Chesterton Unplugged

Liberating Ourselves from "E-Slavery"

Editor’s Note: This article, by Christopher Check, first appeared in the June 2007 edition of The Angelus magazine.

In the northwest corner of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, the Keweenaw Peninsula reaches some 70 miles out into the world's largest body of fresh water, Lake Superior. Hearing the name of one of Keweenaw's little villages, Laurium, should make the heart of any Notre Dame grad race. Laurium is the home of George Gipp–"The Gipper"–who, during his 4-year, 32-game career, scored no fewer than 83 touchdowns. Of those 32 games, the Fighting Irish lost only two. The name Laurium should fire the imaginations of Hellenophiles, as well, and also stir the souls of classicists, lovers of ancient history, and all citizens of Western civilization.  

In 483 B.C., Herodotus tells us, a tribe of independent-minded folks called Athenians discovered silver in another Laurium, a small town southeast of Athens on the Aegean coast. A smart Athenian named Themistocles convinced his fellow citizens to use the Laurium silver to finance the building of a great navy. Four years later, that navy defeated the much larger Persian fleet at the battle of Salamis. Without that victory, the Greeks would have been swallowed up by the Persian Empire. Instead, freedom flowered in Attica, and all that is great and graceful in the West was born.

There is no silver in Laurium, Michigan, but it is rich in copper. A century ago, copper boomed so big in the region that two trains a day traveled over 400 miles from Chicago to Laurium's neighbor, Calumet. In 1895, when the city fathers incorporated Laurium, they honored their mining heritage by naming their village after a great town in mining history. Not long ago, even American mining plutocrats read Herodotus, maybe even in Greek, and they understood America as a legacy of Greece and Rome.  

A century later, that legacy has been displaced by something more shallow and sinister. In the summer of 2005, American astronomers claimed to have discovered a tenth planet. The discoverers of this new planet, like the city fathers of Laurium 110 years before, had an opportunity to name something. They named the planet "Xena" after the immodestly clad female lead in the television series Xena: Warrior Princess.  

In 1895, Michigan copper barons named their mining village after an ancient Greek mining village central to the story of the West. In 2005, NASA astronomers named a giant ball of something in outer space after a character in a television program that five years from now will be forgotten. What happened?

Television happened.  

The Lure of Television

Luring Western man to lose interest in his history, thus forgetting who he is, is only one of television's harmful effects. Nearly as ubiquitous today are newer machines of modern information technology, chiefly the computer and its attendant devices that exacerbate the social and moral chaos that began with television. These machines promise freedom when, in fact, they enslave us. They dissolve tradition. Rather than strengthening human relationships, they render them more abstract. They encourage isolation. They divorce us from reality. They make the truth hard to uncover. They serve as obstacles to our relationship with the Divine.

These effects are interrelated and demand more lengthy and careful treatment than a single essay can provide. Nonetheless, the observations of G. K. Chesterton on technology and on the systems of communication in his own day provide a point of departure for confronting the effects of modern communication technology, the machines and systems which we have embraced with so much enthusiasm and so little examination.  

English historian Christopher Dawson, who attributed his conversion to Chesterton's Everlasting Man, considered at length the social, cultural, and political effects of technology. He concluded that technology had replaced classical liberalism, which had replaced Christianity, as the thing that managed modern human life. Russell Hittinger in "Christopher Dawson on Technology and the Demise of Liberalism," cites correspondence from a British Army officer serving in India in 1870:  

Railways are opening the eyes of the people who are within reach of them....They teach them that time is worth money, and induce them to economize that which they had been in the habit of slighting and wasting; they teach them that speed attained is time, and therefore money, saved or made....Above all they induce in them habits of self-dependence causing them to act for themselves and not lean on others.

"What is striking about this statement," writes Hittinger, is that the machine is regarded as the proximate cause of the liberal virtues; habits of self-dependence are the effect of the application of a technology. The benighted peoples of the subcontinent are to be civilized, not by reading Cicero, not by conversion to the Church of England, not even by adopting the liberal faith, but by receiving the discipline of trains and clocks. The machine is both the exemplar and the proximate cause of individual and cultural perfection.

