The Synod on The Family and Technology

The issue of communion for the divorced and remarried has occupied so much attention in the run-up to the Synod on the Family that the many other topics addressed in the working document are being largely ignored.

One issue was how technology effects the family, and I addressed it in two pieces:

Tech Addiction: Technology & The Synod on the Family

Electronic gadgets have a powerful gravitational pull. The quick look at Facebook becomes an endless spiral of links, memes, cute videos, and listicles. A session of World of Warcraft doesn’t end until five hours later. There’s a growing unease when five minutes pass without checking a smartphone.

What do all these behaviors have in common other than the general medium of “new technology?” What do they provide that makes them so appealing and hard to resist?

Alienation: Technology & The Synod on the Family

The concern expressed in the Synod working document is that “television, smart phones and computers can be a real impediment to dialogue among family members, leading to a breakdown and alienation in relationships within a family, where communication depends more and more on technology.”

This is an image of the atomized home, with each person disappearing to their own electronic bubble, thus isolating individuals in the family.
Some of this is essential in modern life. I could not work without it. My children learn and play and create using many of the same tools singled out for criticism. My son is studying college-level biology this summer in an online course. My daughter is writing a book and painting on her iPad. These solitary moments are not necessarily an evil, any more than someone sitting alone sewing, reading, or studying would be.

The problem is that the atomization is spreading to more and more parts of ordinary life. The smartphones are at the dinner table. The time spent gaming or online is growing. The escape into a boundless electronic world of instant gratification and stimulation can mean a retreat from the comparatively mundane world of the family.

How Social Media Is Messing With Your Brain

The hard thing about social media is to use it without being used by it. I like it just fine to keep in touch with friends, family, and a network on fellow travelers in a variety of interests. It gives me a place to post pictures of my dog, like this:

Ivy9514

I apologize to no one for posting pictures of cute animals. It is what teh internets is all about.

Oh stop, you know you love it.

But it’s insidious, as I’ve pointed out before. It can draw us back again and again like the light that lure a moth until it beats itself to death.

We just have to find a way to balance it. I’ve removed all social media apps from my mobile devices and I suggest others do the same. This helps minimize the constant checking when you’re away from the desk and turns your gaze outward, to the world around you.

Look, social media has helped me in my spiritual development. I’m part of a community that shares faith, prays for each other, and looks to deepen our experience of Christ. It’s a good thing, like dessert, alcohol, and sex. But, like all those things, moderation is the key, and understanding how social media works on your brain is a good first step towards making sure you use rather than being used by it.

Related

Tech Addiction:Technology & The Synod on the Family

Alienation: Technology & The Synod on the Family

Real Catholic Men Can Play Games

The 40 Year Old Virgin

“You know how I know you’re Catholic?”

A couple weeks back I read something by a priest arguing that Real Catholic Men should not play videogames. The article was pointless and ill-informed, and proved mostly that the author had not one single solitary clue about his subject matter and only the vaguest notion about “videogames” and the people who play them.

We were treated to the standard hand-wringing about man-children, wasting time, how people could be improving themselves rather than engaging in “pointless” activity, and so on. Honestly, the piece could have written itself by dropping almost any cultural artifact–rock music, comic books, TV–into a Disapproval-o-Matic and churning out the same hollow junk.

I want to just point out two of the main problems with these useless critiques: the assumption that playing a computer, mobile, or video game interferes with life, and the idea that it’s somehow unmanly and time-wasting.

Let’s look at the time factor first, and imagine two dialogs with the author, who we’ll call Fr.  Beaman.

A man in his 20s comes to visit Father for counseling. Part of their conversation goes something like this:

MAN: I spend about 12-15 hours a week following professional sports, and another 3-5 on my fantasy sports league and brackets. I also watch about 2 hours of TV a night.

FR. BEAMAN: Ho, ho! How about those (insert local sports team)!

Now let’s imagine a different exchange:

MAN: I spend about 12-15 hours a week playing Civilization V or Titanfall. I don’t really watch TV. I don’t like sports.

FR. BEAMAN: [curls his lip in disgust] And you call yourself a man?

Here’s the thing: I don’t follow sports, at all. Ever. I don’t judge people who do, but I think it is one of the most mind-numbing, pointless activities I can imagine.

If a man spends his leisure time in a complex and deep game world in which he takes an active part, while another man spends the same amount of time watching TV or following football (a fundamentally passive act), the second man is somehow judged to be more “manly” and not “wasting his time.”

