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“The Social Dilemma” and the Silent Carthusians

October 6, 2020


The new Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma—a film about the dark side of social media explained by the Silicon Valley innovators behind it—is a kind of public service for the digital age. Most of us talk about how addictive our smartphones are. We are concerned about the role social media is playing in the rise of outrage and polarization in adults, and isolation and depression in kids. Some might even already be aware of the mechanics behind all of this. But this documentary offers a full look behind the curtain to anyone who wants to see it—and it’s not pretty. One particularly impressive figure is Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist and the co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology. Harris has coined the phrase “human downgrading.” Technology, he argues, is “downgrading our attention span, our relationships, civility, community, habits”—and all very much by design. The result is that we are less and less in control of ourselves than we think. “People really haven’t realized that technology is holding the pen of history right now.”

This dilemma hasn’t escaped the attention of Pope Francis. In his latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, the pope references “texting” (49), “mobile devices” (44), and “social networks” (200)—the first papal encyclical to directly reference these three things—and dedicates a whole section to “the illusion of communication” online. Those familiar with Laudato Si’ know that the pope can be highly critical of modern technology, and his assessment of the digital world is no different. Pope Francis argues that it is contributing to a lack of privacy and laying bare of people’s lives “anonymously” (43); “campaigns of hatred and destruction” (43); “social aggression” (44); ideological influence and “fake news” (45); “fanaticism” even among Christians, and “defamation and slander” even in Catholic media (46); enclosed virtual circles (47); and the spread of “information without wisdom” (47-50). He later writes that the internet affords us “immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity” (205), but it’s safe to say his assessment of the current state of digital communication is largely negative.

So what do we do? We certainly can (and should) make our voices heard, and join Harris and others in demanding more humane, ethical, and regulated digital technology. But in the short-term, we might follow the philosopher Kierkegaard’s prescription, which is all the more relevant in 2020: “The present state of the world and the whole of life is diseased. If I were a doctor and were asked for my advice, I should reply: Create silence!” Pope Francis, too, mentions silence three times in his section on digital technology.

But let’s face it: silence is a difficult and even frightening thing for many of us. We could use a rope to pull us there, a glimmer of the promise of its rewards: its healing, its beauty, its endless mystery. Into Great Silence, a documentary that the New York Times described as an “engrossing, entrancing” film, offers that glimmer. Released fifteen years ago—the year after Facebook launched—its power and importance only grows with time. As a movie, it enters our media-oriented world; but as a movie about monastic silence, it opens us up to a world beyond it.

The film trailer features one of the greatest hooks of all time: “In 1984 director Philip Gorning asked the Order of the Carthusians for permission to film them. He was told that it was too soon. Perhaps in ten or fifteen years. . . . Sixteen years later came a call from the ‘Grand Chartreuse’ monastery. The time had come.” The message is immediately clear: this is not only a world that doesn’t play by the rule of instantaneousness—in fact, it’s a world with a radically different relationship to time. The Carthusian motto, in a way, tells us everything: Stat crux dum volvitur orbis. “The cross is steady while the world is turning.”

The Carthusians, founded in 1084 by St. Bruno (whose feast day is October 6), are an order of Catholic monks that emphasize silence, solitude, and the contemplation of God. The word “Carthusian” is derived from the Chartreuse Mountains west of the French Alps, where the Grand Chartreuse—the head monastery of the order and the focus of the documentary—still exists. We are invited to be onlookers in this unique and sacred space, flies on the wall of the monastic cells, refectory, and workspaces where the monks pray, eat, and labor—mostly by themselves, and mostly in complete and utter silence.

If there is a “plot,” it is the arrival of a new member of the order, who is a kind of stand-in for the viewer as he is steadily drawn into their world. But the film is not so much a story as an experience; the camera gazes at the different monks going about their daily prayer, and lingers on their own gaze back at us. It captures (often in 8mm) the still-life serenity of their halls, candles, books, wood, cloth, fruit, and holy water. It draws us into their smallest gestures for one another, their most mundane tasks—all in the ocean of silence, and all imbued with a heightened sense of care and thoughtfulness.

The monks don’t forsake technology, speech, or even fun. In one scene, a monk mentions taking a flight to Seoul the next day; in another, they engage in a rare period of conversation (which, though it is about the simple idea of handwashing, is so friendly and joyful that it almost sounds like music); toward the film’s end, some monks hoot and holler as they slip and slide through snow. But the Carthusians limit these things so as to discover their true place and their purpose. They appreciate them without being enslaved to them.

It’s a slow, steady, rhythmic experience that is likely to yield the same epiphany, the same “Wow” moment, at different moments for different people: this silence speaks. It is not passivity but presence; not hollowness but fullness; not a lack of meaning but an abundance of it. These men are not running from the world; they are running toward a deeper awareness of it, of themselves, and ultimately of God, who is the Speaker. Spiritual quotes are peppered through the film, including this passage from 1 Kings: “Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:11–12).

Is the answer to the social dilemma joining the Carthusians or some other monastic order? Who knows—for some, it may well be. Most of us, however, will remain “plugged in” and continue to have busy, noisy lives. But Into Great Silence offers us a glimpse into a way of life that can be incorporated into our own in different ways: eliminating the “extra” noise and opening ourselves up to more silence; doing our daily work humbly and lovingly without moaning and groaning; turning our car into a portable monastery during a long commute; using the pandemic as an opportunity for greater monastic study; taking a weekly “Sabbath rest” from social media; regularly entering into the silence of the Adoration chapel up the road—or a perpetual Adoration feed online. We can bring something of the Carthusian (or Benedictine) spirit into the digital world, cutting down on all the chatter and noise and being humble, prayerful, and simply present.

The internet and social media are powerful gifts that can do great good. But their very power is what threatens to make us lose sight of ourselves, of each other, or of reality. In making the conscious effort to let the great silence of God be what reforms us, we stand firm, and can better work to reform our digital lives—and the digital world itself.

(Into Great Silence is available for free on Kanopy, a streaming service accessible to participating public libraries, colleges, and universities.)