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technological povertyThere is a growing consensus among human beings that the effects of our developing technology are not conducive to human development. Popular technology, despite its claim to interact and connect, breeds isolation. It causes people, especially young people, to stray into an introverted withdrawal from others and the world. As such, these results are antithetical to the action of education—educere, “to lead out.”

In his essay “Principles of Catholic Theology,” Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, writing after the Space Race, presents an analogy concerning our technological trajectory:

There arises the question of the kind of spacesuit we should have in order to sustain the cosmic tempo with which we are fleeing faster and faster from the gravitational pull of tradition, and we wonder what ground controls would be necessary to prevent our burning out in the vast expanse of the universe, our bursting asunder like a homunculus of technology—questions that cannot be brushed aside today as stubborn obscurantism, for they are being raised most urgently by those who know most about the tempo of our alienation from tradition and who are most keenly aware of the problems associated with man’s historic spaceflight.

There is a boys’ boarding school in northeast Pennsylvania that takes such observations to heart. Students at Gregory the Great Academy are required to embrace a life of “technological poverty,” which means relinquishing cell phones, iPods, computers, and the like; arriving at school with only the essentials for a “disconnected” life. The pedagogy at work here is simply to free students from distraction and to allow them to focus on the important things in life: growth in virtue, cultivation of friendship, and contemplation of the Divine. Any infringement of this policy—this way of life—results in severe repercussion, if not expulsion.

You may wonder, why such radical measures are taken at this school? An iPod can make good music accessible. Information was never so conveniently acquired. One could posit that we are freer today than ever before, thanks to the Internet. The world is now only a click away—but only offered on the world’s terms.

“The average person of our time,” writes Josef Pieper in “Learning How to See Again,” “loses the ability to see because there is too much to see!” Can man really observe, consider, and comprehend anything in a constant barrage upon his senses? There is scarcely time to render the attention a given object deserves in the in“flow”mation maelstrom of sound bytes. Man is often reduced to a mental state of floating inattention. T. S. Eliot asks, “Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” Does the ability to multiply information and shuffle it before the eyes necessarily result in growing wiser? In The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis argues that in modernity “there is something which unites magic and applied science [technology] while separating them from the ‘wisdom’ of earlier ages. For wise men of old, the cardinal problem of human life was how to conform the soul to objective reality, and the solution was wisdom, self-discipline, and virtue. For the modern, the cardinal problem is how to conform reality to the wishes of man, and the solution is a technique.”

Excesses of technique dull the desire to see, and thereby the ability to learn. This immoderation occurs when the yearning for knowledge instead seeks titillation: enjoying the act of seeing rather than what is seen. Such “concupiscence of the eyes,” as St. Augustine called it, grows in its threat in proportion to the outpouring upon the sense of sight, whether through Facebook, television, or the inescapable commercial culture.

KaleidoscopeIt can be argued that the more information is available, the more people can be informed; or that the more there is to see, the more will people look. It appears, however, that the contrary is true. One of the chief reasons for this is the passivity that the virtual kaleidoscope fosters. The very medium in which it is presented induces superficiality of thought and expression. Knowledge was once imparted through reading, reflection, and conversation—activities requiring mental participation. Does the mind participate as fully now as it did then? Or are we too “spaced out?” The stimuli are too predominant and too numerous for man to even react intelligently.

Uninhibited usage of such media results in a deadening of the mind because the mind is not needed. Neither is the imagination, to equal detriment. Thrills become the primary delight. Common internet practices bear witness to our late Pope’s prophetic vision. Modern man, largely gelded of the impulses to experience, experiment, and exult, resembles Benedict’s skydiving spaceman. Without “ground control,” there is only ruin—and despair. As man drifts further from reality, reality loses the charm of its traditional understanding. Spectacle addiction is blind to sights that held civilizations enchanted. Ultimately, spectacles lose their sway and leave the paralyzed soul enslaved to whatever the medium might choose to feed it. Malcolm Muggeridge wrote that the media’s impact is “largely exerted irresponsibly, arbitrarily, and without reference to any moral, or intellectual, still less spiritual guidelines,” calling it a “brainwashing operation.”

Students should live a life of “technological poverty,” where the use of electronic media is prohibited. This policy should not be enforced out of paranoia, ignorance, or a will to oppress, but to create an atmosphere conducive to education—to the experience of joy and contemplation. This restriction is radical, but radical action is called for. Modern technology and the habits surrounding it distance people from creation. The influence of television, video games, and popular music distort human vision by deforming the imagination, inclining more to bizarre fantasy than to reality. Christians believe that we are fashioned in the image and likeness of Him who is “the image of the invisible God;” and so do not contest the consequence of imagination, which is ordered not to fantasy, but to reality. The best way to realize this is in an open environment, where imagination can become receptive and reflective of reality, in all its goodness and beauty.

The removal of technological devices only becomes educational, however, when they are replaced with an authentic experience of nature, friendship, and culture. The results are surprising. Deprived of the usual modes of diversion, students quickly adopt healthy alternatives to sex-steeped music, inane literature, and mindless entertainment. Without iTunes, boys tend to learn to play the guitar well enough to accompany folk songs. Without television, students enjoy reading aloud to one another round fires. In an environment of “technological poverty,” students actually eat together, pray together, play together, and learn together.

This policy challenges students to make contact with the real, engendered by the doctrine of “technological poverty,” which removes barriers to the world as God made it. Students must, as Wordsworth says, “come forth into the light of things.” By participating in the imaginative arts such as poetry, music, and literature, unencumbered by technological distraction, students become sensitized to that light. This is why student learning, happiness, and even sanity depend on the removal of these technological distractions from the modern school.

