Is your smartphone making you sin more? Consider a technological examination of conscience.
August is a fallow season, that moment in the year when many of us step back from the hurlyburly of our lives to lay on a beach somewhere, hike in the mountains or read a good book. It is a time when we replace tight schedules with open spaces, our normal intensity with rest and reflection.
For me, such times always bring with them new insight into my use of technology. There is nothing like a week away from Twitter to make me realize just how much time and energy I have been giving it.
There is nothing like a week away from Twitter to make me realize just how much time and energy I have been giving it.
In the most recent episode of his eponymous podcast, Ezra Klein interviews L.M. Sacasas, who writes a Substack newsletter called The Convivial Society and recently published a list of 41 questions we might ask ourselves about our use of different technologies. His first question: “What sort of person will the use of this technology make of me?” This is followed by: “What habits will the use of this technology instill?”
Part of what I like about Mr. Sacasas’s work is his acknowledgement that different technologies can have different effects. My answer for what sort of person Facebook makes me is entirely different from the effects of my Kindle, my interoffice messages on Slack or texting on my phone. After thinking that social media would eventually turn me into a digital version of an angry dude shouting on street corners, last year I discovered Discord, which is sort of like Slack but for interest groups; for the non-techies, it’s like a church knitting group, but instead of knitting we chat about the X-Men or the former New York Times columnist Charlie Warzel’s latest newsletter. The warmth and camaraderie of those communities has unexpectedly brought out the same in me.
Where most of our technologies tend to create a deeply personal, me-and-Jesus type relationship, Mr. Sacasas’s questions also keep calling us back to our broader web of interdependent relationships. Alongside the Marie Kondo-like “Does the use of this technology bring me joy?”, we get “How does this technology empower me? At whose expense?”
Alongside the Marie Kondo-like “Does the use of this technology bring me joy?”, Mr. Sacasas asks, “How does this technology empower me? At whose expense?”
The question of how a given technology might impose limits upon me is likewise married to how it might impose limits on others. Much like St. Thomas Aquinas, Mr. Sacasas reminds us that every choice of our lives, whether it’s what technology we purchase, when we use it or how, has a moral and ethical dimension to be considered. Every action is a moral one.
One could easily take a week with each of these questions and learn a lot about how our technologies are forming us. But our August respite is fleeting. By mid-September we will once again be whirling dervishes of deadlines, after-school events and appointment TV.
So in this precious liminal time, here is my brief, Ignatian-themed adaptation for Catholics of Mr. Sacasas’s work. Think of it as a spiritual examination of conscience for technology.
1. I call to mind a particular kind of technology that I like to use, asking God to bless my reflection, that I might see my experience of that technology more clearly.
2. What kinds of feelings does use of this technology generate in me? How do I feel while I use it, and after?
St. Ignatius says the consolation of God is like a drop of water soaking gently into a sponge, whereas the temptations of evil spirits are like water hitting a rock: harsh and confusing. Does this technology leave me feeling consoled or confused?
3. What sort of habits or desires does this technology instill in me? Do I find it inviting me into greater generosity, openness, hopefulness, charity, curiosity or friendship?
4. What vision of the kingdom of God does this technology promote? Who is given a seat at the table? Who is erased or excluded? Who is derided?
5. What is this technology teaching me about myself and others? Are those lessons accurate—do I know myself and others better as a result of this technology? Do I love myself and others more?
6. How does this technology affect my relationship with God? Does it feed my spiritual life in some way? My imagination? My sense of hope and gratitude, possibility and delight?
7. Take a moment to gather up the graces of this prayer. Give thanks for the gifts you have received via this technology, and ask God to help you with anything you need to change.
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