At the time, I’d used the internet twice, once to look up a Russian black bread recipe, and once to check the weather in China. I didn’t have an email address, and I had no idea what a website was. Google came along the year after I left BC, YouTube and Facebook were another six and seven years away respectively. Cell phones were still rare and mostly used by business people for work, and were just phones. Computers still sat on people’s desks instead of in their laps. The mainstream media dinosaurs still roamed the land dominating the political debate and telling us all how and what to think. Being “media savvy” meant reading the Globe and Mail and the New York Times. How little we book-people could have imagined how drastically the world was about to change.
I remember a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon in which Calvin reads the famous Marxist axiom, “Religion is the opiate of the masses,” and says only, “I wonder what that means.” The TV set, with an evil little smile, quietly says, “It means Marx hadn’t seen anything yet.” Now the strip would have to have to add another section in which Calvin’s iPhone says, with a sinister chuckle, “Wait ‘til they get a load of me!”
The social media marketing firm, NowSourcing, estimates that there were more than 2 billion web users in 2012, a 566.4% increase from the year 2000. An article from Techcrunch says that by 2020, there will be 6.1 billion smartphone users in the world, a number that amounts to about 70% of the human population. It is estimated that the “total mobile” subscriptions by 2020 will be about 9.2 billion.
“When you take into account Internet-of-things and M2M services, mobile broadband and even some basic remaining feature phones, there will be 26 billion connected devices in five years’ time.”
Last month I wrote about the physical effects that some scientists are starting to say prolonged internet use is having on our brains. Considering the predictions that over 6 billion people are going to have smartphones by 2020, surprisingly little research is being done on the effects that nearly constant internet use is having on us neurologically. The very, very little that is being done is consistently showing that repeated internet use is actually making us different, literally physically rewiring our brains. Is it possible that the iPhone-toting researchers are worried about what they will discover if they start doing serious investigations?
Researcher Nicholas Carr wrote a book, “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,” in which he contends that the internet has made us into a race of shallow readers with short attention spans, impatient with prolonged reading and in-depth study and thought. I wondered aloud what this profound alteration in our mental faculties could be having on our spiritual lives, particularly in its negation of interior silence, that absolute prerequisite for a deep prayer life.
But today I want to swing the camera outwards to the wide world and ask what do we see has been the effect on our civilisation of the nearly total take-over of our institutions by the online culture and internet technology. What is it doing to our cultures? What effect has instant global communication had on geopolitics? What about the gruesome spectre of Islamic jihad?
Christians and others are worried, and rightly, about the internet’s content. Quite apart from the porn, there is serious concern that the material we are being fed is nonsense; trite, shallow and banal “think pieces” on pop culture trivia and the doings of celebrities. There is a running joke on social media: “What would they think of us in the Middle Ages if we told them, ‘I have in my pocket a device which gives me access to all the accumulated knowledge of mankind. And I use it to look at cat videos.’”
When I was a kid, my elders called the television a number of derogatory nicknames, “the gogglebox,” “the idiot-box.” I remember that serious parents took to heart the warnings of the documentaries and books that children’s TV time should be strictly rationed. They were worried about kids sitting in front of the screen all day while Leave it to Beaver was still being made. What would Ward and June have thought of kids taking the TV with them wherever they went? I know an orthodox Jewish rabbi in New York who has nine children and still refuses to get an internet connection at home. I asked him about it once, and he said it wasn’t the porn, he just didn’t want his children growing up to be idiots.
One of the greatest unnoticed effects of the internet, particularly of social media and the habit of including comment boxes with nearly every article, has been a great social flattening. The internet has made it possible to make true in a practical sense the idiotic notion, first popularized in the 70s, that “everyone’s opinion is equally valuable.” It was neatly illustrated in a conversation on Facebook in which the great British conservative writer Theodore Dalrymple had made some kind of assertion of objective truth, only to be suddenly attacked by what seemed like a swarm of virtual mosquitoes. These were persons of dubious mental ability and stability who dove in and started what they clearly thought was a courageous challenge to the “hater” and “bigot” and his “linear, hierarchical thinking.” The internet had granted them the ultimate expression of their “right to express their opinions,” that they had obviously heard about all their lives from their parents and teachers and the progressivist world in general.
I clicked on one or two of their pages. These were teenage girls, graduates of some kind of London inner city remedial school where these kinds of mantras were clearly all they had been taught to recite. They were little girls, and for some reason, no one had the intestinal fortitude to tell them, “Be quiet children. The grownups are talking.”
And it seems to take quite a bit of spine to stand up to the swarms of online zombies, orcs and morlocks who seem to have nothing to do with themselves but to go back to the same kill-site again and again for another chunk of carrion. The stories we hear in the press of celebrities, mainstream journalists and high-level bloggers being forced to issue fawning apologies, or to quit, by the screeching of the mob over a Twitter post, end that way mainly because of the lack of spine of editors and publicists.
