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Nathan Bierma

Bad Habits of the High-Tech Heart

After the fall

Imprisoned by the Czech communist regime in 1979 on trumped-up charges of subversion, playwright Vaclav Havel was allowed to write only four pages of heavily censored correspondence per week to his wife. The circumstances seemed mind-numbing at best: repetitive labor, relentless harassment by warden and guards, chronic ill health. And yet in confinement, writes Quentin Schultze in his new book, Habits of the High-Tech Heart: Living Virtuously in the Information Age (Baker), Havel found his thinking deepened and sharpened—as became clear after his release, with the publication of Letters to Olga.

The lesson Schultze draws from this for our media-saturated lives is not that we should abstain from technology but rather that we should make wiser use of it. Still, after reading about Havel, I wondered if it may be time to introduce a new term to our vocabulary: technological asceticism, self-denial of technology for the good of the soul, the mind, and the Church. In a new digital century, our circumstances are nearly the opposite of Havel's: textual communication is unfettered, unlimited, and often thoughtless. Adrift in an ocean of information, would we not be better off gaining a new appreciation for dry land?

It turns out that my proposed term has already been used, by John Muether of Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando. "By recklessly pursuing the tangible and the visible, we can all too easily forget that faith is being certain of what we do not see," Muether writes in a Christian webzine. "Christians must place limits on the lusts of their senses, and restrain themselves by developing technological asceticism." (And how did I discover this earlier usage? By searching the web, of course.)

Douglas Groothuis, associate professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary and author of The Soul in Cyberspace, has been conducting a relevant experiment.

"I routinely require my students to engage in some kind of 'media fast,' in which they abstain from an electronic medium for at ...

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