Feb 26, 2012

Acedia, the Internet, and Social Media

A younger friend and colleague of mine recently decided to close his Facebook account.  It's striking, isn't it, that such a decision can be the object and occasion of considerable reflection?  Would that have been conceivable ten years ago -- leaving a virtual social network and its interactions behind?  Certainly conceivable, but rather within the realm of speculative fiction. And now, it's a practically conceivable, even for some pressing matter, no longer just a sheer possibility, but a thought-over necessity at times.

His case and process of decision-making -- narrated in an insightful and thought-provoking entry on his blog The Christian State of Life -- might be viewed as both entirely comprehensible and yet rather unique, off the beaten track of normality, divergently following a path less taken.  You see, he's a seminarian, in training and under discipline -- so, of course, he doesn't have the time, he's looking to higher things, living with one foot out of the secular world, detached from the worldly matters that we chatter about via the social media networks that seem to metastasize deeper and deeper into our lives, workplaces, relationships, perhaps even the cycle of liturgy and prayer.

Since perhaps it may not be apparent to some of my other friends and readers, I'm speaking sardonically here.  Great authors with keen eyes for human experience, like Chesterton or Greene -- both laypeople who knew so much as novelists about the craft and calling of priesthood -- long ago noted better than I can express how much interplay remains between what we typically distinguish and mentally sunder:  religious and secular life.  My seminarian colleague -- as thankfully so many seminarians and postulants, those exploring the surprisingly lengthy threshold between two seemingly separate but (not-so-)secretly interpenetrating existences -- from all appearances feels the impress and impulse of the same drives and desires as the rest of us, appreciates like experiences, undergoes similar disappointments, feels the pull and pressure of friendship. . . and so not surprisingly, like the rest of us, engages with the rest of us through social media.

I've seen other, very secular (though self-describedly "spiritual") friends reconsider the amount of time, thought, and attention they devote to social media -- and sometimes even close up their Facebook accounts.  So, there's nothing necessarily religious  about starting and following out such a line of reflection and reconsideration.  In fact, there's been news and discussion, which I recently speculated about myself on Orexis Dianoētikē, raising the prospect of social media being in some way addictive, requiring perhaps being looked at not only from a social scientific perspective but also by a deeper, fuller Virtue Ethics perspective -- maybe there's a need for developing a mode of the virtue of temperance or moderation, lest one fall prey not only to weakness of will when faced by the easy temptation to indulge, but even of skewing one over to the opposed vice, intemperance -- within which one can no longer even recognize that one has slipped into a problematic state, course of life, pattern of practices.

There's another vice, however -- one which was not readily recognized by earlier virtue ethicists like Plato or Aristotle -- which I think also bears some thinking about in relation to the internet, social media, and how we use it.  It's one expressed, though not named as such, in the worries my friend explores and comes to an admittedly partly painful decision about -- which he framed in terms of themes from Neil Postman's Technopoly, familiar, however, before that work:
As I pick up my iPhone to check text messages, e-mail, facebook, twitter, etc: each time, I feel like I am obeying a master who has total and complete control in my life.  This is partially because I have allowed the phone to have that sway over my life.  But it’s not just the phone: it’s the internet, it’s the social-media, it’s even the e-mail.  Everywhere I turn, I am surrounded by that which demands my time from me, asks me to surrender myself to it, and to give in completely to the ways of technology.
 Interestingly, as he thought through a growing decision to leave at least a portion or province of the social media sphere behind, he raised a set of distinct though connected concerns:
I recently decided that, not only is Facebook a tool that demands far too much of my time, but, in the end, it really isn’t all that valuable. 
 The time that will be freed up simply from abandoning Facebook will give me to actually, you know, engage with people face to face!
These would on their own be worthwhile reasons to consider abandoning Facebook -- or Twitter, or other social media as well.  He starts driving towards the heart of the matter, though, with a third realization:
I have been reflecting on the many discussions I have had on Facebook and have realized this: the internet is a horrible place to communicate.  To have a “discussion” on Facebook, for example, is impossible.  The medium demands succinctness.  It doesn’t allow for subtlety, nuance, presuppositions to be declared, etc.  In short: social media doesn’t allow for dialogue. . . 
I'd have to admit that I agree with this only qualifiedly -- but admit how difficult it can be to have genuine, worthwhile, deep dialogue in Facebook, or again, a fortiori, on Twitter -- how much when that happens it is a fortunate result of transcending the normality of the medium.

He's right too, in pointing out that this problem is becoming a more and more pressing one, as social media infiltrates, even incorporates, more and more dimensions and areas not only in one's own life but of those one is involved with, and our shared culture in general.  He asks several other pointed sets of questions.
Why are we lack[ing] discernment towards all that is thrown at us?  Why can’t we use the faculty of reason to actually properly judge whether something is good for us or not?  Why do we presume that just because it’s new, it’s good?

