By Father Thomas Esposito, O.Cist.
Special to The Texas Catholic
I reached a new low recently when I felt an overwhelming and irresistible itch to catch up on emails mere minutes after my first check of the day, which happened mere minutes after I finished celebrating Mass. I had long lamented the sight of my students reaching addictively for their phones as soon as class ended, but the realization that the contagion had spread to me was a sad revelation.
While musing on my distressing enslavement to the silicon machine, a scene from the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” came to mind. Early in the famous film, a thin black stone suddenly appears before a group of hysterical hominins. Initially fearful of this large rectangular object, they grow familiar with it; soon after its arrival, they begin to kill their fellows. The same mysterious structure is found in outer space millions of years later, and similar violence is unleashed, the only difference being that technology itself, “embodied” in the computer HAL, takes the murderous initiative against human astronauts. [Sorry for the spoiler!]
A strange thought then brought some awkward consolation: if I take the thin black monolith to be a prototype of the smart phone, at least I can claim that very little has changed from prehistoric times to our present day. Our phones and computers might not provoke us to physical bloodshed, but their enslaving influence does violence in subtle and overt ways to our precious, fragile humanity.
Technological advances in computers and phones in recent decades have altered many essential activities and aspects of being human. While we should be grateful for the obvious blessings those innovations have produced (medical breakthroughs, creature comforts, the ability to communicate instantaneously with anyone on the globe), a smug ignorance tends to accompany our use of the devices that are fundamentally disabusing us of certain truths that once were self-evident. We instinctively reach for our phone at every break from work or school to post inane status updates to everyone and no one, and we respond addictively to AI’s bell call command to “Be Real.”
At the same time, our “chronological snobbery,” a felicitous C.S. Lewis phrase, unconsciously convinces us that we are superior beings compared to those puny primitive peoples who lived in “the dark ages” before our enlightened modern era, and therefore could not equate their memories with Google Calendar. The very human genius that produced these astounding technologies is perhaps reluctant to admit that our creations now control us and condition our thinking and acting, though perhaps some of our social engineers have in mind the dawn of a new and virtual humanity.
If we ponder our primitive ancestors – not the homicidal hominins in the movie, but Homo sapiens created in the image and likeness of God – have we perhaps lost something central to our humanity that was instinctive and natural to them?
The crazed intensity of rushing to answer every text immediately, or to comment on every friend’s status, or reply within five seconds to the whims of a boss (whether human or automated), seems a hallmark of contemporary life. Given this hyperdrive hamster-wheel state of affairs, it becomes terribly easy to forget the mystery that we contain within ourselves. While HAL hasn’t killed us (yet), our days are dictated by AI apps and algorithms that force us to regard ourselves as mere producers and consumers. If we demean ourselves and others in such ways, is it any wonder that we cannot wonder at anything anymore, whether in the immensely beautiful world of nature or the abyss within the human heart?
The next time you instinctively reach for your phone, think of Pavlov’s dog, and put your blank social-media-scrolling face on the poor creature who slobbers with engineered excitement because the bell has rung. But then think of Genesis 1:26-27. Perhaps that reminder of your true dignity can motivate you to unplug, to love what is natural again, and to detach from the self and the cell, especially if those two are synonyms for you. With that renewed joy that has nothing virtual or artificial about it, you can live no longer as a slave to images, but as a free servant of the One whom you image.
Father Thomas Esposito, O.Cist., is a monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas and teaches in the theology department at the University of Dallas.