Connecting, Disconnecting

We see them on planes, trains, buses, on the street, in the mall and even at home. Sometimes we catch sight of them in chanceries, rectories and religious communities. They are the men and women whose ears are glued to a cellphone or stopped up with iPod buds, or whose hands are frantically working their Blackberries to check e-mail. They seem reluctant to disconnect from anyone or anything at any time. We may have even been these people ourselves. One common default theme for an editorial about the explosion of new technologies is a lament over the Culture of Distraction in which we now live. There is validity to that. For many Americans, there are fewer and fewer times and places that cannot be filled with the distraction provided by the latest gadget. This is especially the case with people in their teens and 20s. Barely are college students out of the classroom than they flip open cellphones to check for text messages that have arrived in the last hour. Back in dorm rooms, they switch on their computers to check e-mail or fire up their Xbox. And as soon as they are out the door again, they shut out the noise of the madding campus by taking out an iPod, a device whose worldwide sales hit the 100-million mark in April.

For their immediate elders, the new technologies have led to another culture: the Culture of Constant Work, in which cellphones, e-mail and Blackberries make employees reachable around the clock, and therefore unable to disconnect from the demands of the workplace. Even on vacation (or on retreat) the temptation to check e-mail and voice mail, just to ensure that things wont be too burdensome upon returning to the office, can be overwhelming. Statistics underscore the explosion in new technologies: this year, the number of cellphone owners surpassed 2.5 billion worldwide.

Ironically, the introduction of many of the new technologies was supposed to lessen our workloads. Readers with long memories will recall that the advent of the personal computer in the workplace in the early 1980s was expected to lead to the paperless office and a four-day work week. Instead, computers have created ever more paper (writing and printing using a computer are easier than using a typewriter) and a seven-day workweek (since there are fewer employees who cannot be reached on the weekends). Likewise, e-mail was supposed to free us from extraneous phone calls and letters. Instead it has filled our lives with even more superfluous communication.

There is also a related danger. As we spend more time connected to these technologies, we may become more disconnected from one another, from our families, from our communities and, because of a lack of quiet space, from ourselves and ultimately from God.

Yet this is only one side of the tale. Cellphones are a relatively inexpensive way to reassure parents of a young childs safety, to allow adult children to monitor a parents well-being, and to help the college student feel less lonely on a new campus. According to a survey by Virginia Tech in 2005, 80 percent of all cellphone bills for college students were paid by parents, which shows something of the importance that parents place on access to their children (or the unreliability of undergrads when it comes to paying their own bills). In many places in the developing world where there was once no phone service, cellphones are a boon. The omnipresent iPod, too, can help a person find a peaceful break in the midst of an increasingly noisy world.

New technologies allow people to connect in other innovative ways. And with God, too. Spirituality sites spring up almost daily on the Internet, and people have grown accustomed to visiting sites like Beliefnet, Pray-as-you-go and Sacred Space to help reboot their spiritual lives. Many commuters download podcasts to listen to while driving to work or riding the subway. So the dawn of new technologies is not a cause simply for lament. It should also lead to some rejoicing. Technology both gives and takes away.

Still, there is much to be cautious about when it comes to new technologies, particularly when they affect community life and the spiritual life. Spiritual masters in almost every tradition have long counseled the need for solitude and quiet. One can experience God in many ways, but there remains a need for allowing God to speak to us, as the prophet Elijah learned, in a still, small voice.

Without silence, without a conscious disconnecting from the cares of the day, from work, even from friends and family, it becomes increasingly hard to carve out space needed to listen to ones own thoughts, and to God. St. Benedict wrote in his Rule, Silence and the absence of noise in a certain manner encourage the soul to think of God. To connect with God, it is sometimes necessary to disconnect.

Paul Howard
9 years 8 months ago
As a 65 year old, I am fortunate to have great interest in podcast applications on my iPod. I am a recovering quadruple bypass patient who tries to walk a vigorous 3 miles a day. Pre-surgery, I found walking, boring and dissuading. However, downloading, walking and listening to Pray-as-you-go, a daily 12 minute download from the English Jesuits as well as Daily Breakfast, a 30-40 minute offering from Fr. Roderick in the Netherlands, give me a spiritual jolt alongside the earlier java. By this time, the three miles is up!! I am on the freebie summer offering on-line but do intend to subscribe. Regards Paul H.
9 years 8 months ago
An excellent piece. Thanks. I was recently one of those who, even on a week-long silent retreat, "had to" check emails and phone messages almost daily. God was able to break through on the retreat, but I'm looking to see if, in daily living, the need to connect to the internet, phone, radio and tv often crowds out conversation with God and with others pretty successfully.

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