Sunday, 19 February 2017

Deep work, Sertillanges and the temptations of digital culture

What a difference three weeks make! Well, a small difference here and there. The guerre improbable, paix impossible state we achieved by mid-January seems to be rumbling on. Cardinal Mueller at least appears to want to stand on the right side of the question, even if for now it is only through TV interviews and the like.

One cannot help be drawn back to the landing site of Amoris Laetitia's unexploded bomb. I call it unexploded because whatever the crushed buildings and the crater beneath it, it has not yet done all the damage it can and probably will do. The latest rumours of bad-things-to-come include women deacons to mark the anniversary of the Reformation and Vatican III. The former I believe, the latter I find highly improbably. Still, Vatican II was improbable, so who can tell? If any pope since Paul VI is capable of organising the three ring circus of a universal council, it's Pope Francis.

All that being said, the question on my mind is more or less the same question as we always face: how do we bear fruit in a time of crisis? There is an awful effect of escalation in such moments that is as tempting as the original forbidden fruit. Let me take an example. What the pope is up to, according to my lights, is insufferable. I hardly need explain why here. But I cannot see how that could justify gulping down the name-calling, mouth-foaming wormwood that passes for commentary in some circles. Sure, Jesus called the Pharisees a brood of Vipers and Whitened Sepulchres. But he also knew everyman's inner thoughts and could walk on water. We are enjoined to come after the Lord or to be perfect as our Heavenly Father, but not to pretend we are the Lord or that we can dole out judgment and justice in the same way. Leave that to him. We can only hurt ourselves in so doing.

Yet, as I say, the real question is about how we bear fruit in a difficult time. Our first response these days is to be up-to-date on all the latest developments. It is the information age, or so it is labelled, and to be LinkedIn, Twittered and PM'ed seem as indispensable as breathing, eating and drinking. Every age lives crises through its own cultural matrices, and the glory and misfortune of our age is to live these things mostly through a social media feed.

Nevertheless, the crazier things get out there - the more barking mad the rumours of Francis's next stunt become, the more the ranks of AL's defenders swell - the calmer and saner we must all try to be. Living the crisis through the Internet seems inevitable because, well, how else can we get our information? That is true of course to some degree.

But the thing about the Internet, the thing that not enough people are yet prepared to admit, is that most of us live in the Internet as a swamp into which we are continually sucked, rather than as a river into which we dip for what we need. We are driven to open our feeds not as if we are sipping at tea cups, but gulping like hungry chicks after our parents' regurgitated food.  What we want to know may be important - rather like nourishment is important - but how we access it is suspect.

I have been thinking about this all the more after reading Cal Newport's Deep Work. Read it you should, putting aside the rather grinding self-interest that drives Newport. His starting point is simple. In an age where automisation and robotisation risk destroying major areas of the job market, only high-performing knowledge workers will be able to make themselves indispensable. So much for the self interest.

What follows is a wonderful exploration of how to restore the capacity for deep work in the age of social media. Newport, a computer scientist by profession, calls himself a digital minimalist and has all the latest psychological research on the nature and performance of attention at his fingertips. One of his key arguments - which he proves eloquently and convincingly for my tastes - is that if you want to work deeply, you have to get off digital media and stay off it most of the time. Email too needs a severe reining in, within the limits of your professional duties of course. The capacity of these technologies to disrupt and fragment attention is extraordinary.

I feel daft writing this now on a blog. Am I not calling my readers to precisely this kind of fragmentation? Well, no! But we are all in danger of it. Let everyone look to their own conscience in this regard. One correlation I draw from Newport's cautious remarks on digital withdrawal is this: if you have to get on the Internet, don't do it with avidity. Go in, get your information and get out before the swirl of hyperlink currents sweeps your attention into a literal cloud of unknowing.

One of the most interesting references in Newport's book is to Fr Sertillanges's The Intellectual Life.  I must say I was taken aback to find a reference to Sertillanges in a book by an MIT galactico, but there you have it. Sertillanges was a French Dominican of the generation of Garrigou Lagrange or perhaps slightly older. His What Jesus Saw from the Cross is reasonably well known. How Newport came across him I have no idea. Nevertheless, it struck me as fascinating that in order to find an intellectual path out of the attentional chaos of digital culture, Newport should alight on a practitioner in the Thomistic tradition.

There is a tantalizing dilemma for us all in such lessons. We uber-Catholics are unconsciously proud of our Catholic heritage and roots, as well as jumping mad about the current wave of ecclesiastical vandalism. Yet in some ways we hardly make room for our own heritage. We ought to be the first to abandon our routers and smart phones, and yet we find in the Internet a crucial source of information and encouragement that we do not fight alone.

My sense of this question is that somehow it cannot last. Baptizing the Internet may turn out in the end to have been as misguided as those people who tried to turn rave parties into Christian services.