Thursday, April 8, 2010

Surfing the Web, Redeeming the Time

I’m just old enough to have grown up without the Internet. I was twenty-four when I first went online, and it was another five years or so before I became the owner of my first laptop and was able to go online at will. So I remember what life was like before the Internet, and my pervasive computer problems over the course of the past year have reminded me again.

What I can say without reservation is that the Internet has been bad for my spiritual and intellectual life. It's as distracting as television, and just about as nourishing. It keeps me from reading real books and distracts me from prayer. It reduces my attention span to a matter of seconds.

Now, no doubt, there are many invaluable resources on the Internet, and I am certainly not calling for total abstinence or avoidance. But I do believe that a great deal of caution in using the Internet is called for.

I can think of at least three serious dangers inherent in the prolonged use of the Internet: it changes the way we think; it changes the way we read; and it changes the way we relate with others.

It would not surprise me in the least to learn that the Internet changes the quality of one’s actual neurological activity. I have no doubts that studies demonstrating just this exist. In these brief notes, however, my evidence will be more anecdotal and autobiographical. What I can say for certain in that their is a direct correlation, in my experience, between the extent of my use of the internet and the diminishment of my attention span. I can think or I can surf; I can contemplate or I can click. And what I really can’t do during times that I use the internet a good deal is read. It’s always either the screen or the page, and the former almost always wins out.

For the sake of simplicity, one could identify three kinds of reading: deep reading (especially of fiction), internet reading, and spiritual reading. In his book How Fiction Works, the literary critic James Wood quotes with approval the words of Jorge Amador, the chief of police in a rough area of Mexico City who had instituted a reading program among his police force. Amador believes that reading fiction will enrich the lives of his officers in three ways:
First, by allowing them to acquire a wider vocabulary... Next, by granting officers the opportunity to acquire experience by proxy. ‘A police officer must be worldly, and books enrich people’s experience indirectly.’ Finally, Amador claims there is an ethical benefit. ‘Risking your life to save other people’s lives and property requires deep convictions. Literature can enhance these deep convictions by allowing readers to discover lives lived with similar commitments. We hope that contact with literature will make our police officers more committed to the values they have pledged to defend.

So, in other words: language; the world; and the extension of our sympathies towards other selves. These are among the reasons one should pick up Shakespeare or Milton, Papadiamandis or Dostoevsky. These are noble aims. But can they really be found outside actual bound books? We all know the language of emails, tweets, and texts. We know how narrowed our world becomes when we associate online only with those whom we agree. And we know, conversely, just how factious internet arguments tend to be. Quite simply, the “reading” we do online is barely reading at all, no matter how many words we create or consume.

Now compare this with spiritual reading according to the Fathers. St Peter of Damaskos writes: “The purpose of spiritual reading is to keep the intellect from distraction and restlessness, for this is the first step toward salvation.” Now, it would seem to me that if there are two things internet reading provokes, it’s precisely distraction and restlessness. Spiritual reading in the patristic sense is on an entirely higher plane than even the deep reading of literature. For St Peter of Damaskos, spiritual reading is the sixth of seven forms of bodily discipline. He writes:
The sixth form of discipline consists in reading the writings and lives of the fathers, paying no attention to strange doctrines, or to other people, especially heretics. In this way we learn from the divine Scripture and from the discrimination of the fathers how to conquer the passions and acquire the virtues. Our intellects will be filled with the thoughts of the Holy Spirit, and we will forget the unseemly words and conceptions to which we gave our attention before we became monks. Moreover, through deep communion in prayer and reading we will be able to grasp precious meanings; for prayer is helped by reading in stillness, and reading is helped by pure prayer, so long as we attend to what is being said and do not read or recite carelessly. It is true, however, that we cannot properly understand the full significance of what we read because of the darkness induced by the passions; our presumption often leads us astray, especially when we rely on the wisdom of this world which we think we possess, and do not realize that we need knowledge based on experience to understand these things, and that if we wish to attain knowledge of God mere reading or listening is not enough. FOr reading and listening are one thing and experience is another. One cannot become a craftsman simply by heresay: one has to practice, and watch, and make numerous mistakes, and be corrected by those with experience, so that through long perseverance and by eliminating one’s own desires one eventually masters the art. Similarly, spiritual knowledge is not acquired simply through study but is given by God through grace to the humble. That a person on reading the Scriptures may think that he partially understands their meaning needs cause no surprise, especially if that person is at the stage of ascetic practice. But he does not possess the knowledge of God; he simply hears the words of those who do possess this knowledge. Writers like the prophets often did indeed posses divine knowledge, but as yet the ordinary reader does not. So it is in my own case: I have collected material from the Holy Scriptures, but have not been found worthy of learning directly from the Holy Spirit; I have learnt only from those who did learn directly from the Holy Spirit. It is like learning about a person or a city from those who have actually seen them.
Thus we see that this “reading in stillness” is not an end in itself, but only points upwards to experience. But it would be churlish at this point to remark how far such spiritual reading is from anything we’re likely to do while surfing the web. My point is actually a more serious one: that too much time online actually makes such “reading in stillness” impossible.

