How New Media Can Diminish Our Lives

Plato worried that the new media called “writing” would ruin our memories – and he was right.

“If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.”

Martin Heidegger and other philosophers worried that the typewriter would make our thinking more mechanical. They were right, too.

Each new medium has diminished man a little – radio made us expect to be entertained all the time; television hurt our ability to concentrate – even as each has added scope, ease and distance to his ability to communicate with others.

The Church has promoted each new medium (from radio onward, anyway), and it should – focusing on the good a new media can do, despite the risks. June 1 was World Communications Day, and Pope Francis properly promotes today’s even newer media in his World Communications Address … but first, he explains some of the drawbacks. I’ve noticed some too:

Cameraphones  ruin moments, forever.

A recent study says so but we all already know it. In the middle of quality time with our family, we scramble for our phone such that we focus not on the beautiful, moving, enriching moments, but on the self-referential act of capturing them. Then we take a picture that never gets printed, and rarely gets seen, and are left with a compromised memory of a compromised event on top of it.

Facebook is training in narcissism.

The exaggerated feelings of self-importance a narcissist feels make the world feel like a movie starring them. So does Facebook. It forces us to recast activities in our mind in marketing language that will make them seem fascinating to others. We don’t just go to the park with our kids looking to enjoy each others company, we go to the park with our kids looking for a sharable moment. We hate the way TMZ treats celebrities’ personal lives; we are the TMZ of our own life on Facebook.

TVs in restaurants tell us our lives are inadequately interesting.

It used to be that you had to go to a sports bar if you wanted to watch TV in public. Now TVs seem to be everywhere. Their message is clear: You, and what you have to say, is not quite interesting enough to sustain the attention of the person you are with. They need distractions to bear being with you. And television, a world where everyone is an entertainer, is the distraction par excellence.

That pornography is now commonplace teaches us that others exist for our pleasure.

Real people have personalities, needs and demands. They require affection and appreciation and gratitude. Moments in which they allow our desires and wishes to dominate their actions and thoughts only come when we are willing to do the same for them. But pornography creates a fantasy world in which all of that “realness” seems intolerably tedious and virtual sex slaves become our new ideal of pleasure. Or, in other words, it expands the television world where everyone is an entertainer into our most intimate lives.

Smart phones’ browsers replace wonder and memory with Google search skills.

Instant gratification of our material desires leaves us unable to build long-term, long-lasting satisfaction over time. We grow impatient with every pleasure that isn’t in our reach.  Instant intellectual gratification does the same thing to our minds. Before, if we wanted to know who directed Twelve Angry Men or whose picture is on the two dollar bill or how many feet are in a mile, we either had to use our memories, ask a friend, or make a conscious decision not to care. Now we can Google it from wherever we are and what Plato feared from writing is true to a horrifying degree: Our memories are truncated and our wonder is fading away.

Together, all of this gives smartphones a creepy outsized  place in our lives.

Friends have always been invaluable: They are there to assist us, divert us, coax us to generosity, and lend an extra brain where necessary. Friends are still invaluable, but phones have inserted themselves into large swaths of the territory loved ones once occupied.

Our phone is the first thing we interact with in the morning and the last thing we interact with at night. Our phone catches us up on the news over breakfast, and we need our phone to capture our moments during the day to fill the newsfeeds of our lives. Our phone has games to divert us, and is a portablewindow into the the world of entertainers that exists for our pleasure that we need to escape into. We can relate to AT&T’s new commercials and almost miss how creepy they are: People talk about the phones in their history as if they were people.

So … what could possibly be good about all this? Tune in next for “How Social Media Can Enhance Our Lives.”

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.