World Telecommunication and Information Society Day is an anniversary whose purpose is, to quote the United Nations body responsible for it, “to help raise awareness of the possibilities that the use of the Internet and other information and communication technologies can bring to societies and economies, as well as of ways to bridge the digital divide.”
That must have sounded like a very ambitious and exciting goal 30 years ago. But if, having seen pictures of African villagers and Indian slum-dwellers wielding cellphones, you have the strong impression that the digital divide was bridged a while back; if the possibilities of the internet seem to you to have gone about as far as sanity will permit; and if your dearest wish is to unplug your laptop and bury your smartphone in a deep drawer — the hedonic centres of your brain may not be lighting up at the idea that there is an unfinished communication agenda.
There is unfinished business there, of course, but mere talk has become cheap — literally; just think of Skyping people around the world, for nothing. The bottom has dropped out of the information market; there is just too darn much of it. Constant chatter about daily trivia has become exhausting. What people increasingly crave is the luxury of silence: quiet spaces in which to collect their thoughts, get in touch with their own being, figure out what it all means, and come up with something that is really worth sharing.
A few months ago US writer Pico Iyer reflected on this theme in an essay in the New York Times. He noted: the rise of “black-hole resorts” which charge high prices precisely because you can’t get online in their rooms; writer friends who “pay good money” to buy software that disables their internet connections for up to eight hours at a time (I rely on my local telecom for that); and an Intel experiment whereby company workers were guaranteed four uninterrupted hours of quiet time every Tuesday morning. Two of Iyer’s journalist friends “observe an ‘Internet Sabbath’ every week, turning off their online connections from Friday night to Monday morning, so as to revive those ancient customs known as family meals and conversation.” If only…
In the quest for quiet, other ancient customs are being pressed into service. Although Eastern meditation, or awareness, techniques have been around in the West for a long time, they seem to have a new lease on life. An estimated 16 million Americans sustain a $6 billion yoga industry. And there is rising interest in “mindfulness” — basically, focusing on breathing to develop increased awareness of the present — as both a therapeutic and an educational tool. Actress Goldie Hawn, author of 10 Mindful Minutes: Giving Our Children–and Ourselves–the Social and Emotional Skills to Reduce Stress and Anxiety for Healthier, Happier Lives, is the poster girl for the movement, which is in part a response to the distractions that constantly divide our attention and make us strangers not only to ourselves but even to those we live and work with.
But there is a western tradition that we can draw on too, in order to achieve inner tranquillity and richer communication. A few years ago an art film about Carthusian monks living at the Grande Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps, and conversing with one another only once a week, was an unexpected hit in Europe and North America. Into Great Silence, all two-and-a-half hours of it, has no soundtrack other than the natural sounds of the monks at work and prayer, and of their environment.
German director Philip Groning has interpreted the appreciative response to his film as a commentary on the unhappiness that results from having to “design our own personality, design our own plan for life, achieve that plan for life, and then be happy on top of that.” He suggests that being so totally responsible for ourselves is a burden that is more than a human being can bear, but this is what happens when God is not sensed in the world. The monks, by contrast, have faith in God, “faith in the sense of trust, of completely trusting that they are like children in their mother’s arms. They feel like they are in the hands of God, and this is good.”
Perhaps it is that sense that subtly draws Pico Iyer periodically to a Benedictine monastery in the hills near Big Sur to live in the hermitage for a few days at a time. He says he doesn’t attend services when he is there and has never meditated, there or anywhere. “I just take walks and read and lose myself in the stillness…” He finds other people doing it too. OK, he is not looking for God, but why is the stillness around the monastery better than somewhere else — like in that quiet room with no TV at the expensive hotel up the road? Is it just the money?
In any case, silence and stillness are not enough for us. They might be for a little while, as an immediate escape from the din and demands of daily life. But they are means to an end rather than ends in themselves. In his Letter for World Communications Day Pope Benedict XVI shows how silence is meant to serve relationships — with God and others.
In silence, says Benedict, we are better able to listen to and understand ourselves as well as express ourselves. But in silence we also allow the other person to speak; “space is created for mutual listening and deeper human relationships become possible.” We are not just stuck in our own words and ideas but can help “build an authentic body of shared knowledge.”
Much of our communication, the Pope continues, is driven by questions in search of answers. (The search engine has an almost godlike power to deliver the information we want.) But even amid the swirling tides of information on the internet many people find the ultimate questions of life confronting them: “Who am I? What can I know? What ought I to do? What may I hope?” These point to the desire for truth that God has inscribed in human hearts and can, through a balance of dialogue and silent reflection, lead to him.
What happens then, one might add, is like, but even more unlike, what happens in Buddhist-style meditation or mindfulness, as a 1989 letter on the subject from the Vatican makes clear. The likeness would be in whatever serenity and therapeutic benefit is achieved. The difference lies in whom one encounters: for the Buddhist meditator, it is at best the depths of the self, which, he may believe, merges with an impersonal divine; for the one reaching out to the Christian God it is another person — divine and completely other, but the kind of personal being described by the film-maker Groning, into whose arms harried netizens can throw themselves and find not only peace but love.
Of course, the search for quiet and recollection does not necessarily take a religious turn. It can happen in a multitude of ways: a walk in the country, losing oneself in a good book or in a hobby such as wood-turning or embroidery, listening to music, or just sitting in a room by oneself. As somebody famous once said, “Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits.”
But to have the right effect times of quiet have to be regular, as regular as our exposure to noise and activity. As Goldie Hawn, along with most meditation gurus, says, “10 mindful minutes” a day. Where do the other contemplative activities fit in, though? Pico Iyer’s friends who observe the “Internet Sabbath” give us a clue.
Remember Sunday? The way it was before shopping and sport and catching up with household chores and blobbing out in front of TV took over? Now that’s a tradition worth reclaiming. If we could spend one day a week on the old mix of community (church), family (dinner), and individual pursuits we might begin to bridge those communication gaps that are far more threatening to our wellbeing than the digital divide.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.