Puppies bounding through a field, a jubilant wedding, a new round of beheadings in the Middle East, homemade tacos al pastor, an Olympics triumph over adversity. As my thumb slides over the Facebook newsfeed, I am drawn hypnotically to swipe and swipe again. Perhaps I will rediscover an old friend from college, or scroll upon a factoid to share at the dinner table. As I feed my curiosity, I realize that I have lost a half-hour, with little to show for it. I paid a visit to Facebook for a refreshing diversion, but instead I have grown wearier.
My most profound reaction has been to raise my thumb and “like” what I have seen. True, if I bothered mastering the new Facebook emojis, I could communicate my feelings a bit more precisely. But no degree of Facebook proficiency could empower me to respond with adequate complexity to the varied images it offers me.
MIT Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology Sherry Turkle spent thirty years researching the effects of technology on our lifestyle, culminating in her 2015 work Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. For those accustomed to writing, editing, and sending their thoughts from the safe haven of their devices, real-life conversations are difficult at best and frightening at worst. Further, Turkle observes that technology threatens not only our experiences of direct social interaction, but also our dwindling moments of privacy. Undisciplined device usage disrupts the concentrated solitude we need in order to form an interior life that will be worth sharing face-to-face. Fruitful conversation presupposes fruitful solitude.
New technological devices promise constant digital accompaniment in our physical seclusion. But if we are never offline, we will never find the time to internalize and react to the day’s constant stimuli. Dashes through Facebook newsfeeds or other similar sites desensitize users to content that requires time to assimilate. We see much, but reap little. Our store of information increases, but our souls are not enriched.
In the traditional monastic practice of lectio divina, the meditatio stage that followed the lectio did not refer only to a discursive process of connecting spiritual concepts to draw fresh insights or moral applications. Meditation entailed a memorization of notable content so that the monk could ruminate over the sacred text throughout the day and slowly absorb its nutrients, like a cow chewing its cud. Books were momentous projects, born from countless hours of meticulous labor. Their contents were not passed over with a thumb-swipe. A particular text might fructify, not immediately upon early-morning reading, but upon an afternoon recall in the fields. It was often helpful to read less and reflect more.
Not all are called to monasticism, nor does every text on our screens deserve reverence. But the habits of lectio divina challenge our ravenous consumption of online stimuli. Now that we can follow a military coup across the globe in real time, it is easy to deceive ourselves about our capacities to assimilate and respond to complex situations. Pursuing constant updates might rob us of the time needed to penetrate the more profound significance of the scattered data.
Informational accumulation was only a minor goal of the monks’ meditative efforts. They confronted their own lives with their sacred texts and invoked God’s grace so that their lives might accord more fully with the noble examples they considered. Their prayerful dialogue of oratio was directed to a loving repose in contemplatio that would in turn adorn their lives with virtues through actio.
In contrast, digital surfing encourages a passive, detached approach to data-consumption. As the user bounces from one unrelated post to another, he establishes no connection with content that otherwise might uplift or convict him. We needn’t devote our browsing to exclusively scriptural texts to learn from the lectio divina method. A more lingering attitude disposed to personal application and appropriate response would benefit our literary and news readings. The ancient monks’ most glorious libraries contained less information than the average smartphone. But their habits of receptivity and assimilation can empower us to lift our gaze from our screens ennobled rather than enslaved.
Michael Baggot, LC is a Legion of Christ brother and a summer intern at First Things.