One of the most significant social media platforms in our age is Facebook. One can easily spend a few hours, surfing through the various posts, YouTube videos, and various interest groups. Recently a Teilhard group was renewed on Facebook and the group has attracted much attention, with various posts on topics pertaining to Teilhard’s thoughts or vision. The Omega Center also has a Facebook page to promote its vision and aim. Social media does provide a great access to a wide range of information. But I think Teilhard would have had some caveats with regard to social media and would find his voice in historian Nicholas Carr who has been writing on the downside of computer technology for the past ten years. Carr claims that hours spent surfing the web and staring at a computer screen are actually flattening us into pancake-like people. Carr studied the impact of technology on the human person and, in his book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, indicates that our brains are becoming like the earth itself, hot, flat, and crowded. Attention spans are shorter, personal
Whereas book reading encouraged our brains to be focused and imaginative, the internet is strengthening our ability to scan information rapidly and efficiently. The difference between reading a book and surfing the web, he claims, is like the difference between scuba diving and jet skiing. Book reading is a “scuba diving” endeavor in which the diver is submerged in a quiet, visually restricted, slow-paced setting with few distractions. As a result, the reader is required to focus narrowly and think deeply on the limited information that is available. In contrast, using the Internet is like “jet skiing,” in which the jet skier is skimming along the surface of the water at high speed, exposed to a broad vista, surrounded by many distractions, and only able to focus fleetingly on any one thing. Reading develops reflection whereas the internet is a system of distraction. We get the great rewards of having basically unlimited information at our fingertips, but we are enslaved in a state of perpetual distraction and constant disruption.
The differences between book reading and web surfing may seem inconsequential but Carr claims that “jet ski” information is having a profound effect on the way we think. It is becoming much harder to sustain attention, to think about one thing for a long period of time, and to think deeply, due to a continuous stream of new stimuli. The price we pay for being constantly inundated with information is a loss of our ability to be contemplative and to engage in the kind of deep thinking that requires focused concentration on the particularities of existence. This is enhancing a type of attention deficit syndrome, especially in younger generations, where too many inputs stimulate the brain while the person is unable to successfully manage them. The brain is constantly switching between tasks, which goes against how our memory operates. Net surfing overloads the short-term memory and does not allow the brain sufficient time to consolidate the information which can lead to attention deficit, forgetfulness, and brain fatigue. Carr states that the internet is an “ecosystem of interruption technologies.” He writes: “We don’t see the forest when we search the web. We don’t even see the trees. We see twigs and leaves.”
Technology also affects our memory. He explains that to move information from one’s conscious mind (working memory) into the long-term memory requires a process of memory consolidation that hinges on attentiveness. One thinks about the information or rehearses it in one’s mind in order to form a strong memory of it and to connect it to other things that one remembers. If the mind is constantly distracted and taking in new information, then the brain is constantly moving information into and out of the conscious mind with little opportunity for the consolidation of memory. The more distracted one is and the more one’s mind is interrupted, the less able one is to experience deep emotions, since the emotional life depends on presence, attention, and memory.
Carr relies on the insights of modern neuroscience which now confirms the plasticity of the brain. In other words, the human brain is not a fixed organ; rather it can change and develop new circuits depending on the dominant stimuli that affect it. The human brain is a “use it or lose it” organ and thus it does make a difference how and to what extent we use computer technology. The lack of prolonged attention and the loss of long-term memory may disrupt neural connections which undergird a disconnect from the wider world, especially the world of nature to which we belong. As we export our brains onto a hard drive, we are losing the capacity for wonder, deep thought, and reflective being, all of which are necessary for the dynamic movement towards Omega.
Teilhard lived at the dawn of the computer age and suggested that computer technology can provide a forward movement of spiritual energy, a maximization of consciousness, and a complexification of relationships. Computer technology extends the outreach of human activity but, he said, it depends on a broader use of human activity and how humans will control psychic, spiritual energy needs and powers. He wrote: “It is not well-being but a hunger for more-being which, of psychological necessity, can alone preserve the thinking earth from the taedium vitae . . . it is upon its point (or superstructure) of spiritual concentration, and not upon its basis (or infra-structure) of material arrangement, that the equilibrium of Mankind biologically depends.” In Teilhard’s view, materialism can bring about well-being, but spirituality and an increase in psychic energy or consciousness brings about more being. He imagined psychic energy in a continually more reflective state, giving rise to ultrahumanity. In other words, it is not bits of information coming across our screens that can evolve us to a deeper level of human community; rather, such deepening must be a consolidation and complexification of consciousness.
Teilhard placed an emphasis on contemplation as the main source of vitality for cosmic evolution. He believed that contemplative prayer is the principal power of evolution because in some way the contemplative mediates God’s creative power. This inner power of God-Omega is awakened through contemplation, orienting all time and space into a unified field of love by which the whole cosmos becomes more unified in love. For Teilhard, computer technology must be at the service of contemplation or the wellspring of inner consciousness and spiritual energy. Hence to live in a computer age requires a focused power of choice and attention, giving rise to a focused brain and the intensity of spiritual energy, which arises within and expresses itself without.
Humanity has the capacity to evolve to the next level of evolution, the level of the “ultra-human”; however, as Teilhard wrote, it needs “the help of a new form of psychic energy in which the personalizing depth of love is combined with the totalization of what is most essential and most universal in the heart of the stuff of the cosmos.”
Surfing the net and scanning your Facebook page can be fun and informative but know that your tired brain is unable to gather all the bits of information into a deeper level of thought and memory. As a result, your hope to evolve into a great unity up ahead is actually being thwarted by the wealth of information streaming across your screen. For “where your mind is, there lies your treasure.”