The Seven Deadly Sins in a Digital Age: 2. Gluttony
November 17, 2014
At first glance, the subject of "gluttony in a digital age" might seem almost a joke. However much gluttony might be a dominant vice in our society (and in one of the most perceptive chapters of The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis reveals it to be far more pervasive than we might have imagined), it can have little to do with the digital side of our lives. If gluttony is a matter of over-consuming food and drink, the things most central to our bodily existence, then our use of digital technologies, which we engage with the eyes and the mind, cannot be an issue of gluttony. At one level this is true, just as we saw last week that the core problem with pornography may not in fact be Lust, as classically understood, but curiosity. We will have more to say of this vice, "the lust of the eyes," in a bit, but we must first come to terms with the logic of Gluttony.
Although Aquinas does initially define gluttony in narrow terms as an "inordinate desire for eating or drinking" (ST IIaIIae Q. 148 a. 1 resp.), he subsequently notes that "sin results from a man forsaking the food of virtue on account of something useful to the present life, or pleasing to the senses. Now as regards goods having the aspect of utility, there is but one capital vice, namely covetousness [i.e., greed]" (ST IIaIIae Q. 148 a. 5 ad 3). Regarding goods pleasing to the senses, there are two closely related capital vices, he says, lust and gluttony. In other words, all the lusts of the flesh can be summed up under the heading of inordinate desire for useful things, things that serve primarily as a means to other enjoyable things, and inordinate desire for delightful things, things that are themselves the object of sensual enjoyment. The latter, in pre-modern times, were little more than the basic necessities of life, food and sex. Of course, these too could be viewed as useful things, means to the end of sustenance and reproduction, and this was part of Aquinas's point: that we kept these pleasures of the senses in their proper place by remembering that they served a God-ordained purpose beyond the mere gratification of our bodies. As for "goods having the aspect of utility," these were things like houses or clothing or horses, things that were not themselves consumed, but used to enable us to participate in society and produce things for our sustenance. In short, among worldly goods, we can distinguish broadly between goods for production and goods for consumption; to inordinately desire the former is greed, to inordinately desire the latter is gluttony.
From this standpoint we can see that the great vice of contemporary America, is not greed, as so often alleged; it is gluttony. And this is not because we spend all our time eating too much food (although our obesity rates might suggest that is far from the least of our vices). Rather, it is because, as Hannah Arendt argued more than fifty years ago in her extraordinarily perceptive book The Human Condition, the whole logic of modern economic life, since the industrial revolution, is to convert things formerly seen as goods for production into goods for consumption. Consider the word that economists and even politicians now use to describe citizens - consumers. Whenever we buy things, they say, we are consuming them.
And this is more than a mere accounting convenience. We now buy clothes for the season, planning to replace them all next year; we buy housewares and furniture so ill-made that we expect to replace them within a couple years; indeed, we even buy houses themselves with the intention of flipping them for a profit, or to get something bigger, in a few years time. More and more we buy things not to be used over the long haul but to be used up and replaced, like our food. We do not, as our ancestors might have done, hoard up houses and goods for generations, carefully retaining them in the family to retain power and security - this is the vice of greed. We scoop them up for our present gratification and then toss them aside when we've lost interest.
This short-termism is driven by declines in production quality - most things are no longer made to last - and also by changes in our habits and desires - we have been trained to think that we need a new sweater every few months and a new house every few years. But of course both of these factors are intensified by a third when it comes to some goods, the speed of technological advance. We buy new TVs and new smartphones every couple of years not generally because they literally wear out that fast, but because they become obsolete, as technology generates bigger (or smaller!), better, faster versions, and new software no longer works on the older models. This accelerating cycle of "planned obsolescence" keeps the wheels of industry turning, but it also reshapes our desires and habits, tilting us toward a state of perpetual gluttony.
Seen within this pattern, the internet (and the advent of hardware that steadily reduces the mediation between our minds and the cloud, like the smartphone and now Google Glass), can be seen as the capstone of this process, this move away from permanence toward immediacy. Within this digital world, nothing is meant to last. Facebook may have a timeline that gives your life's story, but nobody reads that; they're more likely to read the Ticker, where new updates flash every few seconds, or to hang out on Twitter. Anyone who has managed a news site, blog, or web-zine knows that it's not the quality of your content that matters anymore, but its freshness; it is as if your whole site is meant to be destroyed and created anew every week. The dark apotheosis of this trend, hard to explain to a mind wired, as our ancestors' were, to a durable existence in a challenging world, is Snapchat, where creations are literally destroyed within seconds of their appearance. In our digital age, we might justly say, the vice of greed, the desire for more stuff, has been reduced into the vice of gluttony, the desire to consume, which has itself been reduced into the vice of "curiosity," the visual and mental titillation that comes from novelty, which we mentioned last week.
