Attached is a reflection, “Internet Noise and the ‘Sounds of Silence,'”
which reflects upon the challenges of Internet usage and the
need for Quiet in our lives.
Peace and good will,
Internet Noise and the “Sounds of Silence”
The recent issue of Newsweek ran a very disturbing article “iCrazy: Panic. Depression. Psychosis. How Connection Addiction is rewiring our brains.” The author, Tony Dokoupil, asks the question whether tweets, texts, email, and posts are making us crazy. And, if they are, is there an antidote to this illness. He doesn’t offer a viable one, but I’d suggest, with thanks to Simon and Garfunkle, the “Sounds of silence” may offer a healing balm.
Dokoupil fears that the Internet bubble is “not just making us dumber or lonelier but more depressed and anxious, prone to obsessive-compulsive and attention-deficit disorders, even outright psychotic. Our digitized minds can scan like those of drug addicts, and normal people are breaking down in sad and seemingly new ways.”
He cites the following statistics in which Americans are becoming wedded to their electronic machines, which is making us lonelier and even re-shaping the way we think and interact. To boot, the average teen processes an astounding 3,700 texts a month and sends out 400 texts a month. Teens stare at a screen eight ours a day; one school days they still log in seven hours of screen time. And, it’s not just teenagers: a third of all smartphone users go online before getting out of bed and the same probably check it before retiring. Along this line, 80% of vacationers bring their laptops or smartphones on vacation (disclaimer: guilty!).
Peter Whybrow, the director of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, argues that the computer has become like “electronic cocaine,” fueling cycles of mania followed by depressive stretches. The continual stimulation fosters what Nicholas Carr, whose book The Shadows, about the Web’s effect on cognition, posits that it “fosters our obsessions, dependence, and stress reactions.”
This immersion into the electronic virtual world has begun to rewire the brain. According to Gary Small, the head of UCLA’s Memory and Aging Research Center, Web users display fundamentally altered prefrontal cortexes, which look very similar to that of alcoholics and drug addicts. In others words, many Web users become compulsive in their usage because they’re now wired that way. Such a state of affairs has resulted in a concomitant upsurge in the rise of OCD and ADHD, the latter has risen 66% in the last decade. As Stanford psychologist Aboujaoude put it, “There is a cause and effect.”
The social consequences of immoderate Internet usage, which frequently becomes addictive, is sleep deprivation, lack of exercise, and the diminishment of healthy face-to-face relationships. Such dysfunctional living produces pain. How do we cope with all this angst? Not every well. Overwhelmed by the velocity of their lives, Americans
rely on medication, such as Xanax and other anti-anxiety drugs (which have tripled in use since the late 1990s). Another non-productive outlet is multi-tasking, which further drains one’s ability to concentrate even when the computer is off.
The conciliar Fathers of Vatican II challenged the Church to know the “signs of the times” (cf. Gaudium et Spes). Wishing to put the toothpaste back into the tube is not realistic. We’re not going back to a pre-Internet world, nor should we long for those days because the Internet can be a creative, useful tool that can augment the quality of human life. The Church can witness a way of living in which a grounded person can integrate Internet usage into their journey of faith by being attuned to the “sounds of silence.” Silence—going into the Quiet—is important if we’re going to have a viable relationship with God and each other. If we do that, then the moderate use of the Internet will simply follow as we gravitate towards balanced, simple, harmonious lives.
But, we have to be very intentional because our current condition is not conducive to recollection in which we reflect upon our experience, come to insight regarding the latter, and making informed prudential judgments for future action. Blaise Pascal in his classic Pensees said that the reason there is so much evil in the world is that a person cannot go into the quiet of their study and be still for 15 minutes. Studies have shown that the typical Catholic spends less than 5 minutes a day in quiet reflection. Why? As the Newsweek article suggests, we’re afraid of being cut off, even for an instant, for the torrent of words and images that mark and fill our day.
It really comes down to what is central to our lives. Is it God, his Word, and his life within the Church or is it our egoic, electronically driven world in which we are the center, life is about our virtual world, and we are in control with the flick of the mouse. If we reaffirm that God is our Center, then we will rediscover a sense of recollection and inner repose because we want to be still with the One who sustains and loves us every moment of our existence. Regularly going into the Quiet is not just one among several options, but is the only way that the Word of God can find a home within our hearts. As our Holy Father, Pope Benedict said in his Wednesday General Audience (March 7, 2012), this principle, “…that without silence one does not hear, does not listen, does not receive a word—applies especially to personal prayer as well as to our liturgies: to facilitate authentic listening., they must also be rich in moments of silence and of non-verbal reception.”
Our Lord Jesus models this interior life. Anytime he made a crucial decision, he always went away from the crowds and even his disciples, to be with his Father and to listen. Sacred silence can carve out an interior space in which in the very depths of our being, God can find a home. His love can take root in our minds and hearts and inspire our hearts to “to move, live, and have our being” in Him.
We can’t fight frenetic activity with a variation of the same. If we’re going to integrate Internet usage into a healthy spiritual path, we must relearn silence, to go into the Quiet frequently, to be open to listen, which opens us to the other, to the Word of God. We do so because we know that God is present in the Silence—that he listens and that he cares for us, even amidst confusion and darkness. We go into the Silence simply because that’s what friends do: they spend time together. Many centuries ago, St. Francis Xavier put it this way: (Lord),” I do not love you because you can give me paradise or condemn me to hell, but because you are my God. I love you because You are You.”