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Monday, August 24, 2009

Technology Addiction and the Spiritual Life

I don't think it's an overstatement to say we're surrounded by technology in most of the so-called "developed world". In fact, 'surrounded' might be an understatement in countries like the United States. 'Inundated' might be more accurate and with the technology comes noise, both literally and spiritually, that can and does drown out the voice of God in our lives.

This isn't to say that all technology is bad or demonic or anything like that (though it does seem to be possessed by a demon when it begins to malfunction). Technology has brought great advancements to our health and way of life. The problem comes in when we allow that technology to overwhelm and run our lives.

As much as I enjoy technological advances and having the latest gadget, I've become more concerned about how technology controls our lives. From the alarm clock which wakes us up in the morning, to the cell phone which interrupts our personal conversations, to the computers we use for work, education, and entertainment, technology has a hold on major aspects of our lives.

By overrelying on technology, our attention span, the length of time during which we can focus our attention on one particular person or thing, is diminishing dramatically. Likewise, the incivility and division we see in politics today is greatly influenced by television and other communication technologies that support and encourage that kind of behavior.

This became more clear to me on Saturday as I was listening to an interview program on EWTN Radio called "Faith and Culture". The interviewer, Colleen Carroll Campbell was speaking to Eric Brende, who wrote a book Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology, about technology addiction. Mr. Brende and his wife spent 18 months in a community with almost no modern conveniences. No electricity, no indoor plumbing, and a few old-fashioned manual or horse-powered machines to aid in housework or farm work. His point was that our overreliance on modern technology has upset our natural balance, both on an individual level and on a communal level.

At first, I was disagreeing with Mr. Brende, but the more I thought about it, the more I found myself agreeing with him. Why? Let's look at something so ubiquitous as as an alarm clock. Like most animals who are active during the day, we are naturally predisposed to go to sleep when the sun sets and rise when it rises. Since the advent of electric lighting, we are no longer dependent on the Sun to be the major source of light, which allows us to function much later after the Sun has set. This might not be a bad thing on it's face, but it actually works against our natural cycle of rising with the Sun and sleeping once the Sun has set. For many of us, this means that we need an electronic gadget, an alarm clock, to alert us when it's time to rise and face another day.

Again, this isn't to say that technology is bad, and we need to revert to a pre-Industrial Revolution state. Like any tool, technology has its uses. As I was writing this on a Sunday evening, a series of severe thunderstorms were moving through my area. I had advanced warning about these storms due to the satellite, radar, and radio technologies employed by the National Weather Service. Anyone who has ever survived a tornado or hurricane is likely very grateful to the NWS's use of technology to get the warnings out with time to spare.

As a priest, my concern with technology is the effect it has on our spiritual balance, to take it a step further than Mr. Brende. To truly enter into a conversation with God, we need silence, but much of the technology that we employ in our daily lives do a lot to constantly disturb that silence. Cell phones, television, radio, and computers, among other things, provide distraction after distraction that keep us from focusing our attention on what God is saying to us. Instead of taking time for prayer, we surf the Internet, watch TV, listen to the radio , or talk on the phone.

Is the answer getting rid of technology all together? No , but sometimes the monks on "Into Great Silence" seem to have the right idea. The Carthusians live very austere lives, with only a bed, a desk with chair, a wood stove, and a kneeler for prayer in their cells. Most of us are not called to that level of austerity, but we still need to keep technology in its place. Technological advancements are tools that can be very beneficial for our lives, but will seriously affect our well-being if we allow them to control us.

The challenge for us is finding the balance between using technology for our good and allowing technology to control us. If you don't think you're controlled by technology, turn off the TV, computer, and cell phone and see how long you can go without turning one of them on. For most Americans, I would venture to guess that they would not be able to go more than an hour or so with at least the cell phone.

If you're one of the millions of "technology addicted", as I likely am, what do we need to do to overcome that addiction? Our natural, and more importantly spiritual, lives hang in the balance.


sr_mary said...

What would be the 'acid test' for moderation? I think there would have to be differet ones for lay people, consecrated religious and diocesan priests. This is NOT a rhetorical question... I seriously would like to know.

William Newton said...

Hi Father Cory -

I've noticed this too, and I think the answer, as suggested by the monks of the Grand Chartreuse, and as difficult as it may be, is to force ourselves into greater silence. I observed the other day that I was able to get far more accomplished in the evening when I was not simultaneously watching television, having a Google Chat, and checking my Facebook friends' news. I simply turned off my television, stepped away from the computer, and read a spiritual book quietly.

