Evil & Computer Diversions
Eric Scheske on Spending Time
In the late 1980s, George Gilder predicted the death of television as we know it. In his book Microcosm, Gilder said digital video information would eventually “command a global cornucopia of programming and nearly infinite libraries of data, education, and entertainment, with full interactivity at the behest of the customer, while television will be heavily tied to the . . . broadcasts of centralized media.”
His prediction recently took a huge step forward through a new technology known as “interactive television.” This new form of entertainment allows the television viewer to “interact” with the action on the screen through the Internet. Using a computer mouse, the viewer can change the camera angle, download scenes and paste them together differently, retrieve information, and in the future perhaps even influence the show’s events.
In watching sports, for instance, the viewer will not be restricted to seeing only what the director thinks is relevant. He will be able to absorb the game from various vantages. If he likes one particular player, he will be able to focus on that player throughout an entire play, even if the player is not involved in the action. He will be able to rerun replays as often as he likes until he thoroughly understands what happened. He will be able to retrieve statistics while he watches the game. He will be able to communicate with other fans throughout the country as they watch the game.
It sounds like a lot of fun. I look forward to it.
But it is just television watching taken one step further; I don’t see it offering much else. However, I think it will be received as something greater, as a real advance, both in pundits’ praises and, more damagingly, in the minds and souls of the technology’s users. I suspect the effect will be similar to the effect of popular fiction, but worse.
In reading pop fiction, the only intellectual pursuit in the novels is the reading: the raw, naked processing of words. There is usually nothing else. The reader gets the same stimulation from a contemporary novel as he gets from a movie, except (so I hear every time I go to a movie made from a book) the movie lacks the detail and the subplots and sidelines.
The difference between the movie and the book is one of degree, not of kind. Neither poses questions about the higher things in life, offers intellectual struggle, or leads the reader to wisdom. The characters do not grow in any but the most hackneyed ways, and the story offers no insights into life, no ideas worth struggling with, just clichés to be reaffirmed. The book, like its offspring movie, is all plot and action, all stimulation of the appetites.
There is nothing wrong with relaxing and being entertained, but the reader of pop novels seems to think he is engaged in a higher pursuit, that finishing a string of mysteries and romances is an intellectual accomplishment. The pop reader often seems proud of his intellectual accomplishment as his list of finished books grows longer, even though the books have scarcely deepened his understanding, though they may have taught him lots of facts about the world (usually about exotic vacation spots and expensive consumer items, but sometimes more useful information).
Internet surfing does a similar thing. It gives the impression that we are accomplishing something when we really aren’t. We scan lots of truly interesting pages, look at dozens of promising links, pick up bits and pieces of useful information here and there, and even find the occasional arresting insight. When a person surfs the Internet, he seems to be doing something productive, but he is not, just as the reader of pop fiction thinks that his reading is a form of intellectual accomplishment but is not.
The surfer sits at his computer on “screen saver” mode: doing nothing, but looking and feeling as if he is doing something. Mentally, emotionally, spiritually, the surfer sits, but he has the sensation of moving. And there, I think, lies the problem.
Deception & Evil
The new computer entertainments tend to deceive. They offer relaxation and engagement, and so these deceptions entrap us. At times I sit around and watch a sporting event on TV, but eventually the sitting and watching grows tedious, and I get restless as I waste precious hours doing nothing.
But if I use interactive television—clicking on my favorite lineman, checking out the stats, capturing highlights from another game—I’ll get so busy and be “learning” so much that I’ll tend to believe that I’m productively engaged, even though I’m not. (I’m only learning about professional football, after all.) My defense mechanism—the restlessness that quickly sets in when I’m just sitting in front of the television—will not kick in. In short, I’ll be deceived.
Similarly, if I surf the Internet—looking up important key words, skimming the lists of articles on interesting websites—I’ll be so busy “learning” that I will believe I’m doing something important, even though I’m really killing time. Even when the subjects I’m pursuing are truly important, I’m not studying them to an end but merely acquiring unrelated pieces of information.
And deception is in itself evil. Deception blinds me to and leads me away from the truth, which is the touchstone of right existence. Anything that violates truth distorts being, and distortion (or privation) of being is the definition of evil. (The evil effects of deception are most vividly illustrated in the Devil’s deception in the Garden, a deception that resulted in man’s fall—in the privation of his being.)
Computer diversion has a tendency to evil because it tends to deceive—or better, because we tend to let ourselves be deceived by it, indeed use it because we want to be deceived. We can condemn it on those grounds and just leave it at that. But we can also say it is “tangibly” evil because it blocks many men’s only route to the higher things, and it leads men to death imperceptibly.
I suspect it could be condemned on other grounds as well. It displaces leisure (properly understood), and leisure is the planting ground of the higher things in life. Leisure, as G. K. Chesterton said, “is being neglected in a degree which seems to me to threaten the degeneration of the whole race. It’s because artists do not practise, patrons do not patronize, crowds do not assemble to worship reverently the great work of Doing Nothing, that the world has lost its philosophy and even failed to invent a new religion.”
Ennui & the Higher Things
As I mentioned, if I watch too much TV, eventually I get restless and realize that I am wasting precious time. This is a defense mechanism, and I think it is closely related to the phenomenon of ennui.
In The Demon of Noontide: Ennui in Western Literature, Reinhard Kuhn defined ennui as “the state of emptiness that the soul feels when it is deprived of interest in action, life, and the world (be it this world or another), a condition that is the immediate consequence of the encounter with nothingness, and has as an immediate effect a disaffection with reality.” Dorothy Sayers described this sin in her essay “The Other Six Deadly Sins” as “the sin which believes nothing, cares for nothing, enjoys nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and only remains alive because there is nothing it would die for.”
