September 2018 Print

The Birth of the Digital

by Fr. Jean-Dominique, O.P.

Screens have been invited into human relationships; they modify interactions between men and affect their sociability. Ultimately, their impact is even political. Using imagery in language, here are some observations on this phenomenon.

Humanity is rich in imagination. It has invented the most unbelievable mythological creatures, the Loch Ness monster, the blue Smurfs, and the green two-legged aliens surging upon earth in UFO’s.

It has succeeded still more in the current day. It has placed in focus a bizarre creature: cold, metallic, omnipresent, though invisible, all-powerful and yet so fragile, an octopus with a thousand tentacles, and soft as a newborn lamb. What a marvel! It is so cheerful that it dispenses you from smiling, so admirable that is frees you from admiring, so serviceable that it doesn’t oblige you to serve, so prudent that you don’t have to look ahead, so intelligent that no thought is necessary, so lively that is doesn’t require you to live.

You have guessed it; it is Mr. Digital.

Let us see to what degree this extra-terrestrial of a new genre has visited the earth, our life, our heart, and above all, our social life. Because it is not nothing for a man to be a “social animal”! It is in the common life, in the innumerable relations who make the family, the village, and the community in which one will be fully human and fully Christian. What has become of social life and the beautiful Christian society since the debarkment of Mr. Digital?

Let us consider it in relief, in situations that have, in reality, all existed.

Frequent Electronics

Cecilia is engaged and she is so happy. However, there is something that causes her chagrin. For professional reasons, her fiancé Vincent has left the country. Six months away, an emptiness ensues that a few rare visits will not satisfy. Alas, Cecilia confides to a friend: “We console ourselves. Every day, we send each other emails.”

Excuse me, Cecilia? You write kind words to your fiancé, you open your heart, you express your affections and your mutual plans in the same way one buys a train ticket, with this cold and conventional means of communication, open to indiscreet glances! You give Digital a right to see your heart, which God alone visits! You deprive your fiancé of the beautiful stationary with your favorite designs that you love, which he will then love, and your own beautiful handwriting. What would you say if your good Vincent would offer you instead of beautiful, freshly opened roses, delightful in both color and scent, plastic flowers? A false support soon engenders a false love.

A Screen Between People

Mrs. Simone is a mother of a family. She and her husband were inspired numerous years ago to adopt the Traditional Mass, sacraments, and doctrine. Their children were educated and instructed in good schools. God gave them six children. Six children and a husband, not counting numerous relationships with neighbors, ought to suffice to satisfy the talent of a woman for communication. But no, they crudely invite Digital to their home.

—Come in, make yourself at home!

And Mr. Digital accepts the invitation. With calculation, there are now 20 screens in their home, counting the smartphone (pocket Digital) of the older children!

The saddest part of this affair is the fate of the youngest. As all children, he goes to see his mother often to receive a kind word, a smile, for a hug, or some other necessity. He thus approaches his mother, who is ironing. But, horror of horrors, what does he see behind the ironing board? The indispensable Digital. Mrs. Simone irons while watching tv. The child finds the heart and mind of his mother plunged into a screen. Poor orphan!

A New Genre of Friendships

We were invited on Saturday night to the home of some good friends. With good Christians, a good meal and selection of wine, it is always a joy to see them again. We arrive on time, though not too soon to be a nuisance. Mrs. Boitsansoif, that’s their name, opens the door for us precipitously. “Excuse me, I was delayed.”

The noise of the microwave, which comes from the kitchen, foretells of reheated leftovers. It is not a problem; the friendship overlooks all. The father of this large family is a balanced, cultivated man, competent in his profession.

“Would you like to drink something?”

“Very much so; homesickness has already made me thirsty.”

We sit down, happy to be able to converse on subjects that unite us. But suddenly, my friend Boitsansoif gets up, opens his computer and consults Mr. Google (an accomplice of Digital). His favorite player won the tennis tournament! He sits down to celebrate the victory. Then my friend takes out his pocket Digital. Look what I saw yesterday! He displays before our eyes 20 photos of an antique car that passed in front of his house yesterday—the same one that my neighbor shines on Saturdays. And we took advantage of this to look at some photos of a mutual friend and his last vacation, without forgetting to look at the last messages that his friend Digital spattered on his device (for everything is urgent). Politeness kept us from revealing our thoughts: If I am a bother to you, I can leave!

But something strange held our attention. Besides some noise from the kitchen, a profound silence reigns in the house. And yet our good friends have eight children. At our house, when everyone is home, we laugh, we cry, we invent games that end in a fray; the children are alive! But this evening, nothing such as this is occurring in the Boitsansoif household. And we shared our amazement with our friend:

“Your children are perhaps out tonight?”

“No, they are all upstairs in their bedrooms.”

“Well, congratulations! They are truly well behaved.”

“Oh yes, they leave us be. They each have their games, according to their age: tablets with innumerable video games for the smallest viewers so that the older children can watch movies (of which perhaps there is 1 in 100 which does not wound purity?), or they exchange messages on Twitter or Facebook. Mr. Digital has brought peace to our home.”

Thank you, Digital, but it is the peace of a cemetery. And when the children leave their tomb, when, constrained by their parents or obliged by hunger, they condescend to come to the table, it is with glassy eyes, the faces of beaten dogs in a dinosaur-like approach. And in the course of the meal, they bring only empty words, reflections on the poorly-cooked quiche, exchanges of words without sentences, and sentences without heads or tails.

