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    etching of Satan falling from heaven

    Hard Liberty

    The Hellish Internet’s False Promise

    By Cassandra Nelson

    March 25, 2021
    • montse grau

      Thank you!!!

    Literary conceptions of hell range from the terrifying to the mundane. Jonathan Edwards shocked colonial Americans with vivid descriptions of a pit of burning sulfur, over which God dangles sinners like a man dropping spiders into a fire. Dante’s Inferno, as much a testament to the elaborate Gothic architecture of the High Middle Ages as any cathedral, journeys through nine concentric circles of grisly just desserts. More recently, Jean-Paul Sartre in No Exit and writers for the TV show The Good Place opted for a simpler, more secular approach: hell is merely other people, placed in carefully selected combinations to maximally annoy one another.

    But the two depictions of hell that most make me worry we might currently be watching its real-time construction on earth come from early modern England. If the playwright Christopher Marlowe and the poet John Milton – who lived in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, respectively – were to spend any length of time in the contemporary United States, investigating smartphone habits and social media mores and rising suicide rates, they would be astonished by the particulars of late capitalism and the information age. But having lived through a time of scientific and political upheaval themselves, they might find a lot that was familiar, too. In their fiction, the possibility of becoming like God is what tempts men and angels alike into damnation; once in hell, pride and despair are what bid them stay.

    Let’s start with Milton’s Paradise Lost. Published in 1667, this epic poem ambitiously expands one chapter of Genesis into thousands of lines of verse, in order to tell the story of two falls: Satan’s from heaven, and Adam and Eve’s in the Garden of Eden. The work opens in medias res – in the middle of things – just after Satan and the other rebel angels have been cast down from heaven and into a lake of fire. Dazed by their defeat, and bewildered by the dismal surroundings and their own transformation into new and hideous shapes, the fallen angels slowly re-form into ranks and debate what to do next.

    The surest proof we have that virtual goods are only hollow imitations of the love and fellowship that human beings actually need can be found in the fact that they never seem to satisfy.

    Moloch urges them on to a new battle. Belial argues against further war, although his motivations are not piety and repentance, but rather laziness and fear of an even worse punishment should a second insurrection fail. The third demon to speak offers a different reason for staying put – one that conveniently allows those who share Belial’s laziness and cowardice to disguise their flaws as pride.

    Who wants heaven, anyway, this third demon essentially asks, when we can be our own bosses in hell? To return would mean singing “warbl’d Hymns” and “forc’t Halleluiahs” to an “envied Sovran.” Instead of such “servile offerings” and “splendid vassalage,” he proposes that they

                                         rather seek
    Our own good from our selves, and from our own
    Live to our selves, though in this vast recess,
    Free, and to none accountable, preferring
    Hard liberty before the easie yoke
    Of servile Pomp.

    In other words, his argument is that although hell may indeed be an inhospitable vacuum, at least there isn’t anyone else around to tell them what to do. Like a perverse real estate agent, this demon frames hell as a potential fixer upper: “This Desart soile / Wants not her hidden lustre, Gemms of Gold.” And then he channels his inner coach to say that if anyone can rehab the place, it’s them: “Nor want we skill or Art, from whence to raise / Magnificence.”

    Less inspiringly, the demon concludes that if their plan fails, one upshot is that they might grow accustomed to living in misery: “Our torments also may in length of time / Become our Elements, these piercing Fires / As soft as now severe, our temper chang’d / Into their temper.” His speech is met with rapturous applause. His name, perhaps prophetically, is Mammon.

    etching of Satan falling from heaven

    Gustave Doré, Paradise Lost, colorized

    Three and a half centuries later, we live in a culture as determined as the builders of Pandemonium to “seek / Our own good from our selves.” This failure to recognize external goods consists not only of turning away from God, but rebellion against any forms of authority at all, whether they are parental, moral, educational, or medical. The dictates and whims of every individual consciousness, however misguided or even malicious, are held to be sacrosanct. So much so that not even the blessings of this age – like vaccinations that can prevent children from dying of preventable illness, or masks that would shorten the duration of a respiratory pandemic – seem poised to escape what Paul calls “the mystery of lawlessness” (2 Thess 2:7).

    What remains when laws are abolished is not freedom, but bondage, to harmful internal and external forces that a properly developed conscience would keep in check. And what remains when the concept of rightful authority has been dismissed – as Milton’s Satan and Plato’s Republic both show, in very different ways – is not equality, but tyranny.