Books on this topic may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay originally appeared at Crisis Magazine and is republished here by permission.

Author’s note: The ideas expressed in this article are the fruit of conversations and collaborations with the past and present faculty of Gregory the Great Academy.

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5 replies to this post
  1. Excellent article. The only worthy and reasonable purpose for the use of computer technology in schools would be to teach children programming language. Just as children have learned basic algebra and geometry for centuries, so it would make sense for children to learn programming language. Carl Sagan, before he died, warned that we live in a society of technological might in which the people are ignorant of the science behind that technology. Schools could remedy this. Of course, this would require teachers fluent in programming language. Sadly, if you just put a big multimedia tablet in the classroom, all children learn is that school is a place where the internet is used in a more boring manner than home. I was lucky enough to have no TV from the age of 14, and therefore never developed a habit of being plugged into the proverbial matrix. I love my tablet, the internet etc, but education
    requires books, thought, writing, practice. Kids have plenty of time to interact with computers for fun at home. The internet is helpful, but mostly if billions of unreflective people hop online, the virtual community they create will be unreflective. School should be a time in life when, unencumbered by material necessity, young people can learn exactly what this article proposes.

  2. So…you don’t consider it strange that many people can only read your article through a computer screen?

    I agree that the role of technology in education is often overhyped by interest groups. All tools and gadgets don’t guarantee a good education, unless the purpose of that education is to create experts in those tools and gadgets (and little else!)…all the better for those interest groups and their bank acounts!

    However, barring screens from schools makes as much sense as barring windows! They can distract students who keep glancing outside, but they can also let in welcome light.

  3. Shadi, your analogy is terribly misguided- in fact they are opposites in the sense that windows do let the light in as in a block that is removed, whereas the computer’s role in education is the opposite of a window, it is a block to seeing the light out the window, and isn’t it just like the devil to coopt the word “window” just to make things more confusing?

  4. This article should be mandatory reading for administrators of private schools and parents who wish to send their offspring to private schools.
    I’ve taught high school English Literature and Language for over twenty years at both public and private schools before Multiple Sclerosis retired me.
    It would seem the object of schools today is to show off how much money they are willing to spend on the “latest technology” regardless of no proven results or results solely based on one year’s standardized test scores.
    Schools may banter about terms such as “well rounded” or “service oriented” but young people and their parents fail to see past college applications which denote their service hours or academic GPA.
    It has turned into a big game. Get them into their prep-school or college of their choice and you’ve done your job.
    I’ve been blessed many ways by the Lord, and leaving teaching early due to my cognitive erosion has been one of them.

  5. I agree with the article’s general point. I think that education, and life in general, is hurt by the overuse of and obsession with social media, tv, video games, movies, certain music, and the endless choices and stimulation of these technologies. I agree that “Uninhibited usage of such media results in a deadening of the mind.”

    However, toward the end if the article the author is a bit off on a few things:
    I agree that modern technology and the habits surrounding it generally contribute toward distancing people from creation and perverting man’s political (social) nature. Also,the influence of television, video games, and popular music can “distort human vision by deforming the imagination”. However, the author oversimplifies and overgeneralizes. For example, much “television” (I imagine the author is referring to on demand streaming services as well) does not necessarily distort the human imagination to bizarre fantasy. I am often inspired to look toward God by watching Planet Earth on Netflix for instance.

    Also, “popular music” is a broad category and cannot merely be written off as negative. I wish the author would have provided some examples of the detrimental tv shows and pop music he is concerned about. The issue is not simply facebook or Netflix or Itunes, but the improper use of these things. Particular tv shows, songs or media habits may be detrimental to the life of the mind, but “tv” “pop music” or “Itunes” cannot simply be written off as completely negative. What makes these things positive or negative is the end achieved by using them.

    Let us use the author’s own example.
    He claims that the removal of technological devices can allow students to quickly adopt healthy alternatives to mindless entertainment. I completely agree that this is often the case. However, the author is incorrect to assume that these technologies and authentic friendship and culture are mutually exclusive. This is simply not true.

    Let us take the music example. The author asserts that “Without iTunes, boys tend to learn to play the guitar well enough to accompany folk songs.” Itunes and YouTube actually are very helpful aids to boys and girls learning to play guitar and sing. I am speaking from experience as a singer songwriter who learned to play through the internet. The same is true of TV. I have watched countless movies in college with friends and have had culture enhancing conversations, learned about history, and been inspired to read more because of the movies. I have learned to appreciate film as a noble art form which enriches me culturally.

    As a musician, I would like to point out that the author is wrong to imply that folk music is simply beneficial in leading one toward virtue, while pop music is detrimental or sex-steeped. I would recommend that the author listen to Lucille Bogan or “Knoxville Girl” by the Louvin Brothers and then tell me what he means by “folk”. I would also like for the author to listen to “Thinking Out Loud” by Sheeran and tell me what he means by “pop”. Over generalizations are innacurate and should be avoided when possible.

    I think that digital technology is the greatest detriment to education in our day and is the greatest source of the solitary, nasty mental states of so many people today. I think that the author is correct to advocate technological poverty to improve man’s imagination, grasp of reality, and his social/political nature. However, in seeking to purge society of its uniquely modern ills, one should not be motivated by “paranoia or ignorance” and should not forget the good aspects of technology when chastising the bad. One should remember that reality, the Good, God in his son Jesus Christ, is the ultimate end of all we do, and that we must use all we have, including those things which can be used well or badly by the individual, like Itunes and tv, for achieving the ultimate end.

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