Ennui is closely related to, and coexists with, boredom. “Nothing is so insufferable to man as to be completely at rest, without passions, without business, without diversion, without study,” wrote Blaise Pascal in his Pensées. “He then feels his nothingness, his forlornness, his insufficiency, his dependence, his weakness, his emptiness. There will immediately arise from the depth of his heart weariness, gloom, sadness, fretfulness, vexation, despair.”
The earliest men to study ennui were the first generations of monks. Ennui accosted them fiercely, so much so that it was included in Evagrius’s original list of capital sins. It was known by the monks as the “Demon of Noontide,” since it often struck between the hours of ten and two.
It seems that ennui accosts religious men fiercely because their souls forsake all worldly attachments, leaving them particularly vulnerable to its attacks. When grace (that unpredictable gift!) departs, it leaves them with no attachments, worldly or spiritual, with the result that their souls are tossed about in an ocean of despair, with nothing whatsoever to hold onto. It is not surprising that generations of monks have counseled gardening—a tangible, sink-your-hands-in-the-earth activity—as a good remedy for ennui.
The secular man also suffers from ennui, but of a different sort. When the grace of God seems to leave his soul, he still has the world’s attractions to grab, and these help stem ennui’s assault. For the worldly man, these attractions (diversions) are imperative for warding off the Noontide Demon.
The diversions differ in degree. There are simple diversions and there are highly engaging diversions. Simple diversions, like shopping and a round of golf, are effective for only a little while. (Though many people squeeze an incredible amount of diversion out of a simple pursuit, as evidenced by the extreme, some might say silly, seriousness people put into the game of golf.) They tend to lose their diverting ability quickly, leaving the person bored and susceptible to despair and ennui. For this reason, fear of ennui has often driven people to more substantive pursuits.
In Kuhn’s words, it “is imperative that man be able to take his distractions seriously, for otherwise it would be impossible for him to give himself over to them wholeheartedly. Man has an overwhelming need to be convinced, if not of their importance, at least of their reality.” This need to take diversions seriously has often pushed people to more important pursuits like art, literature, and charity work.
Granted, people ought to pursue such things for their own sakes—and the true artists and saints do—but at least they would start to pursue such higher pursuits, with the possibility that the pursuit might blossom into something more pure and noble than just another diversion. It’s kind of like a young man who goes to church because his parents nag him, but then finds himself getting something out of the liturgy and beginning to worship for its own sake. People in the past may have pursued art and charity as mere diversions, but at least the diversion could blossom into something more.
But now there are computer diversions. Pursuits like Internet surfing and interactive television are also sustaining ways to ward off ennui because they are diversions taken up three notches: First, they capture the attention through a quick-paced parade of activity and therefore give the sensation that the user is productively engaged (inertia disguised as movement). Second, they seem to produce knowledge or accomplishment through their cutting-edge novelty and technological sophistication (banality disguised as virtue). Third, they are easier to pursue—easier to understand than art or literature, and requiring less of commitment than charity work.
For these reasons, the computer diversions tend to replace art and charity work in the realm of the higher diversions, and this bothers me. The traditional higher diversions are lamentable to the extent that they are mere diversions, but they can blossom into something truly good. I don’t see this potential in the computer diversions. The surfer might stumble onto a wise or an awe-invoking website, but he’s more likely to overlook any such website, even if he stumbles across it, and much more likely to stumble upon websites that are the antitheses of art and charity, like those offering pornographic pictures or gossip about movie stars.
As the computer diversions are pursued, the higher diversions will never see the light of day. I have seen firsthand the displacement of charity, as a volunteer in various local civic groups. The older members regularly complain that the younger members would rather play on the computer all night than volunteer. And I know they’re right because, as a younger member, I hear my friends say they’re too busy to volunteer, and I know they’re often referring to nothing more than Internet surfing.
Deception & Death
The deception of computer diversion is also tangibly evil because it deceives men unto death. In his writings on ennui, Pascal said diversions “amuse us and help us reach death imperceptibly.” This will be valued by people who don’t believe in eternity but are uneasy about their unbelief. As Chesterton noted, “Even if I believe in immortality I need not think about it. But if I disbelieve in immortality I must not think about it.”
It is really existential poison because it numbs us to the prospect of death, a prospect that can promote virtue. This virtue-inducing anticipation of death “orders the souls of the living, for it makes them desirous of stripping themselves of everything that is not noble and just,” as Eric Voegelin described what the ancient Greeks called “Thanatos.” The man who lives under the force of Thanatos tends to live virtuously, while the man who has been numbed to the possibility of hell tends to become morally lazy or indifferent. “Only the good souls are in hell” was Nicolas Berdyaev’s ironic way of putting it, meaning that only those with a lively fear of hell tend to strive for goodness.
Men tend to go through life in a parade of diversions that shield them from the pressures of existence, with the result that they walk through life in a fog of deception. The Internet, through its constant upgrades and sophistication and “interactive capacity,” has a unique ability to exacerbate this deception. A man sits busily at the computer, electronically interacting, and thinks he is somehow advancing himself or adding something to himself.
But in reality, he is doing nothing. Except making himself fit for eternal nothingness.
Eric Scheske works as an attorney in Sturgis, Michigan, where he attends Holy Angels Catholic Church. In addition to Touchstone, his articles have appeared in New Oxford Review, Culture Wars, Lay Witness, The Catholic Faith, and Gilbert!