Orthodox Survival Course, Class 40: The Internet

You can listen to a podcast of this lecture at https://www.spreaker.com/user/youngfaithradio/osc-40

Above all things, love silence.

– St. Isaac the Syrian

Introduction: The Multi-Dimensional Chessboard

I am very bad at the game of chess, but if the chessboard be a traditional one, I can at least imagine becoming better at the game. When I see a three dimensional chessboard, however, all hope in that direction dies – there is no way I can even begin to comprehend how anyone could do this. Our subject today, the Internet, is a 3-D (or 4-D, or …) chessboard compared to the media we have been discussing – the newspapers, radio, and television. It is not simply a medium, but a means of transmitting various media – print, sound, and visual – so rapidly and so universally, that the mind simply cannot grant grasp the whole of it. And it is not only a multi-media network, but serves billions of people as their social structure, their means of engaging in friendship, their means of doing business, of obtaining information, even finding lovers and spouses… the list goes on, and it keeps growing. It is, in short, a new universe: a new stage in the organization of human society and a new stage in the way we use the human mind. And if all of this be so, and I think that very few would disagree with this assessment, is it not imperative that we arrive at an Orthodox way of viewing this thing and responding to it? For it is not simply a technology, a clever sort of tool that is indeed advanced but still rather dumb and one-dimensional, over which the ordinary user can claim mastery, but rather it is – I would venture to say, more than any previous technology, even the printing press or the automobile – a core element of immediate and continuous daily waking experience that has drastically changed the way people think, learn, feel, and work, the way they see themselves and other people, and, ultimately, they way they relate to God. By now many (most?) people do not simply use the Internet now and then to do this or that discrete and limited task. No, it has gone far beyond that. To a greater or less extent, they have begun to live inside of it.

The following lecture is neither as simple nor as linear as my previous talks, because the subject is so complex and so ramifying – many branches leading off into so many directions. I offer, then, a rambling and incomplete meditation upon, rather than an explanation of, this bewildering topic, organized under sub-topics or insights as they have occurred to me. I pray that you will find some wisdom here.

A) Is It a Tool or Is It Your World?

The original purpose of technology was to give man tools to do this or that task better or more easily than he would otherwise. When all things are in right relationship, then man, the image of God, to whom God has given dominion over other created things, invents and uses only those tools that he truly needs, when he really needs them, and in the most virtuous way possible, that is, in that way most conducive to attaining his ultimate end. The saint, the man in right relationship with God, subordinates all of his choices and activities, including his invention of tools and use of tools, to the ultimate end of man – his salvation, his union with God. One of the arguments used to support the humanistic fallacy of progressivism – the erroneous idea that the human race is getting better, advancing somehow, all the time, and that the present generation is smarter and better than all previous generations – is that ancient and medieval Christian men did not invent even a fraction of all the clever gadgets invented since the Renaissance. The obvious response, of course, is that they had better things to do. The intellectual and artistic classes of these societies were on the whole devoted to pursuing interests higher than the comparatively puerile fascinations of trying to go somewhere faster or flying through the air like birds or building gigantic metal structures or discovering ways of eking out a few more years of one’s doomed biological existence or killing ever-greater numbers of people or inventing better toilet paper. Since the Renaissance, however, as we have discussed in our classes on that period, the physical and natural sciences and their practical expression, technology, have exploded exponentially in their pursuit of the knowledge of material phenomena and the manipulation of these phenomena for the gratification of material desires, precisely because man – i.e., fallen man and his fallen tendencies – replaced God at the center of life.

Now, however, by the beginning of the 21st century, our technology has overwhelmed us – we are no longer master. Striving to make himself God, man has, rather, created this Babylonian statue of himself that he must bow down and worship. The Internet is the ultimate example of a technology that has now replaced life itself for great numbers of people. It is their world, their reality; they live inside of it. It is not simply a tool; it is a World. Inside of this artificial world of unfathomable complexity, this hall of mirrors, this incomprehensible labyrinth, there is not one but many minotaurs waiting to devour us. How do we go on functioning inside this world – and for most of us, there is no choice, or, at least, we can imagine no other – and not be devoured by the monsters inside of it?

A first step is to remind ourselves that the Internet is a tool, a potentially very useful tool, but that it is not our entire world. It is a tool, however that easily takes over one’s life to become one’s entire world. To avoid this requires understanding and disciplined action. We must understand how each of our daily activities either leads us towards or away from God, and we have to take disciplined action first to order and then to conduct our activities towards God. Of course, we have always had to do this – this hierarchical prioritizing and prudent use of one’s time according to God’s Law has always characterized the active Christian life – but now the Internet has become the 3-D chessboard of life, and therefore we must now work harder – and, most importantly, receive greater wisdom and greater power from God, and therefore must pray more – in order to deal with this new factor in the ordering and conduct of our lives.

