Heather King has been in Rome for a few weeks. A few days ago she wrote about something that’s been on my mind a lot: our ongoing obsession with screens.
Never have I seen the throngs of folks wielding selfie sticks like the throngs at St. Peter’s in Rome. The whole scene was too much for me and I gave away my tickets to the Papal Mass and a Papal Audience in favor of wandering elsewhere, in particular along the banks of the Tiber.
I’ve thought a lot about the phenomenon of posting our life instead of living it. On FB, no-one says I’m having a bad time, this place sucks, I feel lonely, depressed, and unloved, I just ate a ripoff meal. We don’t travel. We just move our body to a new place so we can have a different background for our Instagram pix.
I know, I know. Not another blog about how self-centered we all are with our phones. It’s been done to death and I agree. But I want to continue in the vein not of selfies, but of how we’ve become together alone. I’ve noticed this when walking around downtown, eating a meal at a restaurant, or even at a red light in traffic while looking into the car next to me. Literally no one is looking at their surroundings or at the people with them, usually the people we purport to love and care for the most. And, I’m ashamed to admit, I’ve noticed the same in my own living room at night. After supper we’ll sit down for a little while together as a family and as I pause to look up from where I’ve been catching up on my Twitter feed, my wife is looking into her phone, as my son is staring at his iPod and my daughter into her tablet. I look over at the dog’s bed in the corner of our living room and he’s looking at all of us, waiting for…something. I’m not sure. A discussion maybe? For someone to laugh and communicate in some manner? I imagine it all looks rather lonely to a beagle. Imagine how it would be to be a toddler or young child in a family who’s attention is not on each other, but on some handheld device. A cold, impersonal device.
“We have to accept that technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles …. The idea of promoting a different cultural paradigm and employing technology as a mere instrument is nowadays inconceivable.” — Pope Francis, Laudato Si (2015)
On Oct. 21, 2015 I received an email letter from President Kevin Roberts of Wyoming Catholic College. I’m on this list because at one point I’d hoped my oldest son would attend school there. I’m going to quote parts of it.
At Wyoming Catholic College, we recognize the immense distractedness that cell phones create. Our policy requiring students to check-in their phones at the beginning of each semester fosters an environment in which we are truly present to others. From visitors to campus to employers of our graduates, many people remark at the joy and presence of our students. Though many factors can be attributed to those characteristics, we can attest to the absence of cell phones being a significant contributor.
Outside our WCC community, there is mounting evidence that we’d all would be well-served to untether ourselves from cell phones, even if for just a short while each day. From legitimate concerns about brain health to a recent report about teens’ posture being affected by overuse of cell phones, it is not an exaggeration to say that immoderate use of a tool has impacted humans negatively.
The most profound evidence of that problem may be photographer Eric Pickersgill’s new project, “Removed.” Pickersgill’s series of photographs capture the most normal of moments: families in the dining room, a couple reading at bedtime, and friends enjoying a barbecue. What’s captivating about each picture is that Pickersgill used software to remove the cell phone from each person’s hand, creating a stark image of how focused we are on our phones.
I’m going to break in here and urge you to click on the link to Pickersgill’s project right now. Here is that link again. I haven’t placed any of his photos in this blog post for copyright reasons. But these are among the most powerful, even haunting, photos I’ve ever seen. This is what we are saying is important to us. This is our priority. This is our downfall.
On his site Pickersgill says he got the idea while sitting in a café one morning and wrote the following observation:
Family sitting next to me at Illium café in Troy, NY is so disconnected from one another. Not much talking. Father and two daughters have their own phones out. Mom doesn’t have one or chooses to leave it put away. She stares out the window, sad and alone in the company of her closest family. Dad looks up every so often to announce some obscure piece of info he found online. Twice he goes on about a large fish that was caught. No one replies. I am saddened by the use of technology for interaction in exchange for not interacting. This has never happened before and I doubt we have scratched the surface of the social impact of this new experience. Mom has her phone out now.
The image of that family, the mother’s face, the teenage girls’ and their father’s posture and focus on the palm of their own hands has been burned in my mind. It was one of those moments where you see something so amazingly common that it startles you into consciousness of what’s actually happening and it is impossible to forget. I see this family at the grocery store, in classrooms, on the side of the highway and in my own bed as I fall asleep next to my wife. We rest back to back on our sides coddling our small, cold, illuminated devices every night.
President Roberts continued:
If you have doubted the naysayers about cell phone overuse, or questioned the wisdom of WCC’s cell phone policy, take a few moments to view and contemplate the photographs in “Removed.” They will convince you of the disordered obsession with our phones, which comes at the expense of the people in our company.
As I mention frequently, solutions to most of our social, cultural, and political problems begin with each of us taking small steps. Consider, therefore, what you can do to improve our genuine, face-to-face engagement with others. Imagine a dinner, a conversation, a meeting where each participant decides to put away their phone. Call instead of sending a text message.
We may very well learn again to prioritize the human persons in front of us, rather than the ephemeral appeal of a text message, Facebook post, or e-mail.
Back to Heather King’s blog for a minute to catch her ending:
Ticking, say, the seven basilicas of Rome off my checklist doesn’t make me a Catholic. What makes me a Catholic—a follower of Christ; fully human—is the way I see the world, experience the world. My poverty and need. My imagination, that sees the whole world as consecrated, redeemable. My human heart that, as all human hearts must be, is pierced through with a sword.
Chesterton said that “Culture is the art of growing things.” There is no growth if we do not cultivate and nurture our relationships with the people around us. There can be no family, no neighborhood and no community. There can be no culture.
This is what we miss when engrossed in our screens. We miss that part of our humanity in which we interact with and see the world. We are not just not communicating with those other humans that are with us, we are not communicating with nature, and by extension, the world itself. We do not see the world through our eyes, but through the eyes of an interpreter on the other end of that screen. We have abdicated our humanity and, ironically, our ability to have the choice we so ardently demand and desire. Any chance at having a mystical experience is removed, as is our ability to make our own mere observations.
Two years ago this November our household disconnected the satellite cable. Not only have we saved $2500 in two years but we haven’t missed it at all. I don’t feel that we and our kids are luddites, disconnected from the world. To be fair, into that vacuum rushed a different screen, proving that there will always be a vacuum if you are not careful. This is our next challenge as a family. This is the thing-that-must-be-removed. And then we must be prepared to fill that space.
Simply stated, we must be prepared to replace what we remove.
In the modern world the individual no longer faces silence, no longer faces the community, but faces only the universal noise. The individual stands between noise and silence. He is isolated from noise and isolated from silence. He is forlorn. ~ Max Picard, The World of Silence, page 65