Smartphones and The “Undoing” of Society

In the American Conservative today Rod Dreher shares a post from one of his readers. It is about how he or she views the connection children have to smart phones in a small town in Germany:

Smart Phones & The Invisible Cord

A reader who lives in a small town in Germany writes:

Children nowadays are connected to an invisible cord that is yanked once in a while. It is terrible to see how completely normal children change once they have access to smart phones. Not all of them but quite a few. The ones that don’t have any (like my son) are relentlessly bullied. I have been seriously thinking about sending my son to a catholic private school but it is to far away. I also don´t know whether it would help. As you write many Christians don´t understand the menace that smart phones pose and therefore don´t restrict the usage. Especially the less educated think having smart phones will help their kids navigate the future world. Sometimes I could cry so sad is all that.

Take a family I know. The father is a good mechanic who will always find a job.The mother is a simple sales woman. Their son will be none of that. He has a smart phone since he is 9 and completely glued to it. His thumb is probably able to do amazing swipe gestures but that is all he learns. Academically he is a disaster. The worst is that when he grows up he will not be able to do anything with his hands except swiping as he never does anything else. He will be totally useless in every sense of the world. What makes my blood boil is that there are thousands and thousands out there like that. And nobody telling people the truth.

What the parent states is not off the mark. Children who are not allowed to have their own phone or tablet at a very young age are seen as outsiders. Parents who don’t want to enable an this powerful attachment in children have to constantly fend off a subtle, nagging pressure from society around them too. Your kid is squirming and making noise at a restaurant? Why not sedate them with the glow of your phone, right? Counter-cultural parents would answer “because we have a much bigger goal for these kids than simply keeping them still and quiet while peace and comfort is being met for the adults”.

“Aw, cute! Look, Zander is becoming more indifferent to everything and every person around him!”

Coincidentally, it is also Rod Dreher who states in his book Crunchy Cons that too often our society is focused on what technology can do, but rarely contemplates what technology “un-does”. This is a great point. There are unintended consequences to everything. Of course, some downsides are obviously worth the benefit or can be mitigated through adjusting other habits. For instance, having automobiles and public transportation obviously helps people get around quickly. We are able to do more things in less time and more comfortably–this is a clear upside. However, this also means we get less natural exercise than humans did many generations ago. The benefit of cars is widely considered, however, to outweigh this side effect. Also, people are able to mitigate the effects by jogging or joining a gym. This is an obvious unintended consequence. There is no debating the physical change to our collective lifestyle from automobiles. Not all side effects are obvious, physical ones though. Some are mental, emotional, or spiritual.

Today we have smart phones which can accomplish an amazing array of tasks and have an endless amount of options to satisfy our craving for entertainment. With my iPhone, I can deposit checks, send messages, get news updates, see photos, listen to music, set my thermostat, lock my doors, and much more. But what do these devices undo? I think it’s more clear what these devices undo in children and teenagers than adults who were not raised on them (although some adults seem to have entirely adopted a lifestyle of digital device attachment).

Indeed the destructive content internet-enabled devices can deliver to the senses of a young child is problematic but even more devastating (as the person above goes on to state) is the effect of technology on the formation of the brain and social skills. That is, the immoderate use is an even larger risk than the possible content that one could be viewed on that very device. People are increasingly becoming detached not only from the people around them but of the natural world they live in. A good number of people are making the decision to stop living in ‘3D’ in order to experience the world artificially through a two-dimensional screen. When all children know is the screen in front of them, they set out, day-by-day (with the help of their parents), to circumvent their God-given talents which correlate with the world around them. It’s no wonder why, as we have technology that can do more and more, people can do less and less. When the main avenue (by far) for correspondence is text message and social media, children, in their formative most years, never learn how to properly speak to one another or socialize in a meaningful way. This is one of the reasons I find so funny the main argument against homeschooling children, that they won’t be properly socialized. Aside from the many examples of how well socialized most home-schooled children are, the idea that the mainstream school system full of kids who cannot socialize outside of a digital world (or even well or virtuously within the digital world) will be better for social integration is comical. The New York Times equates technology substituting for drug use among teens. CBS reports on how psychologists are connecting the addiction of smartphones and Snapchat (for teens) to the hormones the brain releases which make people anxious when they are not checking their devices. The articles coming out on the science of what is going on are endless.

