The Catholic Thing
Digital Acedia Print E-mail
By David Warren   
Saturday, 29 June 2013

There is something eerie about all the “smartphones” in the environment just now. This is almost a groaner pun, for some of the effect is supplied by the little wire into the ear bud. The rest comes from the intent look on most faces, the thumbs pushing industriously on tiny virtual keyboards.

Gentle reader will guess I do not own one of these things; at least not yet. He should also realize that my observation comes chiefly from riding trolleys, still provided along Torontos most clogged streets, inside which We The People are not only packed like sardines, but cooked in the tin through summer.

I want to be Thomist about this, and give my enemy the best argument possible. There is something impressive in those of all classes, able to zone out of commuter misery with the help of a small hand-held device; able almost to ignore their too numerous physical neighbors. I will swear before a commercial tribunal that people who are plugged into smartphones perspire less than those who are not.

And for all I know they are all immersed in public prayer websites; perhaps following the days liturgical texts, and using their thumbs to tweet back the Responses. Frankly, I doubt this, and yet the faces look sometimes almost holy in their concentration. More often they look ridden with anxiety.

Once upon a time – nearly two score years have passed – I was often riding a commuter train from outer to inner London. It was also fairly stuffed with humanity, and I was impressed by the number reading books, magazines, and awkward broadsheet newspapers. The habit of reading in transit had, even then, mostly disappeared from North America.

North Americans are, of course, rather easily impressed. A closer view of titles revealed the downmarket trend in what almost everyone in London was in fact reading. Sludge and escapism dominated the field. And yet The Times – which still had a wingspan of thirty-four inches – also had posters on the railway platforms with the defiant slogan: “Slip into something less comfortable.”

The terms “sludge” and “escapism” are vague, or “indeterminate,” as an old Jesuit friend would say (for he used the word once in every paragraph). There is “evolution” even within popular literature. For example, back then in the 1970s, lewdness was still shocking. Pornography was still frowned upon around the entire planet, and at least some effort would be devoted to its concealment.

On the bright side, I am reliably informed by contacts in the publishing industry that the pornographers who flourished in the intervening decades have taken a terrible hit from technology, similar to what daily newspapers have taken, and perhaps worse. For now that everyone can get pornography free on the Internet, no one wants to pay for it.

There are silver linings in every sulphur cloud, if I understand my chemistry. Digital technology has made our world “interactive,” freed us from passive attention to the written word. This may well have proved a moral and intellectual catastrophe, in the main, but there are still features to be praised by the adepts of “progress.” One may now call a taxi with three keystrokes, for instance.

       The Devil makes work for idle hands.

Or consider the bystanders, now wired. There is hard empirical evidence (I am told by some dubious web authority) that as the number of bystanders increases, the likelihood that any will come to the aid of a person in distress decreases. Indeed the modern city, or rather conurbation, offers many illustrations of inverse proportion laws.

But lo, todays bystanders come with the portable electronic means to call the fire trucks and squad cars and ambulances. And they do, because its easy, and hardly anyone will notice them doing so. Which is perhaps why we hear sirens constantly in the background.

And as urban life becomes ever more like the scenes in that fine old movie, Blade Runner, we may look forward to a daily Baghdad of terror hits on supermarkets, cinemas, transit vehicles and the like. Fear not, technology will save us: for we will also have smartphone apps to call down drone strikes on the perpetrators in live time.

Perhaps Im getting carried away. Im sure only the cops will have these smartphone apps. The rest of us will have to hack into their system.

“Acedia” was actually the topic for todays little sermon – and how it mimics industry, better and better over time. There were subtle points to make on all the Seven Deadly Sins, which once filled thick codices of meticulously inscribed manuscript pages. None was then, none is now, more subtle than Acedia.

Not, objectively, a sin to rank with pride, it is nevertheless the great debilitator. The word is poorly translated as “idleness” or “sloth,” as every good Catholic will know. Ennui might be a better portal for modern understanding. Tristesse is another French way in. Acedia begins in a certain morbid sadness, which grows by increments into despair. And since Hope, in the capital singular, is at the centre of Christian virtue, Despair is verily the killing evil, providing direct access to Hell.