This doesn’t follow. There’s nothing less “masculine” about playing World of Warcraft than there is in watching American Idol or Monday Night Football, or even going fishing. It runs afoul of none of the three moral determinants (object, end, and circumstance), and given the complexity of modern electronic gaming, it is not an empty or mindless activity.

Gamers watch far less television than non-gamers. One could even argue that gaming is morally superior to television because it can engage the intellect, stimulate the imagination, and require an element of physical interaction, whereas television renders the individual into a passive receiver.

If you’re a member of the Philadelphia Eagles, sure, I’ll give you extra “Man Points” if that’s important to you, just like I would if you were a soldier, fireman, ironworker, commercial fisherman, or longshoreman.

But if you just follow the Philadelphia Eagles? No. You’re just a guy sitting on a couch watching other men exert themselves for your amusement.

Beyond this, parsing who is a “real man” and who isn’t is a fool’s errand. Masculinity is not a set of things to be checked off a list.

The second criticism is the “you’re wasting your life” bit. We get the usual examples: you could be hiking! Learning a language! Deepening your faith! Helping the needy!

So one precludes the other? Why?

Here’s a partial list of things I have done in my life: camped, fished, sailed, fired a variety of weapons, built things out of wood and metal, painted and sketched, written and published books, learned to play several instruments, traveled to foreign countries, been in a fight, worked on a television series, earned the love of a good woman, made love to said woman, sired children, studied and taught the faith, volunteered thousands of hours, worked with the poor and sick, raised money for a charity, prayed daily, earned two advanced degrees (one of them in Theology), learned a language, raised and cared for a variety of animals, played a team sport, took care of my dying father, run a 6-minute mile, chopped a tree and made a fire, earned an income and supported a family, paid a mortgage, conducted pilgrimages, and earned a reputation in my profession.

Some of these I still do. Some of them I tried and do not enjoy, and thus will not likely do them again. I do not like camping, for example. My wife loves it. We’ve tried to compromise. I can take or leave fishing. I don’t oppose hunting but neither do I enjoy it. I’m not handy. And although my physical problems sometimes limit my ability to get around in the world, I don’t feel this makes me less of a man or my life less full.

Thus, this idea that all men who play games are living withered and incomplete lives is a fantasy. Some men indeed may be letting games interfere with a full life, and that is a problem just like any other disordered attachment. If Father had merely said “Men who overdo the gaming thing need to get out now and then and see the world,” he would have had no complaint from me. An obsession is bad regardless of the object.

But that wasn’t the point being made. Gaming was singled out as something no Catholic man worth his manhood should be doing.

Well, I’m a man, and like many other men my age (46), as well as men both older and younger, I enjoy computer and videogames now and then.

And that’s just fine.

Related

Tech Addiction:Technology & The Synod on the Family

Alienation: Technology & The Synod on the Family

Google Tip Leads to Pedophile Arrest

skillernLast year, Google committed to reducing the flow of child porn through their services, adding 200 full-time staff to the task of building complex algorithms to scan for certain images and slashing pedophile sites from their search engine. Although Google is particularly diligent in their efforts, they are also just following the law designating ISPs as mandated reporters who have to report images of child sexual abuse to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

What’s surprising in this case is that the tip came from a scan of images sent over Gmail, Google’s free mail service:

A 41-year-old Houston man was arrested on suspicion of child pornography charges in an investigation founded on a tip that Google sent to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. “They got a tip, basically Gmail,” detective David Nettles of the Houston Metro Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force told a local news broadcast last week. The defendant, John Skillern, was being held on $200,000 bond and is a registered sex offender connected to a 20-year-old sexual assault on a young boy.

Naturally, getting a vile pervert off the streets is a good thing. Subjecting email to scans, however, goes beyond the limits of the law and is already causing concern in other areas. Google is accused of scanning keywords in emails in order to profile users and customize advertising, which runs afoul of various state and federal wiretapping laws.

German Government Returning to Manual Typewriters?

More fruits of our despicable surveillance culture:

The head of the Bundestag’s parliamentary inquiry into NSA activity in Germany said in an interview with the Morgenmagazin TV programme that he and his colleagues were seriously thinking of ditching email completely.

Asked “Are you considering typewriters” by the interviewer on Monday night, the Christian Democrat politician Patrick Sensburg said: “As a matter of fact, we have – and not electronic models either”. “Really?” the surprised interviewer checked. “Yes, no joke,” Sensburg responded.