    This modern impulse to make an idol of one’s individual consciousness is strange, given what a limited perspective each of us possesses, in space and time. It’s strange, too, because external goods like trees and clouds and sacraments and other people broaden and enrich our lived experience, rather than constrict it, as anyone who has ever emerged from depression or grief into community and nature again knows.

    But even stranger is our recent creation, through electronic technology, of something very much like what Mammon describes: a hollow vacuum in which a total lack of accountability masquerades as liberty: namely, the internet.

    Indeed, “in this vast recess, / Free, and to none accountable” is a sadly accurate description of much online life. Think of the comments section below any article, and how frequently it descends into vitriol and ad hominem attacks. Or cyber-bullying and revenge porn. Or the ways in which social media has become a tool for disseminating disinformation, and sowing familial and societal discord. Or other uses to which technology companies put the incredible amounts of data they now have to hand – namely, monitoring and manipulating the people who use their products, and allowing other entities to do the same, for a price.

    Presumably the designers of these systems thought, like Mammon, that a lack of accountability would be a boon. The internet allows us to complain, or accuse, or ask an awkward question, or follow an embarrassing impulse, without anyone else seeing our faces or knowing our names. In answering to no one in this way, we are “free, and to none accountable.” But to untether action from accountability and embodiment is to usher in chaos, misery, and harm. Human beings were not designed to view life at a distance and through a one-way mirror, always judging and never judged. We were made to see one another, and eventually our God, face to face.

    Here, one could counter that the internet doesn’t have to be used for nefarious means. True enough. I composed this essay on a computer, and found the internet helpful for looking up statistics and quotations as I went along. And although I did interrupt the writing process more often than was ideal in order to check emails or read the news, I’m pretty sure I managed to avoid any sin more serious than sloth as it is commonly thought of today – that is, laziness. But there are indicators that many other people are being led by the internet into real waywardness and something more like sloth as Thomas Aquinas describes it: acedia, a weighty sorrow that leaves one despairing and unable to do anything in the world.

    Consider that it’s been just over a decade since the smartphone was invented, providing pocket-sized, on-the-go access to a global accountability vacuum. In that time, internet dating and social media, ostensibly new ways of connecting with other people, have boomed. But despite these phenomena – or perhaps because of them – young people have begun dating less, and are increasingly phobic about emotional and physical intimacy. Rates of erectile dysfunction have risen among young men, which some experts view as a side effect of widespread exposure to pornography. Marriage is being delayed or rejected entirely – a particularly unnerving trend in light of Milton’s claim that Satan envies “conjugal Love” more than any other human bliss, and that his “wish and best advantage” is to encounter individuals alone, when no partner is there to render “speedie aide.” Even with an increase in unmarried cohabitation, a greater percentage of the population is living alone. Not surprisingly in light of these relationship demographics, birth rates have been falling.

    Meanwhile, depression, anxiety, and anger are up. Hate crimes are increasing and mass shootings have become commonplace. Even before Covid-19 set in motion a global pandemic, death and despair seemed to be on the ascendency in the twenty-first-century United States, with a recent decline in life expectancy largely attributed to the opioid crisis and a dramatic increase in suicide rates.

    The data relating to suicides is perhaps most frightening of all. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that suicide rates rose by more than 30 percent between 2000 and 2014, with especially sharp increases seen among women and young adults, and in the use of suffocation as a means of dying. Given the close connection between breath and spirit, it’s heartrending to think that more and more people feel compelled to extinguish theirs.

    Couple those statistics with a growing body of evidence that screens can harm developing brains – and, less measurably but more importantly, developing souls – and you can see why one former Facebook employee strives, like many parents in Silicon Valley, to keep her own kids as far away from technology as possible: “I am convinced the devil lives in our phones.”

    etching of Satan in a crevasse

    Gustave Doré, Satan’s Flight Through Chaos, colorized

    The internet resembles Milton’s hell in that both are abstract, both are isolating, and both only ever offer a simulacrum of the goods that created beings actually need.

    The word “abstract” comes from the Latin abstractus, meaning “drawn away.” There’s no there there to the internet’s virtual realm. Christian thinkers going back to Augustine have posited that creation constitutes a pouring forth of God “physically into the world of things,” as Flannery O’Connor put it. The created world is good, and was intended to be enjoyed and stewarded. The virtual world copies the created world – sometimes quite stunningly, sometimes even seeming to outdo the original – but it lacks heft and sustenance. Sunlight powers photosynthesis and everything else, feels good on the skin, lifts the spirit. But as J. F. Powers, another mid-twentieth-century Catholic writer, said in a letter, there is “no heart, no food value, in fluorescent light.” Nor, I might add, in pixels.

