Take a look at the photo on the left. It’s a famous church in Rome, the seventeenth-century Santa Maria dei Miracoli, on the Piazza del Popolo. You might not immediately recognize it as a church because its front is almost entirely obscured by a giant billboard. Santa Maria is under renovation, and I assume the church, or perhaps the city, has rented out advertising space on the scaffolding to defray costs. Santa Maria remains a functioning place of Christian worship. The miraculous icon of the Virgin, for whom the church is named, still hangs above the altar. But the giant advertisement outside for Samsung’s new Galaxy S7 Edge—which, the billboard assures us, is “Molto più di uno Smartphone”—makes that fact hard to discern.

I took this photo on a trip to Rome earlier this year. It’s not a great photo, I know; my camera, unfortunately, was not Much More than a Smartphone. I share it, nonetheless, because I think the sight of a giant advertisement for a Smartphone on an iconic church in Rome captures something important about the state of Western culture at the start of the twenty-first century, and because it reminds me of a famous essay a more talented American traveler in Europe wrote at the start of the twentieth. In “The Dynamo and the Virgin,” Henry Adams described how a new force, represented by an electric generator he saw at the Paris Exhibition of 1900, had replaced Christianity as the prime mover of Western civilization. What I saw in Rome makes me think his essay needs an update.

“The Dynamo and the Virgin” is a chapter in Adams’s autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams (1907), which he distributed among a small circle of friends while he was alive and which appeared more widely after his death in 1918. It’s not an easy book. Adams has a dense, elliptical style that demands close attention (his friends no doubt caught his allusions more readily than we do, one hundred years later), and he writes of himself in the third person, which is a little distracting. A melancholy tone marks the work; it is the memoir of an alienated man. Still, The Education offers remarkable insights, even humor, and is deservedly a classic of American literature.

Adams was a historian, and he thought history could be explained as “a sequence of force,” that is, a succession of epochs marked by characteristic “energies.” In any given period, people perceived an overwhelming, transcendent power exerting a sort of gravitational attraction on them, molding their behavior, inspiring them to act in certain ways. The precise form that power took differed from epoch to epoch. The historian’s task was to trace the power, and the shift from one civilizational moment to another. Only in this way, Adams believed, could human history be made intelligible.

One of Adams’s specialties was medieval Europe, and he was pretty sure that he had identified that civilization’s motivating force. It was Christianity—especially the Virgin. All one had to do was look at the great medieval paintings or visit the great medieval cathedrals to see how she had inspired people. In fact, he wrote, the Virgin “had acted as the greatest force the western world ever felt, and had drawn man’s activities to herself more strongly than any other power, natural or supernatural, had ever done.”

The Virgin, Adams believed, represented the eternal mother, the generative force that brings everything into being. Adams saw her as a Christian version of the pagan Venus, who likewise represented the mystery of reproduction, and therefore life itself. This is hardly a Christian interpretation; in fact, it reads like a Protestant caricature of Catholicism. But Adams came by it honestly. An agnostic in the American Puritan tradition—“a quintessence of Boston,” he called himself—he admitted he barely knew what to make of the Virgin, much less Venus. Americans of his era, he wrote, understood neither woman nor sex and therefore sentimentalized both—an observation that remains true of us today, I think, though now we are no longer sentimental.

In twentieth-century Paris, the Virgin failed to inspire awe or move people to great achievement. She was largely forgotten, of aesthetic interest only. In the Exhibition of 1900, Adams thought he had discovered the force that had taken her place. It was the new science, represented by the dynamo, a huge (and to us primitive) forty-foot generator. To most observers, the dynamo was simply a mechanism for converting coal into electric power. To Adams, however, it represented “ultimate energy.” It was “a symbol of infinity” eliciting wonder and worship, “a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross”:

The planet itself seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned, deliberate, annual or daily revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving within arm’s length at some vertiginous speed, and barely murmuring,—scarcely humming an audible warning to stand a hair’s-breadth further for respect of power,—while it would not wake the baby lying close against its frame. Before the end, one began to pray to it; inherited instinct taught the natural expression of man before silent and infinite force.

