Lightly connected to the digital grid
I just came back from a week spent with friends at a contemplative abbey in the mountains of Colorado. Thanks to the gift of a satellite dish, they have good internet connections, use email regularly, and maintain a web site and blog to communicate with the many folks who have connections with them. But they focus their time and attention primarily on their community life and prayer. They have heard of Facebook, Twitter, and the like, and know how smartphones operate. But, for the most part, they get along fine without them.
Each time I visit them, I remember how very hard it was, 30 years ago, to turn off the television for the last time. As a graduate student, I liked to watch it when I came home from studying in the library. Then I realized that I was living in a high-crime area and watching police shows – Kojak, McMillan and Wife, Columbo – and feeling anxious all the time. It was an addiction, and there was a struggle of withdrawl – but when I see all the books I’ve read, people I’ve spent time with, and projects I’ve done rather than watch television, I’m glad I made the switch.
I took up television monasticism long before I became a Benedictine. I began to think about digital monasticism while I was at the Abbey.
Facebook’s Cat-and-Mouse Privacy Game
As I was driving back to my home monastery, I heard reports on NPR about Facebook’s newest feature: the option to “check yourself in” at one location or another. Simple enough: don’t use it. But, as always with Facebook, maintaining any semblance of privacy is a game. You are automatically enrolled and have to figure out how to unenroll. Why not just ignore it? Because any friend can “check you in” at a location, and your information is revealed.
Every time Facebook introduces a new feature it initiates a game of cat-and-mouse with its users when privacy holes are opened up and the user is left to close them. … Facebook believes the more open your data is, the better your experience on Facebook will be. Your data is also enticing for third-party applications that connect with Facebook. … Users who care about privacy scramble to turn off the new features as soon as they appear.
This jarred me to my senses. The big players in the digital world make assumptions about my use of their software that simply are not true. My experience is not improved by publicizing where I am, who I am with. If I am honest, although I know more about the lives of old friends I rarely see, little status updates on Facebook do not really maintain the friendships. Conversation or letters would do that.
I used to think that Facebook, Google, and all the rest were primarily interested in selling my eyeballs to advertisers. In the last few months, I realized that they are interested in selling access to my data to the middle-men of the data world. In fact, the Wall Street Journal writers who wrote about data-tracking software found that many web developers didn’t know about the tracking cookies and beacons that were contained in ads placed on their web sites – the interview on Fresh Air is revealing. We don’t use the internet anymore: it is using us.
Digital Cenobitic Monasticism
One of the hallmark’s of Benedictine monasticism is discernment – the process of knowing what is deeply important and measuring choices of action against those deepest values. The ancient Desert Fathers chose to flee society to live in remote cells, with only the company of a spiritual father or other hermits. Others – Pachomius, Basil, Augustine, Benedict – found a middle way of coenobium, of community living that helped them to maintain their focus – and set aside the distractions. Practices that include times and places of silence and solitude alternate with active work settings – and mindfulness and discernment are important to avoid losing what is most important for lesser things that jostle to attract one’s attention.
What would a digital coenobium look like? I don’t yet know – but I am beginning the exploration by leaving behind Facebook’s incorrect assumptions about what improves my experience, and the semblance of relationship that occurs on Facebook. Stay tuned for further developments.
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