Like the train in 1870 India, the personal computer and its related paraphernalia and systems have become both the model and the cause of human behavior. E-mail, the Internet, the World Wide Web, text messaging, iPods, pda's, mp3's, cellular phones, and the rest manage modern human life. The people at Apple Computers call the whole business "iLife." A better word, coined by my colleague Aaron Wolf, is "eSlavery."

The Dominance of Computers

Computers run our offices and our homes. Few, if any, professions can be pursued today without computers, and even young school children are expected to use them. Computers have boosted to escape-velocity the new religion called time management, a modern religion because it is a billion dollar industry, and because it promises self-fulfillment, leisure, and freedom.

Chesterton saw technology's false promise of leisure for what it truly was. Writing on March 21, 1925, in the Illustrated London News, he identified technology's chief dangers.  

But there is another strong objection which I, one of the laziest of all the children of Adam, have against the Leisure State. Those who think it could be done argue that a vast machinery using electricity, water-power, petrol, and so on, might reduce the work imposed on each of us to a minimum. It might. But it would also reduce our control to a minimum. We should ourselves become parts of a machine, even if the machine only used those parts once a week. The machine would be our master, for the machine would produce our food, and most of us could have no notion of how it was really being produced.

To Chesterton, the two chief effects of technology are: one, it controls human behavior even as it appears to promise freedom (as with the clocks and trains leading to self-dependence), and two, it displaces and eventually replaces human acts. C. S. Lewis would draw the same conclusion in The Abolition of Man, where he identified three technologies–the airplane, the wireless radio, and the contraceptive–that promise freedom, but which, in practice, give a few men control of the lives of many men.

Anyone who has received an e-mail and felt the obligation to respond and respond quickly, knows that it is difficult to confine the computer to role of tool and not allow it to become master. Anyone who has surfed the Internet and then wondered where the last 90 minutes went knows that computers can lead us around in far more subtle and dangerous ways than merely managing our schedules or obligating us to correspond.

Chesterton's Leisure State machine illustrates how a technology creates a dependence on itself: The machine erases human knowledge and understanding by taking over the human acts through which skill, knowledge, tradition, understanding, and belief are preserved and transmitted. Technology is the solvent of tradition. In Chesterton's example, practical knowledge in the realm of food production handed down from one generation to the next is dissolved in the machine.

Failing to Calculate the Human Cost

Much is made of the output of modern agriculture with little thought of the human cost. "People who get too far from fundamental things," wrote Chesterton, "from ploughing and reaping and rearing children, lose something that is never restored by any progress or civilization." We grow distant from these fundamental things as our relationship to them is altered by modern machines. In the realm of information technology the problem is acute. Watching a baseball game on television is not the same experience as attending one at the local park. It is a lesser one because it is more abstract. For the same reason, listening to a symphony on an iPod is not the same as hearing it in a concert hall. It is worth reflecting on the fact that the greatest music in history was not written to be recorded, let alone to be corrupted into a ringtone.  

Not only do the devices of modern communication technology render our relationships with human experiences more abstract, they render these experiences more impersonal. Travelers once recorded their adventures with some carefully chosen prose, maybe even some verse, accompanied by a sketch or two scratched on the plain white stock of a journal page. The result was at least a treasured keepsake, perhaps a family heirloom, possibly an historical document. The camera fundamentally changed how we record our adventures, and not only by replacing the once common skill of drawing. As the film camera rendered drawing obsolete, it has, in turn, been rendered obsolete by the digital camera, which has all but removed, so far as the amateur is concerned, any artistic, that is, personal, quality associated with photography. Once constrained by the cost of film and processing, a photographer would take some care to compose a picture. He no longer needs to. With a digital camera he can carelessly snap away. Similarly, the traveler need not take any care in logging his impressions. He can spew them into a digital recorder instead of writing them down. But the act is less personal, and less meaningful. Shoeboxes, to say nothing of hard drives, full of photographic images that are rarely if ever looked at testify to the truth that without limits there can be no joy. 

When we do write, it is not with a pen. Two generations ago, middle-school students learned calligraphy. American school children today devote some time to handwriting but spend a great deal more time in front of computers, which have fundamentally altered the human act of writing. In front of a computer, writing can be an endless series of fits, starts, and revisions. Writing with a pen, or even a typewriter, requires coherent, measured thinking, at least a paragraph at a time.  

