here is the challenge to discover how addicted you might be: could you go through a whole day without looking at Facebook? Could you leave your phone behind when you go for a walk? Could you refrain from checking emails for a few days? How does a holiday without ANY Internet access strike you? For many people there is a compulsive clicking to their lives.
As with all addictions, those who are Internet-addicted find that the ability to concentrate declines as life begins to revolve around digital demands. The truth is that the addicted might well be struggling to read this far in a pastoral letter. Well does the apostle Peter warn us: ‘people are slaves to whatever has mastered them’ 2 Peter 2:19
2. Another danger is the listlessness of spiritual forgetfulness – what is sometimes called acedia. The dictionary I consulted defines acedia as ‘Spiritual torpor and apathy, ennui.’ The word is the same as sloth, one of the ‘seven deadly sins’, which are each, essentially, idolatry of self. One writer fills out the meaning in these words:
‘Acedia is evenings without number obliterated by television, evenings neither of entertainment nor of education but of narcoticized defence against time and duty. Above all, acedia is apathy, the refusal to engage the pathos of other lives and of God’s life with them.’ (Richard John Neuhaus)
For ‘television’ in that quote, read ‘Internet’. The Internet, and its constant digital demands and relentless connectedness, can create a fruitless busyness that comprises nothing more than the wasteful passing of time. The thumbs are frantically active but the brain is disengaged, and, as a result we risk being shallow people with no penetration even into our own hearts. Acadia takes a grip. Beware.
3. The third danger is the tragedy of never being alone, or at least never wanting to be alone. It is one of the curiosities of modern life that we complain of being frantically busy, but then set about arranging our lives precisely to be frantically busy. We seek the very thing we complain about. Is this because leisure time, and quiet time, away from noise and pressure and interruption, terrifies us, because solitude would actually expose the true emptiness of our lives? Only when we clearly recognise that specific void do we recognise that it can only be filled by God.
Meanwhile, we run from the emptiness by the constant interaction with the small mobile device in our hands. The disturbing truth is that we can be scared to disconnect. Kevin DeYoung quotes a book wonderfully entitled ‘Hamlet’s Blackberry: a practical philosophy for building a good life in the digital age’ by William Powers, who likens the age in which we live to a large room. In that room are more than a billion people with everyone in close proximity to everyone else. At any moment someone may come and tap you on the shoulder - a text, a tweet, a post, a message, a new thread. Some people talk business, others complain, others flirt, others sell you things, others just want to tell you what they are doing or thinking. This continues day and night in what Powers calls ‘a non-stop festival of human interaction.’
We enjoy the room and its buzz, but eventually we grow tired of it. We can’t eat without being tapped; we can’t even make a toilet visit without being tapped. But when we try to leave, we find it difficult. Others don’t understand our absence, and we fear we may miss something. The danger is that we are doing no more than busying our lives with trivia and distraction and we end up confined to the spiritual shallows, shutting the Lord out of our lives with digital noise. Never was Blaise Pascal’s insight more relevant:
‘I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.’
This is where theology can help us. We have a God who took our flesh. The Incarnation means that there is no substitute for being with real people in a real place. Virtual encounters are not adequate replacements for flesh-and-blood relationships. Here is the thing - you can’t have meaningful relationships with thousands of people who are your ‘friends’ on Facebook. Neither can we be as well-informed as we think. The lie of our digital age is that we can be omni-competent, omni-informed and omni-present. No, No and a thousand No’s. As believers we must learn to choose our absences and admit our inabilities and be honest about our ignorance, lest we find ourselves as part of some digital tower of Babel.
Above all, as a child of God, I don’t need Facebook to know that I am important and valuable and loved.
Yours, reluctantly on Facebook,