Equally troubling and sad is that society is raising a generation who aren’t aware of the natural beauty (or human suffering) around them. When one is always looking down at a screen, they cannot look up to all that is around, let alone God. Children need to play outside. They need to touch worms and get on their hands and knees to push toys through the grass in their yard. They need to look up at birds scattering from a tree against the background of clouds in the sky and think about it before they even have the words to describe what they are seeing. They need to hear thunder rolling in and smell the rain as it fills the street. These experiences are a few of nearly infinite are extremely important. Not only are experiences like this what good childhood memories are made of (who has great memories of a game they played on an iPad) it makes them aware of the tangible world surrounding themselves. It helps them put themselves into the proper context of creation, illustrating to them both their priceless dignity and the fact that they are part of a world much larger than themselves. These children are more likely to appreciate the mountains and oceans on vacation.

Children with these experiences are more likely to grow up with a desire to use our natural resources responsibly, in a truly conservative manner. They are more likely to create beautiful things: art, architecture, literature, crafts and more. They are more likely to have a healthy attitude towards animals and where they fit in in the natural order. These children are more likely to grow up loving fresh food and the joy which accompanies cooking with their own hands, perhaps even raising or growing the food themselves. These young people are more likely to grow up knowing what they are able to accomplish with their hands (along with their own limitations) around the house when something needs to be fixed. Pretty much, these children will be more likely able to understand the big picture: what it means to live a good life.

Are you a parent who is dismayed by the state of the prevailing culture? If so, commit to nurturing a truly counter-cultural household. Revolt against how popular culture expects you to raise children. Don’t allow for digital devices until a certain age and then have rules on how these devices can and cannot be used. Expect more from your children in how they interact with other people and the world around them. Not only will true joy and beauty begin to flourish in your household and beyond, but the future of society depends on it. ☩

Update: There is a follow up post on The American Conservative about smartphone use contributing to drastic changes among the post-Millennial generation.

Advertisements

Dreher’s 10 Suggestions to Keeping People in the Faith

The blogosphere of politics and, especially, Catholicism seems to be increasingly just a series of posts in which a blogger simply copies and pastes an excerpt of another article and expands or “replies” to it. See: my previous post…and many others including this one. I understand why this is; it’s a way to publicly communicate with other people in a format which requires more than 140 characters. It’s Twitter with more depth…a nice way of putting it, eh?

At any rate, the increasingly visible orthodox Christian thought-provoker Rod Dreher has a blog post replying to a tweet which was in reply to everyone’s favorite Catholic opinion writer for the New York TimesRoss Douthat. See below:

3992443fd3f87979890b4e906553611f43313c888ba47f3c7bca344ab4c7ecea

Mr. Dreher lists his top ten suggestions for “Christians wanting to keep their kids in the faith”. Pay particular attention to points 3, 6, which are topics discussed on this blog often.