FInally, the web changes the way we relate to others and to the whole notion of “community.” I remember very well the first time I heard the word “internet.” It was on a CNN story in about 1992, reporting on the opening of an internet cafe in San Francisco. I remember one thing from this story: the sound of the cafe. In the background were all the usual cafe noises of espressos being brewed and cups clanking. But over this noise not a single human voice was heard; all one heard instead was the clicking of keyboards. The impression has never left me. Relationships online are screen to screen rather than face to face. One has no commitments, no responsibilities. But all the while one has the feeling of being part of a “community.” This, of course, is a fraud.

I’ll end on another personal and anecdotal note. Last year, when my computer was broken, I at one point read War and Peace straight through in ten days. It was an exhilarating experience. It’s now been about ten days that I’ve had this new computer, and I haven’t completed a single book in the same length of time.

19 comments:

BJohnD said...

Christ is Risen!

This post is wonderful. Thank you for it.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

We, not surprisingly, concur.

I used to read during every free moment I had. When at work, the morning and afternoon break and lunchtime would be full of reading, not with getting coffee, eating, etc. Weekend days I'd spend outdoors reading, sometimes at the nearby Berkeley Rose Garden, or one of the many parks scattered about the hills here. Evenings would be entirely filled with reading, either in a cafe, pub, or at home with yours truly flopped onto a pile of pillows on the floor. I got to the point where I could zip through the average fiction paperback in a day. And then I got a computer at home. And then I started the blog and a couple of mailing lists. There comes a certain feeling of responsibility with those (I am notoriously bad about regularly posting in the rather passé venue of the mailing list!), as they need to be kept up for the sake of others, not so much for myself.

But this year, I have enforced a turnaround. Despite the numerous blogs and websites that I link to on my blog, there are only a handful that I now regularly read (like this one! Glory to God for your health!). Going through the blogs used to take more than two hours. Now, it's merely minutes.

And still it seems there is just not enough time for reading real books, much less spiritual reading. I have so many that I have yet to read that I am entirely daunted! So many treasures have been collecting dust! This will be the turnaround year, though.

And then I just manage to blather on and on.... Me, me, me. In any case, thank you for your thoughtful post.

johnr said...

Christ is Risen!
I recently attended (Mar 1-3 ns)the Clergy Pastoral Conference/Retreat at the Parish of St. John in Mayfield, PA. We had the wonderful blessing of listening to a number of talks by Fr. Artemy Vladimirov from Russia and in one of the talks(On the Role of the Clergy in the 21 Century)he counseled the clergy regarding the use of the internet.
He even suggested that we put a little sign above our monitor with the quote from Dante's Inferno; "All ye that enter here, give up hope." Great caution and discipline are needed along with the protection of the Theotokos and the Saints!

David.R said...

I agree. I have limited the time I spent browsing the net and at times consider that maybe I should drop it altogether. Reading with attention and with a prayerful spirit is the best way (other than actually praying) to warm up the heart and also to bring tears to my eyes, when I realize that reading is only hearing from those who have first-hand knowledge of God.
I like to listen to Orthodox lectures on CD from different sources, especially if I have had contact with the person giving the lecture. For example, I had the blessing of visiting the monastery of Elder Sophrony in Essex and did confession with Fr Zacharias Zacharou. We had a few conversations and we exchanged some letters. So now, when I listen to his lectures on CD, the feeling of personal engagement, of 'çontact' is stronger even than when I read his books. There is something about hearing the father speak, the nuances of emphasis, emotion, in his voice and the awareness of the Grace that rests on this humble disciple of Elder Sophrony, that exceeds even reading his books. Quite often I find myself saying the Jesus Prayer as I listen to this cds.
I pray the Lord will keep you in good health. Thank you father for this blog.

Athanasia said...

Indeed He Is Risen!

Like the others, I agree with what has been written here.

While the internet has a few good qualities, I feel the negative outweigh them...yet here I sit. It is helpful for research but has replaced library research. Many college students do not have a clue how to use hard copy material for research papers.

I find the same mind-numbing feeling come upon me from staring at a computer screen all day (it is required for my job), as I do from staring at a television. I've managed to almost eradicate the latter. I think it is time to reduce the use of the former.

I have not, thank God, given up on reading books. I still devour them and will often spend hours upon hours reading. One college class' required text was given as a CD. I found it nearly impossible to read and comprehend the material which I read on the computer screen.

May God grant you continued good health.

johnr said...

May I ask what CDs by Archimandrite Zacharias and where can they be found? I've read two of his books (excellent), the third I haven't started yet. The two that I read are from his talks at clergy retreats.

Thank you. Chris is risen!

David.R said...

