Prayer of the Heart in an Age of Technology and Distraction, Part 4
By Fr. Maximos (Constas)
Growing up we used to read newspapers in the house, and now they’re harder to find. The rise of the internet has had a very negative impact on journalism. The text of the newspaper is literally surrounded by advertisements, all of them literally screaming for your attention. There are ever-new methods of attracting your attention. It’s a struggle just to focus on the text in front of you, and I think that the result of this is to scatter our attention, to diffuse our concentration, and to blunt the quality of our awareness and perception. It’s very hard to focus now. It was never easy to focus, but it’s harder than ever now because of the technologies that we’re talking about.
I read a book called The Tyranny of E-mail. The argument was that language is a very beautiful and profound thing. The ability that we have as humans to communicate with one another is a fascinating, mysterious, and beautiful. Think about the desert fathers—“give a word”—not “text me a message”—but bring forth a word from your inner depth so that I might receive something life-giving. This book argues that email debases communications and imposes very narrow constraints on both the sender and receiver, by reducing communication to a very narrow medium, and a certain number of words. You send me an email and I feel the pressure to respond. You probably felt pressured to send me something. Now in the corporate world if you don’t respond within eleven seconds, the studies say, you run the risk of insulting someone or losing a contract. Communication is now being forced—we’re forced to say things we wouldn’t normally say at all, or at least say otherwise. We’re forced to respond prematurely and thoughtlessly. I don’t need to spell all of this out because it’s a part of our experience now.
“Elder, give us a word.”
Think about speech, language, logos—there’s something about the word and our words that are innately connected to God Himself Who is the Word. Soul speaks to soul through the medium of language. In the life of St. Symeon the New Theologian it says that when he was done reading from Scripture he would press his eyes to the page to touch the words on the page of the book, as you see people do with icons. The words are icons, verbal representations of meanings. We’ve lost that sensitivity because words and language have been debased, largely due to the technologies that we’re talking about here. Think about the Socratic Method and the whole idea of doing philosophy through conversation, through dialogue, that is dia-logos. For Socrates and Plato the idea was that truth was something much more democratic, that two or more had to come together and through this dialogos, through the give and take of ideas, the logos of truth would emerge. It’s much more beautiful, like a Synod in a sense. We don’t say that any one Church Father is the beginning and end of all things. It’s in the conciliar process that the word of truth can emerge or arise.
During Lent we read the prayer of St. Ephraim eight times a day and it says “give me not a spirit of idle chatter”; and what is so much of our communication electronically if not a lot of idle chatter? The gadgets we have enable a lot of communication, but what is the nature of what is being communicated; what is the quality? It’s often the case that less is more, and more is something nothing at all.
In a book by Mark Bowerlin called The Dumbest Generation he reports that the shift to reading online has begun to impact the way we read. We don’t read the words in a book in the same way as on a screen. Book reading means moving the eye from right to left, line by line by line. That’s not how we read information on a computer screen where the pattern is more f-shaped, where you look for a heading and then jump down and the eye goes into the paragraph—which is why everything is bulleted now. Perhaps part of it is simply the sheer quantity of data that we have to get through every day. But try going back and reading a book after that. For those of you who work with younger people you’ll see that this linear way of reading has been compromised and it’s difficult for many younger people to sit down with a book somewhere quietly and read through it. For one, it requires enough of an attention span, and much of what they are learning simply militates against that.
~ “Prayer of the Heart in an Age of Technology and Distraction” delivered by Fr. Maximos (Constas) on Feb. 2014 to the clergy of diocese of LA and the West of Antiochian of N. America at the invitation of His Eminence Metropolitan Joseph. The audio version of this lecture first appeared on Patristic Nectar Publications, and is published here by permission.
Fr. Maximos is the presidential research scholar at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of theology in Brookline, MA. He is an Athonite monk, one-time professor at Harvard Divinity School, accomplished author and translator and lectures internationally in both academic and parochial venues.