It is fitting that we no longer call it writing. When "word processing" first appeared, it promised easy revision and with that, better prose, but our own time has not produced a Shakespeare or a Dickens or a Chesterton. Nor does any evidence exist that the common American today writes with more clarity and style than did previous generations who had no word processors.

The Decline of Correspondence

The evidence suggests that the opposite is true. E-mail, where punctuation, capitalization, salutations, and spelling have been abandoned, and text messaging, with its deliberately misspelled shorthand, and Internet "chat rooms," are damaging not only literacy, but also human social interaction. Office colleagues and family members hide behind e-mail messages to avoid face-to-face meetings concerning disagreements, and the haste with which e-mail is dispatched often exacerbates social conflict. Adolescents today prefer text messaging to the telephone, a device that replaced written correspondence and face-to-face conversation. Even social sins have become more abstract as today's teenagers seduce one another using suggestive text messages.

Historians should mourn the loss of the art of correspondence, replaced by the vulgarity and sloppiness of e-mail. Letters were once a significant primary source document. When the historians of the future look back at our own time they will have to sift through millions of blogs written by people whose vanity has convinced them that the whole of cyberworld is interested in their shopping and sexual habits. Confronted with so much data, the historians of the future will discover something terrible about modern times, something Chesterton knew almost a century ago: "The world has discovered how to say everything, everywhere at the very moment in all history when it has nothing to say."

"An Englishman can communicate with Manhattan by wireless," wrote Chesterton "and he may yet communicate with Mars by wireless; and, in both cases, nothing remains but the deeper and darker problem of thinking of something to say." And again, "It is the beginning of all true criticism of our time to realize that it has really nothing to say, at the very moment when it has invented so tremendous a trumpet for saying it."

Nothing to say with every means to say it. Walk through an airport and count the cellphone users. Turn on Fox News for yet another non-update update on that poor girl who went missing in Aruba. Scan the "Corner" at National Review Online to see what juvenilia Jonah Goldberg and his colleagues are offering. Dial up, where posters with screen names like BlackElk, Antigov, and Beaversmom weigh in on the latest Ann Coulter outrage or Rush Limbaugh scandal. Common among the citizens of cyberworld is the mistaken belief that they have something meaningful and effective to say and that their "participating in the process" is achieving some good.  

The opposite is true. "There never was a time in history when the few counted for so much, and the many for so little," wrote Chesterton, almost a century ago. Modern communication technology has made the problem worse by creating the illusion that its media are a force for democratic good. After more than a decade, the returns on the World Wide Web as a mechanism for political or social change for the good might be discerned by counting up the number of pro-life websites ("pro-life" typed into the Google search engine yields 8.8 million pages). Has there been a correlated drop in the number of abortions? If the Internet has decentralized political life, why did the last presidential election offer two pro-war, pro-free trade, pro-big government, pro-immigration candidates? 

The ideas of the minority of bloggers who do have something to say are lost in the relentless pursuit of novelty that is at the core of the medium's nature. Their thoughts are rendered old the moment they are posted. The World Wide Web is both the exemplar and the cause of our demand for novelty. Nonetheless, as Chesterton observed, "the very fury with which people go on seeking pleasures is a proof that they have not found it." And in The Napoleon of Notting Hill he wrote, "It is of the new things that men tire...of fashions and proposals and improvements and change." Even as we tire of the novelties of the Web we desperately seek more of them: the next page, the next post.  

Fueling Addiction

The World Wide Web's 15-billion-dollar pornography trade feeds off the addict's slavery to novelty. Since he cannot love one woman for life, he calls up from the machine an ever greater variety and number of imaginary lovers, yet he is inevitably left tired and unsatisfied. With its false promise of infinite content, the Internet has magnified the pathology of the television remote control. Once the man on the couch was confined to his hundred or so cable channels, which he flipped through–hope triumphing over experience–that he would find something to satisfy. He had the illusion that he was in control, but the thing being controlled remotely was he. So it is all the more with the web browser with its promise of something new and untried and instantly around the corner. "Living in a world that worships swiftness and success no longer means living in a world of new things," wrote Chesterton, "Rather it means living in a world of old things; of things that very swiftly grow old. The actual sensation of novelty lasts for a much shorter time than it does in a world where there are fewer sensations." Our desire for novelty is only increased by the proliferation of machines that promise it.