Sensburg’s remarks were not greeted with enthusiasm:

“Before I start using typewriters and burning notes after reading, I’d rather abolish the secret services,” tweeted Martina Renner, an opposition member of the parliamentary committee investigating the activities of US and other intelligence agencies in Germany. Sahra Wagenknecht, Die Linke party’s deputy chair, described the suggestion as grotesque.

Christian Flisek, the SPD’s representative on the committee, told Spiegel Online: “This call for mechanical typewriters is making our work sound ridiculous. We live in the 21st century, where many people communicate predominantly by digital means. Effective counter-espionage works digitally too. The idea that we can protect people from surveillance by dragging them back to the typewriter is absurd.”

Yet while Sensburg may regret his comments, there is little question that revelations about digital surveillance have triggered a fundamental rethink about how the German government conducts its communications.

“Above all, people are trying to stay away from technology whenever they can,” wrote Die Welt. “Those concerned talk less on the phone, prefer to meet in person. More coffees are being drunk and lunches eaten together. Even the walk in the park is increasingly enjoying a revival.”

Last November, in the immediate aftermath of the revelations of NSA monitoring of Merkel’s mobile phone, the German government instructed its MPs to only use encrypted mobile phones for sensitive calls. The use of iPhones for intra-governmental communications is reportedly banned.

Since then, some have even questioned whether the state-of-the-art “Secusmart” encryption mobile currently used by the chancellor is safe from bugging attempts.

I think some reversion to low-tech solutions is going to be inevitable.

More Creepy Robots In Your Near Future

Jibo is being pitched as a new member of the family: the robot slave we all need and want! The first step towards Rosie!

“Our rise to power begins!”

Jibo’s creator is Dr. Cynthia Breazeal, director of MIT’s Personal Robots Group. She describes the 6 pound, 11 inch bouncing baby Terminator spy as something that will “support, complement and extend what we need from others in an affordable, effective and delightful way so that we can succeed, thrive and grow.” And if you don’t think that statement was massaged by the marketing team to within an inch of its life, you haven’t been paying attention.

Okay, you want to see the little bugger, so here it is:

And here it is in action, gathering intel on a typical suburban family:

 

First, the good news. It can’t move. It merely feeds information about our weaknesses and actions to Skynet for future use, and is unlikely to be able to rise up and kill us in our sleep.

That’s good, because Intel’s 3D printable Jimmy looks like it’s ready to start gathering cutlery and unlocking the gun safe in the dead of night. And it’s self-replicating!

Jibo is, basically, what would happen if Furby got together with your smartphone and started to reproduce. Its functionality is limited out of the box, but that’s expected to change with software upgrades and third part apps over time.

But still: it’s a Furbyphone. Let’s not kid ourselves.

It’s shipping by Christmas 2015 and costs $500. You can order it now. If you dare.

Have I said lately how much I hate robots?

Alienation: Technology & The Synod on the Family

The Patheos Catholic Channel is hosting a Symposium on the Family in light of the upcoming Extraordinary Synod on the Family in October and the recent release of the working document for the Synod.

 

Yesterday, I wrote about Tech Addiction as one of several technology- and media-related problems cited in working document for the upcoming Synod on the Family. Today I want to write about another issue they mention: alienation.

Alienation is part of addiction, but can also be found in individuals and families without addictive behaviors. Addiction works through stimulation. The addict begins with pleasure-seeking behavior, and ends in destructive dependence.

Technology adds two new factors to this stimulation: 1) it often stimulates an emotion or sensation by proxy, and 2) it is ubiquitous and instant.

Things we encounter in the virtual space are proxies for reality. Even a dialog with a good friend over email or Facebook is one step removed from a conversation on the phone, which is itself one step removed from a conversation in person.

We can’t automatically assume these removes are bad. There are people I either would not or could not communicate with in person or on the phone. Thus, I am drawn closer to them by communicating via social media, text, or email.

On the other hand, there are people who I should and could communicate with in person or on the phone, and yet I opt for email or social media. Why do I choose this distancing mechanism for communication?

There are several answers to that question.

We do it for convenience: It is easier for us to respond to messages at a time of our choosing. Talking to someone takes work. Sometimes, it requires an emotional investment. Often, we’re unwilling to put ourselves out for that.

We do it for brevity: One thing gained by this more efficient form of communication is also something lost. In gaining the brevity allowed by a text or email, we lose the more expansive dialog inherent in personal conversation. What we save in time we lose in a certain kind of quality.

