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Confession: Last year, just before Lent, I was hijacked by YouTube. I started watching YouTube “shorts”—videos lasting no more than 60 seconds. One after the other, I watched them. Mind-numbing, at best. Eventually, I snapped out of the seeming hypnosis. I felt strange, disappointed, even guilty. No longer in the narcotic quicksand, I finally regained consciousness, some sense of “self” and “being.” 

This story is my own experience of being caught in what freelance writer Freya India has called the “conveyer belt” of algorithms in her article, “Algorithms Hijacked My Generation.” YouTube’s algorithm fastened me to a conveyer belt of videos calculated to hijack my attention. 

What was I looking for? Nothing in particular, except for perhaps some mindless entertainment. Yet the algorithm caught me, enticed me to keep “looking.” Reflecting on this experience has led me to wonder what the “conveyer belt” might be doing to younger generations growing up with screens in hand, swayed by artificial images, beguiled by questionable social media “influencers,” and bombarded by publicity, short videos, and half-baked information. What does the hijacking do? 

To answer that question, my initial response to the earlier question—what was I looking for?—is telling. I said that I was not looking for anything. Indeed, I surmise that most people, when they embark upon the interminable conveyer belt, would say that they, too, are not looking for anything in particular. At most, maybe some mindless entertainment. But that’s just the problem: the mindless entertainment is distracting in the worst possible way. It deludes us into thinking we are looking for nothing at all. The hijacking stupefies yearning. 

The truth is that I was and am looking for something—ultimately, Someone. We all are. “There is a religious feeling,” writes Romano Guardini in The Wisdom of the Psalms, “which seems to be very rare, although it really should arise very strongly from the depths of man’s being; that is, the longing for God.” As Augustine’s ever trenchant image of the restlessness of the human heart implies, God “has created us in such a way that our created nature is an urge toward Him.” Yet, as Guardini notes, “this urge of longing” can be “choked by life’s commonplaces.” The world “reaches out for us, draws our attention, our feelings and desires toward itself. This covers the depths, drowns out the basic voice.” Guardini captures what YouTube and other similar platforms do: They cover the depths. That is, they hijack yearnings, most significantly the primordial human yearning for God. They numb the longing as they proselytize on behalf of the god of distraction. 

I think, therefore, that obsession with various social media platforms and screens both evinces and exacerbates what I would call misplaced eschatology. In this regard, I have in mind Guardini’s revelatory depiction of the human condition in The Word of God: On Faith, Hope, and Charity: “Deep within man there lives the consciousness that something must happen to him, that this present existence is not the real and true one, that it must become new and different and so attain to its proper reality.” Man waits for this “with a hope that he perhaps does not admit even to himself.” Then comes the crucial piece: “This hope is often mistaken about its own meaning.” 

When hope is “mistaken about its own meaning,” it is misplaced. So man hopes “that his next work will be more successful than the last, that he will rise to success and power or will find the person whose love can wholly rouse and fill him.” Misplaced hope is thus self-sabotage: by entrusting himself to a myriad of finite realities, man deceives himself and deflates his desire for “real transformation,” the birth of “his proper self.” Hope meanders from one object to another, hopelessly searching for God in a pantheon of idols—idols that thwart living life “more abundantly” (John 10:10).

Hence, indulgence in social media platforms evinces misplaced eschatology: The algorithmic conveyer belt mirrors misplaced hope’s meandering from one object to another, always “hoping” that the next object will be better than the previous. We have become creatures who pathologically click “next.” 

More alarmingly, though, such indulgence exacerbates misplaced eschatology: It shuns the transcendent by numbing man’s deeper yearnings. The algorithm behind the conveyer belt is today’s Lorelei, distracting not fishermen from their course, but distracting men and women from thinking deeply, from feeling the depth of being for but a single moment. 

To echo Guardini once more: “Why are there churches, these lofty edifices in which silence prevails if it is not so that one may enter, sit down and recollect oneself; and, after a while, we no longer sit but kneel, for the presence of God has become perceptible. Or else at home, . . . at night when we cannot sleep. If we do not reach for a book, or a sleeping tablet, but entrust ourselves to the silence, recollect ourselves and become attentive, then it may happen that the consciousness awakes that He is here. I am before Him. I long for Him” (The Wisdom of the Psalms). Today, the temptation is to reach for a screen. Anything to avoid boredom, to avoid the possibility of facing myself or, worse, facing God. Anything to avoid the mere occasion of being aware of the restlessness of the heart.

To conclude with St. Francis of Assisi: “And let us beware of the malice and craftiness of Satan, who does not want anyone to turn his mind and heart to God.” Beware, therefore, of crafty, mind-numbing, desire-hijacking videos, too. 

Brother Thomas Piolata, O.F.M. Cap., is a Capuchin Franciscan friar of the province of St. Augustine in the United States. 

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Image by BrokenSphere licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped

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