  1. Accept that there’s no such thing as a foolproof program for this. Religious faith is not something that can be programmed into people. There’s no killer app to make your kids religious. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t things you can do that make it more likely, but you should not be under the impression that there’s a secret formula for it.
  2. Don’t outsource your kids’ religious education. You are the primary religious educator of your children. Your church staff and Christian school staff can help with this, and should — but mostly, it’s on you. If the best you can do is support in every way your church and school as they teach your kids, that’s better than most. If you feel incapable of doing things in-depth yourself, then at least don’t undermine those who are.
  3. Practice your religion yourself. The most important form of religious education in families is by example. Studies have shown over and over that the best predictor of whether or not people become religious is whether or not their parents practiced the faith. It’s not enough to say, “This is what we believe.” You’ve got to walk the walk. You’ve got to live as if God were real — and not just on Sundays and holidays.
  4. The life of faith is 80 percent formation, 20 percent information. When I was in my twenties and a militant new convert, I used to think that the answer to our problems with fallen-away Christians was better catechesis. Now that I’m 50, have lived longer, have had my own deep and painful struggles with my faith, and have been raising kids for almost 18 years, I see that catechesis is only part of the picture — and not the most important part. I don’t mean to put down catechetics — I think we all know that we need to do more of it — but I do want to say that practices matter more than mastering information. (See #2)
  5. Don’t shy away from the big questions. “Why did God let Aunt Ruthie die?” It’s a good and serious question, and it deserves a good and serious answer — and “I can’t say for sure” is a better answer than something pat that’s designed more to short-circuit questions than to answer them. I can see now that much of the religion in my family’s life was (unconsciously) designed to wall off real moral and theological inquiry. I hear this a fair amount from people, talking about their childhoods.
  6. Encourage a sense of wonder. All true religion begins with wonder. Expose your kids (and yourself) to God’s presence in nature, in sacred art and architecture, in literature. Otherwise, you risk turning the experience of faith into dry moralism.
  7. Help them to see the universality and the historic dimension of the Church. It’s a big church, and includes in an immense range of human experience over the past two millennia. This is your children’s inheritance. Share it with them.
  8. Beauty and Goodness are greatly undervalued as witnesses and teachers. This point is implied by a couple of the things I said above, but I still wanted to say it. In a “post-truth” age, it will be easier for many young people to approach God through His manifestation in Beauty (#5) and Goodness (e.g., in the lives of the saints, and in deeds of heroic sacrifice, mercy, and compassion around them). When their minds are closed to the appeal of Truth — as mine was for a time in my teenage years — Beauty and Goodness can be the ways in. Don’t, however, fall for the trap that Truth doesn’t really matter, only subjective experience and kindness. They are all united.
  9. Practice little rituals of forgiveness. I will never forget being at Forgiveness Vespers at the start of Lent in 2006, and watching elderly Orthodox Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas bowing to little children and asking their forgiveness, and receiving their requests for forgiveness, as is the Orthodox custom. That made a huge impression on me, and I’ve tried hard to live by his example. When I speak harshly to my kids, or treat them unjustly, I repent by asking them to forgive me. They’ve told me that this means a lot to them. It would have changed my life had my father done that — and changed his too, I bet. It shows that humility is a real thing, and that we are all the same under the law.
  10. It’s not up to you, ultimately, but to God and to your child. God made us all free. He will not force us to accept Him. Nor can you force your children to accept Him. Do the best you can, and leave the rest to God. (See #1)

If you find this interesting, be sure to check out Peter Kreeft’s How to Raise Catholic Kids. ☩

In Defense of Beauty

It’s said that the three marks of the divine–that which is transcendent–is beauty, goodness, and truth. That which is beautiful, good, or truthful points towards God. This is why Catholic churches have traditionally been built with rich artwork and soaring architecture.

Modern society is at battle with these marks of transcendence. Not only is popular culture seeking to make goodness and truth relative, it also seeks to destroy beauty in favor of efficiency. We see examples of this with the literal destruction of beauty in Catholic churches across the country: high altars ripped down, intricate altar rails thrown away, detailed stained glass imagery replaced by abstract colors, beautiful vestments replaced by schlocky polyester sheets, and many more examples. Secular life has many examples too; most modern buildings favor high-efficiency materials to produce cookie-cutter strip malls dotting our roads, deep and meaningful music, artwork, and literature exists but seems to be harder and harder to find. Gone are the days when someone who cherished authentic beauty in society is to be regarded civilized.