Contemporary neuroscience, in fact, has shown that these latter two vices, and with them lust, are even more closely connected than we might have imagined. The common culprit is dopamine, a neurotransmitter that fuels the "reward circuits" of our brains, the subsconscious response mechanisms that focus on avoiding pain and experiencing pleasure. Dopamine plays an important role in our biology and psychology: by spurring us toward something needful to propagate life, such as food or sex, or else rewarding us with excitement when we achieve some task or goal, dopamine helps motivate us, even before the level of conscious thought, to the pursuit of all things that are useful. But it is also a main component of many addictions (including alcohol, tobacco, and drugs). Dopamine is also triggered especially by novelty, helping counteract our instinctive desire for security and stability and try new things (which is why you eat more at a buffet than a single-course meal). This chemical stimulant was indispensable for humans in primitive societies, where lack of resources and limited technology made even small achievements challenging, and the promise of a powerful rush of pleasure helped keep us going.
Even in pre-modern times, moralists like Aquinas recognized that the pursuit of novelty in search of this little dopamine rush, which he described as the vice of curiosity, could be destructive. But with the advent of modern technology, especially digital technology, it has become possible to reward ourselves far more frequently with far less effort. The internet, as Nicholas Carr has shown in The Shallows, is the perfect storm of such stimulation. You know that compulsion you have to check your email, or your phone, every time you hear a chime, or every few minutes even if you don't? Or that tiny little rush of satisfaction you get every time you check Facebook (10 times a day!) and see a notification that someone "liked" your status? Or the mindless browsing through links when you're feeling listless, hoping for some stimulation? That's all dopamine. Worst of all, not merely does this neurotransmitter reward us with pleasure for fairly pointless activities, but it works by repetition, steadily rewiring our brains so we seek out those same kind of pleasures with ever more frequency and intensity. That's why you feel your phone vibrate sometimes when it actually didn't (a phenomenon researchers have now documented), as your brain seeks more little pleasure opportunities. Visual media are far more stimulating of this part of the brain than text, on account of their immediacy, and videos all the more so; this is why contemporary web design has moved ever more toward images and videos, to keep us insatiably clicking.
As these new technologies rewire our brains in response to existing desires, they actually change our desires in their own transient image. This explains how it is that we come to want something like Snapchat; it also explains, to tie back in with last week's article, why pornography has become such a natural extension of web use, and a seemingly inescapable labyrinth for those trapped in it.
If a labyrinth it is, then, is there any way out of this overload of stimulation we have created for ourselves? Some take to drastic measures, like swearing off Facebook for a month (though perhaps it's symptomatic of the seriousness of our condition that we consider that a drastic measure). But this is where the classical tradition of the virtues shows itself still so relevant in a rapidly-changing world. Aristotle's insight of the centrality of habits, we now recognize, reflects the actual structure of our brains, and the neural pathways formed by repetition and reward. And this is why, as we saw last time, Aquinas recognizes that temperance, the re-wiring of our desires in subordination to reason, is a more perfect virtue than continence, the mere resistance of them - although of course the latter may be a key step on the road to the former. Temperance consists in learning to moderate the passions in accord with reason, that is, to choose pleasures rather than being mindlessly led into them, and to subordinate them to their proper end. This means learning again to distinguish between use and consumption. Just as we can conquer gluttony with regard to clothing or housing by asking ourselves what these things are for, and how much we really need, or can make good use of, so it is with regard to digital technologies. Email, and smartphones, and even Facebook and Twitter, can be fantastically useful. But many of us are painfully aware that they waste us at least as much time as they save us. We must learn to consciously ask ourselves, "When does it make sense to use this? Why am I using it now? What am I using it for?" and to ruthlessly restrain ourselves when we can't give a good answer to these questions; only by doing this can we retrain our habits to overcome digital lust and gluttony.
Brad Littlejohn holds a Ph.D from the University of Edinburgh and is the Managing Editor of Political Theology Today, the General Editor of The Mercersburg Theology Study Series and can be found writing regularly at bradlittlejohn.com