For Adams, the dynamo represented disruptive, occult energies even scientists could not explain: atoms, and X-Rays, and electromagnetic “vibrations.” These were wholly new forces in human experience, and they were drawing men to themselves, just as the Virgin had done centuries earlier. It was too soon to know, of course, what sort of civilization these new forces would shape. But Adams sensed it would differ greatly from the Christian one that had gone before. The new civilization would not express itself in piety and artistic creation, but in massive technological achievements, like the dynamo. There would be no more great cathedrals. “All the steam in the world,” he wrote, “could not, like the Virgin, build Chartres.”

One hundred years later, Adams has been proved right about many things. Ours is a civilization of technology, not religion or art. Twentieth-century technological achievements have shaped our culture: automobiles, lasers, jet engines, rockets, nuclear reactors, as well as many others. By contrast, very few great churches have been built in the last hundred years. Indeed, many beautiful churches are closing because of dwindling congregations. Everywhere in the West, Christianity has declined, even in the United States, once a notable holdout against the trend. And Adams was right that Western art has atrophied. As Joseph Epstein recently observed, after Andy Warhol, serious people no longer need pay attention to it: “Contemporary visual art, perhaps for the first time in the history of painting and sculpture, is one of those things a cultured person no longer has to know.”

Yet Adams’s famous essay needs a correction, or at least an update. Technology continues to shape contemporary culture, yes, but not quite in the way he foresaw. The most significant technology, in cultural terms, turns out to be not the steam turbine, or X-rays, or radio waves. It’s the computer—more specifically, the personal computer, made possible by dramatic increases in microprocessing power over the past several decades. Our culture is being shaped, not by massive industrial machines, but by a portable device so small you can put it in your pocket and take it with you everywhere. The Virgin’s contemporary competition is not the dynamo. It’s the Smartphone.

It’s all happened very fast. A decade ago, mobile phones were just that—telephones you carried with you. Smartphones are qualitatively different. They are handheld computers, with capacitive touch screens, word processors, media players, GPS navigation systems, digital cameras, and millions of apps. They allow you to access the Internet from anywhere in the world. You can use your Smartphone to email or text friends, tweet, update your status on Facebook, watch (and make) movies, check news and weather, research restaurants, go shopping, and find a date. Around 70% of American adults own Smartphones. Worldwide, users number a billion people. The Smartphone is shaping our world every bit as much as the dynamo shaped its own.

Like Adams’s dynamo, the Smartphone exercises a powerful attraction on people. I am not the first to observe that people using Smartphones seem to be praying: slightly stooped, deep in concentration, shut off from the world around them. (I see this all the time on the subway, except when I am looking at my own Smartphone.) This is no surprise. As Patricia Snow wrote recently, “fortunes have been spent making sure that [the] phosphorescent display attracts and holds man’s gaze.” But it’s more than simply an eye-catching screen. The Smartphone pulls us in because it represents something profound. Like Adams’s dynamo, the Smartphone represents transcendent forces we only dimly perceive.

For the Smartphone suggests infinity: infinite connectedness and infinite possibility. There is always another email or text, another person whose status we can check, another subject we can look up. (Who won the World Series in 1964? What does Khaleesi mean?) There is always another app to download, another site to check for updates, another game to play. The Smartphone promises that there is always something new and interesting out there in virtual space—more interesting, in fact, than the mundane interactions we have in real space. That’s why it’s not uncommon to see groups of people in public places, in which each person is looking at his or her Smartphone and ignoring everyone else, a phenomenon people have taken to calling “being alone, together.” The Smartphone represents the limitless potential for escape. No wonder it seems, in its way, a kind of drug.

The Virgin also represents infinity, of course. In Christian thought, she is the channel by which the infinite enters the finite world. As the representative of a rival conception of infinity, therefore, the Smartphone poses a direct challenge to the Virgin—a challenge that is captured perfectly by that billboard on the façade of Santa Maria dei Miracoli. From a Christian perspective, the Smartphone’s promise of infinity is a phony one. The Smartphone doesn’t offer real access to eternity, only a distraction that allows us to avoid focusing on eternity. Yet, as Pascal observed, we are always on the lookout for such distractions, and the escape the Smartphone offers us is extremely attractive.