The synergy between modern communication technology and novelty is one reason why media such as the World Wide Web and television are doubtful agents for beneficial social or political change. Even the best content online or on the television swiftly grows old and is forgotten. The Bill O'Reilly fan whose blood boils when his hero exposes the latest cultural outrage should try to remember what it was that O'Reilly was in a lather about the week before, or the day before.  

"Men invent new ideals," wrote Chesterton, "because they dare not attempt old ideals. They look forward with enthusiasm, because they are afraid to look back." Novelty undermines our sense of our history, which takes work to uncover, work to preserve, work to pass on (Chesterton called education the "soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another"), and history does not always go down easily. Rather than uncover the real past (Galileo was an arrogant pain in the neck who did not know when to shut up), we make up a false past (The Catholic Church was a wicked institution that suppressed science and learning).

Because of its power of visual images, especially moving ones, to suggest, modern communication technology makes easy the fabrication of a false history. Read enough books and you could learn the truth. Watch the movie and imbibe the version that the man who made the movie has contrived for his audience. Writing in The Well and the Shallows on the very question, Chesterton wrote:

My contempt boils over into bad behaviour when I hear the common suggestion that a birth is avoided because people want to be "free" to go to the cinema or buy a gramophone or a loud-speaker. What makes me want to walk over such people like doormats is that they use the word "free." By every act of that sort they chain themselves to the most servile and mechanical system yet tolerated by men. The cinema is a machine for unrolling certain regular patterns called pictures; expressing the most vulgar millionaires' notion of the taste of the most vulgar millions. The gramophone is a machine for recording such tunes as certain shops and other organisations choose to sell. The wireless is better; but even that is marked by the modern mark of all three; the impotence of the receptive party. The amateur cannot challenge the actor; the householder will find it vain to go and shout into the gramophone; the mob cannot pelt the modern speaker, especially when he is a loud-speaker. It is all a central mechanism giving out to men exactly what their masters think they should have."

"The impotence of the receptive party." The phrase perfectly describe man's servile relationship with the images and sounds of the carefully prepared media of modern communication technology, media that create an alternate history and consequent alternate reality.

Last spring, my wife and I took our four boys to Chicago for the day. We rode the double-decker bus around the city admiring the unusual buildings that make up what must be America's most magnificent skyline. Our guide, however, was thin on Chicago history. Much of his patter included bits and pieces on America's number one TV personality: Oprah. Where Oprah lives. Where Oprah tapes her show. Where Oprah shops. Where Oprah walks her dog. Where Oprah eats.

Movies and the Corruption of Our History

The balance of the tour was movies. As we passed the Wrigley Building, we learned that this is where Tom Hanks went to visit somebody or other in a movie called Road to Perdition. On a bridge over the Chicago River is where Sandra Bullock kissed so and so in While You Were Sleeping. Off the Marina Towers Steve McQueen drove a car into the Chicago River in the Bounty Hunter. Across the square with the ugly Picasso sculpture ran Dan Akroyd and Jim Belushi in The Blues Brothers. Under Wacker Drive took place the chase scene in Batman Beyond. (One sure sign of our impoverished age: Aeschylus had Homer for a muse; Shakespeare had Plutarch; today's filmmakers draw their inspiration from comic books.)

"My friend!" I wanted to call out to the guide. "These things did not happen. These are movies. They are not real! Is there no Chicago history more captivating than a Sandra Bullock chick flick? Of course there is: there were gangsters and graft, bootlegging, slaughterhouses that were a menace to public health and cops cracking the heads of political protesters with their nightsticks. There was a great fire and a skyline that rose phoenix-like out of its ashes!"

Our history is fabricated by "the most vulgar millionaires" in Hollywood and all too readily consumed by "the most vulgar millions." Moving images so influence or lives that we conform our tastes, our clothes, our manners, our behavior after that of our favorite stars. People name their children after movie characters or sports celebrities. People read the books that Oprah, a television star, tells them to. Once the people who recommended books were teachers or librarians.  

