The internet is like a city; websites are like buildings. In the same way that architecture works in and through the technological design of the building and produces an aesthetic effect, so does web design. Therefore, the websites we visit are forming our souls, not merely by their content, but also through their design.
Or it is a blight upon civilization, a machine which is slowly but surely eroding the foundations of our culture, robbing individuals of the basic skills needed to live in civil society and leaving vast swathes of the population confused, dissatisfied, and disconnected.
One or the other. Maybe both. We’re not really sure.
On one hand, it’s clear that the internet provides the fastest, cheapest, and most versatile means of communication the world has ever seen. As such, it has created an extraordinary increase in the availability of information, allowing the world to instantaneously access articles, videos, and books which previously would have been available only to a select few. In addition, it has opened up a vast new marketplace, providing new frontiers for innovation and entrepreneurship, and granting consumers a level of choice that would have been unthinkable only a few decades ago.
On the other hand, well, we don’t really know what the problem is. Certainly, there is a lot of bad content on the internet—pornography, conspiracy theories, and the like—but such vices are hardly particular to the internet. And yet, beyond avoiding what is so obviously evil, we still find ourselves wondering if there is not something in the environment itself which is toxic. It just seems like there has to be something wrong with anything that consumes so much of our attention while being so disconnected from the real world.
Our instincts, I believe, are not misplaced. The trouble is that, while we are very aware of the benefits of the internet, we have only a vague sense of the dangers. And without knowing precisely what the dangers are, it’s very difficult to fight back.
Several years ago, I attended a talk for young adults by the (now retired) Bishop of Richmond with the title “Social Media: Connect or Disconnect?” It was a well-attended talk, and I think that many in the audience were wondering, as I was, what practical limits we should place on our use of social media (and perhaps the internet more generally). The talk, however, gave little in the way of clear direction, but instead made only vague references to “being moderate” in our use of technology.
This is not adequate, just as it is not adequate to say to someone driving a car “do whatever you feel is safe.” Human judgement is often flawed, particularly when it does not recognize the consequences of its decisions. This is our problem with regards to the internet. We feel that it is bad for us, but we don’t really understand how it is affecting us. This is, of course, a vast topic. Perhaps it is too vast for any one person to fathom completely. However, what I would like to propose in this essay is a framework with which this topic can be better understood, and which individuals can use to more effectively judge the particular situations they encounter. The internet may be new, but the dangers associated with it are as old as time itself. Our task, then, is not to search out some new form of immorality, but rather to understand how the ones we have known for so long operate in the digital realm.
With this goal in mind, let us begin by framing the discussion. What exactly do we mean when we say “the internet”? It’s a question that technology proponents are quick to obfuscate—and not without reason. We often speak of the internet as “one thing,” yet it is really a collection of both tangible objects (computers, routers, servers) and the intangible data they transmit (usually in the form of websites). Under such circumstances, is it even philosophically possible to talk about “the internet”? I answer this with a simple analogy, one which, as it turns out, will help us think more deeply about our topic as we proceed: The internet is like a city. Just as a city is composed of many buildings, each individually owned and operated, so the internet is composed of many websites, all operating independently from one another, yet joined by a common infrastructure. In this way, we can think of the internet as a whole without denying the role of its parts.
Having laid this foundation, I think it best to continue—in the grand tradition of Thomas Aquinas—with the objection put forward by those who hail the internet as an unmitigated boon for humanity. Technology, they say, is morally neutral. Its capacity for achieving good or evil lies in how it is used. A building, for example, can house a church, or it can house a brothel. The internet, likewise, can be used for evangelization, or it can be used to spread the lies of Satan. In this view, there is nothing wrong with the internet itself, just as there is nothing wrong with the construction of a city.
This is an argument which must be taken seriously. New technologies have always been adopted by Christians as a means of furthering the Gospel, even if they were (and are) used for wicked purposes as well. The printing press—which, as the first mass media technology, is the internet’s distant ancestor—provides an example of this. Although it is often put to evil use, no one would suggest that the technology itself is evil. So long as we avoid printing bad books, there is nothing wrong with using a printing press.
Modern Christians are, by and large, following this tradition with regards to the internet. In recent years, there have been many efforts to spread the Gospel using the web, some of which have met with resounding success. This being the case, it seems that we must concede the point and admit that, as a technology, the internet really is morally neutral.
