The Smartphone and the Virgin

Santa Maria dei Miracoli

Santa Maria dei Miracoli, Piazza del Popolo, Rome (March 2016)

For readers who are interested, at the First Things site this morning, I have an essay that updates Henry Adams’s famous meditation on the conflict between technology and tradition, “The Dynamo and the Virgin.”  My essay, “The Smartphone and the Virgin,” was inspired by an advertising billboard I saw hanging on the Church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli in Rome last spring (above), which made me reflect on the challenges the new information technology poses for human community and tradition, especially the Christian tradition.

Here’s a sample:

Like Adams’s dynamo, too, the Smartphone represents forces essentially destructive of tradition. In the civilization of the dynamo, Adams wrote, people found it impossible to honor or even to understand the claims of the past. In his essay, Adams recalled visiting the cathedral of Amiens with the American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Adams noticed that Saint-Gaudens seemed unmoved by the spiritual power of the place—by the power of the Virgin, who had made the cathedral possible. Gibbon had felt the energy of Gothic cathedrals when he visited them in the eighteenth century, and had condemned it; Ruskin had praised it in the nineteenth. But by the twentieth, people no longer felt the energy at all. Saint-Gaudens admired the dignity of the architecture and the beauty of the sculptures, but perceived no meaning in them: “The art remained, but the energy was lost even upon the artist.”

The Smartphone likewise acts as a solvent on tradition, including religious tradition. Tradition depends on community—more precisely, on a community that sees itself as existing through time, an idea that is captured in the Christian tradition by the communion of saints. Such a community has claims on the individual by virtue of the fact that it has existed before him and will continue to exist after him. The individual is not completely submerged in the community; that would be a kind of totalitarianism. But he cannot create an entirely new world for himself, either. He draws his identity though his participation in a pre-existing, and in significant respects unchanging, order.

The Smartphone draws the user out from that sort of community. True, the Smartphone can promote a certain kind of community, a network of contacts who share interests, ideologies, even religious convictions. But it favors ephemeral interactions with strangers. It’s very easy to add people to your Contacts list—and just as easy to remove them and replace them with others. More important, the Smartphone encourages the user to spend his time in a virtual world he has curated all for himself. Not to mention the relentless, rapid updating of information to which the Smartphone has accustomed us. What claims can tradition have in a culture that values immediacy over everything else, and that has come to expect an update every five minutes?

You can read my full essay here.

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