I was astonished by how noisy life was and that I had not realized it previously - or that if I had, I had forgotten. I expect that for most of us it is the latter that is the problem. We forget how noisy things can become in our environments and in our heads until there is a thunderstorm or something, and the power goes out. And it's hard to hear the still, small voice when we are so distracted by the noise around and within us.

Kelly said...

Hello Father! I'm going to make an obvious observation; we would not be able to read your insightful thoughts on technological addiction if it were not for your blog and our access to it from the internet and our computers. ;)

As always, you make some good points and I enjoy reading what you have to say. It is good to step back and reflect on how we spend our time throughout the day. An examenation of concience at the end of the day before bed would be a good place to start.

Thank you and God bless! said...

Thanks for a great article. Some important things to think about.

Zina said...

Would St. Paul use technology to spread the Gospel?

I think there is a balance. I don't think we have to swing the pendulum too far to the other side. We just have to recognize technology as a tool and not as a necessity. Food, water and shelter are necessities. If the Internet goes out... so what.

Just as alcohol in and of itself is not evil, neither is this thingy that I am typing on right now.

I read the Brende book a long time ago. It's a good read, and I found his exchanges with the anabaptists somewhat intriguing.

Father Cory Sticha said...


I agree that there is some differentiation between laity, consecrated religious, and diocesan priests. In fact, I think each person has to discern on their own how much technological involvement is too much. For example, a lay person who works at a computer tech support office will have to deal with far more technology on a daily basis than I will as a priest, but I probably deal with a lot more technology than some of the other priests in the diocese.

As for when is too much, I think if your prayer life is suffering because of the computer, TV or other form of technology, you might have reached that point. I would argue that the typical teenager who is ignoring everyone around him or her while texting friends is way beyond the point of addiction. I know that I border on addiction at times, as there have been far too many days where I've gone the whole morning without even cracking open the breviary. I think it really has to be in discernment with ones spiritual director to figure out where the limit lies.

I know this may not be a full answer to your question, as it's just a couple of thoughts off the top of my head. Hopefully others can add to my thoughts.

Father Cory Sticha said...


Yeah, it's amazing how much more effective we can be without trying to multi-task. Computers can multi-task very well, but we can't. Some people just think they can.

Father Cory Sticha said...


LOL! Yeah, I was aware of the irony of blogging about abuse of technology. It was the same irony that came to me as I was listening to the interview on Saturday over satellite radio. At least I wrote the blog post out long hand on a yellow legal note pad before typing it into the blog. A little primitive technology before going modern tech.

Great advice on the examination of conscience. They're always a good way to end the day.

Father Cory Sticha said...


I think you're absolutely right that St. Paul would use every technology available to him. If he was walking the earth today, well, first he'd be driving, but he would have a blog, and a podcast with videos, a full-featured website, a forum for conversation with his churches, and probably a few accounts with social networking sites. The difference is that he would also be using that car to drive into the hills, out of cell phone range, and spending time in prayer, just as Our Lord did.

You're absolutely right that technology is a tool, and that was Eric Brende's point in the interview. Technology isn't bad, but it can hit the point where it can make our lives more difficult, not better. When we hit those diminishing returns, we might need to back off a little bit. Computers, cell phones, and TV are not evil in themselves, it's just how we use them that can become evil.

Father Cory Sticha said...

Thanks, all for your comments. Please feel free to keep them coming!

Adele said...

St Paul sounds like such a good Protestant.

Father Cory Sticha said...

Adele, true. Too bad Catholics don't sound more like that.

Luddite Wannabe said...

I remember being astonished at how pro-technology our good pope John Paul II was... I thought I was the hip young thing, and he was some old church guy (I wasn't Catholic then.) He recognized the usefulness of the tool, as well as its danger.

Here at my desk tonight, I was studying a piece of misshapen handmade pottery, and comparing it to the plethora of computer screens and keyboards which surround me. The clay shows the touch of its maker, and is utterly unique. The computers show nothing, except that they were presumably made by robots.

Given a choice, shall we opt for the thing which is a work of craft, something manufactured by a man, rather than by a manufacturer? Unless, of course, we wish to go forth onto the WorldWideWeb!

Luddite, The Sequel said...

Then again, straining at pottery-vs-modem and swallowing camels is a false dichotomy, as well. (To strain a metaphor very, very badly.) It is the heart of the man which matters, rather than his electronic-ness or otherwise. And Fr. Sticha, your heart of godly obedience is a great blessing to the Church, and to us all. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.