1710-15_de_matteis_triumph_of_the_immaculate_anagoria

The soul’s longing for beauty may be hard to easily satisfy in today’s world but those who seek to live a counter-cultural, authentic, better and joyful life need to try. One must ask of everything surrounding their life, “does this reflect goodness, truth, or beauty”? It’s not the most efficient way of living, but it does produce better results. This point is reflected over and over by Rod Dreher in his book Crunchy Cons, “beauty is more important than efficiency”:

Appreciation of aesthetic quality–that is, beauty–is not a luxury, but key to the good life

In my now-heightened awareness of the lack of beauty plaguing both our churches and culture, I found the recent article by Paul Krause particularly edifying. He more eloquently states the same point while citing ancient thinkers such as Cicero and Platinus and their impact on classic Christian philosophy. These notions were once obvious to Christians. This unfortunately is no longer.

What’s hopeful, however, is the recent “re-renovations” of previously destroyed churches, the formation of architectural firms specializing in traditional beauty, and priests interested in offering reverent Masses (especially the TLM).

Quoting only parts from A Defense of Beauty and Excellence from the Classical Tradition (emphases mine):

There are many serious problems facing moderns, but one of the most troubling—and worrying—is the loss and degradation of beauty, not just in the arts, but in society as a whole. Classical Greek philosophy, to which Catholic philosophy largely inherited and preserved, maintained that beauty and morality were intertwined with one another. When Christianity began to spread, the Christian encounter with Greek philosophy was largely positive. However, over the last two centuries, the widening chasm between aesthetics and virtue, and the postmodern assertion that aesthetics is oppressive (and therefore needing deconstruction), has brought immeasurable harm to culture and society.

Culture means life. And for life to be truly flourishing in a teleological sense, Greek, Roman, traditional Jewish and Christian philosophy, always affirmed beauty as an integral aspect of the good life. In his masterpiece, Enneads, Plotinus opened his most famous section—on beauty—by writing, “Beauty addresses itself chiefly to sight; but there is a beauty for the hearing too, as in certain combinations of words and in all kinds of music, for melodies and cadences are beautiful; and minds that lift themselves above the realm of sense to a higher order are aware of beauty in the conduct of life, in actions, in character, in the pursuits of the intellect; and there is the beauty of the virtues. What loftier beauty there may be, yet, our argument will bring to light.”

More…

[Plotinus stated] “Then again, all the virtues are a beauty of the soul, a beauty authentic beyond any of these others.”… As Plotinus explains, the ugly lacks a proper cultivation of reason, torn by lust and discord, lashes out and destroys beauty in the process—which also destroys harmony. It is interesting to note that Plotinus associated the ugly soul with the person preoccupied with only material things.

Catholics, best of all, understand the importance of the union of aesthetics with arête. Beauty, itself, demands a value judgement. There is nothing harsh or unfair with proclaiming this truth. That which is beautiful is good, and that which is ugly, as Plotinus recognized, is neither beautiful nor good. There are natural gradations of beauty. As Augustine explained, the gradations of beauty lift one up closer to Heaven and the Supreme Beauty that is God. This follows the insights of both Plato and Plotinus who recognized that the experience of even low beauty awakens an innate desire for greater beauty that drives one to greater excellence in search for beauty.

Cicero equally noted that people in their folly, are prone to destroy things beautiful and admirable. Nihilism is the end result of anti-intellectualism and relativism, not just the mere absence of values but the abject negation—destruction—of beauty and values.

The quote above is great. Relativism of beauty, truth, and goodness has an end result of not just the simple absence of each mark but a destruction of each. What did we see bishops and priests do in the 70’s? They didn’t just simply start making ugly new churches, they quite literally destroyed the beauty of old churches. The “art” that replaced traditional sacred art in many suburban parishes are kitschy felt banners and horrendously cheesy guitar music. Gross.

It is the inheritance of the classical marriage of aesthetics and moral excellence that had historically been a cornerstone of not just Catholic philosophy, but Western philosophy more generally—inspiring all aspects of culture: art, music, engineering, and literature, to reflect the highest excellence demanded of beauty itself. And in that beauty there exists an irresistible draw for the virtuous to defend all that is beautiful. The compulsion to defend the beautiful, itself, reflects the moral excellence of the person.

