The digital world: A pervasive form of contemporary violence?

Electronic devices have become our daily bread. We rely on them more and more. A Jesuit in my community recently joked: “In the past when Jesuits arrived in a new house, they would first ask what time daily mass was. Now the first thing they ask for is the Wi-Fi password!” We all laughed; we know this is true.

There are obvious advantages to the hi-tech world we inhabit. Technology has made the world a smaller place. We live, probably, as the most informed people in history. The internet has levelled the playing field, anyone with a device can literally access the world – from the biggest city or the remotest village. It has connected us with people we would not ever have known two decades ago. Neighbours are no longer only those who live next door. Digital technology has enabled the world to unite and challenge injustice – the #MeToo movement is a good example of this.

Conversely, there is also a dark, often ignored, underbelly to our digital diet. It is more common to worry about access to pornography or privacy issues. But, what might be the less obvious, yet deeply intrusive, effects we don’t (or won’t) regularly think about – effects that are changing our very human nature and social fabric?

Our children compete with digital devices for our attention – at worst they are the distraction from the device! The effects of screens on children and their well-being, in the face of overwhelming evidence, does not seem to worry us as much as it should. Some educators – and parents continue to pressure for more technology in the classroom despite the oft-repeated warnings of how this rewires the brain detrimentally. The jury is still out on the long-term effects of technology on children. Many parents and educators, it seems, are willing to risk their children in the biggest social experiment ever with little reflection on the potential consequences and cost.

We spend more time staring at screens than engaging face to face. We talk less and text more. We have many virtual friends on social media, but do we have real friends?

Most worrying, perhaps, is that the digital world has slowly chipped away at our long-honoured tradition of Sabbath. We carry mobile devices with us wherever we go so we can be reached at any time. During work time, family time, recreational time and on holiday we are always connected. We no longer have any real time off. We have created a society in which being permanently online, available, is considered virtuous. We assume this is good.

We have lost the God-given rhythm and balance of work and rest.

Thomas Merton wrote: “There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence… activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of demands, to commit to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence”.

Have our digital devices led us to succumb to this innate violence?

Image: Pixabay

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ is the Director of the Jesuit Institute and is interested in the impact that communications technology has on society and spirituality. He regularly comments on South African Politics and various issues in the Catholic Church. @rpollittsj
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