On Internet-Abstinence

Speaking at the first “International Conference on Digital Media and Orthodox Pastoral Care,” Archimandrite Symeon (Tomachinsky) explained what Internet-abstinence means and why it should become a new commandment for modern Christians.

Much-respected Vladykas; dear Fathers, brothers, and sisters; ladies and gentlemen!

It is my special pleasure today to speak to you on May 9, on the celebration of Victory Day. On the one hand, we indeed celebrate the ontological victory of Christ over death and the devil; and, on the other, we celebrate the earthly and historical victory over fascism and evil. This gives us hope that today as well we will find a solution to the problems that we are discussing here.

There have already been several interesting speeches on Internet-abstinence: in particular, Fr. Maximos Constas delivered an excellent speech today, and Elena Zhosul also spoke on this topic. She introduced a very nice term: digital detox. Archpriest Vasilios Thermos also spoke about the necessity of having a sober attitude towards the Internet, and many who have spoken here have mentioned this topic.

Many Christian virtues, as we know, are connected with abstinence. This can mean abstinence from food, alcohol, conjugal relations, evil thoughts, impure looks, rude words, and sinful deeds. Some types of abstinence are temporary, as for example during Great Lent, and some are prescribed only for certain groups of people, such as monks, in certain situations. Others are permanent and unconditional. In fact, most of the commandments given by God to the people of the Old Testament are of a restrictive character and contain an element of abstinence. Generally speaking, as we know, abstinence as a virtue began in Paradise, when the Lord commanded Adam not merely to cultivate the Garden of Eden, but also to refrain from eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

The appearance of the Internet has opened a new front in mankind’s spiritual warfare. The Internet has introduced new and effective means of tempting people. These are probably not new sins, but they do involve new means of tempting and manipulating people, as well as new means of wasting life. At first, it had seemed that computers and the World Wide Web had introduced unparalleled opportunities for people’s creative development.

Steve Jobs once related a textbook case about reading an article in a learned journal about how much energy various animals put into covering distances and into any positive work. And Jobs came to a conclusion that condors (a kind of soaring eagle) are the most successful animals in this regard: they expend the least number of calories to move at the maximum speed. Man is somewhere near the bottom of the list. Jobs suggested that computers could become a kind of bicycle for the human brain, because a bicycle, which is a human invention, immediately gives one the advantage to use one’s capabilities more instinctively than condors. That is, one expends fewer calories to cover longer distances. Jobs proposed that computers should become this sort of bicycle for the human brain. But how did it turn out? It turned out that it was not man who ruled the computer in order to increase his capabilities, but that it was the computer that ruled man, dictating his will and offering endless diversions.

Multitasking has become one of the most intractable problems for modern man. In his article titled “How Today’s Computers Weaken Our Brain” in The New Yorker, Tim Wu examined different aspects of this problem. The author arrived at the following conclusion, and I quote: “Today’s machines don’t just allow distraction; they promote it. The Web calls us constantly, like a carnival barker, and the machines, instead of keeping us on task, make it easy to get drawn in — and even add their own distractions to the mix. In short: we have built a generation of ‘distraction machines’ that make great feats of concentrated effort harder instead of easier.”

A great feat of concentrated effort – this is what is required of us, and this is what we lose because of computers. In his article, the author gives three examples of successful creative works. The first was Franz Kafka, who wrote his work “The Judgment” in eight hours, in one sitting, without being distracted by anything. The second was Jack Kerouac, who wrote his famous novel On the Road in three weeks. The third was Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who created a new video game, Breakout, in four days. I am deliberately avoiding offering any evaluation of the works created, because I would like to draw your attention to the conditions that are essential for creative work – although, of course, the works of Kafka and Kerouac are considered classic literature.

Kafka could have gotten distracted from his work by checking his e-mail, and could have lost the inspiration that was essential for finishing his story. Kerouac could have checked his Twitter or chatted on his Facebook, WhatsApp, or somewhere else, and his On the Road would never have been finished, and we would never have been able to read this novel. Psychologists state that a person can fully concentrate on one thing at a time, and on several things in the background, but that will already be unproductive. Yes, we can all simultaneously talk on Skype and surf the Internet, and even write simple letters via e-mail. However, we also know that we cannot do serious work in a similar way. We live in an age when tremendous forces are fighting for our attention and time, as we have heard in other speakers’ talks.

The Internet has become one of the most important battlegrounds. It is no coincidence that neologisms have appeared in Russian, such as khronotsid, which means killing time, and osetenet’, which means getting addicted to the Internet, and which also sounds like the word osatanet’, which means getting attached to the devil. We are called to make friends with time, just like Alice in Wonderland. If previously we could just run faster in order to stay in one place, today we have to run twice as fast, as you can understand. Therefore, many people are now installing the Freedom program onto their computers, which disables any signals given by e-mail, social networks, or Internet advertisements in order to concentrate on their activities.

Even if we were merely talking about wasting time due to diversions on the Internet, it would be a great cause for alarm. But today we are talking about true Internet-addiction. The previous talk clearly demonstrated this fact. This Internet-addiction can be compared to drug addiction. Many people literally experience severe withdrawal symptoms if they are deprived of the Internet for even a short period of time. Dr. Dimitrios Karayiannis was among those spoke about this on the first day of our conference. The Internet is turning into a kind of Gogol’s “Viy,” which, when seen by anyone, kills one with its evil powers. The Internet is like a crystal ball, a Palantir, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings. One hopes to look into it to see a mystery, but gradually it turns one into a slave of the Dark Lord. Sometimes our mouse and our face, looking at a computer screen, become the mark on one’s right hand and forehead of which St. John the Theologian speaks in his Revelation. Sometimes we are one click away from a grievous sin that would enslave us to the devil.

You all know the old monastic piece of wisdom: “Go, sit in your cell; and your cell will teach you all things.” Modern life has created another aphorism from a collection of dark humor: “Get Internet access in your cell, and your cell will teach you all things.” This does not merely concern monks. It is as if the three temptations of which the Apostle John the Theologian speaks – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – have taken shape on the Internet.

Of course, please do not misunderstand me: I am not against the Internet; one has to use it for the purposes of pastoral and missionary work. We have witnessed a wonderful example of such ministry during our conference. Abstinence does not mean giving up the Internet. Abstinence means a rational, creative, and constructive attitude towards the Internet. We are called to learn Internet-abstinence. One should teach young children to learn its rules, to use it carefully, like a hot iron or an electrical current in a wall socket. These rules should be taught in schools and studied in-depth at universities. They should be put on one’s desktop as accident prevention.

If we would like to preserve our freedom and if we wish for computers to serve people, and not the other way around, and if we value the feat of creative and constructive work and not killing time, Internet-abstinence should become a new Christian commandment for us.

“For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s” (1 Corinthians 6:20).

Translated from the Russian


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