We who use the internet a great deal will have nearly endless processions of such stories. This medium has made nearly impossible the kind of reasoned discussions that adults used to consider normal in printed periodicals and journals. It has done to our thinking institutions, to academia – in which professors are terrified of their students – and finally to the Church, what the most optimistic Gramsciist dreamer could not possibly have imagined. And now, at the bitter end of this parched road of idiocy, a pope who glories in taking selfies with teenaged girls.
Most people don’t think much about how the internet is eroding what we might call “cultural diversity”. Linguists and anthropologists have begun to sound a warning that the internet’s very narrow cultural and linguistic background is accelerating the already advanced process of linguistic extinctions.
Some years ago, I started reporting on the news from around the European Union, a body that encompasses 28 countries, and innumerable languages and dialects. I never had a problem working with the main European languages on the internet, with automatic translations and online dictionaries. But when it came to the smaller places, I had to rely exclusively on my list of contacts in the countries, sending reports to friends and acquaintances in places like Estonia, Belarus and Macedonia. These are places and languages too obscure for Google Translate.
Catch Hilary's regular column in the print/e-edition of The Remnant. Subscribe Today!
“A century from now, however, many of these languages may be extinct. Some linguists believe the number may decrease by half; some say the total could fall to mere hundreds as the majority of the world's languages - most spoken by a few thousand people or less - give way to languages like English, Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Indonesian, Arabic, Swahili, and Hindi. By some estimates, 80% of the world's languages may vanish within the next century,” they say.
“Language is a powerful symbol of a group’s identity. Much of the cultural, spiritual, and intellectual life of a people is experienced through language. This ranges from prayers, myths, ceremonies, poetry, oratory, and technical vocabulary to everyday greetings, leave-takings, conversational styles, humor, ways of speaking to children, and terms for habits, behaviors, and emotions.
“When a language is lost, all of this must be refashioned in the new language—with different words, sounds, and grammar—if it is to be kept at all. Frequently traditions are abruptly lost in the process and replaced by the cultural habits of the more powerful group.”
The narrowness of the internet’s language capability also contributes to the shrinking of our conduits of information. A while ago I visited Malta a few times and fell madly in love with this tiny Catholic island nation that has acted so many times as the “keyhole” of Christendom. When I got back to Italy I immediately subscribed to a number of Maltese news websites. After a short time, I realized that I was going to be restricted to English language sources (Malta was an English colony until recently and is still officially bilingual) because the magic of Google Translate simply had no effect whatever on Malti, the odd, ancient native tongue.
I did quite a lot of reporting on Malta when I did the news and I still believe Malta is an incredibly important country, a major front in the titanic social, cultural and spiritual war going on right now. At the moment, nearly all Maltese speak their native language, with English mostly as a second, but the number of native speakers is declining. Linguists believe that the presence and use of a language on the internet is a deciding factor in whether it will survive the long term.
Because it is physically tiny, with a population of about 416,000 souls, and Malti is spoken and read almost nowhere else in the world, Google barely notices it, and that means the world outside very rarely hears any news coming from that little canary in Europe’s cultural coal mine. Did you know that Malta had not legalized divorce until 2011? They are also the last (yes, the very last) European country that still outlaws abortion. Don’t worry, most people outside the UN and EU abortion lobbies don’t know, and it won’t likely last much longer.
Right now the internet uses about 5% of the world’s languages. That does not necessarily mean that the other 95% is in danger of extinction, but Hungarian researcher András Kornai wrote recently in a paper titled “Digital Language Death,” that the internet is indeed helping to kill the languages outside its narrow range.
“A language may not be completely dead until the death of its last speaker, but there are three clear signs of imminent death observable well in advance…” These are “loss of function,” “loss of prestige” and “loss of competence.”
“In the digital age, these signs of incipient language death take on the following characteristics. Loss of function performed digitally increasingly touches every functional area from day to day communication (texting, email) to commerce, official business, and so on. Loss of prestige is clearly seen in the adage If it’s not on the web, it does not exist, and loss of competence boils down to the ability of raising digital natives in your own language.” [Emphasis in the original.]
“Michael Krauss’ famous remark ‘Television is a cultural nerve gas…odorless, painless, tasteless. And deadly,’ applies to the web just as well,” Kornai comments.
In global politics there is perhaps no other issue so frightening as the re-emergence of violent Islamic supremacism and experts agree that the whole thing is almost entirely fuelled by the internet. How does ISIS recruit jihadists from Australia, from Norway, even from Japan? Would they have been able to do so in the ‘90s? Right now, the cause of global Islamic jihad is mainly run on the internet; recruitment, finance, propaganda and communication.
How does the modern jihadist threaten Catholic bishops these days? They send them text messages on their phones. Asianews reports: “Islamic radicals have texted death threats ahead of Christmas to Mgr. Bejoy D’Cruze, bishop of Shylet, and Mgr. Paul Panen Kubi, bishop of the diocese of Mymenshing [Bangladesh].”