Some Americans are perpetually starring in the movie about their own lives. To provide the soundtrack to the fantasy, man has devised the iPods. On March 14, 2006, writing in the Chicago Tribune, a Kevin Pang wrote a "Requiem for an iPod" the hard drive of which had crashed. With melancholy Kevin recalled all the "good times" he and his iPod shared: the time that he "jogged along the lake shore with Outkast blaring its deep South brand of hip hop"; the time he escaped the chatter of office life aided by Coldplay. His iPod helped him ignore the panhandlers on the streets of Chicago. In other words, his iPod abstracted him from the reality of the waves of Lake Michigan, the drudgery of office life, and the tragedy of a beggar, and provided an alternate reality.  

For Chesterton the machines of modern media present two dangers. One, because our participation in them is passive, before these technologies ours is a posture of suggestibility. Two, their content is centrally produced, and our participation in them is passive. The World Wide Web, we are told, is the antidote. Its content comes from all over the place. There may be 40 million distinct websites. Can these offer the means for us to bypass the notions of the vulgar millionaires so that we can get at the good, the beautiful, and the true?  

So far, they have not. Far from making the truth more available, the Internet has made it more difficult to find. Far from stopping gossip, it has accelerated it as the barrage of forwarded e-mails spreading urban legends testifies. (My favorite: Traveling businessmen are being seduced by women who drug them in their hotel rooms and harvest their kidneys.)  

"It actually takes the truth a very long time to trickle through," Chesterton said, "the tangle of rumors and reports, in spite of all the supposed promptitude and practicality of modern communications." His criticism was leveled at a press that still maintained a system of editing and fact checking. No such system regulates the World Wide Web. In Eugenics and other Evils, he wrote:

The quicker goes the journalist, the slower go his thoughts. The result is the newspaper of our time, which every day can be delivered earlier and earlier, and which everyday is less worth delivering at all."

Chesterton accused the journalists of his day of a "blind idolatry of speed." What judgment, we should ask, would Chesterton render upon blogs, chat rooms, write backs, and other fora of the World Wide Web? These operate at a pace infinitely faster than the dailies of G.K.'s day, a pace that might best be described as angelic–or is it demonic?–that is, instantaneously, altogether unrestricted by time and space.

The moment I can think a thought, or think something that should not be called a thought, I can spew it into cyberspace, with no consideration or contemplation of whether it is worth saying, to say nothing of whether it is truly good or edifying.

What Have We Lost in the Process?

Maybe I recognize so much of the Web's partisan politics chatter is at once a great din and a great void. Instead, what if my focus is the state of the Church? That's good, right? There are ample blogs for me to spend my hours lamenting the troubled state of the Bark of Peter. I can sound off on the wicked Archbishop's affair with his partner, or the seminaries that seem more like brothels. I can read and forward to others the dirty details of the scandalous past of the founder of such and such religious congregation, or comment on a magazine editor's marital infidelity. Perhaps I'm above that prurience. If so, I can weigh in on the obvious failure of the Holy See to reconcile with this or that traditionalist society. Or I can blame the hardheadedness of the leaders of that society for failing to reconcile with Rome. No matter my brand of curiosity, there's a place for me on the web.  

In all of my participation, however, I will have failed to realize that the medium of so much chatter has helped to transform the Church into a movement. I'm part of that movement, and I'm going to do something in that movement. I have forgotten that the Church is an institution created by Jesus Christ for the care of souls, and I have forgotten that for that supernatural aid, I should be first in line.

St. Augustine identified this human failing long ago, in Book Ten of his Confessions. He called it lust of the eyes. Our desire to know about things that in the end only drive us further from the Divine because they crowd our imaginations when our imaginations should be filled with the contemplation of God. As long as I stay plugged into the noise, the flashing images, and the gossip, I do not risk facing the terrifying silence during which I would be forced to confront that which is most real–the state of my interior life. If my iPod headphones are blaring, I need not acknowledge the supplication of the beggar. If my iPod headphones are blaring, I will not recognize the beggar that my soul would seem if I could see it as God does.  