    At the park or the beach on a sunny day, we are likely to encounter others and perhaps to smile at them. When interacting with a screen, we abstract ourselves from our surroundings and the people physically closest to us. Anyone who has watched an entire subway car of individuals absorbed into their phones, oblivious to those around them, or who has suddenly snapped to attention, shocked to discover how much time has elapsed while mindlessly clicking and scrolling, will recognize what I mean.

    “I am convinced the devil lives in our phones.”

    The Pokémon Go craze of a few years ago provides an interesting case study of this abstracting phenomenon. This “augmented reality” game uses the GPS and camera functions on a smartphone to make it look as though players are finding and capturing virtual creatures, called Pokémon, in real-world settings. From its debut in July 2016 until May 2020, Pokémon Go caused at least twenty-two deaths and sixty-one injuries, mostly by rendering people oblivious of their surroundings. Some players fell off cliffs; others were stabbed; more than a few were hit by cars, or used their cars to hit passersby – all while chasing phantoms. Less picturesquely, thousands of lives are lost each year because drivers are distracted by their phones.

    With early modern literature as our guide, we might interpret this kind of intentional or accidental withdrawing from the goodness of the created world – and concomitant forfeiting of concern for our fellow creatures, along with the exercise of our own will and intellect – as a form of hell on earth.

    In Christopher Marlowe’s 1592 play Doctor Faustus, a German scholar sells his soul to the devil in exchange for twenty-four years of earthly power (hence the expression “Faustian bargain”). Mephostophilis, the demon who draws up the contract for Faustus’s soul, is enveloped by a pocket of hell wherever he goes. “How comes it then that thou art out of hell?” Faustus asks at their first meeting. “Why this is hell, nor am I out of it,” Mephostophilis replies. In Paradise Lost, too, Satan discovers that damnation has no fixed geographical boundaries: “Which way I flie is Hell; my self am Hell.”

    Like these traveling pockets of hell, virtual abstraction leaves one stranded and peculiarly alone. For a moment, one is truly isolated – from the late Latin isolatus, “made into an island” – from creation, from other people, and even from oneself. And that island effect remains in place even as we engage in allegedly “social” aspects of electronic media.

    The most egregious examples are easy to see: An adolescent is driven to despair by relentless, round-the-clock bullying online – or even just unable to concentrate on her homework because she’s too preoccupied with the response to her latest picture on Instagram. A man loses his job as a machinist – and in the process his sense of identity and self-worth – and tumbles into an echo chamber of blame, paranoia, and hate (against a particular racial or religious group, for instance), as he tries to make sense of his changed status. For every person who cheerfully uses social media to stay in touch with distant friends, another is haunted by the happiness that everyone else seems to possess and that he or she lacks. Even the most innocuous dabbling in Facebook – “liking” pictures of relatives’ children, or admiring the view from a coworker’s vacation rental – is actually, on some level, a lonely game: a means of data-gathering for the “liker” and validation for the “liked.”

    The pandemic has worsened these circumstances in every way, as so many aspects of our social, educational, professional, and religious lives moved by necessity online. This was done in the interest of protecting the most vulnerable, but it has come at a great cost, especially to the young. One danger now is that “our torments” may become our “our Elements” – that we might not be able to relinquish them. A friend tells me that the college where she teaches has started to offer “hybrid classes,” in which students can decide whether to take their courses in-person or online. (She meanwhile must somehow teach them all simultaneously, addressing both the students who are present, those on Zoom, and those who will watch the seminar online later.) Many students, she says, are choosing to continue with virtual learning, despite its intrinsic drawbacks. If her experience is any indication of what is to come, we may find that a year of isolation has left us with habits it will be difficult to undo.

    And that would be a tragedy. To really thrive, human beings need embodiment and community: rooms echoing with shared laughter, shoulders to cry on, hands to help move boxes or to deliver casseroles after a birth or a death. At best, the virtual world provides a hollow imitation of these goods; at worst, it offers us a panicked and solitary clutching at validation that leaves us feeling ever more alone. By privileging individual acquisitiveness (how many “Facebook friends” do you have? Is it enough?) and control (“I’ll unfollow her and she’ll never even know”), social media threatens to flatten relationships into another commodity. In doing so, it robs us of a chance to experience the reciprocity and sheer potential for joyful surprise that comes from loving and respecting another human being whose intellect and will is valued precisely for being independent of our own.

