The Noonday Demon—Our Metaphysical Laziness
The Chernobyl Effect, Acedia, and the Mysterious Envy of Birds
I have to admit that I’m growing tired of the ‘dopamine hit’ critique of social media (disseminated in the documentary ‘The Social Dilemma’), which gives the impression the human beings are merely sheep being manipulated by big tech like pavlovian dogs; and I’m growing even more tired of the ‘social media is bad because it incentivizes people to behave in stupid ways’ critique (apparently this can still sell a million books); and then (don’t think I forgot it!) there’s the ‘social media has a free speech problem’ critique, which is or should be as obvious as the irrelevance of Johnny Depp’s political opinions to anyone who reads this newsletter.
So, sure to all of that—but it’s unclear to me what new insights any of these critiques really offer.
What are they saying that we don’t already know? And more importantly, what do we do about those problems?
I saw a political pundit say—on national television—today, that it’s concerning that twitter (and big tech in general, he implied) seems to be owned by an oligarchy—but that he’s glad that the oligarch he likes best now owns it, because he’s the free speech guy. It came across as a lesser-of-two-evils argument tinged with unconcealable glee that his political enemies would now (in all likelihood) face retribution for the infamous bans of the past couple of years as the prisoners are freed.
That’s where we’re at.
I thought of this recently because of Jon Haidt’s recent article in the The Atlantic titled ‘Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid’, which has caused such a stir that even former President Barack Obama included it on his ‘Disinformation and Democracy Reading List’.
“When social media changed between 2009 and 2012, it really changed in ways that made it much better for intimidation and harassment. You get likes and retweets, algorithmic citation. It's that petty intimidation of even a nobody tweeting a nasty slur at you. That seems to really affect people.”
What Haidt means by ‘stupid’ is structural stupidity. Humans have evolved by creating institutions that allowed us to “rise way above our limited and incredibly biased mental processing”, according to him—and now certain technological innovations seems to be taking us in the wrong direction. Social media (like Twitter) is a ‘stupid institution’ in the sense that it is a peculiarly epistemic institution—one which generates knowledge—that has actually made it harder to gain valuable knowledge. I get that.
Haidt then recommends a variety of changes to the institution of social media (things like ‘verifying the humans’ on it, while weeding out the bots), as well as proposed upgrades (notice the intentional technological language, which is how we treat of everything now) to political and media institutions—but he is missing one very big thing.
It is the same thing Elon Musk, with his recent acquisition of Twitter, will also not be able to fix.
People can propose changes to the institution of social media all they want—and some, like Musk, may even be able to effect them: free speech, incentives, responsibility. You’ve heard all of this stuff all before, ad nauseum, like me.
But ultimately they are proposing technological solutions for what is fundamentally a spiritual problem. A very specific one.
Social media is not making us stupid; it’s making us lazy. It is making us a very particular kind of lazy, though. Around 1,800 years ago, a word was coined to describe it. And I think it’s one that everyone should know.
Acedia (Or Metaphysical Boredom)
The ‘desert fathers’—those men who left cities (first in Egypt, later in Europe) to go live a hermetic life in the desert, and who were the forerunners of modern monasticism—coined a particular word to describe a special kind of spiritual malaise: acedia, also known as “the noonday demon” or “noonday devil.”
The fourth-century Egyptian monk, Evagrius Ponticus, describes the noonday demon like this:
“He causes the monk continuously to look at the windows and forces him to step out of his cell and to gaze at the sun to see how far it still is from the ninth hour, and to look around, here and there, whether any of his brethren is near. Moreover, the demon sends him hatred against the place, against life itself, and against the work of his hands…”
In other words, there is a deep restlessness and dissatisfaction—with practically everything. He begins to doubt his vocation; he begins to doubt that he’s in the right place; he wants nothing more than to be somewhere else and with someone else; he wants to escape the particular reality that he had previously opted to inhabit.
This acedia, this noonday demon, seemed particularly intense in the middle of the day, when the time was ticking by slowly and the monk would be assailed by the worst kind of spiritual warfare—when boredom set in.
The peculiar malaise that social media has generated—which I propose is the root problem—is widespread acedia: a spiritual laziness and boredom characterized by non-stop, frenetic activity where nothing really ‘sticks’, and people begin to have a passive experience of their own lives.
They float from one experience to another, one tweet to the next tweet, and experience them as disparate moments, unconnected from one another and lacking any solidity or embeddedness in which those experiences and relationships might bear some relation.
Luigi Guissani, the founder of the Communion & Liberation movement, called this ‘The Chernobyl Effect’. It’s as if people have been exposed to radiation which affects their inner structure, making it harder and harder to adhere to reality (and even their own experiences) for more than a few seconds, even while they appear structurally intact from the outside looking in.
