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The internet and freedom

By Bishop Arthur Serratelli *

Credit: Pexels

Modern technology enables us to communicate with each other, search out information and enjoy various types of entertainment with an astonishing speed and convenience. Almost two-thirds of Americans use a smartphone. Sixty-eight percent of them place their smartphone next to their bed at night. And, nearly 30 percent check their mobile device every 30 minutes. We have become people who like to stay connected.

Modern technology is reshaping the way in which we communicate, do business or access entertainment. It is also changing us. Surfing the internet, creating work-related documents, using a cell phone, creating an email: all these activities leave behind a trail that leads right back to us. Already in 2000, Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig foresaw the potential of the internet to monitor our every move. “Left to itself,” he said, “cyberspace will become a perfect tool of control.”

The world of cyberspace gives others much information about us. Surfing the internet provides marketing companies the ability to catalogue our likes and dislikes. Then, as a result, market-driven advertisements for products and services constantly intrude themselves into our lives. This constant bombardment of suggestions can change our behavior and even diminish our freedom. It can even create the illusion that acquisition of more and more things is the key to happiness.

Despite the downside, the internet and cell phones are here to stay. Their benefits are immense. They help parents supervise their children at a distance. They allow homeowners to keep an eye on their homes. They make work easier by allowing employees to work from home. They connect people across international borders.

One of the fastest growing functions of the internet is its use as a means for individuals to post their opinions, their political views and pictures of themselves or events. The internet has become an instrument of self-expression. Those who make incessant use of social media seem to be saying that the entire world needs to know and see what they think about every issue or what they are doing at every moment.

Such unrestricted use of the internet plays into the inclination to place the users as the center of the universe. In fact, it allows them to create their own virtual world. However, “the new technological utopia [may be] a poisoned chalice” (Charles Howarth, “Technology is Making Us Blind,” Nov. 29, 2014). Imbibing too deeply of this chalice may actually create a false sense of freedom.

Freedom is not the ability to do what one wants, to have what one desires or to attain one’s goals immediately or without any type of restraint. This is merely individualism in its most extreme form. Such narcissism leads to casting aside moral standards, moral relativism and ultimately social chaos.

Every human person is endowed with the freedom to choose the good, not to invent the good. The moral law, written in nature and given in divine revelation, is far from being a restraint or denial of freedom. Choosing the moral good is the realization of authentic freedom. In our modern digital world, in order to safeguard this freedom, “we need to uncouple ourselves from the seductive devices around us…and rediscover critical distance” (Howarth, ibid.). Time apart from our phones, our computers and the internet, time spent in quiet reflection and prayer, alone gives us the freedom to make right choices for the good.

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