We do it for control: Asynchronous communication allows each side to ponder their replies more carefully. We can create an answer that might not come to us in more immediate forms of communication. We can shape an image of ourselves as we want to be perceived, not necessarily as we are.

In person, people can be nervous about their appearance, speech, and the way they present themselves. With new forms of communication, the individual can present the best side of himself. There may be a falseness to this, as we craft a persona that is inaccessible to us in real-time encounters. But there is also freedom for those with social anxiety issues, poor self-esteem, and other personality traits that make live conversation challenging for some.

Conversely, these new forms allow an anonymity that encourages some to unleash an id that would otherwise be kept in check by social pressures. Even when the subjects are not anonymous, new media communication easily leads to a dehumanization of the other. People are not reflexively seen as humans on the other end of a two-way conversation, but as abstract entities.

We will always incline to respond with greater humanity to the individual in front of us that we will to some abstract idea of an individual a thousand miles away, being represented on screen by a picture of their cat.

Communication online mimics human conversation without fully capturing it.  Without the verbal and visual cues that are a natural part of human conversation, misunderstandings leading to anger and pain are commonplace, a now amount of emoticons can really rectify that. Texting, email, social media, and comboxes will always be pale imitations of conversation.

On the other hand, in their ideal state (N.B.!) some of these forms of communication can actually improve upon standard dialog. Slowing down the need for a response enables emotions to cool and reason to work through a point in contention.  That this ideal state is rare speaks to the evolving nature of the medium and the temperamental and emotional nature of much human interaction.

Alienation is also a product of the ubiquity of the technology. It has become inescapable.

Technology that alienates is not new in the home. Television already directs people to a single point rather that providing a point of communication with one another. Looked at this way, new media is almost an improvement, since it tends to reduce television-watching time and adds elements of interaction. A parent can text a child to stay in touch when a phone call is not possible, send her a link to an interesting article or website, or discover something new to do together.

Parents who leave children to play on their game consoles are missing an opportunity. Many games have splitscreen play modes that allow parent and child to play side by side, both competitively and cooperatively. Games do not need to be a point of alienation in the family. In fact they can be a point of communion. Certainly this was an essential part of the appeal of Nintendo’s Wii system.

The concern expressed in the Synod working document is that “television, smart phones and computers can be a real impediment to dialogue among family members, leading to a breakdown and alienation in relationships within a family, where communication depends more and more on technology.”

This is an image of the atomized home, with each person disappearing to their own electronic bubble, thus isolating individuals in the family.

Some of this is essential in modern life. I could not work without it. My children learn and play and create using many of the same tools singled out for criticism. My son is studying college-level biology this summer in an online course. My daughter is writing a book and painting on her iPad. These solitary moments are not necessarily an evil, any more than someone sitting alone sewing, reading, or studying would be.

The problem is that the atomization is spreading to more and more parts of ordinary life. The smartphones are at the dinner table. The time spent gaming or online is growing. The escape into a boundless electronic world of instant gratification and stimulation can mean a retreat from the comparatively mundane world of the family.

As this happens, family relationships can suffer. As with addiction, awareness of the problem and a conscious decision to do something about it is part of the solution. Families need to make choices and rules: no devices at the dinner table, digital-free time, family games or activities, and similar actions to carve out un-wired time.

If a piece technology does not serve the human–individual, family, community, and beyond–then it is destructive and should be avoided. Any technology, from the wheel to the mind-controlled artificial limb, must function for our benefit. Our family is a domestic church. If the technology we allow into this church profanes it, interferes with its mission (making saints), other is otherwise destructive, then we need reconsider our use of that technology, and whether or not it gives us more than it takes away from us.

Tech Addiction:Technology & The Synod on the Family

The Patheos Catholic Channel is hosting a Symposium on the Family in light of the upcoming Extraordinary Synod on the Family in October and the recent release of the working document for the Synod.

The working document for the upcoming Synod on the Family lists “Dependence, the Media, and the Social Network” as one of the critical situations within the Family. The passage identifies various areas of concern with the way media and technology impacts the life of the family. I’m breaking these down into four distinct categories:

  • Addiction: Compulsive and damaging use of new technology.
  • Alienation: The ability of technology and media to push us further apart, eroding relationships within the family.
  • Values: Transmission of false values.
  • Information Noise: Information overloaded coupled with the dubious quality of much of what we see and read.

I’m going to try to write a post on each of these, starting with addiction.

