September 2018 Print

A Harmful Dependence for the Mind of the Youth

by Fr. Philippe Bourrat

Screens and digital devices, which have taken hold on the lives of people, are not just useful machines. They transform the human universe, simulating behaviors. What is their effect on the human mind and upon social behavior?

The constant connection of man to the machine, with the occurrence of the smartphone, is one of the most visible manifestations of the digital and social revolution that has occurred in developed countries since the beginning of the new millennium. In 2013, 21 million French people owned a smartphone. The numbers would then jump to 40 million within a year. While waiting to increase the power of the human mind by the widespread implantation of digital devices, everything is done in order that dependence on this pocket computer becomes irreversible. Applications of all types have invaded every aspect of daily life, thus drawing up the priorities and the outlines imposed upon a contemporary human life: games, videos, services, commerce, health, leisure, culture, information and security; everything passes by the mobile screen. In addition to the initial function of communication: telephony is now social networks.

The result is another life, traced by technology itself: that which consists in relying essentially on the data of the smartphone, the constant consultation of the machine distances more and more from real life, from the persons and realities which surround us. A new happiness is drawn up through the expression of one’s tastes, the publication of one’s least sentiments, humors, and favorites. The machine analyzes what is good for you and seeks to anticipate the activity or purchases that you should complete. As the trans-humanists predict, who swear by the artificial intelligence whose exponential capacities suggest a war between biological humanity and augmented humanity, that is to say transformed by the potentialities of NBIC technologies (Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Internet and Cognitive Sciences), a simply natural life will not be more envisioned in the upcoming year than would be the return to candles as the ordinary way of lighting.

The Transformation of Man

This transformation of man into an informed human reposes upon a promethean faith without limit in the technological capacity to surpass the physical and temporal limits of his nature: his intelligence and the acquisition of his knowledge, the brevity and fragility of his life could see its constraints diminished or suppressed. That which the theatres formerly envisioned in the scenarios of science fiction, the digital giants (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, without forgetting certain Chinese giants), already realize. More than a race of obvious financial issues, this revolution would like to reform man integrally, by making a creature of science and technology. Ultimately, man becomes god, an immortal and omniscient god.

The dazzling progress made in the knowledge of the functioning of the human brain and in nanotechnology opens the horizons to men of power that are digital and internet giants. Their materialistic presuppositions and the scientific ambition that animates them oppose any idea of a moral limit, (a fortiori) let alone any respect for natural or divine law. For them, there is no earthly happiness, no dignified human life except that which will benefit from the ever-increasing potential of digital progress. All genetic failure, all physical weakness, all intellectual incompetence must be repaired in order that human life be judged compatible with the standards of the time. Eugenics (or a good birth) and euthanasia (a good death), become the two cornerstones of modern life. They are now the great business of the digital devisors, who spend billions of dollars on research in these fields.

A Return to Order

While with these technological transformations loom strong hints of totalitarianism, we must remember that human life is not reduced to good health, to the satisfaction of one’s body, or to the removal of all limitations. The happiness of man does not consist in a knowledge worthy of an online encyclopedia or in the abilities of analytic or calculation software that has in fact, for quite awhile, gone beyond human intelligence. It is not by increasing the intellectual quotient of the world population that one will make it continually happy. The happiness of man rests in God and in the participation of His life that has been offered to us since the redemptive Incarnation, not by the conquest by man himself of a digital earthly life.

Man is made to know and to love, and ultimately to know and love God who created him. He may be dispensed from learning and desire, or may lessen suffering and many physical limitations by technology. It may even prevent him from taking risks or giving his life in a heroic gesture, however, it may not replace in him the desire to love and be loved, to invent, to express in art his reflections on life, death, love, or on the natural world which surrounds him. There is not a philosophical robot nor a software that replaces artistic genius, nor a love to share coming from a machine, nor courage, virtue, nor liberty in a machine no matter how sophisticated it is. Any counterfeit in these domains would itself be the fruit of human inventions, which would simulate in algorithms potentialities properly and exclusively human. A machine may speak and dialogue, but in this, it is merely developing the potentialities of its programming, including when it acquires for itself new competencies (artificial intelligence.)

Natural human life should still be able to exist, unless we wish to renounce the humanity desired and created by God. This human life is put in danger by the omnipresence of technology. Before, the machine aided man in the accomplishment or the facilitation of tasks necessary for his life, though often arduous, which mitigated his time for contemplation and properly cultural and human activity. Since then, the smartphone—and all that it represents— constitutes the center of his life. It dictates his actions, his thoughts, his knowledge, his tastes, his purchases, his deportment, his morals, and his virtual social life. Thus, the slave consents to depend solely on his control screen to which he surrenders his body and soul. To give this up would already be for him a taste of death. This dependence is really dehumanizing. For, by dint of relying on software programming, we adopt the binary mode of operation and its inhumanity.

Hence comes the importance of understanding the moral and existential issues of this technological and social revolution. However, these should not make us forget the nuisances that are easier to spot, which many medical and educational specialists have denounced for many years and which many have found in their entourage.

Why Do We Become Dependent on Devices?

Dopamine is a biochemical molecule that permits communication of information between the neurons and certain parts of the brain. It provokes a sensation of pleasure that is communicated from the brain to other parts of the body, following the accomplishment of various acts. Whether is it the chemical drug or the stimulation of curiosity or well-being linked to the attainment and the satisfaction of the act of playing a game, of consulting a digital device, of the surprise linked to an alarm, etc., everything is in favor of a system of recompense which engenders a dependence.