Johnr:
Greetings! The 2 books you mentioned are the transcript of the talks which are available in mp3, cd and cassette format. The Ascetical Theology of St Silouan can be purchased from Orthodox Christian Cassettes at http://www.orthodoxtapes.org/catalog/st_silouan_the_athonite.html

The cds on 'The Hidden Man of the Heart are available from Eighth Day books at http://www.eighthdaybooks.com/products/The_Hidden_Man_of_the_Heart-54116-0.html

There is also a recording of lectures given at a conference hosted by the Antiochian diocese of the west and that can be purchased by calling or writing to the diocese.
Another lecture is found here http://vodpod.com/watch/872126-on-the-theology-of-st-silouan?pod=zacharias

And there is an interview done by Fr Josiah Trentham at
http://ancientfaith.com/podcasts/illuminedheart

johnr said...

DavidR
Thank you for the info. Christ is risen!

David.R said...

Johnr:
Truly He is risen! I forgot to mention that Dr Christopher Veniamin gave a series of lectures on 'The Wisdom of St Silouan' that is also available from Orthodox Christian Cassettes. Dr Veniamin was a disciple of Elder Sophrony for many years.
http://www.orthodoxtapes.org/
catalog/wisdom_of_st_silouan.html

Elijahmaria said...

Just a quick note on relationships on the Internet: My on-line experiences, non-work related, began in earnest in 1997. There was a domain called CIN [Catholic Information Network]. During those years I belonged to a number of internet discussion lists on CIN but one in particular, on literature, was run by a woman dying from breast cancer. She was very bright and clever and holy, I believe. She spent her last three years interacting with the group and subsequently three other terminally ill people joined us and we saw them and their loved ones and caretakers all through to the end.

Writing has a way of exposing the heart in ways that nothing else can.

CIN broke up years ago. Those of us who were close then are close now. Many of us have met one another personally or talked on the phone. As a group we keep what I hope is a powerful prayer charism, God willing.

And there is something of the great art of letter writing that is captured in this venue.

You are right. There are grave dangers in excess. There is also much good to be found with prudent use.

I am very happy that you've been able to make a come-back here. God keep you strong!

Mary

Taylor said...

Father, et alia:

Christus Resurrectus Est!

I second the comments of everyone thus far. There is a very interesting book which considers the phenomenon of electronic media and its consequences, by a professor at Claremont College, Barry Sanders, the title of which is 'A is for Ox: The Collapse of Literacy and the Rise of Violence in an Electronic Age'.

I particularly bemoan the loss of the art of letter writing, which I think has been sacrificed at the altar of the internet. My view is that the blog is nothing else than the letter made public - it contains much of the ego-centrism which has always attached to self-expression, compounded by the lack of a particular person on the other end. It's something like announcing one's opinions on a street corner day after day - one never knows who might be listening, so the expression takes on either a stiff formality or an exhibitionist, self-revelatory quality.

There are exceptions, of course, and I think if one undertakes a blog as a sacrifice and service it seems that much good could come of it. God knows that, for the sake of those people who do use the internet, it should not be left solely for the devil's colonization. One great good that the internet holds over television and radio is that it allows one to choose true, good and beautiful things to listen to, watch and read. With television and radio, one is at the mercy of a small cadre of writers and producers with whom most of us share nothing in common. Internet has given us this good, at least.

I am glad to see, in Johnr's first comment, that our church is beginning to publicly recognize the problems of internet use. I only hope that we continue to receive more pastoral guidance from our hierarchs and clergy about how to rightly use computers and the internet (I would particularly love to know how monasteries handle this issue!).

Your servant in Christ,

~Taylor

The Ochlophobist said...

I agree with all thoughts here.

Herr Culpa,

Which translation of W&P did you read? Or did you read it in Russian? Is there a translation you recommend?

I have not read W&P in almost 2 decades, but I intend to read the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation this spring, when I have a few weeks free.

aaronandbrighid said...

Owen> I've never actually read W&P, though I did read Anna Karenina and several of Tolstoy's shorter pieces. Maybe we could read W&P concurrently?

Darren Matthew Faber said...

Thank you for this Wonderful post. Now I need to get off the internet!

The Ochlophobist said...

Aaron,

Sounds like a great idea. I plan to start in May.

johnr said...

"Behold now, what is so good or so joyous as for brethren to dwell together in unity" (Psalm 132:1 -LXX).... Even over the internet or on a blog!!!

johnr said...

May I read W&R with you all as well. Right now I just started "The Idiot" in honor of a dear friend and Father. I know it sounds odd doesn't it ... but I think all will understand.

Chocolatesa said...

Thank you for this!

It reminds me of the article by Nicholas Carr entitled "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/6868/

Pr Seraphim said...

Perhaps ironically, I read your entire post with attention! :)

Yours is one of my most favorite blogs and I did not know that you were back at it. Most of your stuff I read in its entirety. Christ is risen!

Our blog, "Redeeming the Time" attempts to NOT be fluff, and I am sure serves some purpose, but I am most glad when someone walks through our door (and stays) because of seeing something, even if for a moment, on the Internet.