Like Adams’s dynamo, too, the Smartphone represents forces essentially destructive of tradition. In the civilization of the dynamo, Adams wrote, people found it impossible to honor or even to understand the claims of the past. In his essay, Adams recalled visiting the cathedral of Amiens with the American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Adams noticed that Saint-Gaudens seemed unmoved by the spiritual power of the place—by the power of the Virgin, who had made the cathedral possible. Gibbon had felt the energy of Gothic cathedrals when he visited them in the eighteenth century, and had condemned it; Ruskin had praised it in the nineteenth. But by the twentieth, people no longer felt the energy at all. Saint-Gaudens admired the dignity of the architecture and the beauty of the sculptures, but perceived no meaning in them: “The art remained, but the energy was lost even upon the artist.”

The Smartphone likewise acts as a solvent on tradition, including religious tradition. Tradition depends on community—more precisely, on a community that sees itself as existing through time, an idea that is captured in the Christian tradition by the communion of saints. Such a community has claims on the individual by virtue of the fact that it has existed before him and will continue to exist after him. The individual is not completely submerged in the community; that would be a kind of totalitarianism. But he cannot create an entirely new world for himself, either. He draws his identity though his participation in a pre-existing, and in significant respects unchanging, order.

The Smartphone draws the user out from that sort of community. True, the Smartphone can promote a certain kind of community, a network of contacts who share interests, ideologies, even religious convictions. But it favors ephemeral interactions with strangers. It’s very easy to add people to your Contacts list—and just as easy to remove them and replace them with others. More important, the Smartphone encourages the user to spend his time in a virtual world he has curated all for himself. Not to mention the relentless, rapid updating of information to which the Smartphone has accustomed us. What claims can tradition have in a culture that values immediacy over everything else, and that has come to expect an update every five minutes?

Finally, the Smartphone represents mass consumerism, another force Adams could not have foreseen. The point of consumerism is to maximize individual preference, and what could be a more potent mechanism for doing that than the Smartphone, a device that lets the individual access precisely the information and services he wishes, whenever he wishes, and nothing else? Talk about empowering the self! It’s no coincidence that the image of the Smartphone obscuring Santa Maria dei Miracoli is an advertising poster.

None of this is to say that the Smartphone is entirely bad. (Neither was the dynamo.) In fact, I rather like mine. It allows me to look up all sorts of topics any time I like, to stay in touch with friends and family while traveling, and to find my way around new cities. It enables me to read First Things on the subway. And it allows me to take photographs like the one of the church in the piazza. All wonderful things—but, for me at least, they don’t negate the worry that the Smartphone also threatens some important and beautiful things that have given our culture meaning, and promoted human fulfillment, for centuries.

“The Dynamo and the Virgin” ends ambiguously. Adams spent the better part of a year, he wrote, trying to understand the conflict between the forces he had identified and what it might mean for the future of humanity. He read Zeno and Descartes; Aquinas, Montaigne, and Pascal. Compulsively, he “covered … thousands of pages with figures as formal as though they were algebra, laboriously striking out, altering, burning, experimenting.” But it was no use. “The secret of education still hid itself somewhere behind ignorance, and one fumbled over it as feebly as ever.” The chapter ends with him disappointed, still without an answer, sailing for home.

If the answer eluded Adams, it would surely elude me, so I won’t attempt to predict precisely how the conflict between the Smartphone and the Virgin will play itself out. I am confident, though, that it is the conflict that will shape our culture for generations. As a Christian, I have to believe that the Virgin will, ultimately, prevail. Christianity may well find ways to harness the power of the new technology. In late antiquity, Augustine advised Christians to spoil the Egyptians: to take from the rival pagan civilization the best it had to offer and adapt it to Christian purposes. That seems good advice for twenty-first-century Christians, too, and now would be a good time to start. The new civilization, the civilization of the Smartphone, is just beginning.

Mark L. Movsesian co-directs the Tradition Project at the St. John’s Center for Law and Religion.

Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.

Show 0 comments