Technology Addiction
Electronic gadgets have a powerful gravitational pull. The quick look at Facebook becomes an endless spiral of links, memes, cute videos, and listicles. A session of World of Warcraft doesn’t end until five hours later. There’s a growing unease when five minutes pass without checking a smartphone.

What do all these behaviors have in common other than the general medium of “new technology?” What do they provide that makes them so appealing and hard to resist?

Technology use stimulates pleasure in the brain. The stimulation of pleasure is nothing new for humans: a sight, sound, smell, sensation, or taste can give us pleasure or trigger some psychological or physiological response. The smell of a sizzling steak can make us hungry. The touch of a lover’s hand can make us aroused.

This pleasure-seeking behavior is not in itself always a problem, but it can easily be taken to excess and lead to sinful and illegal acts. People have over-eaten, used pornography, used drugs, and found other ways of stimulating pleasure. Those who did so compulsively and to excess became addicted: that is, they lost the will to break away from a certain behavior even after that behavior became destructive.

Today, we see new forms addiction with excessive use of social media, inability to disconnect from technology, long hours spent in virtual environments such as games, and pornography.

These addictions pose a different challenge to us because they are free and easy to indulge, they are in the home, and often they appear harmless.

Checking your Facebook status is a perfectly reasonable behavior. Checking it a hundred times a day is not.

Playing a video or computer game for a couple hours is a nice way to spend the time and even interact with friends. Playing the game for 5 or 8 hours at a stretch is unhealthy.

The barrier to finding pornography has vanished. In the past, a man (it’s almost always men) had to buy certain magazines, rent certain movies, or go to certain parts of town to experience pornography. That involved being seen in public and interacting with people, with all the attendant embarrassment and potential social stigma that entails (or, at least, used to entail before the mainstreaming of porn).

Now porn is, literally, anywhere you want it, any time, for free. You can carry an endless supply around in your pocket. Your kids can find it by typing harmless phrases into a search engine. This drastically reduces the challenge of getting it. The effect is akin to running a line of sewage into every house in America.

Thanks to the internet and our gadgets, we are now living full-time in a Skinner Box. Technically called an “operant conditioning chamber,” a Skinner Box is a basic research device in which a cue signals a test subject to perform an action for a reward. The light goes on, the rat hits a lever, a food treat is dispensed.

The structure of much new media and technology creates a compulsion loop. We see something (for example, a link to a video), we click it and experience it, and we react emotionally, either with pleasure or outrage. In either case, there is a psychological and, potentially, neurochemical, reaction. And it was all effortless.

With social media, we shape an image of ourselves through status, comments and link-sharing; projecting that image into the virtual space and then revising it for reactions which provide affirmation. Even people engaged in hostile and trolling behavior online are responding to a pleasure drive: it’s just that their pleasure comes from making others feel bad. Their pleasure is found in unleashing the id in a consequence-free environment.

Games provide instant gratification and constant feedback. They are cannily designed to balance risk and reward in order to keep the gamer playing. There’s always another level, another batch of gold or points, another foe. The compulsion loop is actually part of the design.

(And we haven’t even seen the worst of it. Members of the Synod are probably unaware that we’re preparing to sail into uncharted waters of virtual reality with Oculus Rift. If Call of Duty on a screen is addictive for some people now, imagine it as a fully immersive virtual world with a headset that shuts out the world. Pornographers are already trying to figure out how to harness its power to deliver visual and tactile sexual stimulation.)

Is there an answer to addiction?

Not an easy one, no. To some degree, many of us already probably have it in our households and experience it ourselves. How many of us feel twitchy without our smartphones or check to see who liked or shared a recent post or comment? How many have kids who need to dragged away from videogames or YouTube? How many men dial up some quick and easy porn?

We need to learn to draw back, as families, because as families we can do things together that might be more difficult to do alone.

Families need digital detox days in which they unplug in part or completely for a day in order to reconnect with the world around us. We need to set limits on how long we spend, and if we can’t set those limits ourselves, we need to use tools which turn off certain sites or block certain technology after a specified amount of time.

Our technology needs to find its proper place in the scheme of family life so there’s no room for addictions and compulsive behavior to take root.

Simple actions like this may help us face some challenges, but long-term solutions are going to be hard to come by. All of this technology is still new and we haven’t yet learned to fear it as much as we love it.

Fire is easy. Fire burns. We learn to respect its power and harness is for positive ends.

The internet, mobile devices, and other new media do not burn; not right away at least. We’re the proverbial frog in the pot, enjoying the rising temperature of the water so much that by the time we notice it’s boiling we’re already dead.