As our poor usage of words attests, we do not know what “virtuous” means, let alone how to live it, but reading can help.
A couple of years ago, Sprint rolled out a new advertising campaign touting the company’s unlimited data plan for the iPhone 5. The campaign, no doubt, reflected a well-researched judgment about what would resonate with Apple’s technology-savvy consumers. And what would resonate, apparently, was the desire (or temptation) to live one’s entire life online.
One particularly striking television commercial from that campaign begins with flashes of beauty—a leaf, a neuron, a cityscape, a boy greeting his mother in a scenic mountain setting—as the narrator explains that “the miraculous is everywhere: in our homes, our minds.” Yet simply appreciating and living with this pervading beauty is not enough: “We can share every second in data dressed in pixels.” Private life and private pursuits are things of the past. There are “a billion roaming photojournalists uploading the human experience, and it is spectacular.” In the vision offered by the commercial, the “human experience” is essentially communal and public. Every aspect of life is shared with others. “I need,” the narrator insists, “to upload all of me.” For this public sharing of our total self we also need—no, even “have the right—to be unlimited.”
The commercial is eerie and moving at the same time, and it taps into a deep human need to live for something outside of us, to be vulnerable and open in front of others. But a central illusion—of the commercial and of our time—is that “data dressed as pixels” can somehow capture our lives. They don’t, because they can’t. Pixels cannot approximate real friendships, real beauty, real life. In Huxley’s Brave New World, the “savage” (a man who has discovered Shakespeare and all that Shakespeare represents) protests against the comfortable but inhuman life offered to him. “I don’t want comfort,” he explains. “I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.” What he wants (and what is lost in Huxley’s not-so-distant future dystopia) is a distinctively human life.
Digital technology can certainly enrich the human experience and serve useful functions. But innovations and labor-saving devices have always come with a cost. Like the free market that spurs technological innovation, each novel gadget destroys—by rendering superfluous or undesirable—a previous way of life. As Michael Aeschliman notes in a quaint little book, The Restitution of Man: C.S. Lewis and the Case Against Scientism (1983):
television discourages reading and thus literacy, the telephone discourages letter-writing, the automobile discourages walking, the contraceptive discourages chastity, planned obsolescence discourages thrift and permanence.
Social media, we might add, discourages real sociability.
Perhaps subtler and more sinister than the dehumanizing aspects of social media are the opportunities they present for the vices of pride and envy. There is a seductive allure to being “followed” or collecting “likes” on a post. Social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook tap into our desire to be a part of what C.S. Lewis referred to as the Inner Ring. In a 1944 address to a group of college students, Lewis contended that the desire to be liked by others, to be admitted to an elusive inner circle, to be “in the know” and to feel important, was one of the “permanent mainsprings of human action”—and quite possibly the passion that would lead us to moral ruin.
Lewis’ antidote to “the quest of the Inner Ring” was true friendship. His conclusion is worth quoting at length:
And if in your spare time you consort simply with the people you like, you will again find that you have come unawares to a real inside: that you are indeed snug and safe at the centre of something which, seen from without, would look exactly like an Inner Ring. But the difference is that the secrecy is accidental, and its exclusiveness a by-product, and no one was led thither by the lure of the esoteric: for it is only four or five people who like one another meeting to do things that they like. This is friendship. Aristotle placed it among the virtues. It causes perhaps half of all the happiness in the world, and no Inner Ring can ever have it.
There is nothing new about the temptation of the Inner Ring, and true friendship remains, as it was in Aristotle’s day, one of the great sources of happiness in this life. Our modern technologies, beneficial as they are, do present a unique obstacle to friendship. We are frequently pulled away from the people around us—our family members and neighbors—as we sit in front of screens craving the approval of “friends” or “followers” with whom we have never sat down for a meal, engaged in a meaningful conversation, or played a game. Going online to share pictures, keep up with old contacts, or pass along an interesting article is well and good. But social media can become, very quickly, a seedbed for vice and an obstacle to virtue.
If we upload all of ourselves, there will be precious little left for our actual friends.