…in Confessions, Augustine stated that reading Virgil and Cicero had brought him to belief in God. Beauty is the brilliance of truth, and as Augustine said, “All truth belongs to God.” And we know where that road ultimately ends.

We all should start discerning what is beautiful in our homes and lives. Then we should slowly start surrounding our minds, bodies, and souls not only with what is truthful and good but also is beautiful. ☩

Congress Repeals FCC Internet Privacy Rules

Yesterday the book Crunchy Cons by Rod Dreher (who right now is receiving much attention for his new book The Benedict Option) was waiting on my front porch when I returned home from work. It’s a book I have wanted to read for quite some time and finally bought a used copy. The book is about how some conservatives are returning to a form of conservatism that is actually interesting in conserving things — freedom, education, family life, natural resources, beauty, liberty, Christianity, etc — rather than purely focusing on economic strength and accumulating…stuff.

The back of the book includes Dreher’s “Crunchy Con Manifesto” of nine bullet pointsincluding the following:

  • Modern conservatism has become too focused on money, power, and the accumulation of stuff, and insufficiently concerned with the content of our individual and social character.
  • Big Business deserves as much skepticism as big government.

At the same time I scanned the Crunchy Con points on the back cover, conservatives in Congress were (and still are) in the process of sending President Trump a bill to repeal FCC Internet privacy rules that require giant telecom corporations to ask their users to “opt-in” to them storing and sharing private user data rather than allowing them to do this automatically. They use this information (among many ways) to build profiles on people to sell the advertisers so they can send us eerily targeted ads. The data storage is also ripe for abuse as we already know by the tens of thousands of (known) data requests by the government recently.

Republicans argue this levels the playing field with websites like Google and Facebook who are already allowed to collect data on their users and have a sort of monopoly over online advertising. But why are we so concerned by leveling the playing field for giant corporations to compete with each other when the currency to do so is our very intimate, private information? Maybe the answer is cracking down on Google and Facebook rather than allowing telecom providers to do the same.

Quoting from the Wall Street Journal:

What if your telecom company tracked the websites you visit, the apps you use, the TV shows you watch, the stores you shop at and the restaurants you eat at, and then sold that information to advertisers?

In theory, it’s possible, given the stance Washington is taking on online privacy. Lawmakers on Tuesday voted to overturn privacy rules that required telecom companies to get customers’ permission before sharing their web-browsing and app usage history with third parties. 

The telecom providers had argued the rules put them at a competitive disadvantage to online ad giants Google and Facebook, which generally aren’t regulated by the FCC.

Google and Facebook have built huge businesses powered by reams of data they collect about consumers’ online actions, both on their own properties and across the web. That trove of information largely explains their dominance — combined, they have a roughly 47% share of the global digital ad market, according to eMarketer.

But online advertising executives say telecom providers potentially have access to more powerful data than the two tech powerhouses. Their networks — both wired and wireless — could give them a window into nearly everything a user is doing on the web.

“ISPs like Verizon can now start building and selling profiles about consumers that include their friends, the news articles they read, where they shop, where they bank, along with their physical location,”…

For example, a wireless provider might track which websites and apps a consumer uses, in addition to their location, and use that information to help determine which products they’re likely to purchase.

If a consumer uses the same telecom provider for wireless, broadband and TV service, the provider could, in theory, track the majority of that consumer’s online behavior and media consumption.

Is this really what conservative voters want? I doubt it. It’s telling that the Republicans, who can’t seem to agree on anything important right now, are able to quickly come together to do something so pro-big business at the expense of everyday Americans. Political conservatives in this country tend to be more pro-privacy than their liberal counterparts so why don’t the politicians they voted for reflect that? To the contrary, this is the first thing to likely be signed into law with their new president? Until there’s more information suggesting there are benefits not being properly reported, what a disgrace. ☩