Let Us Be Attentive.
A case study: How is more important than What.
Development of the individual’s right relation to God and his fellow man is paramount, and that’s why TikTok is evil. And I don’t mean that “all the content on TikTok is degenerate,” I mean that the fundamental structure of it harms man’s journey towards virtue - no amount of posting ‘edifying’ content will change that.
The precondition to this increase in virtue is an increase in self-awareness, not only of one’s interior, but his disposition towards God and man. To grow in virtue, man must be attentive. If his attention span is harmed, so too is his path to sanctity. All of the ancient fathers’ writings centered around this rule: “Know thyself.”
You have a job to do, soul, and a great one, if you like: examine yourself, what it is you are and how you act, where you come from, and where you are going to end, and whether to live is this very life you are living, or something else besides. You have a job to do, soul: by these things cleanse yourself.
(St. Gregory the Theologian, Poem 2.1.78 “To His Own Soul”)
There are two sorts of attentiveness, both of which modern media harm. The first, obvious type, is narrow focus. This is the sort of focus we have on a singular object, waiting for it to alter or working to alter it. The other sort of attentiveness is broad, or peripheral. This is the sort of focus a hunter has on a field, looking for targets and being aware of his surroundings lest a mountain lion come prowling. The object of interest is unknown; there is only a heightening of the senses.
These two modes are often switched between - once the hunter identifies his prey, he hones in on it. But, this decision to switch is from a within, and the lens switching between the two is within the man. The narrow, laser focus pinpoints things; the broad, flashlight focus illumines all. Both are necessary.
This sort of searching and focusing is a pattern that man follows at all levels of his life in pursuit of God.
I have no intention of denying free will. Rather I am speaking of a firm and steadfast disposition, a willing surrender, so that from the one from whom we have recieved being we long to recieve being moved as well…
It is absolutely necessary that everything will cease its willful movement toward something else when the ultimate beauty that satisfies our desire appears.
(St. Maximus the Confessor, Ambiguum 7)
Media itself - just the media, not the content - plays a crucial role in this receptivity of God’s grace.
Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication. The alphabet, for instance, is a technology that is absorbed by the very young child in a completely
unconscious manner, by osmosis so to speak. Words and the meaning of words predispose the child to think and act automatically in certain ways.
The alphabet and print technology fostered and encouraged a fragmenting process, a process of specialism and of detachment. Electric technology fosters and encourages unification and involvement. It is impossible to understand social and
cultural changes without a knowledge of the workings of media.
(Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage, p.8)
And while I love McLuhan’s general theory, I think his idea that media serves as an extension of the self gives an interesting implication in the Christian understanding of resurrection. If we want to preserve our virtue in the life to come, our goal isn’t to make better technology that supplants the human need for virtue, but to use it to work on ourselves, truly internalizing, embodying, and owning this virtue.
Modern media - smartphones, Facebook, and in the worst case, TikTok, both harms our capacity for attentiveness, but then can direct our remaining attention to unedifying things.
But how? Let’s look at a modern smartphone in its (un)natural environment: the dinner table.
When you saw the image above, where did your eyes gravitate? Towards the plate of food? Or towards the really big glowing screen? We humans have a tendency to look at bright and shiny things. The modern smartphone, just from a hardware level, draws the user in and wrangles them into a narrow focus on the phone rather than broad situation-level awareness.
Now that I have your attention, let’s direct you to the stuff on the screen you’re glued to.
And boy, does TikTok make use of that screen. While on a desktop PC you might have multiple windows, tabs at the top, a taskbar at the bottom, or a lovely desktop background, TikTok gives you none of these things as peripheral interrupts, just full-blown fullscreen immersion.
Their marketing really hits the nail on the head, though.
“Make every second count,” they say, and they’re not joking. Autoplay is a central feature, queueing up a new piece of tantalyzing content before you’ve even had the chance to fully digest the previous one, let alone discern whether it was worth your time. Nope, you’re getting whisked along. We are conditioned to expect something new and tantalyzing, we abhor being bored for a mere second, the virtue of patience is lost.
Ours is a time of continual movement which often leads to restlessness, with the risk of ‘doing for the sake of doing’.
(Pope John Paul II, Novo Millennio Ineunte)
“Personalized feed.” You don’t need to decide what to watch. The algorithm knows what video will keep you going. Not actively making a decision to watch something is the same as making a concious decision to be edified by it, right?
It is well known how powerfully corrupt images act upon the soul, no matter in what form they might touch it! How unfortunate is the child, who, closing his eyes, or being left alone and going within himself [or to media] is stifled by a multitude of improper images - vain, tempting, breathing of the passions.
(St. Theophan the Recluse, The Path to Salvation, p.54)
“Transform your look.” Modern media also is notoriously vain and prideful - chock full of cringey selfies and virtue signaling. Why is arguing with someone online so much less fruitful than in person? Why do we have this stereotype of online argument? Perhaps because we can edit and present the best versions of ourselves. We know that online we don masks and personas. We lie.
He that is fond of outward glory and highly esteems the things present… is not permitted to understand himself; so he that overlooks these things will easily know himself; and having come to the knowledge of himself, he will proceed in order to all the other parts of virtue.
(St. John Chrysostom, Homily 25 of the Gospel of Matthew)
“Pause recording.” In the face to face, there is no take-backsies. There’s no spellcheck, no careful editing of our posts until we have this perfect argument that will destroy the left with facts and logic. There’s only the raw display of our passions as we have developed them; the full manifestation of our character. The slight pause or hesitation doesn’t find itself in text. A slip of the tongue can be hushed. We can retake until we have it ‘right’. We can lie about our attitude, and display false fruits rather than our true ones.
By their fruits you shall know them. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit, and the evil tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can an evil tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit, shall be cut down, and shall be cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits you shall know them.
(Matthew 7:16-20, DRA)
With enough willpower, could you use TikTok as a more curated platform like 2010s YouTube? Maybe. You can also use a car as a horse-drawn carriage if you saddle up to its tow hooks. You can use a screwdriver as a chisel. You could post homilies on a pornography-sharing website. Some of these examples are more reasonable than others, so personal judgement is important, but the question remains: are you doing something genuinely wise, or are you trying to justify flirting with sin? Would you be better off another way? Isn’t the development of your soul worth a little bit of missing out on the latest things?
Again, it wouldn’t make much of a difference if the only content on TikTok was Fulton Sheen or Gregorian chant, it would be just as harmful. By using the platform, you are letting your senses of discernment and attention atrophy.
Must we revert back to only in-person communication? Hardly. Maybe for some, as a matter of prudence, this could be necessary. But written and edited communication absolutely has its place (especially in the long-form) - it allows us to develop ideas and present them in their fullest, overcoming the problem of local versus global maxima. But it is hardly something that should come to dominate, and we must vigilantly examine the effects of our communication on our spiritual development.