Musings on the Internet

Musing on the Internet

by Michael D. O’Brien

(from the December, 2005, and January, 2006, StudiObrien newsletters)

December, 2005

The snow is falling in the surrounding forest here in northern Ontario. I keep a wood fire burning in the studio every day, and try to exercise patience whenever the wind storms and ice storms knock out the electric power (which they have done several times during the past month). Early winter and early spring are usually our chief storm times. I hate it when the e-umbilical cord connecting me to the world is cut. This impatience of mine whenever nature disrupts my busy, busy, busy life, is teaching me something about myself. That the lesson is relearned each year in Advent and Lent is an interesting coincidence.

As you well know—you are human and alive in this world, so I’m certain that you know—the period of history during which we live is a time of waiting for the final return of Christ. Advent is anticipation, a re-enactment of waiting for the first coming of Christ, which is the prefigurement of his final coming. This insufficiency, this incompleteness, is a time of trials and tribulations. Until the final restoration of the world in Christ it will remain so. Until his return, we will suffer.

Suffering, strictly defined, usually means pain in its several manifestations, ranging from physical to mental-emotional to spiritual. Accompanying them all is a profound sense that our situation is not as it should be. Whether we are in mild discomfort or intolerable pain, we learn and relearn that we are not in Paradise. This is to state the obvious. But what we so often forget is that man’s transitory condition in this world is a passage through time toward eternity (within the fathomless embrace of eternity), culminating in total reunion with God our Father. Then he will dry every tear from our eyes and bind up every wound, as the prophets expressed it, and bring us into everlasting joy. Our destiny, should we choose to accept it, is eternal communion.

When we live in Christ, Paradise is already within us, and we are in it, and who can explain this mysterious confounding of our normal mental constructs of how the world is ordered! Whenever we receive the Holy Eucharist worthily, for example, for a brief time Paradise is a sweet fire within us (felt sensibly or not) and eternity is within us.

Christ showed us from the moment of his conception to the difficult circumstances of his birth, and onward to the ultimate sacrifice on Calvary, that pain is not the end of things; indeed it is only a prologue. But pain can mesmerize us even as we struggle to avoid it or to escape its net. It becomes unbearable whenever we slide into an attitude or a conviction that our sufferings are interminable and meaningless.

Years ago I purchased an old second-hand Ford Pinto (one of the worst cars ever made), and from that day onward I began to see Pintos everywhere on the highway. Later, I purchased an old white Toyota van (one of the best cars ever made) and suddenly rusty white Toyota vans were everywhere. I was sure that I had never before seen either of these types of cars. Of course it’s a matter of perception, interpretation, focus, identification.

Have you ever noticed the curious phenomena that when you are feeling well, you project into the future an optimism about your entire life? And then, when injustice, sorrow, or unexpected suffering strikes, you project into the future a pessimism about your life? When you experience joy you feel that you will always experience joy. When you are struck down, you feel you will always be struck down. Such is the weakness of our human perceptions.

Ours is an affluent age. And a deadly one. A good deal of normal human life is spent either avoiding suffering or applying remedies to it—especially anodynes and anesthetics. It goes without saying that no one should seek suffering. But the other half of the equation, which in the language of mathematical physics is a “quark”, is that joys and sorrows are inextricably combined. Until our final breath in this world, we will continue to experience quirks and quarks, quiet and quibble, trouble and tribble, in short—trials and tribulations. However you may define it, the reality remains: it is God’s holy will that we do not go through life as “the boy in the bubble” but live exposed to the dangers of human existence. He knows that ultimately this is very good for us, if we do not lose heart, if we do not run from it. He knows that we are stronger than we think we are. He knows that we are strongest of all when he lives in us and we live in him. When we understand this at last, we are no longer haunted or hypnotized by evil nor paralyzed by discouragement. We can stand up and penetrate the darkness of a fallen world with confidence in the ultimate victory of Christ. Then, pessimism and shallow optimism alike are swept aside by the real thing, which is Christian hope.

Advent is a time to learn how to do this with grace. It is the season when we can learn to bear with greater dignity our weakness as creatures, and to discover unexpected victories.

St. Pio of Pietrelcina writes: “We must become accustomed to the sufferings which Jesus will be pleased to send us. Jesus, who cannot bear to keep you in a state of affliction at length, will come to help and comfort you, by instilling new courage in your spirit.”

Teach us, O Holy Spirit, to live in Time with Eternity in our hearts!

Speaking of trials, I’ve had a few new ones lately, and this brings me to the topic at hand: Those of you who regularly visit the Studio website will know that we no longer offer a guest book and forum. During the past few months they came under attack from saboteurs and commercial advertisers, who clogged the site with an exponentially increasing number of junk messages, demanding a lot of time each day weeding the flood of corruption from the legitimate messages.

I also regret that limited-edition prints are no longer offered for purchase. I won’t go into the reasons for this; suffice it to say that in our times the immense power and complexity of media-based culture is making it extremely difficult for more traditional forms of culture to survive.