So let us assume that we need this tool. I suppose that there are a few of us who are so circumstanced or so clever as to need it very little or not at all. Most of us, however, are stuck with the Internet, and, to be realistic – and appropriately grateful – I must say that most of us like it and that we derive real benefit from it: for example, this lecture that you can read or listen to thanks to the Internet. Let us, however, remind ourselves, first of all, that the Internet must be for us simply a tool for living and not a replacement for living. If it ceases to be servant and becomes master, and it probably will over and over again, we have to push back over and over again, and reclaim our sovereignty. Let us ask the Lord daily for the wisdom and strength so to do!

B) In the Matrix

So let us assume we are stuck with the Internet – for whatever reason we simply must use it or cannot imagine living without it or enjoy it so much we are not going to give it up. It may be the case that, as far as we can tell, the benefit demands that we take the risk. Now we know, Yes, it should function for us as “just” a tool. But in its nature, it is not “just” a tool; it is a vast, fascinating, endlessly complex and endlessly ramifying mental universe. Herein lies the rub: To use the tool, you must enter the universe that is the very nature of the tool. This is terribly inconvenient, of course – one would like to have the benefit of the tool without the potential dangers of the tool. But let us borrow some wisdom from that man of many aphorisms, Mr. G.K. Chesterton. He aptly remarks that an inconvenience is simply an adventure wrongly considered, and an adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered. Let us then consider the inconvenience of the Internet’s dangers as a daily adventure, let us remember that we are entering a deceptively familiar but in fact dangerous far country, and armed cap ά pie, so to speak, with prayer and wisdom, let us enter that strange world with sobriety and reserve, with a critical eye, our wits about us.

In an earlier talk, we discussed the movie The Matrix. One may take the adventures of the hero in this tale as an image of our task. He knows that the universe of the Matrix is not the real world, and that it is full of dangers, but he must enter it to accomplish his mission. While he is in the Matrix, he must constantly remember that this is not reality, this is not the real world, that he must return to the real world or the Matrix will swallow him up. This is what we have to do. We have various missions to accomplish that require our entering the matrix of the Internet: We have a school or work-related report to write that requires quick research, or a friend to send a message to, or a doctor’s appointment to make, or any number of legitimate tasks that require – or at least are made much easier by – entering the alternate universe of the Internet. We must use a little imagination and, before clicking on the little picture on the screen that forms the gateway to that world, remind ourselves that though the task may be innocuous, the means is most certainly not. We armor ourselves with the Sign of the Cross, we take up the sword of the Prayer of Jesus, we sigh a brief but earnest plea for wisdom from above. We have a mission to accomplish – let’s go in, in God’s name, do our job, in God’s name, and get out. We are entering the lair of the dragon to extract the gold within, not to have tea with the dragon. I suggest placing an icon of St. George killing the dragon near or on the device you use to enter this electronic dragon’s den, and ask the saint to protect you.

Further practical steps can include keeping track of the amount of time you spend on the Internet – do a daily reality check, and ask yourself, after this or that number of minutes or hours wandering in the Matrix, “Now, was that really necessary?” Keep an old fashioned pen and paper log, and read it at day’s end with an honest eye. This advice works, of course, only if you are looking at the Internet on a desktop or laptop computer or a tablet, and thus have to sit down, turn the gadget on, and decide to go on the ‘Net. If you are a smart phone addict, staring compulsively at that little screen countless times per hour, all of this advice is absurdly inadequate. You really just have to get rid of the thing.

C) But I’m Lonely – Social Media and Community

The Internet has provided the conditions for this vast thing within the vast thing, which we call “social media” – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and so forth. Instead of the town hall meeting, the family parlor, the front porch, the kitchen table, the village well, and the barn dance, we have the virtual, electronic substitute for all of the above, this chaotic, impossibly undisciplined, and artificial vortex of heartbreakingly fragmentary feeling and thought, claiming to provide social life while simultaneously isolating all of its participants within the closed visual world of the screen in front of them and a truncated mental world of retarded speech. Yet for so many people, this is in fact the only way to be in frequent contact with those with whom they share their most cherished beliefs – traditional Orthodox Christians, for example – or their dearest interests, or the tie of blood itself.