The leftist Anti Defamation League released a report in 2002 outlining this often overlooked fact, saying, “In many ways, the internet is a tool tailor-made for these Islamic extremists, who use it covertly and overtly to plan attacks, raise money, and spread anti-Semitic and anti-American propaganda written in English, Arabic, and other languages.” The report points out that the September 11th attacks were planned using “thousands of messages in a password-protected section of an extreme Islamic Web site.”
Army Brigadier General John Custer, head of intelligence, responsible for Iraq and Afghanistan, said to 60 Minutes as far back as 2007, “Without a doubt, the internet is the single most important venue for the radicalization of Islamic youth.”
The general summed up the power of the internet for jihad; it’s not guns, it’s perception. “It’s a war of perceptions. They understand the power of the internet. They don’t have to win in the tactical battlefield. They never will. No platoon has ever been defeated in Afghanistan or Iraq. But, it doesn’t matter. It’s irrelevant.”
In May 2015, Reuters reported, “Since the May 4th attack by two gunmen in Garland, Texas, the top US spymasters have been taking turns to ring the alarm bells about ISIL’s growing internet threat. FBI director James Comey has warned that the terrorist organization has ‘thousands’ of online followers in the US. Homeland security secretary Jeh Johnson has raised the specter of lone-wolf jihadists who can ‘strike at any moment.’ And Mike Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, has noted that the group’s ability to recruit online is ‘clearly increasing.”
In 2007, when General Custer made his remarks to 60 Minutes, the US believed there were about 5000 jihadist recruitment websites. Immediately after the November Paris attack, an internet hacker group calling themselves Anonymous, made a comprehensive sweep of social media looking for anyone using Twitter or Facebook or other sites who was associated with ISIS or other radical Islamic supremacist organisations. The result was more than 10,000 Twitter accounts being deleted. But this is a drop in the internet’s colossal bucket.
As for the internet’s use as a direct tool in geopolitics, we know that the power of communication it lends to organised subversives like the Muslim Brotherhood can topple governments. Analysts agree that had there been no Twitter, there would not have been an “Arab Spring,” with all the long term and disastrous consequences, especially for Christian communities, of the rise to power of Islamic extremist regimes – and finally ISIS. In the case of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution protesters in Cairo organised themselves almost exclusively through Facebook and Twitter accounts, and radical Muslim Brotherhood connected imams took control through these conduits.
Something that tends to get forgotten in the popular image of ISIS – mostly depicted as throwback medieval savages with guns – is their incredible proficiency with social media and the internet in general.
There’s more. There’s a lot more that we haven’t even begun to think about. What has the instant global communication capability done to government? To global finance? To the corporatization of agriculture and other food sourcing work? What is the internet’s contribution to the power of the LGBT lobbies at the UN and EU and the whole gender/feminist ideology? How is it being used right now by Putin’s Russia to spread disinformation in the West?
What we do know, just from direct observation, is that the internet as a medium has brought us the final products of Modernia, the globalization of institutional stupidity, the glorification of pig-ignorance, shallow thinking and venal aspirations.
With the internet, we have finally come to understand completely what the Canadian philosopher and media theorist Marshall Macluhan meant by his most famous expression, “the medium is the message.” The internet is Modernia’s message to mankind: everything is trivia, nothing really matters, there is nothing deep and nothing transcendent; nothing is really Real.
Our usual reaction as bookish Catholic Traditionalists is to retreat. We look at the world gone mad and our instinct is to try to find a way to build a barricade. But is this the right way? It is clear that the internet is not about to collapse. Nor is there going to be a great spontaneous global realisation of the error of our ways and a return to a human scale of life. And because of its complete decentralization the internet really can’t be killed (yes, I looked it up.) Even massive natural disasters, tectonic shifts and huge mega-storms would only temporarily knock out parts of it in some parts of the world.
So how do we deal with the new world it has created? We Trads have used the internet, perhaps somewhat belatedly, to organise our little movement and help it grow. The Church has had the benefit of up-to-the-minute bloggers through the last two Synods that made it impossible for the ecclesiastical revolutionaries to get away with as much as they wanted. Certainly without the internet a great deal of the progress made to restore Tradition over the last three decades would not have happened. But something I have noticed is our tendency to love safety. We preach mainly to each other.
The other day someone asked me what I thought the solution was to global jihad. I said that clearly it is impossible to stop it through force of arms. You do not stop a heresy – which is what Islam is – simply by going to war, as the Crusaders found out. The most you can do with armies is contain the physical threat. And even that has mainly failed recently.
I then said that I had once met some fundamentalist Protestant missionaries who went into countries where owning a Bible was a capital offense, and started underground study and prayer groups. They did what we should be doing, though they could have been killed for it. They knew the urgency of the Great Commission, as we Catholics had forgotten or from which we had become distracted by our civil war.
As uncomfortable as the conclusion is, there really is only one way out, and that is to complete the task we were given two millennia ago. The pope might not like it, but I said that the only way forward is an aggressive campaign by all remaining Catholics of proselytism, of preaching, teaching and conversion. I have no answer about the interminable debate over how much we can use the internet to bring this about, but the internet itself shows us daily of the extreme urgency of this task.