I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say we’re surrounded by technology in most of the so-called “developed world”. In fact, ‘surrounded’ might be an understatement in countries like the United States. ‘Inundated’ might be more accurate and with the technology comes noise, both literally and spiritually, that can and does drown out the voice of God in our lives.
This isn’t to say that all technology is bad or demonic or anything like that (though it does seem to be possessed by a demon when it begins to malfunction). Technology has brought great advancements to our health and way of life. The problem comes in when we allow that technology to overwhelm and run our lives.
As much as I enjoy technological advances and having the latest gadget, I’ve become more concerned about how technology controls our lives. From the alarm clock which wakes us up in the morning, to the cell phone which interrupts our personal conversations, to the computers we use for work, education, and entertainment, technology has a hold on major aspects of our lives.
By overrelying on technology, our attention span, the length of time during which we can focus our attention on one particular person or thing, is diminishing dramatically. Likewise, the incivility and division we see in politics today is greatly influenced by television and other communication technologies that support and encourage that kind of behavior.
This became more clear to me on Saturday as I was listening to an interview program on EWTN Radio called “Faith and Culture”. The interviewer, Colleen Carroll Campbell was speaking to Eric Brende, who wrote a book Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology, about technology addiction. Mr. Brende and his wife spent 18 months in a community with almost no modern conveniences. No electricity, no indoor plumbing, and a few old-fashioned manual or horse-powered machines to aid in housework or farm work. His point was that our overreliance on modern technology has upset our natural balance, both on an individual level and on a communal level.
At first, I was disagreeing with Mr. Brende, but the more I thought about it, the more I found myself agreeing with him. Why? Let’s look at something so ubiquitous as as an alarm clock. Like most animals who are active during the day, we are naturally predisposed to go to sleep when the sun sets and rise when it rises. Since the advent of electric lighting, we are no longer dependent on the Sun to be the major source of light, which allows us to function much later after the Sun has set. This might not be a bad thing on it’s face, but it actually works against our natural cycle of rising with the Sun and sleeping once the Sun has set. For many of us, this means that we need an electronic gadget, an alarm clock, to alert us when it’s time to rise and face another day.
Again, this isn’t to say that technology is bad, and we need to revert to a pre-Industrial Revolution state. Like any tool, technology has its uses. As I was writing this on a Sunday evening, a series of severe thunderstorms were moving through my area. I had advanced warning about these storms due to the satellite, radar, and radio technologies employed by the National Weather Service. Anyone who has ever survived a tornado or hurricane is likely very grateful to the NWS’s use of technology to get the warnings out with time to spare.
As a priest, my concern with technology is the effect it has on our spiritual balance, to take it a step further than Mr. Brende. To truly enter into a conversation with God, we need silence, but much of the technology that we employ in our daily lives do a lot to constantly disturb that silence. Cell phones, television, radio, and computers, among other things, provide distraction after distraction that keep us from focusing our attention on what God is saying to us. Instead of taking time for prayer, we surf the Internet, watch TV, listen to the radio , or talk on the phone.
Is the answer getting rid of technology all together? No , but sometimes the monks on “Into Great Silence” seem to have the right idea. The Carthusians live very austere lives, with only a bed, a desk with chair, a wood stove, and a kneeler for prayer in their cells. Most of us are not called to that level of austerity, but we still need to keep technology in its place. Technological advancements are tools that can be very beneficial for our lives, but will seriously affect our well-being if we allow them to control us.
The challenge for us is finding the balance between using technology for our good and allowing technology to control us. If you don’t think you’re controlled by technology, turn off the TV, computer, and cell phone and see how long you can go without turning one of them on. For most Americans, I would venture to guess that they would not be able to go more than an hour or so with at least the cell phone.
If you’re one of the millions of “technology addicted”, as I likely am, what do we need to do to overcome that addiction? Our natural, and more importantly spiritual, lives hang in the balance.