However, several original paintings are still available for purchase in the Profiled Works gallery. If you are interested in buying one, you can send me a message through the “contact” link beneath each large image.

Interestingly, “spammers” continue to pour the bad cholesterol into the site through this one remaining artery. But they now can only do so with some personal effort, no longer with automatic spammer software. This means that somewhere out there in the world there are individuals wasting their time even as they waste mine. That’s fine by me. I’m keeping them off the streets. Call me a decoy. Call me a moving target. Call me a make-work project for people with too much free time on their hands.

Ironically, as you can see, I am using the media to critique the media. Such is our world. Such is its potential for good fruit and its potential for bad fruit. Untold millions of stunning images are available on the internet, most of them for free, most of them produced by cameras, most of them made not so much by art as by mechanism, of course with a human being controlling the mechanism. It begs the questions: Does the controller shape the work of the mechanism, or does the mechanism shape the controller? Or both? And is the near-totality of mechanistic culture altering everyone’s consciousness? If so, in what way?

One of the negative consequences of the internet is that our consciousness is flooded with extremely powerful visual stimuli, in both quantity and kind unprecedented in the entire history of mankind—in the entire history of the human brain. This quantum leap has occurred within a single generation—one might call it the internet generation. IN for short. The exterior world perceived and experienced INwardly. Cyber-INteraction. INtimate e-relationships. Avatars and spammers and firewalls and blockers and bloggers and disconnects spreading in every direction, but all justified by the illusion of human connection—which is the longing within each of us for human communion, which in turn is a foretaste of the complete and eternal communion of Love which we will know fully only in Paradise.

A dear friend of mine, a Catholic philosopher and author, refuses to be sucked into cyber-world. He uses the antiquated medium of pen and paper. His long and very beautiful letters, so rich in thoughtfulness and insight, contain illuminations that sometimes take me time to decipher, reflect upon, absorb. When one of his letters arrives, I sit down and slip peacefully into a curious sense of—well, how to express this—into a sense of timelessness is the only word I can think of. Timelessness and attention. I expect that one day he will tell me he has finally done what he has so often threatened to do: he will progress to the next level of communication by destroying his computer with an axe (he presently compromises for e-mail essential to his work). He is at this moment sharpening the point of a quill, and looking for a reliable supplier of vellum letter-paper—and honing his axe.

Does the apparent connection to a global community offered by the internet give us a genuine communion, or does it offer us a dangerously misleading pseudo-communion? Does it disconnect us even as it tells us it is connecting us? Is it merely a new language of communication, or is it a palantir, the “seeing stone” in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, opening the portals to the eye of the Dark Lord at the tap of a computer key? The palantir was all about communication, all about transcending the limitations of human sight and hearing, dissolving distance, dispelling separation. But what is this newfound power, this instant knowledge of good and evil, really about? Why has it appeared so swiftly, and spread everywhere, and why does it engender so much addictive behaviour in its devotees? That it is a tool with potential for immense good is undeniable. That it is a tool for immense evil is also undeniable. The internet is neither good nor evil in itself. Evil cannot be created. No created thing is evil. As the Lord says, it is not what goes into a man that is evil, but what comes out of him. Even so, we must always consider whether our tools and powers are disposing us toward good or toward evil. Do they make it easier for us to live the good, or more difficult? The question I’m asking today is, are there consequences to an omnipresent e-culture other than its obvious good and evil effects?

Alas! Sigh! Here I am trying to connect with you via the very medium that is killing us.

Killing us? A bit extreme, Mr. O’Brien! Well, yes, but in all honesty I think it fair to say that this very useful, morally neutral tool is now devouring countless lives, warping our sense of time and our scale of human values—not to mention the moral absolutes. The subject is vast and crucial. I will try to write more about it in forthcoming newsletters—hopefully in January, after Christmas, in time and in eternity (if I do not employ an axe of my own on this slave that enslaves me).

*  *  *

January 2006

In my previous newsletter I offered a few thoughts on the role of the internet in our lives, and would like to continue with a few more reflections on the matter:

In February, 2005, shortly before his death, Pope John Paul II wrote a pastoral letter about the internet, titled Fides et Internetum (Faith and the Internet). In it he outlined the positive contribution which new technology has made to communication throughout the world. The Holy Father encouraged Christians to be involved in the communications industry and to bring to it their strong faith as well as their technical skills. Like St. Paul at the Areopagus in Athens, those called to evangelism through the media can speak to the people of our times in languages appropriate and understandable in our particular cultural context (Acts 17: 22-31).

“ . . . The Areopagus represented the cultural center of the learned people of Athens, and today it can be taken as a symbol of the new sectors in which the Gospel must be proclaimed . . . The first Areopagus of the modern age is the world of communications, which is unifying humanity and turning it into what is known as the global village.”

John Paul II noted that the media is often used “inappropriately,” and that in our times “Many people, in fact, believe that humanity must learn to live in a climate governed by an absence of meaning, by the provisional and the fleeting. In this context, the communications media can be used to proclaim the Gospel or to reduce it to silence within men’s hearts.”