In his words:
“It is as if today’s youth were all penetrated by…the radiation of Chernobyl. Structurally, the organism is as it was before, but dynamically it is no longer the same…People are…abstracted from the relationship with themselves, as if emptied of affection [without the energy of affection to adhere to reality], like batteries that last for six minutes instead of six hours.”
It’s as if we’re simply skating across the surface of some very thin veneer of life, never able to sink down and experience anything profound. The batteries never seem to charge.
Tweets are thin. They are disparate ideas, thoughts, trolls, and threads unconnected from any kind of unifying structure. Aside from the replies, there is usually nowhere deeper for you to go than the tweet itself. (There is at least an exception from a person who has some underlying body of work, with the tweets only representing an entryway.)
Twitter is not, as some of have liked to called it, a ‘public square.’ It is a public pile of leaves blowing in the wind that we’re all just playing in.
This type of thin-culture consumption thrives because the things that we’re consuming are empty calories with no solidity, weight, and depth; and the empty categories make us want more. This results in a strange kind of cultural anoxeria: it is extremely difficult in the current moment to find anything substantial or nourishing to eat, and yet we have learned to grow afraid of the very things that are because we know that they require more work than we are willing to put in, and they may cause us to suffer. (Take the prospect of a one-week silent retreat, for instance, which seems incredibly daunting to most of us when we consider the ‘opportunity cost’. I am organizing one of these for premium subscribers, by the way—hopefully sometime in 2023.)
There is no thick structure that holds these extremely online cultural experiences all together.
What is thin is inherently more mimetic. If there is nothing to sink down into, then we are whisked away at the first gust of wind. If there’s nothing real under the surface, then we’re easily drawn to the next thing.
The difference is like looking at the great works of art at the MET versus browsing the covers of porn movies in an adult bookstore.
The problem with modern man, thought the social theorist René Girard, is not that he’s ‘too mimetic’—but that he’s not mimetic enough.
We’re mimetic when it comes to chasing thin desires, but unable to respond adequately to the call of genuine thick desires—like the the one for heroic, self-sacrificial love.
We may have even see that kind of love modeled to us, stopped, and paused for a couple of seconds, and then went right back to scrolling Twitter. It somehow doesn’t penetrate us.
The thinness that characterizes the porn store (to go back to that example; I know I’ve been hammering this a lot lately) is emblematic of an entire way of attending to reality that doesn’t look at anything long enough for its truth to emerge—if there is any truth to emerge at all.
All of this results in something we might call ‘metaphysical boredom’. In other words, reality itself isn’t interesting enough to us anymore because we are cycling through so many different presentations—including so many different presentations of false selves on our devices every day—that many of us have never had an experience of intimate union with another thing (or person) in the world, apart from maybe our spouse. And even that is rare.
(An example of intimate union with a thing would be the relationship that I had with a tree outside of my window in Rome, where I lived for three years. I came to know every single branch on that tree; sometimes I even noticed when a single leave had gone missing when it wasn’t supposed to, or when a bird landed in a place in that tree where birds never typically land. We had some kind of intimate union. I named it: Kh-rah-y (not crazy), just like my wife and I named the bald eagle (Caesar) that visited us every day during our early lockdown period on Lake Michigan during Covid in 2020. I would miss that tree and that bird if they had ever went missing.)
The Envy of Birds
Acedia is caused by a desire for freedom that surpasses a desire for the good. A person stricken by acedia might envy the freedom of birds because they are free to come and go anywhere they want while he is tied to a desk and working.
One suffering from this metaphysical boredom doesn’t want to just lecture birds how to fly; he resents the fact that birds can fly at all.
Bored with our own reality, we constantly peek around every corner to find other realities that look more exciting (the metaverse) and find them everywhere—usually, in the form of mimetic models: those people who model to us what appears like a better existence, one where people don’t suffer from the pangs of desire.
This is the relationship between metaphysical boredom and our fascination with certain models of desire who overtake us because of our fascination with a metaphysical desire that might make us happy.
Acedia is a restless boredom that perpetuates itself by looking beneath every rock, pursuing every path, checking every tweet. The result is an even greater thinning out, more vacuousness, less ability to adhere to thick realities and thick relationships.
Everything disappoints, everything is lame, everything is a meme. It’s where serious art and serious discussion go to die.
This is all closely related to what René Girard calls the Romantic Lie—the nihilistic individualism in which every person constructs their own Empire of Desire inside of their own skull-sized kingdom, where people believe that their desires are the product of their autonomous Self, which they’ve constructed from nothing.
