One of the frequent complaints we hear these days is about the dangers of an internet insularity. It was one of Pope Francis’ brilliant points in Fratelli Tutti, that digital media has often created the illusion of relationship and connection but instead occluded it (#43). It is one of the internet’s great ironies, really, that we have tended to sink deeper into our respective echo chambers. This feeling of insularity has only been exacerbated during strict COVID lockdowns. That has been my experience, anyway. Here in Melbourne, Australia, we went through one of the world’s longest and most stringent lockdowns, which meant that (at Stage 4) we could only leave the house for a few essential reasons, exercise once per day, not go out after 8 p.m. unless we had the relevant papers, and not travel beyond our 5 kilometer radius (plus mandatory mask wearing). Even if you argue that such a lockdown was a good thing, as Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks noted in his recent book Morality, things which are right in their own time often have unforeseen and negative consequences. One of those negative consequences, for me, was the exacerbation of this feeling of insularity. Trapped inside the house, an uptick in YouTube political, cultural and ecclesial commentary was inevitable. And it did not do good things to me mentally.
People whom I love consume information from platforms like Taylor Marshall, LifeSite, Church Militant, OnePeterFive and Remnant that amplify nebulous talk from the outspoken critic of Pope Francis, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganó. I felt the need to consume the same information in order to stay on top of it all, to be able to engage in conversation, to offer my opinions so I could persuade my family just how toxic this league of platforms really is. But, unable to leave the house, the proliferation of talking heads on my phone meant I had no outlet, no mechanism to release the tension, neither Mass nor a decent argument. Instead of simply consuming their content, I found myself being consumed by it. I became frequently angry and frustrated. I became internally disoriented and scattered. I was not at peace, far from it.
I realized I needed a detox, to step aside and rest awhile. I needed to get these voices out of my head because there were too many of them and they were far too opinionated about too many things, and their opinions bugged the living hell out of me. In his book, Technopoly, Neil Postman says technology can never be innocently introduced into a society. Like a fragile ecosystem, the removal or introduction of a new “species” radically restructures that society. If I can add to Postman’s incisive critique, I think technology changes us interiorly, not just socially. It affects the way we think, the way we talk, the way we process information, digest and articulate it, and not necessarily for the better. It has not just a social dimension but an internal spiritual one as well.
Cutting off the talking heads was liberating. I found my joy again. I found my peace. I found my freedom. When occasionally I enter back into the online Catholic world, my head is in a much better place. But it is a fragile place, so I enter tentatively, and as soon as I get that bad feeling in my head again, I shut it down. I shut it down straight away because no one’s opinions are worth enough to justify messing me up inside, not when I have a family to be present to, a wife and daughter to love relentlessly. We shouldn’t sully the calm of our minds with others’ confusion.
We would do well to reflect on Søren Kierkegaard’s judgment of the news media, which, though in its infancy in his day (1813-1855), remains as relevant and devastating as ever. The rise of communication technology that could be heard “over the whole land” would lead to the entire country becoming “mentally deranged.” Communication, as a blessing from God, takes place in the context of personal relationship, and the extravagant power of circulation was something Kierkegaard thought would inevitably lead to “a kind of insanity which tends to make society into a madhouse, just as crisscrossing a square mile area with trains would be crazy and, far from benefiting, would confuse everything.” More than that, it seduces us into a merely spectatorial role, all the while persuading us we are engaging in real civic (or ecclesial!) participation.
Despite all the good that modern communication affords us, I think we should let Kierkegaard’s assessment haunt us as we engage in it. Insofar as Catholic media contributes to the madness, to the insanity, to the occlusion of personal communication, then they are not of God.
To be clear, I’m not an all-out media cynic. It can function to spur people and nations to take positive action. That is undeniable. But media overload is real, so ask whether the information you consume is actually useful to you or is just fuelling anxiety or anger. This is the question I have started asking myself on a daily basis. There is a fine balance to strike between not equating our screen time with activism and not burying our heads in the sand. We should remember that personal transformation occurs in personal encounter with other people first and foremost. It is only through the development of this “culture of encounter” that we can heal ourselves interiorly and socially. As Pope Francis says in Fratelli Tutti, “Digital connectivity is not enough to build bridges.”
Henceforth, I aspire to be (in a strange way) like the Gerasene demoniac, who, after encountering Jesus and having the demons cast from him, was found by the people “sitting at Jesus’ feet, clothed and in his right mind; and they were afraid” (Luke 8:35). Only at the feet of Jesus will we be in our right mind.
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