Two or three decades ago, the revolution in connectivity—email, cell phones, texts—seemed to be a liberation from the sluggish communication that had benighted mankind for untold millennia. But today, the demand that we be constantly available to receive and respond to emails, texts, tweets, Snapchat messages, Facebook updates—whatever the newest thing is—adds up to a new kind of oppression that Cardinal Robert Sarah calls the “dictatorship of noise.”
The average teen, for example, sends over 3,000 text messages per month—approximately a hundred every day. A 2014 Baylor University study found that college women report using their smart phones ten hours a day (men were eight hours). College women spend 105 minutes each day just texting (men spent 84 minutes).
The purpose of Wyoming Catholic College’s famous technology policy (we’ve been featured in the New York Times) is to give students freedom—both a freedom from this new tyranny and a freedom for the better alternative. Students are free from the ways modern connectivity shapes (and distorts) their habits without their realizing it. They are free from the power of a “device” to rip their attention from what the moment offers—the stream of a personal conversation, fresh insight as they ponder the thought of a great author, the presence of God as they retreat to the quiet of prayer. They are free from the temptation to be “distracted from distraction by distraction.”
Students at WCC are also free for a culture of presence in personal relationship and conversation, presence to the monuments of human intellect that constitute the Great Books, presence to the woodpecker in the Russian olive or the wild wind bending the blue spruces, presence in imagining the falcon in Hopkins’ “The Windhover” or following the urgings of the spirit in contemplative prayer. This is freedom for silence, where the soul meets God in deepest interiority. Instead of making a digital record of a canyon with an iPhone, students have the leisure to remake it in their stories, songs, journals, or prayers. Perhaps it begins to make sense that the great poets and thinkers of the past accomplished what they did without Google and ubiquitous connectivity.
What exactly is our technology policy? It has three parts: (1) no televisions on campus; (2) dorm internet access limited to school email and selected websites for class (public spaces have full internet access); (3) no cell-phones or handheld devices with wireless or cellular data. Students may check their cellphones in with a prefect and check them out when travelling out of town.
Despite these limits on technology, WCC also sees the vast good that technology can bring, especially to those with habits of silence. The College encourages students to bring laptops for writing papers. The school also has public computers.
The proof of the policy’s success hits visitors like mountain air the moment they step into the cafeteria and see students rapt in conversation, looking up to greet each other at tables, or when they find them outside, sitting on the lawn chatting or relaxing with a book; or come upon students playing the piano in the student lounge—present to each other and to what they are doing. Any college would benefit from such a policy.
Cell phone long ago ceased to be a “useful tool” and began to constitute a person’s social identity—or at least the chatter that passes for identity. WCC’s campus culture creates a unique setting for students to retreat and hear each other, not to mention the still, small voice of God, instead of the din and distraction they leave behind.