Recent musings in The Geneva Courier

As we began our year at Geneva, we held a “Great Conversation” on August 15 about technology and its impact on our school community. It was an enlightening evening with rewarding and informative comments from panelists and parents alike. We strive for excellence in all things at Geneva. We embrace the classical model, understanding that the beauty of this timeless mode of education is in its ability to prepare students to walk wisely in a modern world.
Recently in the Wall Street Journal, I read about one Johannes Trithemius, a fifteenth-century abbot of a monastery in Sponheim, Germany, about fifty miles from Gutenberg’s workshop where Bibles began to be printed a few years earlier. Trithemius was concerned by this new technology that allowed the mass production of Scripture. In 1492, he wrote that the work of the scribe producing manuscripts by hand gave “strength to words, memory to things, vigor to time.” He worried that the mass production of printed texts might replace scribes and the result would be that “faith would weaken … law would perish, Scripture fall into oblivion.”
In retrospect, such fears five centuries ago seem quaint. However, many would say that we now live in another such transitional era. The digital world expands at a dizzying rate. So much so that we cannot know how life in front of a screen will affect our children for whom this is becoming a normative experience. One writer laments childhood has become a “restless idleness,” while another says too many young people today suffer from “continuous partial attention.”
The WSJ wrote:
According to YouTube’s own statistics, users uploaded 100 hours of video for every minute of real time in 2013. That’s a “decade” of footage posted to the internet every single day. Google processes over 3.5 BILLION queries [my emphasis] daily while each American owns, on average, four digital devices. A 2013 report found that Americans aged 18–64 spend an average of 3.2 hours a day on social networking sites.
Yikes! Such statistics should indeed give us pause. What’s a parent to do? And too often these numbers find us guilty in our own usage of time and digital media. So do we throw everything away, unplug, and move to a cabin in the woods out of range of the nearest cell tower? With satellite communication, even this is unrealistic.
While we are at it, let’s admit something else. The constant barrage of media and images, scene changes every five seconds, and the urgent sense for constant connection too often create an increasing sense of insecurity in young people. The carefully photo-shopped and airbrushed images young people see in media create in too many of them a sense of self-loathing or worthlessness and create a need for constant affirmation that their images are “liked.” And of course the short attention span that all this creates makes patient reflection on big ideas and deeper meaning a diminishing (but still necessary) skill.
So it is worth some reflection that we must not lose … the art of reflection. In our age of constant distraction, we must be conscious and intentional to remain human and to think. To “muse” is to think, reflect, and to allow quiet reflection the opportunity to help us hear things we cannot hear amidst the cacophony of digital noise from multiple devices running simultaneously. Such reflection and quiet is essential to living a good life. The best writing happens after careful and patient thinking. The best photography requires waiting for the right moment; planning, setting up, and finally capturing the shot. The most beautiful music is produced after hours and hours of unrushed scales and slowly, patiently entering into the music being played. Some of the most crucial insights of faith and life are grasped slowly through extended, deliberate, and heartfelt conversation.
Reflection also requires quiet and solitude. But many people can’t abide quiet without becoming nervous and anxious. Wherever we go—walking, running (or artificially running on a stationary machine), riding in a moving vehicle—we see earbuds. There is “noise” to drown out the quiet. Bob Ingram at the Convocation chapel said this:
Sanctuaries are contemplative spaces protected from distractions of this busy, noisy world. They are deliberately quiet in order that we can perceive the still, small voice of God. Where is your sanctuary? Do you have a place reserved for silence, unencumbered by the myriad noises we clamor to hear? Do you have the will power to be still and know that he is God? Is it feasible for you to entertain the prospect of solitude, if only for a few fleeting moments each day? Do you know the sounds of silence? Does God have to compete for your attention or do you offer it to him as a joyful alternative to the cacophony of this world’s strident voices?
While writing this piece I dug out a well-worn and underlined copy of Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Show Business. It was written almost thirty years ago (1985), before email and internet went “viral.” Toward the end of the book, postulating about the growing use of computers, Postman said this:
A central thesis of computer technology—that the principal difficulty we have in solving problems stems from insufficient data—will go unexamined. Until, years from now, when it will be noticed that the massive collection and speed-of-light retrieval of data have been of great value to large-scale organizations but have solved very little of importance to most people and have created at least as many problems for them as they may have solved (Postman, 161).
Postman’s foresight was remarkable. If we accept that his term “computer technology” includes the whole spectrum of digital devices he could not have imagined, we may quibble about whether they have solved important personal challenges. But there is no question that our media-saturated twenty-first-century digital life has spawned numerous unforeseen problems. My point here is that as our children mature into adulthood in this environment, we will do well to seek intentional ways to live out a “good life,” working diligently against some of the unintended problems of technological life.
We must help our children grow as humans, not merely as able manipulators of technology. We must help them learn to relate as human beings one to another, not merely to stay “connected” through the latest app. We must encourage authentic social interaction rather than allowing students to rely too completely on the artificial social media realm where it is too easy to create a persona that does not reflect who they really are.
This ultimately lies behind our big goal of shaping the loves our students will develop during their years here at Geneva. Will they love things that advance their unique qualities as a humans being created in God’s image, or will they settle for merely loving the way a device connects them to some level of cyber-reality? Will they be able to converse in a beautiful and articulate manner, or will they settle for texting abbreviated thoughts with emoticons? Our students will certainly and quite naturally adapt to technological innovation. It is the way of things. Our forbearers adapted to the horseless carriage, the radio, and air travel. This older guy now often communicates via text message and email. I will even, in all likelihood (and with no small level of irony), post the content of this article on my blog (mikebeates@wordpress.com).
Yet while we adapt to and use technology for our benefit, we cannot allow it to corrode our humanity. The “good life” will always be a human and fleshly, real, relational venture. It cannot be achieved through avatars and substitutionary lives in a cyber-world. May we have wisdom not to exchange what is real and good for what is temporary and a mere distraction from the good. May God give us grace to balance the benefits of technology with the gift of being fully human.

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