All this being said, technology is never just technology. Aesthetic design goes hand in hand with the use of nearly every technology, and it is this quality which has the potential to form the soul. To understand this point, let us return to the analogy proposed above: The internet is like a city; websites are like buildings. What is involved in the creation of a building? There is engineering, of course—the walls must have the thickness and material strength necessary to support the ceiling. But there is also architecture, which must work in and through the technological design of the building, but which produces an aesthetic effect. All buildings are technological achievements, but they are also artistic achievements, and it is in this capacity that they can form the soul for good or ill. This is true for grand buildings like cathedrals and skyscrapers, but it is also true of much smaller spaces such as homes and shops. Even the minutiae make a difference. As Christopher Alexander, author of A Pattern of Language, stated in a 2016 First Things article:
The most urgent, and I think the most inspiring, way we can think about our buildings is to recognize that each small action we take in placing a step, or planting a flower, or shaping a front door of a building is a form of worship—an action in which we give ourselves up, and lay what we have in our hearts at the door of that fiery furnace within all things, which we may call God.
Following this line of thought, I would like to propose that a similar dynamic is at work with regards to the soul-forming capacity of websites—and, by extension, the internet as a whole. Websites, like buildings, are created using technology. Different pieces of code display different visual effects (colors, shapes, letters) and different interactive elements (hyperlinks, textboxes, videos). These elements are, taken by themselves, morally neutral, just like an archway is morally neutral. However, just like an archway, they have a purpose which is both functional and aesthetic (soul-forming).
This is not how we currently think about internet use. At present, we judge websites based on function and content. We know that online libraries are good and that porn sites are bad. However, if what I have said above is true, then the websites we visit are forming our souls, not merely by their content, but also through their design.
What, then, can we say about the design of websites and their effect on the soul? Here, once again, it is useful to think about architecture and work forward. I am, of course, not an architect, and so I can only operate on general impressions, but it seems to me that a great deal of architecture is determined by the specific purpose (or end) of a building. A home, for example, should be ordered toward building familial unity, while an office should be ordered toward productivity (in a prudent, non-utilitarian sense). Obviously, there is an almost infinite number of purposes for which a website can be built, and a full exposé of web design is beyond both the scope of this essay and the knowledge of this author. However, I think we can illustrate this dynamic by finding a few examples of truly good purposes for which the internet is used, and then thinking critically about whether or not the websites built for these purposes are achieving them.
The dissemination of news is an obvious example. Knowing what is going on in the world is a genuine good, and it is also good that this information can be delivered in a timely manner. To be sure, the internet is nothing if not timely. Yet are we truly well informed by the stories we read online? We might assume that this is the case. We might assume that the process of reading and digesting content online is no different than reading and digesting content offline. But we would be wrong.
In 2011, a group of doctoral candidates at the University of Oregon conducted a study that measured readers’ abilities to recall stories from the New York Times. Their results—published in a dissertation called “Medium Matters: Newsreaders’ Recall and Engagement with Online and Print Newspapers”—showed clearly that individuals who read the newspaper online recalled significantly less of what they saw, compared to individuals who read the print version. The internet may bring us the news at the speed of light, but something about our online habits makes it more difficult to focus and absorb what we are reading—with the result that we are less informed.
On this promise, at least, the internet has failed to deliver. Why is this? There are probably a dozen ways to answer this question, but for the purposes of this essay, I would like to focus on the role of advertising.
At first glance, this probably seems unimportant. After all, running ads in a newspaper is hardly new. Yet this is the point at which the technological capabilities of the internet and the way those capabilities have been widely employed in web design make themselves felt. To understand this dynamic, one need only consider the differences in behavior that are involved in reacting to a print ad versus an online ad.
Suppose, for a moment, that I am sitting in my living room reading a newspaper. I turn the page and see an ad which very much interests me—say, a sale on diapers at my local grocery store. How do I react? Do I leap out of my seat, throw on my coat, and go immediately to buy the diapers? It’s possible, of course, but not very likely. Probably, I will make a mental note of the sale and then continue reading the article. Yet now suppose I am reading the same newspaper online and I see the same ad. How do I respond? Do I file the information away in the back of my head and continue reading? Once again, this is possible, but not likely. Instead, I will probably click on the ad, thus instantly transporting me away from my reading and depositing me in a website designed for shopping. It is as if the living room where I quietly read my newspaper has a door which opens directly to a shopping mall. What is more, the transition between the two is so subtle that we often do not even realize it has occurred.
