We wonder whether smartphones have somehow fundamentally altered our human nature, but ask why we were so vulnerable to addiction when they arrived on the scene. Technology amplifies, but does not alter, who we are. We are creatures with a deep and abiding desire to avoid the real. We seek to escape awareness of ourselves and of God through distraction and denial.
I began teaching undergraduates just as the old world was ending. My first full-time semester in the classroom began just weeks after Steve Jobs unveiled the first smartphone. Those few semesters before the technology became widespread were, looking back, the waning days of student attention. I remember the first time I saw a student playing a video game on a pocket device in a campus bathroom. Odd as that was, I did not recognize it as a sign that teaching would change forever. In the years since, time in the classroom has increasingly become a battlefield where teachers vie for student attention against everything on the internet, which is to say, everything in the world.
The technology has now become ubiquitous, and students are no different from anyone else in their addiction to smartphones. The underlying question is, why were we all so vulnerable to smartphone addiction when the gadgets arrived on the scene? The answer lies in our nature.
College students are a symbol of the larger society. This is so because, contrary to what some of the evidence suggests, college students are human, and, as such, share our basic moral and spiritual make-up. It might be tempting to think technology has changed this basic human nature. It has not.
Technology amplifies, but does not alter, who we are. We are creatures with a deep and abiding desire to avoid the real. We seek to escape awareness of ourselves and of God through distraction and denial, a point Pascal made centuries ago when he famously pointed out that all the trouble in the world stems from people’s inability to sit quietly in their rooms alone. Not much has changed.
These days, our hunger for diversion has been cast into hyper-drive. Almost everyone takes an overpowering addiction to constant, intense stimulation as normal. The Good Life, we now believe, is one devoid of even a single moment of silence. We believe we are more fortunate than our forebears because we easily escape whenever solitude threatens. In our pockets, we carry a distraction machine designed specifically to lift us out of the briefest moments of loneliness, discomfort, or even simple dullness.
These distractions offer us real, if temporary, rewards. However, we are drawn to them as much by what they allow us to avoid as by any positive amusement they offer us. Above all, our constant diversion protects us from serious reflection on our characters, on the vices to which we easily succumb and the virtues toward which we ought to strive. To know our moral character and face our faults requires sustained thought and awareness, and the pre-condition for both of those is silence. And silence, because of its proclivity to lead us into confrontation with our shortcomings, is what we avoid. We do not want to face ourselves, and our entire society now conspires to help spare us this uncomfortable confrontation.
Our addiction to diversion is just the surface of a deeper well of denial. The results are obvious in our personal lives. Our tendency to refuse to acknowledge truths about our character failings, even when such failings are clear to others, is among the most devastating forms of self-avoidance. When we cannot acknowledge our vices, their power grows; and as their power grows, so does the damage they inflict.
The common root of every instance of denial and pernicious distraction is not technology, but the inner fear of seeing ourselves as we actually are. We much prefer to see ourselves as we imagine we are. When others refuse to play along, that fear can easily become anger at them for exposing our game. The quest to leave our vices behind and achieve the peace that can only come from living with integrity demands that we do the opposite, that we face our shortcomings squarely, even if that means enduring some temporary discomfort. Too many of us remain stuck in the grip of our vices simply because we have developed the reflexive and automatic habit of avoiding knowledge of them. A quick reach into the pocket or a quick scroll with the thumb is all that is required.
The result is a staleness peculiar to our age. Conversation, random encounters with strangers, the majesty of nature, once had more opportunity to draw us into self-confrontation. Today, their power is reduced by a screen so pervasive and compelling we feel bereft without it. The degree to which we remain hooked to the constant flow of diversion is the degree to which we avoid knowing ourselves. The degree to which we avoid ourselves defines the scope of our tragedy, for knowing ourselves is the key to actualizing our moral and spiritual potential. Only by having the courage to focus can we grow. Otherwise, we are forever wandering in circles, our eyes glued to a vision of life that glows but, in the end, leads nowhere.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Old Woman at the Mirror” (c. 1615) by Bernardo Strozzi (1581-1644), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.