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Lent and the shackles of cyberspace

BY COLIN GILBERT | MARCH 6, 2009 7:22 AM

For some, favorites are chocolate and snack food. Some give up driving for biking or even walking.

Some choose cigarettes, just when the glaciers have finally retreated and it’s finally warm enough step out of the bar for an enjoyable fix. Maybe 40 days of sobriety on top of that. Or no reality TV.

A friend of mine has given up cheese. Lent, the great celebration of all those pleasant little ornaments we sprinkle around our lives, is here.

But something new is shifting its weight around on a few of the higher tiers of Catholicism, a more modern approach to subduing the temptations of our glittering world. Several dioceses, most vocally the archdiocese of Modena, call for abstinence not from the evils lurking in the corners of the world but a good chunk of the world itself: technology. IPods, digital cameras, cell phones, video games, texting, web surfing, Twittering; we must be cautious about these things. Archbishop Benito Cocchi is especially eager for a “no SMS on Friday” commitment from good Catholics everywhere: I suppose as good a thing as any to substitute with fish, as long as we’re on that roll.

“It’s a small way to remember the importance of concrete and not virtual relationships,” the Modena diocese said.

I guess I see his point. I’m a bit technophobic by default, and something about the series of removes set up with all my options for electronic communication throws me. We call the online profiles we fabricate for ourselves avatars, after all — it’s deliciously appropriate that we distill from our actual, messy, often incoherent selves a sort of incorporeal incarnation out there in the ether, but that doesn’t mean the idea doesn’t creep me out. I don’t think a text message should read like a full conversation when just calling the person would accomplish the same damn thing, in 30 seconds instead of 10 minutes of mute clicking. (And it’s usually the kind of prattle that makes me cringe when I hear it aloud anyway, let alone read in caveman cryptography: “where r u?” “dtown” “im @ summit beth jon and carly here” “cool” “later?” “maybe i have homework” “boo come out” “ok meet 7,” etc.) And if someone uses the word “tweet” with a possessive adjective one more time …

So I’d have expected to be thrilled that technology and its relentlessness were being curbed from on high. But as much as cyberspace intimidates me, I recognize it as a rich, legitimate, evolving world.

We’ve wielded the power of godhead, creating a space of geography and ecology as real as our physical, except that instead of guiding itself by classical physics it operates on pure information.

Technology is laced through us, now, a distinct but indivisible aspect of reality. Even I have an iPod.
(Who am I kidding, I’ll be hearing “my tweet” until Twitter becomes passé for being too wordy, which may take an interminable five or six months until we can just stream blog entries from our minds on the 4G network).

Equating a medium of information with our gluttony for it is wrongheaded. I’ve heard countless invectives against alcohol thanks to my family’s skill at self-destructing with it, and Lord knows I could cut back on the firewater, but the substance, the thing itself, isn’t evil. Browsing the web? Typing a message? Listening to music? Not evil. Which is what Lent is supposed to emphasize, that personal restraint is a part of the spiritual earthworks, not to condemn the worldly pleasures or conveniences, the cigarettes, the cheese. But the diocesan pressure against technology’s ubiquity is too blunt. Everything in moderation, folks, that’s what it comes down to, but if the fabric of the world is such that “natural” or “human” interaction is comprised of texts, tweets and technobabble then the sermon becomes simply “Do it differently.” The point is to remind us to be mindful of ourselves and our overindulgences, not curse that which we see as somehow invasive and threatening … especially when by this point children are growing up with this stuff, emerging into cyber reality as a normal, and necessary, environment. It’s what we do when we’re at play in our digital fields that counts, not fencing them up.


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