It is the same old story, of course, of the vicious cycle of technology destroying natural relationships and in the process making itself indispensable if one wants relationships at all. The automobile, for example, at least in the United States, destroyed decent public transportation and city planning on a human scale. Then, as much as one might regret it, one had to buy an automobile in order to see one’s relatives and friends, scattered about by the new system of things, and, simply, to go about one’s business. If one then complained about the automobile, there was inevitably the reproach, “Don’t be ungrateful: if you didn’t have a car, how would you do such and such…” Of course, if there were no cars, we could have gone on doing the such and such our ancestors did for millennia, only next door or down the block instead of miles away. And there are various kinds of such and such uniquely enabled by the automobile that frankly never needed to be done at all.

A friend once told me of a conversation he had with an Amish elder about their practice of not having automobiles, and not having a telephone in each family’s home, but only one shared phone for an entire local community. “It’s not that we think the technology is magically evil,” he said, “we are not superstitious about it. It’s just that if everyone had cars and phones, they would move away from each other after awhile, and we’d have no community left.” Bingo.

So here we are, at the tail end of this destructive process, with a situation in which traditional, practicing Orthodox Christians may find themselves isolated, and some kind of social media is the only way they ever get to communicate with like-minded brothers and sisters in Christ. It would be both foolish and cruel to say that these media are not a lifeline of some sort, that the relationships created or sustained thus are completely unreal, that everyone would be better off in low-tech natural isolation than high-tech artificial relationship. The reality here, however, is that the cure helps to perpetuate the disease: Since we have this means to cope with the problem, to ameliorate the symptoms of the disease, we become comfortable with mere coping and do not even try to tackle the root of the problem, the etiology of the disease, itself. How much is our isolation completely beyond our control, and how much is due to laziness or cowardice or lack of imagination or lack of prayer? Have we prayed, begged, cried out to God to get us out of our isolation and into a more natural and normal kind of community life? How much are we willing to sacrifice to live near the Church or our friends or our family? Have we tried to ask other, like-minded people, to pray and think about and tackle this problem with us? I am not prescribing only one possible course of action or condemning those who feel they cannot act. I have not entirely solved the problem for myself. I am simply asking the questions.

Of course, it is also true that strong and relatively natural communities – say, church parishes in which most everyone sees each other at least on Sundays and stays in touch the rest of the week – could use social media as a supplement to actually seeing each other, to post announcements, for example, or to have online discussions about edifying topics. Everyone has to work out a practical arrangement as close to the ideal as possible. The danger, however, is that a fairly normal parish could degenerate into a “virtual parish” in which the members feel less and less need actually to see each other in person, because, supposedly, they can do so “just as well” by social media. The priest may feel justified in not visiting someone because he exchanges Facebook messages instead, and so forth. The technology is so powerful, and it can so rapidly dehumanize our behavior without our noticing it.

Besides the effect of social media in shaping what we think of as our community, what effect does constant activity on social media have on one’s inner life? I do not participate in Twitter, Instagram, or Snapchat, or whatever else has popped up since those things came into being. A few years ago, however, I reluctantly agreed to get a Facebook account in order to distribute useful material, either my own writing or links to other articles or, occasionally, videos. Therefore, being on Facebook, I notice how most people use it. I must say that it is, for the most part, as used by most people, a self-destroying exercise in regards to the fragmentation of one’s thoughts, the trivialization of one’s concerns, and the destruction of one’s privacy. In all the activities of a man, his inner life is paramount – the most sacred, the most necessary for happiness in this life and the age to come. It will inevitably be, as he lies dying, his only possession. Constant social media activity exponentially aggravates the tendency of modern man, Americans in particular, to unabated, unceasing extraversion, to the point at which the man’s inner life ceases to exist. This, I think, is the most terrible, the most frightening result of the misuse of this technology. Indeed, as the Lord said, what can a man give in exchange for his soul?

In light of all this, what practical steps should we enjoin? One would be to smart phone users, to get rid of the thing, and if they cannot bear the thought of that, at least to turn it off for most of the day and check their messages and so forth at specific times. Treat it as a malicious, captured enemy spy you must lug about with you to guide you through enemy territory, but whom you never trust and with whom you speak or even look at as little as possible. Again, all this stuff is a tool, not the world you live in. To social media users, we could say, among other things that to be constantly posting your opinions on anything and everything is destructive to your own inner capacity for sustained and careful thought, that conversations by this means are of necessity stunted and unnatural, and that only a small circle of those close to you need see or should see dozens of photographs of you, your friends, or your family members. Be circumspect, be reserved, think before you write, write infrequently, and when you do, say something you have really thought about. Never simply react; let your anger cool and pray for guidance if you have been offended. Always speak in charity. Prefer real time with real people in person whenever possible. Do not make social media your usual way of interacting with others, unless you really live in unbreakable isolation. Prefer to do real things.