Nor do the problems stop here, for it does not take much to see that the ability for such a rapid transition changes the way both marketing and journalism are done. With a traditional newspaper, ad revenue is based on distribution. If a newspaper does not have good, engaging content, its readership will decline, and revenue with it. But this is not the case with online advertising. Online ads generate revenue based on how often they are clicked. An online ad, therefore, is not successful unless it distracts the viewer from the text he or she is trying to read. The result is inevitable. If an online newspaper wants to be profitable, they cannot produce content so engaging that no one ever clicks on the ads. Instead, the most profitable model is to have sensational, attention-grabbing headlines followed by mediocre content, which is, indeed, much of what we observe on the internet.
It is important to note that the problem outlined above is not caused by the technology, per se. Yes, web technology does provide the tools (hyperlinks, pop-ups) necessary to create such a distracting environment. But those tools could easily be used in a different way. Ads, for example, could be run without hyperlinks, or they could be placed at the end of an article rather than in the margins. These, however, are not the design choices we typically see, and so our distraction continues apace.
Nor is the problem I have outlined above restricted to advertising. Ads, due to the financial incentives which drive them, provide the most glaring example, but they are hardly the only source of distraction on websites. Let us return, once again, to our online newspaper article. In what other ways is our experience of reading changed by web technologies?
In his 2009 book The Shallows, author Nicholas Carr conducts a thoughtful analysis of this and other questions surrounding our online habits. His observations are astute. Regarding the use of the internet as a means of redistributing previously existing content, he notes:
Traditional media, even electronic ones, are being refashioned and repositioned as they go through the shift to online distribution. When the Net absorbs a medium, it re-creates that medium in its own image. It not only dissolves the medium’s physical form; it injects the medium’s content with hyperlinks, breaks up the content into searchable chunks, and surrounds the content with the content of all the other media it has absorbed. All these changes in the form of the content also change the way we use, experience, and even understand the content.
A poignant example of this dynamic can be seen on the website newadvent.org. To be sure newadvent.org has excellent and informative content and includes the entire Summa Theologica. Yet when New Advent publishes the Summa, it peppers the text with hyperlinks. At first glance, this may seem benign, and doubtlessly the creators of the website do not intend to distract us from the great work of the Angelic Doctor. Yet that is precisely the effect of using hyperlinks in this manner. As Mr. Carr observes:
Links are, in one sense, a variation on the textual allusions, citations, and footnotes that have long been common elements of documents. But their effect on us as we read is not at all the same. Links don’t just point us to related or supplemental works; they propel us toward them. Hyperlinks are designed to grab our attention. Their value as navigational tools is inextricable from the distraction they cause.
None of this is to say that hyperlinks are evil. They obviously have a place in a well-designed website. But that place is not in the middle of long bodies of text that require the focused attention of the viewer. To position them in such a way fundamentally works against the purpose the website is attempting to achieve—in this case, the transmission of knowledge.
Mr. Carr is quick to blame this problem on the technology itself. I disagree. The many misuses of the tools provided by the internet are not the fault of the technology. Rather, they are design choices. On this view, blaming the online environment of distraction on web technology makes no more sense than blaming brutalist architecture on the invention of concrete.
That being said, I can hardly blame Mr. Carr for mistaking the locus of the problem. The trouble is that, while bad design is not inherent to web technology, it is so prolific that it is hard to distinguish between the two. Hence, while what I have said refers to the design of websites, the issue is so widespread that I do not feel out of line in saying that the internet, as a whole, is designed for distraction. If the internet is a city, it is Las Vegas, with neon lights and advertising billboards carrying our minds in every imaginable direction. Yet the internet is worse, for in Las Vegas such distractions are present only on the street and in casinos. On the internet, by contrast, we find that advertising billboards and neon lights have crept inside of our churches and libraries. The resulting loss of focus is inevitable.