We have, as R.R. Reno describes it, “countless little disciplines” to “to ensure health, productivity, success, and social harmony” in order to create “space for bespoke lives tailored to our desires.” Each of us can be king of our own Empire of Desire. There is even an addiction to Orthorexia. Literally nothing is immune from mimesis.
This acedia, as we’ve called it, is a rejection of any kind of created order. R.J. Snell, in his excellent book Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire, writes [words inside these are for clarity]:
“We might anticipate [those afflicted by acedia] to be very busy and, as the purposelessness of their lives is revealed, increasingly destructive. More than indolence, [acedia] rejects the burden of order, choosing instead the breezy lightness of freedom. Loving self more than relation, and autonomy more than the good, in [acedia] one rejects the weight and destiny of living in an ordered creation.
Addiction to freedom is a revolt of the self against any construction of the world that demands respect or piety, that is ‘thick’ or full enough of meaning to demand our recognition and respect. The weight of reality is viewed as an insufferable demand, as oppression, an illegitimate restriction of freedom.”
This is exactly the attitude of the protagonist of the Czech writer, Milan Kundera (who was also long an admirer of the French social theorist René Girard), in his famous book The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
Tomas, the main character, is a womanizer who remains unaffected by the women he seduces. “Light and free, he hunts for some difference to distract from the boredom of it all,” Snell writes. He makes it a habit to leave his lovers’ apartments after he has sex with them. But after one of his conquests he accidentally falls asleep and awakes to find to find the woman holding onto, clinging to, his hand.
“The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground,” Kundera writes. He goes on:
“The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of a burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are significant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?”
The answer for me is: I have to choose weight, solidity, thickness, even if it means I might not appear to be flying as high as others. I must engage reality at the greatest depth possible, where I am at. Right here, right now. I’ve learned this the hard way.
It turns out that one of the antidotes for acedia—at least according to the great desert father and monk Evagrius Ponticus—is almost painfully simple: he claims that it is hypomone (or ὑπομονή, in Green), which means something like patient endurance, discipline, or most literally ‘to bear up under’.
He likens the solution to taking on a kind of yoke. It means bearing the weight of reality, in whatever circumstances you are, and bearing it without turning away from it—to sink down into it and to not ask to be anywhere else for the time being.
I can chose to yoke myself to a commitment (the kind of ‘transcendent choice’, for example, that determines all of the rest of my choices—like marriage, or a vow, or a commitment to a certain way of life). I can commit to adhering to reality, or taking up some responsibility which requires me to pour all of energy out for another.
Boredom goes away when I decide to come face to face with the dangerous, tremendous, and fascinating circumstances of life, and when I face it resolutely—rather than skating along the ice to the next Current Thing (sorry), which is the eternal return to boredom.
You want to fix Twitter, Elon? I suggest you make it thicker.
No amount of ‘Free Speech’ protection will solve the fundamental problems with social media; we can have the freest speech platforms in the world and it can still be a razor thin place where mimetic contagion skates across the surface and spreads, and I still struggle to make it through a beautiful liturgy on Sunday because my Twitter-brain wants to be fed bite-sized ‘content’ morsels, and I am still scarred from seeing public breakdowns on Twitter and Lilliputian debates about the way to slice an egg.
The mere fact that there is so much fascination with the ownership change of this one particular platform points to the real issue: people are endlessly bored, passively experiencing these changes; obsessed with the structural, top-down changes that may or may not occur (how did we get here?) rather than re-evaluating their relationship with reality and the platform, which you and I are fully in control of. I could make a decision in the next 5 seconds to change my behavior on it. We all could.
So what of Musk?
You can’t pour from an empty vessel, and you can’t give what you don’t have. Nobody should expect Musk to bring a deeper kind of dialogue and more enriching human relationships to this tech platform—at least not anything greater or more substantial than the meme-ified sort of dialogue that he himself models himself on his own account.
By all accounts—and even by his own admission, given the amount of things vying for his attention, and the personal struggles he has had in the past—he is a work in progress, just like the rest of us. He simply has a lot more resources and power.
I don’t think he can fix Twitter beyond turning it into a somewhat less-psychologically damaging app among many. He may even make it worse. Who the hell knows?
One thing I do know: the mimetic contagion around this news has been insane—both the gloating and the hysteria.
We might try to place this corporate acquisition in its proper perspective. In my view, it’s only one more step in a mimetic escalation that started in earnest back in January 2020, and it will not be the end. Resentment (and there is plenty of it brewing) is already bubbling. This is but a minor event in the revelation of what is to come.
Elon Musk is not coming to save anyone. He just has a lot more ways to deal with his acedia.
If you enjoyed this newsletter, I cover many of these topics in greater detail in this recent podcast conversation on MartyrMade.