Looking down on the virtual world

  • March 14, 2024

Do you understand what you are reading?

Acts: 8: 30

The art of reading is rapidly disappearing. According to a study by the National Endowment for the Arts, nearly “half of all Americans ages 18 to 24 read no books for pleasure.” Even more alarming given my line of work, “College attendance no longer guarantees active reading habits.”

According to the chairman of the NEA, Dana Gioia: “There is a general decline in reading among teenage and adult Americans. Most alarming, both reading ability and the habit of regular reading have greatly declined among college graduates.” And this decline has “demonstrable social, economic, cultural and civic implications.” And it is equally true of Canada.

One of the major culprits for this is our phones, which putatively allow us to multi-task, watching television while scrolling emails or checking Facebook and other social media platforms. You simply can’t do that with books. It’s one or the other. Screen time, though, has exploded. I was personally shocked to be notified by my own device that I was spending upwards of three hours a day on my phone. Admittedly, I often prefer to check and answer work emails that way rather than from my computer. Still, it’s an alarming number. When I mentioned the issue of divided focus to some of our students, they insisted that they were simply better trained to manage multiple devices at once, though I often noticed that they couldn’t recall even basic details from a broadcast because of their phone use. They were “listening” and half-watching but argued that this is all that’s needed to consume content these days. One explained that he listened to pre-recorded class lectures at 1.5 speed!

Is it fair to say that we do this in our daily lives as well — walking through our interactions, but at times only half-listening and not present in the moment? I sometimes feel that this is what we do with prayer. I know that I’ve been guilty of this while reciting my daily Rosary. There have been times, for example, when the stresses of the real world have intruded on my thoughts, so that I’ve been compelled to redo a decade that was interrupted by inattention. I was praying, but wasn’t “in” the prayer, as it were. Merely reciting it.

It seems to me just as egregious to live our daily lives that way too. I watched a parent once on his phone throughout his daughter’s piano recital; another filmed her son’s sports event, but somehow wasn’t watching. “I’ll look at it later,” she said when I asked what she thought of the game. In one of his talks to young people Pope Francis reminded them that it is “a great risk … to spend our days keeping a cell phone screen in front of our eyes.” He went on to say, “Our eyes are meant to look into the eyes of others. They were not made to look down at a virtual world that we hold in our hands, but to look up to Heaven, to God, and to look into the eyes of those who live next to us.”

Of course, it’s a hard thing to connect with someone if our eyes are cast downward; or to enter a meaningful conversation if your mind is elsewhere. This is where I have often appreciated the lessons of Ignatian spirituality which invite us into a deeper engagement with ourselves and our neighbours. Indeed, it begins with the belief that God is present among us, and an invitation to be attentive to His being. Ironically, and in many respects, the basis of an Ignatian spiritual practice very much accords with the multi-tasking so popular among young people because it invites us to understand that God is everywhere. We need not disengage from our daily lives — our many tasks and events are always-already suffused with His presence. Far from rejecting the “daily grind” of our lives, Ignatian spirituality invites us to see how everything is interconnected with God — the monumental and the mundane are all conjoined by and with this greater force. It is a heartening understanding, one that potentially creates a sacred space in the most ordinary moments, and equally revitalizes the ordinary with a value that we may have missed or forgotten. As St. Ignatius himself put it, “It is certainly a higher virtue of the soul, and a greater grace, to be able to enjoy the Lord in different times and different places than in only one.”

So perhaps it’s okay to share a screen as long as we see more, not less, of the world around us. We should remember the details and not let them blur together, remembering that God lives there in the interstices of every moment. So instead of looking down at the virtual world, we need to shift our focus and look up at our spiritual one. I’m sure there’s a book or two we could consult on this.

(Turcotte is President and Vice-Chancellor at St. Mark’s and Corpus Christi College, University of British Columbia.)

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