Lex Legere; Lex Vivendi part I

October 3, 2011

The law of reading establishes the law of life. So go do lectio! No, just kidding…

A plethora of red-flags about technology, specifically the ordo vitae constructed by the internet for people participating in online society  have me wondering, and worrying a bit, about the future of humanity as it continues forward in this current reciprocal relationship with technology. I preface this by admitting my bias against the technology I daily use and abuse. Technology scares me, partially because I don’t understand it, and partially because I dislike the continual interruption caused by cell phones, blackberries, emails, pagers, ipods- you name it. There is something terribly rude about their interruption, and I remember with great fondness a time long long ago in a far away land, when a “no cell or smart phone” rule at my dinner table didn’t need to exist. But enough nostalgia for the beep, ring, and buzz-less yesteryear of five-years-ago.

I have three major concerns about the outcomes of technology’s shaping forces on humanity- and eventually (as in one day six months from now when I make time again) I’ll hopefully get to a liturgical component to this: why we need to think carefully about how liturgy, specifically the, regula fidae (the Creeds and dogmatic teaching), the Liturgy of the Hours, and practices of popular piety- especially practices like the praying the rosary or attending Eucahristic Adoration regularly engage or mediate or remedy the issues raised for humanity by our current  relationship with technology. Here, however, let me briefly touch on each of the three problems technology poses to living a human life.

First, I fear technology turns noble simplicity to lazy mumbling by setting the boundaries for common human interaction at 140 characters or less. During a sermon I heard recently, the closing charge was to express your faith as a tweet, which apparently allows you 140 characters. While noble simplicity should be the norm for liturgical and ecclesial expression and prolixity need not clutter the expression of faith, I worry that supplanting the Church’s guidelines for an adequate expression of the faith- say– a three paragraph statement- with twitter’s guidelines of 140 characters problematically places the technology instead of the tradition in the foreground of evangelization, and places it over and above the ‘good news’ that, at least according to St. John could fill all the books in the world and not run dry. (see St. John’s last chapter). I worry that allowing technology to set the guidelines for faith and its expression, far from encouraging a creative and engaging witness, could the witness of the Church and the Gospel down to the level of man-made technology in problematic ways. It demotes the Word of Life to a trite aphorism and diminishes the complex mystery of God by relegating it to the realm of the sound byte.

Second, technology may actually be subverting our God-given ability to creative thought and reason. Sure, we have unlimited information at our fingertips through the inter-webs, but true thought can’t be reduced to the input and output of fact sets, and must include also the creative rational component that makes sense of data sheets and conceives of a telos, a future, in light of the sum-total of the information received. In his article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid,”  Nicholas Carr points out that the technology giants, particularly corporations like Google and Twitter actually transform the way we think with the constant bombardment of information and encouragement to skim, skip, and slide over the surface of information before moving to the next thing. In two particularly poignant moments, Carr writes, “When the Net absorbs a medium, that medium is re-created in the Net’s image. It injects the medium’s content with hyperlinks, blinking ads, and other digital gewgaws, and it surrounds the content with the content of all the other media it has absorbed…The result is to scatter our attention and diffuse our concentration.” Yet, Carr writes, very little actual research into the ethics of the net’s intellectual shaping actually exists. For all its pervasive influence upon our minds, he finds that few minds actively think about its effects.

Finally, the internet has taken an active role in shaping our passions and affections, or so claims Facebook’s most recent campaign to switch most users over to their new facebook-timeline format. Here, users are promised that they will receive a compendium of themselves (narcissistic much?) that will remember them to themselves. One user went so far as to applaud the feature, which allayed his skepticism  claim that facebook knew him better than he knew himself! (“You’ll Freak When You See The New Facebook”). Sir Francis Bacon’s words of warning come to mind here, “Death comes as a heavy blow when, known too well by others, you die unknown to yourself.” The work of self-knowledge is a lifetime in the making, and requires an honesty facebook never claims. There is no editing things out in self knowledge, no “hide story” button, and the depth and complexity of memory far exceeds the capacity to ‘tag’ others. In other words, it would be a sad day indeed were I to engage only the parts of myself I liked and reduced all my friends to little blue words indicating nothing about the depth, length, or breadth of our relationship. A sad day indeed.

Ok. Such are my worries. Hopefully I’ll have the time and concentration to finish up discussing the liturgical, sacramental, and theological means by which the Church can help us receive the benefits of technology, without establishing it as an idol with eerily God-like powers to transform us without the renewing of our minds.

With Hope,

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