Truly, this visit to the house of Mr. Digital was splendid!

Concrete Friendships

Let us leave the family circle now. Our friend Bricolo recently established himself in a small village of the province. He plans to construct a garage to shelter his car. Around here, winters are rugged, people have told him. Before raising the framework, he must pour a concrete slab. It is not very complicated, but the young Bricolo is inexperienced. What would you do in his place? Nothing is simpler! I ask Mr. Digital. I sit down in front of my computer, I open the empty screen of Mr. Google, I type “concrete screed” and that’s it: the preparation of the ground, the width of the slab, the quantity of sand, of cement, of gravel and water for the intended area, everything is explained, the menu is served, click to order.

Very good, but my friend Bricolo has had another idea, you can compare.

The newcomer crossed the street (a dead end). Across the street lives an elderly man of the village. His wife was born on the outskirts of the suburb, and he a few miles away. And then, guess what, this worthy man is a mason by trade. All his life, he has enriched the region with fines houses. He has poured concrete slabs; he knows what to do. And since his retirement, he thinks again and again about the buildings he has constructed.

“Sir, my neighbor, I have just moved into the village. I would like to build a garage, over there, in the corner of my garden. Would you perhaps know how to help me?”

The luminous smile of the old man would have sufficed to repay Bricolo for his trouble.

“Why of course I can help you, young man! I will pour your concrete footing. We will do it together. We can begin right away.”

Then they measure, they count, and they leave to purchase the material. The garage is born. It only cost Bricolo the price of the supplies: the sand, the gravel, the cement, the wood, the tresses, and some good beers! Above all, he has created a true social relationship, an exchange of service and joy, a complementarity. And what a consolation for the wife of the old man, to receive the visit of Mrs. Bricolo to introduce her first-born child!

Mr. Digital would not have thought of this!

Old Friendships, New Friendships

One of the most beautiful elements of our human life is that of friendship. There, you say, Mr. Digital is unbeatable. He promises me, by his social media, to give a host of friends! Think then, Facebook users have on average 130-150 friends, some having up to 1,000 relations!

But what are these Facebook friendships founded on? People pose—often in groups—while eating, at work, when angry, merry after a party, or in immodest clothing. Each time, it is the same message that is sent to the community:

“I have an amazing life; I go out frequently, I know how to have a good time, I know so many people and I invite you to be just like me.”

They seek to show others that they are young, beautiful, “cool”, and thus purchase their friendship.

One of the proofs that the self-image people give here is false, is that they never show sadness. In all the photos, they smile, they stick out their tongue, they have their arms around the shoulders of friends, they toast, but they never shed tears. They never reveal themselves totally; the identity presented there is artificial.

And the friendship that flows from that will be so, likewise.

Definitively, it is totally oriented towards self, towards the image that one creates of themselves, towards the illusion to be the center of their own little world. In fact, as for friendship, it is a narcissistic dream.

Ask the friends of Mr. Digital what this showcase friendship is worth.

—I have 100 friends on Facebook, writes one of them, but I eat alone at the cafeteria.

“I have 257 friends on Facebook, complains another, but not a single one to help me move.”

On Facebook, one is paid for their friendship by a “click” which costs nothing, by some coarse pleasantries, by some news which falls under the heading of road kill cats (what one man has eaten for lunch, how another lady is dressed this morning, and all with photos to reference). Above all, the relations with Facebook correspondents fall under voyeurism. As I recall, it certainly arouses a curiosity on the part of my friends. What good is it to play hide and go seek if nobody is looking for me. Thanks to Facebook, no one has the need to look through the hole in the fence any longer, my life and that of its members of my social media are exposed to the daylight. Where is this “have you seen me?” lifestyle leading? To the destruction of true friendship.

It would be necessary now to visit the various domains and the economic life to attest to the stranglehold of Mr. Digital: the control of banks, the purely utilitarian authority of the new leaders and the feeling of the inferior classes of being manipulated, the intrusions upon economic, political, and private life. The arrival of Digital has also transformed the rapports of medicine to the sick, of the professor to his students. Armies are not exempt from these denigrations. A few years ago, an unhappy virus was introduced in electronic media of the French marines. This was the occasion of a breakdown and a general panic during 48 hours. We resumed to write slowly with pen and ink!

A New World

Each person will enrich their observations with their proper experience. Three characteristics that define well enough the “club” of the friends, or the slaves of Mr. Digital.

The first is the artificiality of human relations. It is in his nature, even so, that man live in society. The relationships that unite him to others and help him contribute to the well-being of the whole body of which he is a member, are natural relations—those which are frank, full of ease, joyful. Mr. Digital has rendered them false, overrated, and full of self-interest. The other (the individual or the community in question) is no longer anything other than an instrument in the service of self, an additional Digital.

The second characteristic trait of the Society of Digital is the turning towards self. Digital devices permit everyone to construct a cozy world in which he is the only master, alone with his sentiments and his emotions, absorbed by a fictitious realm from which it is painful to leave. Recognizing his shortcomings, receiving a reprimand, greeting strangers, confronting a thought that is different than one’s own, working together as a team which requires listening, respect, and understanding of the thoughts of others; everything becomes a torment. How then can we undertake real social relations, which ought to help us grow in enriching others?

Finally, the usage of electronic devices, if it is not moderated by a severe asceticism, independently of the assault against intelligence and virtue, this usage has a political dimension, contributes to the formation of a mass of slaves, of drops of water lost in a vast ocean, of robots in the service of a worldwide collectivism.