Getting information from the internet, someone said, is like taking a drink from a fire hydrant. The flow of information is overwhelming and it’s more than anyone can possibly consume. Appropriate use of the internet then involves trying to get what you need from the torrent of information without getting completely soaked.
The mass of information can be equal blessing and curse. If you haven’t experienced this yet, you probably will since, as novelist William Gibson states, “There’s a big cinder block stuck on the technology accelerator pedal, and we’re only gonna go faster and faster, never stopping.”
There are others who believe, like humorist Andy Rooney that, “Computers make it easier to do a lot of things, but most of the things they make it easier to do don’t need to be done.” I do not share this opinion.
I am, admittedly, a voracious user of the internet, and I work hard at getting the drink I need from the hydrant without being knocked over by the force of the pressure. I don’t always succeed, which is why I chose to fast from the internet for a week.
My internet usage is rarely, in my opinion, frivolous. I read a lot of theology blogs, do research for articles like this one, answer numerous emails every day, arrange recording sessions, write notes, listen to podcasts – these are all things that I consider necessary; what is at issue here is determining how much of each I can afford to consume without it being detrimental to my spiritual well-being.
The purpose of any fast is to focus more fully on God by abstaining from something that is not a bad thing in itself, but can become a binding habit if left unchecked. When we experience intentional lack we can objectively study the effect of the absence of the thing we are fasting from. Abstaining from an activity is not necessarily an indication that there is something wrong with it. It is, rather, a step back from something that is precious to you in order to examine it more objectively. Perhaps some of the time spent on the thing you’re abstaining from would be better spent in prayer and reading God’s word, or talking to a friend.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981), pastor of Westminster Chapel in London, believed that
“Fasting if we conceive of it truly, must not . . . be confined to the question of food and drink; fasting should really be made to include abstinence from anything which is legitimate in and of itself for the sake of some special spiritual purpose.”
Anything that threatens the level of our dependence on God as the source of our joy is fair game as the target of a fast. Food is one example of course, but equally valid is a fast from sports, television, or the internet. A fast will reveal the extent to which we have allowed ourselves to be enslaved by something otherwise good.
“The greatest enemy of hunger for God,” John Piper says in his book A Hunger for God, “is not poison but apple pie. It is not the banquet of the wicked that dulls our appetite for heaven, but endless nibbling at the table of the world. It is not the X-rated video, but the prime-time dribble of triviality we drink in every night.” This “prime-time dribble” – or “constant dribble” of the internet – is a problem we don’t often consider; but is it possible to deny that our diet – physical and intellectual – will determine the shape of both our bodies and our thinking?
If we feast on triviality yet only occasionally find time to spend with God, should we expect to enjoy spiritual depth? If we regularly gorge at McDonald’s and only occasionally eat a spear of broccoli, should we expect to enjoy good health?
We sometimes use electronic media to anesthetize ourselves, to dull our senses, or worse to escape reality for extended periods. This feasting on triviality and escaping from reality inevitably leads to a crisis of meaning, which in turn is both the result and the cause of our hunger for triviality. This cyclical pattern ensures its survival. Meaninglessness, as G. K. Chesterton said, does not come from being weary of pain; meaningless comes from being weary of pleasure.
GRAVEYARDS OF INFORMATION
I am a gatherer, a collector, of items both digital and physical. As the number of information sources expands, so does my desire to monitor them; I am constantly attempting to consume more than I can process.
Futurist and philosopher John Naisbitt, in his recent book MindSet, proposes a solution to this scenario: when you begin to monitor something new, you must drop something else. To continue to monitor an ever-increasing pool of information is to create, in Naisbitt’s words, “a graveyard of information”– stuff we collect but never use.
My own information graveyard is pretty big. I have tried to apply Naisbitt’s principle to both my physical and digital life, ruthlessly discarding or selling off things I keep but never use. But in the digital realm there is less incentive to do this since storage costs almost nothing and takes up no more physical space when it’s 250 gigabytes of information than when it’s one.
The questions I keep asking myself are: What am I afraid I’m going to miss? What am I going to miss? What am I really going to miss?
Will I do this again? Yes. Do I want to? Not really, no. There was a price to pay and it did cause some distress. The communication aspect of my life is so intertwined with the internet that a week offline took some time to recover from. I spent a lot of time the following week trying to catch up on all the reading I missed. I went to bed too late, worried about email I STILL hadn’t answered, and spent a lot more face-time with screens than I did with human beings.
With an internet fast, unlike a food fast, there is an opportunity to catch up on what you missed. Unlike a stack of unread books, the internet is an inexhaustible and constantly expanding source of information. You can never finish it, put it down, and feel satisfied that you’ve finished reading it.
You can never, as was attempted by the pointy-haired boss in the Dilbert comic strip, ask someone to bring you a hard-copy of the internet, spend a few days reading it, and then feel satisfied with having finished it.
But still, I would never shun the internet. For me it is a technological conduit for spiritual growth; one that I hope never stops expanding. At the same time, I need to be wary of its endless offerings of trivial pursuits and their potential for spiritual poisoning.
I haven’t completely figured out how much is enough and, like food, there will always be the temptation to over-indulge. But as long as I can see this use of my time like all other uses, that is, as opportunities to strengthen my relationship with God and with others, I’ll continue with periodic re-evaluations, making adjustments as necessary.
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