By Michelle Hauser
Each passing week of my Lenten digital detox has brought me another step further on a remarkable journey of self-discovery. From overcoming fear of using the telephone to reignite stalled friendships, to unearthing the inspired collage artist that’s been buried inside me all these years, to the realization that the Internet is a poor substitute for human companionship—I wonder what more I could hope for, what new insight is left to be found?
Like some of the Lenten disciplines I’ve adopted in the past—banning goodies such as sugar, cheese and bread—this one is a constant companion. I am reminded of it daily when I think about information I would otherwise consume but cannot. And just as with the comfort food prohibitions, I have learned to go without—to not give in to my cravings. In this case, I have managed to survive nearly 30 days with a lot of unsatisfied curiosity. The indiscriminate wonderings that would otherwise be fulfilled by a quick Google search, or a visit to Wikipedia, eventually do go away and are forgotten after a good night’s rest.
However, the similarities between my past Lenten food disciplines, and this digital detox have left me meditating on the Internet as a metaphor for the tree of knowledge, thinking about the paradox of the apple within that metaphor. At once an Old Testament symbol for the fall from grace and a shining emblem of modernity—representing the enlightenment of our age through the iconic products that bear its name—the apple can be likened to both bad and good fruit, depending on your particular worldview.
My grandmother was a stanch Methodist, a fundamentalist to be sure. She was quite convinced that the Internet was the devil’s handiwork. This is a popular view among many Christians, and across many denominations. On the other hand, there are vast segments of the culture (both religious and non-religious) that see the Internet as the exact opposite—with innovators like the late Steve Jobs lauded and deified, their followers often labeled “disciples.”
And while the extremes of public opinion are there in full view, I can’t help but think the answer to living both productively and peacefully in the Internet age lies in achieving balance. Like so much of what we know about healthy eating, the solution to the problem of information over-indulgence also lies in moderation. There is ample good fruit on the internet vine for the taking, but even too much of a good thing will make you sick.
Also over the last few weeks I’ve begun to see a stratification of what separates information from knowledge—a distinction that had grown pretty blurry through my weary, wireless eyes. It’s clearer to me now that the Internet’s strength is in quick information—breezing in and out of windows and portals—consuming the carbohydrates of factoids and tidbits and snippets.
Knowledge, on the other hand—the kind that might lead to wisdom and understanding—is the protein of life. This is the food for thought that is more likely to be encountered offline than online, a treasure to be found rather than a thing to be searched, driven by a much more powerful engine than anything Google, or even the great Steve Jobs, have ever brought to the marketplace.
And yes, you guessed it, God as the “greatest search engine of all” is next on my list of metaphors upon which to meditate as I stare at the wall and spend quality time with myself this week. What fun I shall have!
Michelle Hauser is a parishioner at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Napanee, Ont., and manager of annual giving for the Anglican Church of Canada.
Anglican Journal News, March 22, 2012