Above all, prefer reading, silence, and prayer to the unreal world of the Internet and the video screen. You have only one soul. You will answer to God for how you cultivated it.

D) The Two-Edged Sword of Access to Everything

At this point, I’d like to say something positive about the Internet: In our discussion of the newspapers, radio, and television, we pointed out how a small elite controlled public discourse by their increasingly monopolistic control of these media, to the point at which they could brainwash entire populations. Providentially, the Internet has broken this monopoly, and an enormous amount of historical and current information is now available, originating from writers of all shades of opinion and available virtually to everyone. The “tech giants,” Google, Facebook and Co, are doing their best to destroy this freedom of access to information and to the free expression of opinion, but so far the Internet has remained remarkably useful for both learning and saying things that the Anti-Christian elite would prefer not be learned or said. I do not know enough about the technology to say this from an expert standpoint, but my tentative opinion as a non-techie observer of what is going on is that it is going to be awfully difficult for one group of people to corral this beast entirely. The horse is out of the barn. With guarded optimism, I hope, trusting in God, that this entire development is designed by God’s Providence to help us retain our intellectual and spiritual freedom. May it be so.

To illustrate the power of the Internet, when used properly, to preserve and disseminate authentic knowledge, I can offer this example: I have an Orthodox friend with extremely politically incorrect, very old-fashioned opinions on all kinds of matters – religion, race, politics, medicine, you name it. He constantly searches the Internet for out-of-print works of history, philosophy, science, and so forth, old fashioned books that support his convictions, and therefore they are books which the present cultural Marxist Establishment would, one thinks, not want people to read. Yet who has preserved all of these books? Big, bad Google. Google has performed a public service of immeasurable value, scanning, storing, and making available thousands of titles of books you cannot get anywhere else, or at least not without great difficulty. And many, perhaps most, of these books contain views that are anathema to the official Google ideology. As they say, “Go figure.” I do not know how long they are going to go on doing this and how long the present collection will remain available, but I counsel everyone to go there and download everything you can that seems to be of value, especially books that present traditional Christian views of some kind on history, society, and morality. It’s pretty amazing.

And what about current events? The best advice I can give is prayerfully and carefully to look at a variety of sources from writers from different outlooks, and search especially for sites that publish longer and more serious articles that examine current events in the light of history, that exhibit real cultural literacy, and a nuanced, 360 degree view of an issue. That does not mean that the writers should have no convictions – their convictions may be very strong, and the more these convictions line up with the teaching of the Church, obviously the more you can trust the “filter” through which they view the times we live in. But we should not get on the bandwagon of this or that website or commentator as being an infallible source of some kind. Pray for discretion, read carefully, and try to discern if the writer is really interested in the truth, if he suffers over the truth, if he genuinely hates falsehood.

There are websites run by Orthodox Christians, as well as those run by people sympathetic to Orthodoxy, that offer a view of the news quite other than the mainstream media of the left or the secular right. I do not, however, in this podcast want to take the possibly controversial step of recommending this or that website over others in the realm of this touchy subject of current events, but if anyone wants to write me privately, I could make some suggestions.

Access to information is a two-edged sword, of course. Information is not the same as wisdom, or even as knowledge. An overload of undigested and misunderstood information could actually, paradoxically, make you more deluded, more ignorant, more paralyzed and hopeless than when you started. Again, discipline with prayer is the key. Use your Orthodox “filter” to discern the coherence and trustworthiness of anything you read. Try to discern the belief system that underlies the author’s or commentator’s interpretation of events. Reserve judgment, don’t overreact to bits of data that may be presented out of context or be outright untrue. And always remember that God is over all – His Providence is directing all things according to His plan. Remember, when it comes to evil, you will never get to the bottom of it all, because there is no bottom, even in Hell. So do not exhaust yourself trying to “figure it all out” when it comes to the Bad Guys in this world and their plans for us. Do not collect information in a state of fear, but in a state of hope in God, and only seek to learn enough in order to make prudent decisions to help those for whom you are really responsible.

And, once, again, love prayer, silence, and reading. Limit your Internet time, even in the pursuit of good things. There are, after all, much better things!

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