Ever since Nicholas Carr wrote the celebrated Atlantic Monthly cover story called "Is Google Making us Stupid?" and turned it into his 2011 Pulitzer-finalist book, vigorous debate has not ceased on whether our immersion in the digital world of the Internet and i-gadgetry is having a negative effect on our minds.
The opinion of professionals in the communications world is divided. In a massive Pew Research Center study released this past February, a thousand communications professionals and philosophers were evenly split on the issue. Half thought today's hyperconnectivity would result, in 2020, with brains that are wired differently from today, but able to multitask well and learn more broadly. The other half agreed about the different wiring, but feared that today's youth would lack deep-thinking capabilities, face-to-face social skills and will depend in unhealthy ways on the Internet and mobile devices to function. In short, the future is anyone's guess.
What we do know is that our technologies transform our lives — often dramatically. For instance, does the average family still play board games? Has letter-writing been totally superseded by email? Does it even matter?
Albert Borgmann, a philosopher at the University of Montana and author of several books on the effects of electronic media on society, is an advocate of deeper discernment before embracing the latest device from the Gates-Jobs industrial juggernaut. He believes that human work is often unfulfilling for many people, that our leisure activities are not ennobling, and that at a deep level, the culture knows this and is profoundly uneasy. We continuously compensate, he argues, by using more and more technologies. He calls this state of increasing reliance device paradigm, which refers to the cluster of technological phenomena that includes "the cultural displacements, the commodification and mechanization, and their embedding in contemporary culture."
There are human practices, however, that counter the trend of virtualizing life. Literacy, while in ongoing struggle with its more titillating competitors of the digital audio-visual realm, still remains an important means of experiencing silence, recollection and reflection. According to Borgmann, the art of reading is an essential activity, fulfilling a fundamental human need:
Reading is essentially a contemplative pursuit, which, like prayer, embodies an "active receptivity" to the world, while engaging the deeper dimensions of the intellect and soul. It has a certain pride of place, perhaps, but nonetheless reading is just one of a multitude of activities he calls focal practices — habits that can help us resist becoming pell-mell denizens of device paradigm.
Focal practices are activities that make life meaningful. Focal things include books, musical instruments, fishing tackle, good art, and the treasures of nature. They correlate to focal practices such as reciting poetry, playing instruments, dining, sports, painting, sculpting, fishing, rock collecting, gardening, and so on. They engage our better sides: our creativity, ingenuity and sociability, and are recreative even as they require self-investment. Focal activities are also the basis of all group celebration: "Community," wrote Borgmann in another book, "gathers around reality." While device paradigm has become dominant in recent decades, it is by no means the exclusive force; virtual reality has a strong competitor in reality.
Over the last twenty-five years, for example, certain customs have been in serious decline by many families:
It is true that it is usually easier to engage in electronic diversions. Every parent knows it is far more effortless to let children turn on the television or gaming console, than try to settle them into a book, art activity, or play acting. The obscene amount of time spent in the virtual world is also noticeable by anyone who has engaged it, as well as the resulting phenomenon of listlessness, boredom and irritability that often follows. It contrasts with the consolation and vitality that generally result from focal practices. The initial investment of effort — the "getting into" a book, acquiring the materials for the tree fort — is often a deterrent, yet that extra exertion to organize and enter into such activities is proportionate to the payoff.
Yet "the burdensome part of these activities is actually just the task of getting across a threshold of effort," writes Borgmann. "As soon as you have crossed the threshold, the burden disappears." Once we are writing the letter, cooking the meal, walking outdoors, playing the piano, or doing one's morning prayer, the apparent burden lifts and the deeper satisfaction usually arises. Only with some investment comes reward.
Plato once said that we become what we contemplate. Brain scientists continue to verify this observation, underlining that how we learn is just as important as what we learn. The same goes for our daily work and leisure activities. Our technologies should be our tools, not our masters, putting the lie to McLuhan's dictum "we make our tools and then our tools make us" — or at least minimizing that effect. In the end, the question should be, do our gadgets assist or detract from our primary vocation in life — do they help us be people who love and serve. That, in the final analysis, is the ultimate criterion.
John D. O'Brien. "The Recovery of 'Focal Practices'" Catholic Education Resource Center (June 15, 2012).
This article is printed with permission from the author.
John D. O'Brien is a member of the Society of Jesus and teaches at Corpus Christi College in Vancouver. He blogs at "Veritas Liberabit".
Copyright © 2012 John O'Brien
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