The highest human act is prayer because it is union with God. It requires, as Monsignor Romano Guardini points out, "collectedness." This requires silence and a capacity for silence. Like Elijah we need to be silent to hear God's whispers, but the din of so much electronic noise has pushed God out. "We need to find God," said Mother Teresa, "and He cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence."

Our sanctuaries, especially if we belong to a megachurch, are really auditoriums for sound and light shows. Catholics who think they have escaped this curse should recall that the Novus Ordo is made possible by and driven by the microphone.

Two decades ago, well before the pace of electronic communication reached the frenzy of today, the Holy See's Congregation for Catholic Education expressed grave concern over the formation of young seminarians reared in a culture of "constant acceleration...of instantaneous communication." A 1986 Vatican document, Guide to the Training of Future Priests Concerning the Instruments of Social Communication, noted that

[i]n the past few decades, the instruments of social communication have come to the point of exercising an enormous and profound influence on practically every aspect, sector and relationship of society."

While acknowledging that sins against chastity were a considerable part of the culture of modern communication, the document went on to declare that treatment of the "moral aspects of Mass Media should not be reduced to a consideration merely of sexual morality." The document identified more fundamental human costs of too much electronic visual and auditory stimuli, and stated the need in seminarian formation to find "remedies for past excessive use or misuse of the mass media....As an antidote to time-wasting and sometimes even alienating indulgence in superficial media programmes," the document proposed that the students should be guided to the love and practice of reading, study, silence, and meditation. They should be encouraged, and be provided with the necessary conditions for community dialogue and prayer. This will serve to remedy the isolation and self-absorption caused by the unidirectional communication of the mass media, and will revive the authentic and absolute value proper to the Christian profession and the priestly ministry, particularly those of obedience and evangelic poverty, which the materialist and consumerist vision of human existence offered by the instruments of social communication very often rejects or ignores. 

The document prescribed as a corrective to the social malformation modeled and caused by modern communications, that the students be trained to engage in frequent interpersonal and group conversation, in which they will give special attention to correctness of language, clearness of exposition and logical argumentation. This will serve as a corrective to the passivity which can be occasioned by the unidirectional communications and images of the mass media.

Addressing the deepest matter, the document required that the students should be educated in interior silence, necessary for the spiritual as well as the intellectual life, and to shut out the enervating din of the daily clamouring media of communications.

In confronting the dangers of modern communication technology, Christians can never be without hope. Chesterton reminds us that there are "no bad things, only bad uses of things." He also wrote: “None of the modern machines, none of the modern paraphernalia...have any power except over the people who choose to use them.”

Thus, we should take seriously his counsel that “[it] is always hard to correct the exaggeration without exaggerating the correction.”

Do Something Radical

Do something radical. Throw your iPod, your PDA, and your cell phone in the nearest river. Check your e-mail once or twice a day, and do not check it at home. Wait a few days before answering an e-mail. Use formal salutations and closings when writing e-mails. Do not send an e-mail when the matter can be discussed face to face. Do not use e-mail for thank-you notes. Set your home free from broadband Internet access. Do not answer the phone after 8pm. Stop downloading songs from iTunes. Throw your television in the street.

Fill the space and quiet you have created with things that never grow old: the Mass, the Divine Office, Holy Hours before the Blessed Sacrament. Read and shop for good books. Learn calligraphy or how to draw. Learn the guitar and some folk songs. Learn John Henry about the man who died in a heroic contest with a machine.

If you must go online and participate in chat groups, use your real name. Anything else is a deception. Look things up online on Tuesdays and Thursdays only, or Mondays and Wednesdays. Before dialing up the Internet recite a prayer consecrating your time online to the work of God.  

Write letters. Writing a letter is an incarnational act. So is drawing a cathedral, or a piazza, or a landscape in your travel journal–even if it's done badly. "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly," wrote Chesterton. 

Chesterton said:

An army cannot march on forever when its communications are cut and it has lost touch with its base. In the human army, the communications are called traditions, and the base is what the romantics called nature; the real world that God made for men."

Modern electronic communication technology has dissolved our traditions and abstracted the real world. We have more means than ever to communicate, but they have only made it more difficult for us to communicate with our history, our traditions, with one another, and with God.