Make no mistake, this has spiritual implications. The use of a tool which is designed for distraction may not be a sinful act in and of itself, but that does not mean it is morally neutral. Remember that vices and virtues, according to both classical and Christian thinkers, are habits of action. This means that forming our souls for virtue is not merely a matter of avoiding individual instances of sin. Rather, it is a matter of constantly practicing the habits which make acting rightly an instinct.
Can we, then, frame the habits associated with the internet in terms of Christian vices and virtues? In the case outlined above, I believe we can. The internet may be new, but the devil has been distracting us for as long as anyone can remember. The monk Evagrius, writing in the 4th century AD, was acutely aware of this. In his writings on the “demon” of acedia, he notes that it “constrains the monk to look constantly out the windows, to walk outside the cell, to gaze carefully at the sun to determine how far it stands from the ninth hour, to look now this way and now that to see if perhaps one of the brethren appears from his cell.” We often think of the vice of acedia as being associated with laziness, but according to Evagrius, this is only half the story. The monk in the clutches of acedia is not merely lazy; he is spiritually listless. He cannot sit still, and so he busies himself with all sorts of tasks. But they are useless tasks, for they distract him from the one thing that is truly important: his relationship with God.
We who live in the digital age should take heed. The internet is designed for distraction, and we are foolish if we believe that the frequent use of it has no bearing on our habits. Rather, the more time we spend online, the more difficult we will find it to work in a diligent manner, to relate to friends and family, and, ultimately, to achieve focused meditation in prayer.
What, then, can we do about this? Whether we like it or not, the internet is, for many of us, a professional and social necessity. In an ideal world, we might all fly to the desert, even as Evagrius did. Most of us, however, feel that God is calling us to live in the world, and so we must reckon with the internet. How should we go about this?
In answer to this, I would like to offer three suggestions.
First, we should continue to think about the aesthetics of web design and their influence on the soul. What I have outlined on the preceding paragraphs regarding the misuse of hyperlinks and their relation to acedia is mostly by way of example. It accounts for only one element of web design and analyzes its influence on only one of our moral habits. It may be that this is the most common and most disastrous design flaw found on the internet, but I doubt that it is the only one. As such, we would do well to think critically about the aesthetics of web design and share our ideas with those of good faith. And, needless to say, once we have thought about it, we should put our ideas into practice in the websites we create. Paying attention to what we build will go a long way toward making the internet something better than it currently is.
Of course, we only control a relatively small portion of the web, and this brings me to my second suggestion: We should patronize good websites and avoid bad ones. This may seem obvious, but given what has been discussed above, it is revolutionary, for it means that the common dictate to “limit our screen time” says both too much and too little. Spending hours and hours on a website such as, say, the Christian Classic Ethereal Library (which has no advertising and no in-text links) may hurt your eyes, but it is in no way bad for your soul. The opposite is true for websites like Facebook and Twitter. The person who spends a lot of time on these websites, even with the best intentions, is bound to find himself building a habit of continuous distraction.
Lastly, we should be mindful of our actions while online. The social and professional functions which we perform on the internet often demand the use of specific websites, most of which are badly designed. If, however, we understand these design problems, then we can consciously avoid the habits they form. We can, for example, make the choice to read whole articles, even when other links pique our interest. To fight the demon of acedia, one of the Desert Fathers once told his monks, “Go, eat and drink and sleep, only do not leave your cell.” Perhaps if he were speaking today (to a more general audience), he would say, “Do not click the links.”
Christians have long understood the importance of architecture in nourishing a healthy society. We know that when the buildings in which we carry out our daily activities are well-designed, it helps form our souls for virtue. Yet our society, for better or for worse, is quickly transferring its activities from the physical realm to the digital one. We watch movies online instead of in theaters. We perform our daily work on the web rather than in offices. We shop in digital stores instead of physical ones.
This being the case, it is high time that we begin to pay attention to web design and how it affects us. The digital city in which we spend so much of our time is not designed to bring us closer to God. For this reason, we do well to flee from it when we have the opportunity. However, it is wishful thinking to believe that we can escape it entirely, and if we cannot escape it, then we must try to make it a place where people can encounter God—a place where they feel His presence even before they hear His Word. This will only happen when there is a change in the environment of the internet—when it becomes less distracting, less ephemeral, and more personal. It will happen, perhaps, when Christian web designers realize what Christian architects have long known: that all true art has its origin in God.
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