It’s hard to imagine a connection between C.S. Lewis and the former Google employee and Silicon Valley millionaire Tristan Harris. And yet a recent article in The Sunday Times (July 7 2019), commenting on a presentation by Harris, contained a subtle but striking message reminiscent of C.S. Lewis. Lewis, a world renowned Christian convert and famous for his creation of 'Narnia' and 'The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe', was one the foremost Christian philosophers of his time. It could be argued, in his magnificent book 'The Screwtape Letters' written in the early 1940s, that C.S. Lewis inadvertently explored some of the cultural features of today regarding internet use. These issues were described by Lewis at a time when a concept such as Google was simply beyond human imaginings (except perhaps by one of the inventors of the computer, Alan Turing and his colleagues in Bletchley Park). A modern slant on this subject is explored of by Harris in July 2019. A very similar and familiar human failing is described in his article.
The human failing this article refers to, was described by Lewis in his description of human morality. He explored, amongst much else in his work, the insidious and deadening affect of good people losing the invaluable gift of their allotted, presumably leisure time, by inexplicably doing nothing. Where the many pleasures in life could be enjoyed, time is lost - inexplicably squandered with potentially happy moments passed “in joyless musings so pointless the recipient is scarcely aware of them”. Lewis was writing firmly from the view point that the devil is at work in these banal pointless moments. The individual described in 'The Screwtape Letters' is losing his faith and in consequence much of life’s pleasures as a result of a new deadening cynicism (Without ruining the story, he is ultimately saved). Lewis states that nothing and emptiness, the very opposite of personal pleasures, are the enemy of contentment and fulfilment. He also paraphrased the 'Book of Common Prayer' which states 'O God the protector of all who trust in you without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy'. The key word in all of this is “nothing” a type of moral emptiness.
Now oddly enough, Tristan Harris is the director of the Centre for Humane Technology based in California. While a world away from C.S. Lewis, he describes a markedly similar response to the modern world and its two billion smart phone users. He depressingly questions the effectiveness of connection on line to friends at a time when communication has never been greater and personal isolation has never been more acute. He describes the typical reaction of a person’s overuse of their screen in a way that harks back to Lewis’s observations over seventy five years ago. Observations such as the following are common place, “I was scrolling for four hours, I don’t know what happened to me I’m not doing the things I love, I feel dissociated.” This is a strikingly similar observation to C.S. Lewis in 'The Screwtape Letters', when he uses the novel format of a devil writing to his nephew in an attempt to corrupt a human by making him unhappy and morally compromised. Screwtape suggests to fulfil this aim, “You no longer need a good book which he really likes to keep from his prayers or his work or his sleep; a column of advertisements in yesterday’s paper will do. You can make him waste his time not only in conversation he enjoys with people whom he likes but in conversations with those he cares nothing about on subjects that bore him. You can make him do nothing at all for long periods. You can keep him up late at night, not roistering, but staring at a dead fire in a cold room”.
A bleak picture indeed. C.S. Lewis, a champion of Christianity, was writing from the view point of a man possessing a strong fate. However, whether in the context of religious belief or otherwise, the broad strikingly similar principles outlined by Harris and Lewis are worth considering. We live in a world of screens and immediate information. Personally I am no longer conscious of a time when information wasn’t at my fingertips. The enormous benefits of instant internet access need hardly be stated. (Ask someone living in an area with poor broadband coverage for their opinion). But there is also something, to use that term “deadening”, in the image of flicking screens, of information and links endlessly becoming available, unbidden and irrelevant if not actually containing material which is hostile and intolerant. Information, news feeds and items of interests (or of no interest) on every description of subject are continually bombarding even the most occasional internet users. Connections, harking back to C.S. Lewis old fashioned observation on conversations, and friends can now exist online with faceless users who are as superficial and fictitious as any fantasy. A two minute conversation with a friend or acquaintance in the flesh carries so much more weight than even the most dedicated online following.
In no way is this article condemning the online world (after all you wouldn’t be reading this if it did!) Rather it amounts to an observation of excessive online use. Such overuse has the potential, as CS Lewis might have observed if he was around to follow internet sensations, of “deadening a person’s best years”. Neither does this article refer to the widely publicised and much greater evils which exist in the online world such as the Dark Net, cyber bullying, excessive online gambling, pornography, online scams, internet hacking and all of the other nasties that exist in the more sinister regions of cyber space.
Ultimately, for most people the extent of online misuse might be rectified by thinking twice before pulling the phone out to check Facebook or a twitter feed while in company or, for no good reason scrolling through empty unbidden material which is instantly forgotten, giving away precious moments of time, whittled away for so little. Because of its sudden and burgeoning arrival, mobile phone and later smart phone usage never devolved any particular type of decorum. A phone call loudly taken in the presence of others is fine. (How many times in a public place have you had to endure such a monologue?) Or perhaps more inexplicably, when observing people out for a social occasion who are unwittingly ignoring each other and scrolling through mindless material, oblivious to those around them. It would be laughable if it wasn’t so poignant. However we probably all have been guilty of some of the above (I certainly know I have wasted valuable time scrolling through utterly useless information, time lost forever)
In conclusion the consequences of excessive internet use may not be as morally dire as some of the other considerations observed by C.S Lewis long ago, before the invention of Facebook or Fortnite. We probably won’t go to hell for our internet overuse. But maybe a little moderation from an endless diet of useless information may be good for the mind and even the soul.