On January 24, 2006, Pope Benedict issued his message for World Communications Day, and in it he too emphasized that the media is potentially a network for communication, communion, and cooperation. Even so, he says, “Daily we are reminded that immediacy of communication does not necessarily translate into the building of cooperation and communion in society. . . certain tendencies within the media engender a kind of monoculture that dims creative genius, deflates the subtlety of complex thought and undervalues the specificity of cultural practices and the particularity of religious belief.” Furthermore, he adds: “These are distortions that occur when the media industry becomes self-serving or solely profit-driven, losing the sense of accountability to the common good.”

And: “Do not our hearts cry out, most especially, when our young people are subjected to debased or false expressions of love which ridicule the God-given dignity of every human person and undermine family interests?”

Reflecting on John Paul II’s letter, Pope Benedict goes on to say, “Formation in the responsible and critical use of the media helps people to use them intelligently and appropriately. . . Participation in the mass media arises from their nature as a good destined for all people. As a public service, social communication requires a spirit of cooperation and co-responsibility with vigorous accountability of the use of public resources and the performance of roles of public trust, including recourse to regulatory standards and other measures or structures designed to effect this goal.”

Both pontiffs have set the moral foundation for the right use and development of the internet. At the present time, while there is widespread positive use of the net through a growing number of websites that are apostolic in purpose and content, there is a vast array of counter-resources on the net, a full spectrum of the banal to the aggressively evil. The question I would like to raise is not so much about the internet’s potential for good, nor the good it has already accomplished, but rather the way we tend to relate to it. In my previous newsletter I asked if it was, by its very nature, reshaping human consciousness. I asked, moreover, if it was creating the illusion of communion through the fast-paced exchange of voluminous amounts of information, images, and messages—a mode of communication that appears to have become the dominant form of culture in our times—at least in the high-tech urbanized nations.

In other words, are we mistaking an increase of communication for an increase of communion? Is basic human loneliness driving us ever deeper into a culture of dislocated virtual relationships that temporarily relieve symptoms but worsen the disease? And are we misreading the narrowing parameters of this homogenized global culture as unity, when in reality it is a growing uniformity—a uniformity disguised by its staggering volume and its dazzling stimuli? “Monoculture,” the Holy Father calls it. And this prompts another question: Is monoculture the engine that drives the “dictatorship of moral relativism” or does the relativism create the monoculture? Or both?

What, really, is this electronic culture doing to us? A crucial question each of us should ask himself is: What is the pattern of my (your, our) personal interaction with the net? And if our usage and psychological responses when engaging it are significantly different from, say, letter-writing or book-reading or face-to-face conversation with others, how are they different?

I would add to the discussion a cautionary insight from the Catholic philosopher, Josef Pieper. In his book, The Four Cardinal Virtues, he reflects on the human tendency to an unholy “curiositas”, which St. Thomas Aquinas warns against in the Summa Theologica. St. Thomas says that curiositas is potentially (and often actually) sinful. It is an inordinate desire to know, to see, to experience what is not rightly within one’s legitimate needs or within the proper boundaries of one’s vocation. Which brings to mind the power of the internet’s practically infinite (and practically instantaneous) capacity to fill the appetite of curiositas. The internet is a tool made by and used by human beings, and it is one of the most powerful ever invented. Though the analogy is imperfect, we might say that it is similar to atomic power. Morally neutral, it can light up homes or make apocalyptic landscapes. So too, the net can illumine minds or it can darken them even as it bestows with extraordinary force the sensations of light. Atomic fusion (fission) must be contained, which is another way of saying it must function in its right place, in proper proportion, if it is to assist creation and not unleash destruction. So too the net. But how?

“Man has lost his capacity for living with himself, nauseated and bored by the void of an interior life gutted by despair…  Curiosity reaches the extremes of its destructive and eradicating power when it builds itself a world according to its own image and likeness: when it surrounds itself with the restlessness of a perpetual moving picture of meaningless shows, and with the literally deafening noise of impressions and sensations breathlessly rushing past the windows of the senses. Behind the flimsy pomp of its façade dwells absolute nothingness… If such an illusory world threatens to overgrow and smother the world of real things, then to restrain the natural wish to see takes on the character of a measure of self-protection and self-defense.”

—  Josef Pieper, The Four Cardinal Virtues (this quote is from the chapter “Concupiscence of the Eyes,” reprinted in Josef Pieper: An Anthology, Ignatius Press, 1989)

For now, let us walk through the snow-covered hills of the holy land which is the world, in our weakness and need, seeking a stable under an unexpected star. Let us kneel in silence and emptiness before an “ordinary” man and an “ordinary” woman and their “ordinary” baby. And in our meeting with the disguised miraculous, let us awaken to the fact that we are becoming numbed to the meaning of this gift. Let us understand that we are blind and deaf and in need of our Saviour as never before. Let us gaze at a little child and accept, as does he, our poverty as creatures. Let God incarnate show us that we do not need to “be like gods.” Let us see a crucifix over the crib, and beyond the crucifix an empty tomb.

+  +  +