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.