The designers of the software for social media, games, and online shopping multiply the modalities linked to the repetition of acts which give a recompense and notable favor the production of dopamine. The dependence thus created pushes users to come back repeatedly to the use of an application or the software which procures for him this form of pleasure that requires a continual renewal.

However, the dependence on video games, games on the smartphone, following and using social media and news sites neutralize the mental capacities linked to judgment and reflection. Like any drug, it necessitates a continual renewal of stimulation in order to provoke a pleasure of the same caliber as the former one. It renders one even more dependent as the reason and will find themselves weakened in the face of the strength of the physiological addiction thus created.

Screens and Academic Results

It is popular to affirm that the recourse to technology at school and at home is favorable to academic progress. In 2016, however, a report of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) observed that in countries where students used computers moderately in class, they performed better academically. On average, 72% of students from countries in the OECD use a computer or a tablet at school. There is only 42% in Korea and 28% in Shanghai, two places with a reputation of high academic achievement. In the countries of the East, where it is more common to use the Internet at school, academic performance declined between the years 2000 and 2012.

The use of screens by small children is the source of deficiencies in numerous domains. Dr. Anne-Lise Ducanda, Doctor of the Protection Maternelle et Infantile (PMI) of Essonne, made know in the Spring of 2017 the striking increase of autistic behaviors in children that she received for consultation. The frequent usage of screens was the diagnosed cause for the most part—parents having given over to tablets and other screens for their educative mission. Trouble maintaining attention and concentrating, using language, behavioral problems, sleep difficulties and thus academic struggles were the most visible consequences of this new slavery.

With eyes fixed for 5-6 hours a day on a screen (2016), these children are incapable of responding to a question that is asked them, to put the pieces of a game together, or even less to hold a pencil. Their language is not structured and has a grave deficiency of syntax and vocabulary. The child who is left in front of screens cannot participate in a veritable exchange of conversation. This is because it is in speaking that one progresses most in mastering a language. It will be the beginning of a heavy deficiency in the capacity of abstraction for these children and an even greater difficulty in handling the language. This follows, as a deficiency of language, a deficiency of thought and reflection. It is an obstacle for good socialization, for exchanging with their surroundings and simply expressing themselves. Words, now too rare, place those who are lacking them in situations of inferiority, that which favors a series of obstacles in their scholastic years where the expression and comprehensions of language is indispensable.

A Disturbed Social Deportment

In a more advanced age, one also notices the anxious and perturbed character of social media: the regard that one has towards themselves causes narcissistic behavior, a desire to be conformed to social standards, a sickening concern to please and make themselves important, a culture of self which dries up the quality and authenticity of human ties. Furthermore, the mania of judging everything without competence, to give one’s advice and to express one’s sentiments and one’s tastes to a crowd of anonymous connections and “friends” convinces minds of the reign and superiority of opinion over the truth, or the perceived and sensed over the intelligence. In its natural derivative, the media solicits the anonymous demolition and lynching solidarity that fuels unreasonable group psychological mechanisms. Sheep bleating on the same tone, yet claiming originality. They react by order and live their indignant lives in the digital markets that know how to exploit them financially.

From the point of view of character, the regular use of screens, of video games, and of the internet is favorable to the disorder of passions and the weakening of the will submitted to an incessant incitement to curiosity, impulsivity, and the expansion and valorization of man’s ego. Without moral limits, the virtual world is open to all forms of violence, all possibilities of voyeurism and immorality, and to a life ruled by the basest instincts of man wounded by original sin.

The Children of Bill Gates

The intelligence and the memory are the great victims of the machine, which dispenses from knowledge and reflection. This is because a man without an active memory, without the capacity to reflect at length, is no longer apt at judging and comprehending. He is content to sense, as a simple animal. One can manipulate him without effort; one can domesticate him.

This is without a doubt the same consideration that pushes parents who work in the digital sector to protect their children from the dangers of the machines that they develop.

Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, forbids his children to have a smartphone before they are 14 years old. Steve Jobs, deceased co-founder of Apple, did not give digital devices to his children, but spoke with them about books and history. Chamath Palihapitiya, former vice-president charged with the growth of Facebook users, forbids his children to use social media. Chris Anderson, the ancient Editor-in-Chief of the American magazine Wired and actual PDG of 3D Robotics, limits the use of technological devices and gadgets by his children. For his family, a rule of life: no screens allowed in bedrooms. Even more symptomatic, in southern San Francisco, the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, a private charter school, attracts its students through teaching methods that do not use any technological devices. Numerous children of employees from eBay, Google, Apple, and Yahoo! are educated there. Can this show an indication that a good academic formation and a healthy education can overlook digital devices and the dependence on the smartphone?

We have not finished discovering the consequences of the digital revolution, which are becoming a reality before our eyes, and the deportment and social life of connected individuals. Those who have been identified are designing a new man who prepares the robotic man, which the trans-humanists announce. In an insidious manner, the spirit of enjoyment, of immediacy, of incapacity to engage and judge according to principals, are also the bitter fruits of these contemporary technologies, no matter the practical advantages, which render them so attractive. Choosing to live as a man presupposes knowing what man is and what the machine is, even when this surpasses human capacities. In this consists the survival of true humanity and the relationship of man with God.