The joyless workaholic is on that slippery slope. Not so the man who is idle, contemplative, prayerful, and content. But for centuries, since at least the Reformation, the Devil has been working on a false dichotomy between work and leisure, persuading us that busy-ness has virtue as an end in itself. This has proved an excellent stratagem for our enslavement.

That “the Devil makes work for idle hands” is a more subtle and paradoxical proverb than may be supposed. I think of it in the trolley, when I see every hand earnestly clutching a “device,” and the thumbs working away upon them  and almost every face intent, but joyless; indifferent alike to God and (non-virtual) neighbor.

“Who, whom?” the nasty Bolsheviks used to ask. Whose “breakthrough” is this technological revolution? To whom do the benefits accrue, of our vastly enhanced, digital Acedia?

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist with the Ottawa Citizen. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at:
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (8)Add Comment
written by Deacon Ed Peitler, June 29, 2013
I have had the pleasure of sitting in a counseling session with a professional person paying me good money for my services only to have him interrupt what we were discussing (purportedly something important to his life) so that he could respond to a text he had just received. No one can tell me the masses are not being drugged with apps.
written by Carol Woosley, June 29, 2013
Long before then advent of personal electronic devices, e. e. cummings succinctly described the hopelessness of modern busyness in his 1944 sonnet, "pity this busy monster manunkind not." In another poem he describes the joyful euphoria of born-again faith: " I thank you God for most this amazing". If these two poems won't motivate us to act with the compassion of the New Evangelization, what would?
written by Karen LH, June 29, 2013
Well, I don't know: it depends on how you use the things. I'm a housewife, so I don't commute, but I use my iPhone at Mass to follow along with the readings, use it as an ebook reader, and read books or articles when waiting in a doctor's office (if I can concentrate over the distraction of the omnipresent television). And there's the convenience of having a portable phone, calendar, address book, dictionary, etc.

I do agree about people answering phone/text when in company. We don't do text (although if we had teenagers, we probably would), but I try to remember to turn off the ringer when visiting friends, letting phone calls go to voicemail.
written by David Warren, June 29, 2013
Karen LH supplies such a wonderful example of how technology advances, smoothly across the lines of taboo. The nice lady in the pews, following the readings at Mass on her iPhone -- & thereby giving cover to the dweeb in the next row, catching up on email & the sports results.
written by Dave, June 29, 2013
The irony here is that we are all reading these reflections through an electronic medium. Still I think Mr. Warren's point is very well taken: an indiscriminate use of or recourse to electronic media often leads to withdrawal from real social interaction and from reality itself, which leads to sadness and then can lead to full-scale acedia. Nonetheless the tools can be used well and for good -- consider the knowledge and wisdom easily and quickly available to the discriminate user. The question lies in educating oneself and others in using the internet well, and I think part of the answer lies in not using the Net as a distraction. In his book Victory over Vice, the Ven. Fulton Sheen writes, " The important word in the struggle against sloth is 'finished.'" The world judges us by results; the Lord judges us by the way we fulfill and finish our appointed tasks." When recourse to the Net leads to withdrawal from fulfillment of our duties -- including those of social interaction, sin ensues, and sadness in its train. When, however, it leads to an increase of profitable knowledge for the fulfillment of one's duty to know, love, and serve God, and to know, love, and serve others, too, the digital acedia about which Mr. Warren warns can be avoided. God grant us wisdom and grace.
written by Ib, June 29, 2013
David, did you realize that most of what you've written here is an application of fellow Catholic Canadian, Marshall McCluhan's work to the medium of the mobile device. In his famous book, "Understanding Media" he observed that all media have identifiable characteristics proper may to itself. For example, books can be dipped into at any point, while movies usually need to be watched from start to finish. You've made some important observations here about the medium of the mobile device and how it renders one susceptible to acedia. Wonderful work!
written by Sir Mark, June 29, 2013
The nice thing about my smart phone is that I always have whatever book I am reading with me. Yes, I use it to read books. I am reading a Tony Esolen book right now so judge me not, lest you be... Well, you know the rest.
written by Karen LH, June 29, 2013
The dweeb in the next row probably isn't going to daily Mass. ;-) But you make a good point, that the very flexibility of smart phones (which is what I like about them) also makes it impossible for anyone else to tell what someone is actually reading. Which contributes to the isolating effect that Dave mentions.

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