    Perhaps the surest proof we have that virtual goods are only hollow imitations of the love and fellowship that human beings actually need can be found in the fact that they never seem to satisfy. The more we consume them, the hungrier we feel. In 2014, Americans spent an average of nine and a half hours a day staring at screens. By 2018, our per capita daily screen time was over eleven hours. Apples-to-apples comparisons for the pandemic are hard to find at this point, but given the rise in working from home, virtual schooling, and compulsive doomscrolling or equally compulsive escapism, there’s no question that we are spending more of our day online than ever before. We could get our daily screen time up to sixteen hours a day, or twenty, and still not feel full. In C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, a more experienced demon coaches his nephew on how to replace real goods with perverse imitations: “An ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula.”

    And, as Milton predicted, Mammon lurks nearby. Every time a concrete, relational good is replaced by an abstract, egocentric imitation of that good in the twenty-first-century United States, you can rest assured that someone is making money off of the arrangement. Perhaps the purveyors of social media recognize their wares as brummagem, and perhaps they do not. Either way, they have a financial incentive to ensure that users stay lonely and dissatisfied, while retaining a false sense of empowerment (“free, and to none accountable”), so that the swipes and clicks – and subsequent advertising dollars – will keep rolling in. Churches and educational institutions operate online more from necessity than profit, one hopes, but may still want to cultivate a healthy skepticism of virtual connection.

    Here, too, Milton provides us with a vivid picture of the emptiness of imitation goods. Near the end of Paradise Lost, Satan and the fallen angels are punished with a mirage of the tree that tempted Adam and Eve. Over and over, they bite into its fruit, trying to quench their hunger and thirst. Over and over, the fruit is transformed into “bitter Ashes” in their mouths. Unlike Adam and Eve – who repent of their sin and set out to labor in exile, that they might restore through humility, wandering, and work their relationship with one another and with God – the demons never seem to learn their lesson. Each time the tree appears, they rush at it ravenous and forgetful, and end up with a mouthful of dust. I leave it to you to consider how the average pre-pandemic American, statistically speaking, who felt unfulfilled by nine hours of internet browsing a day and decided to scroll for ninety minutes more, might be in a similar boat.

    On the bright side, the direness of this situation provides its own silver lining. In my experience, many people are so isolated and ignored that if you provide even a touch of human kindness – a comment on a nametag at the bank, a question about a class ring in the checkout line – they’ll open up like a flower, at least for a moment. As an English professor, I banned laptops from my classroom, saying that we had faces and voices and ought to use our time together to take advantage of them. At the start of the semester, this was met with groans; at the end of the semester, with relief, because students had experienced the joys of camaraderie and learning. (Recently my only pupil has been my toddler daughter, but I think frequently of teachers who are navigating online education with sympathy and admiration.)

    We were made to see one another, and eventually our God, face to face.

    So the kernel of hope to be found in the present epidemic of despair is that it means our appetites are still intact; and in the extreme losses of the pandemic, we may recognize more clearly what we’re missing. As human beings, we have a need for external sustenance because, as Milton puts it, “whatever was created, needs / To be sustained and fed.” Those people who can be coaxed to venture outside of themselves – and reintroduced to the kinds of real, concrete, relational goods that exist as unshakably as they ever have – just might find themselves hungry enough to consider making a change.

    If they do, they’ll find that not only damnation, but salvation, will accommodatingly come to meet us in the here and now. In another book, The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis writes that “both processes begin even before death.” The lost will find that even the exciting parts of sin become retroactively laden with “dreariness,” while to the saved, even “forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven.” To be released from hell is to watch healing and redemption move back through one’s life, in “the opposite of a mirage. What seemed, when they entered it, to be the vale of misery turns out, when they look back, to have been a well; and where present experience saw only salt deserts, memory truthfully records that the pools were full of water.”

    The work of building a peaceable kingdom is much slower going than fomenting misery online, but even so, there is nothing and no one beyond hope here below. Until Faustus’s final breath, his better angels try to explain that the contract he signed with the devil will be null and void if he only repents. But by that point, Faustus finds it impossible to believe that he could ever be forgiven. Faustus is damned by his despair; Satan and the fallen angels by their pride. How exactly to shake people out of either trap remains an open question, and an urgent one. At the very least it will require us to rehabilitate the concept of authority, perhaps simply by wielding it as a shield and not a cudgel, to protect those in one’s charge, one person, one face, one voice, at a time.

    Contributed By

    Cassandra Nelson is an associate fellow at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, where she writes about faith, fiction, and technology. She previously taught literature and composition at Harvard University and the United States Military Academy, and looks forward to being back in a classroom someday.

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