Why do I need to fill my life with endless distraction?
There is a temptation to which we are all subject, precisely by our human nature, which when it takes root and is reinforced through indulgence assumes the form of a vice the monastic fathers -- those who purposively left the manifold distractions of the world behind, heading out into the desert, even to solitude -- those who made enough progress in that life, struggling against themselves, to be able to formulate and pass on some advice identified as one of the eight principal vices.

They called it in Greek akēdia, which the Latins simply transliterated into acedia.  what both of them meant by it -- incidentally, it also gets called metaphorically, the "noonday devil" -- is not anything foreign to our own experience.  It signifies a kind of restlessness, an inability to stick to a project or a plan, a condition of becoming or allowing oneself to be easily distracted, a lack of seeing matters through, of allowing tedium, boredom to creep in.  For the monks, the greatest danger was, of course, that it would intervene between one and god, draw the monk away from prayer -- and it could do so by proffering seemingly good motives.

John Cassian, recounting the teachings of the fathers of Egyptian monasteries, draws vivid pictures not only of the behavior, but the lines of self-justification of those caught in an acediac grip.

. . . whenever it begins in any degree to overcome any one, it either makes him stay in his cell idle and lazy, without making any spiritual progress, or it drives him out from thence and makes him restless and a wanderer, and indolent in the matter of all kinds of work, and it makes him continually go round, the cells of the brethren and the monasteries, with an eye to nothing but this; viz., where or with what excuse he can presently procure some refreshment.

. . . he looks about anxiously this way and that, and sighs that none of the brethren come to see him, and often goes in and out of his cell, and frequently gazes up at the sun, as if it was too slow in setting, and so a kind of unreasonable confusion of mind takes possession of him like some foul darkness, and makes him idle and useless for every spiritual work, so that he imagines that no cure for so terrible an attack can be found in anything except visiting some one of the brethren, or in the solace of sleep alone.

Then the disease suggests that he ought to show courteous and friendly hospitalities to the brethren, and pay visits to the sick, whether near at hand or far off. He talks too about some dutiful and religious offices; that those kinsfolk ought to be inquired after, and that he ought to go and see them oftener; that it would be a real work of piety to go more frequently to visit that religious woman, devoted to the service of God, who is deprived of all support of kindred; and that it would be a most excellent thing to get what is needful for her who is neglected and despised by her own kinsfolk; and that he ought piously to devote his time to these things instead of staying uselessly and with no profit in his cell.
To be sure, there are other equally characteristic and troubling aspects to acedia -- a kind of laziness, a sort of sluggishness, a condition of becoming easily tired or even exhausted, a state of inattention -- which make it easy to understand how it, along the other vice of tristitia got eventually rolled into  sloth, as the eight principal vices become the seven deadly sins.  But it is the aspect of distraction -- and most particularly of distraction with respect to the imagination and a shallow kind of communicativeness, sociability, that seems most striking to me here.

I'd like to suggest that social media -- which, I stress, can certainly be put to very good uses -- might very well, by their nature, click by click, also tilt us, weaken us, tend and trend towards temptations that eventually coalesce around the recognizable complex of acedia.

The ease and brevity of communication, the sheer ease of roving over profiles, pages, threads, the ability to reach across continents effortlessly, the possibility of accumulating "friends" or "followers" almost without limit and by suggestion -- the more and more intuitive, almost world-forming features that mark the progress of a network -- isn't the flip side of these a nagging urge to check in, to see what's being said, being floated, being posted?  The sense of "existential angst" my young, committed, and perceptive seminarian friend admitted feeling at the very idea --let along the resolved reality -- of giving up Facebook, can't we all relate to that to some extent?

Perhaps what we need to think about, when we consider the darker side of social media from a virtue ethics perspective, is not simply phenomena of addiction, strengths of desires, or will-power depletion social scientists seem most interested in, nor even akratic weakness of will or intemperance, but that tributary of sloth, acedia.


  1. Thanks so much for posting this! Your insights are very valuable! I've posted a second post on my post-Facebook deletion experience and further reflections - from the perspective of the transcendentals - on my blog.

    Thanks for talking about acedia. As I read the passage by John Cassian I realized all too well that that is me through and through!!!! I am going to be devoting lent to begin to root this out of my life!

  2. You're welcome, Harrison. I too have to admit suffering from acedia -- and it's so useful to actually have that sort of thing named and described, since otherwise we don't see the pattern.

    For anyone else reading these comments -- here's the new blog post being referenced: http://christianstate.wordpress.com/2012/02/29/the-interwebs-pt-2/#comment-175