Is Our Visual Age Making You Blind?

39,600.

That’s how many seconds per day the average American spends consuming media. That’s 11 hours every day looking at smartphones, tablets, televisions, and laptops.

The World Health Organization recently stated that children younger than 2 should not have any sedentary screen time, while children between 2 and 5 should be limited to just one hour per day. Curiously, it appears grown-ups are the ones with the real screen-time problem. A recent report found that adults check their smartphone, on average, 150 times per day. Companies have even created smartphone apps for tracking screen time in an attempt to help people reign it in.

It’s pretty obvious: Our screen time is excessive, technology is addictive, and we should probably stop spending half our day staring at glowing rectangles.

Less obvious, however, is this: What should we look at instead? If we look at our smartphones and televisions way too much, what are we not looking at enough?

The average American spends 11 hours a day looking at screens.

Learning to See Again

Some answers to these questions might come from a philosopher who never owned an iPhone.

Josef Pieper, a 20th-century German Catholic philosopher, thought a lot about seeing. According to Pieper, the visual noise in our world makes it hard for us to see. Ironically, the visual glut of the digital age—70-inch television screens, Instagram photos, and endless megapixels—is blinding us. In Only the Lover Sings, Pieper writes, “We do not mean here, of course, the physiological sensitivity of the human eye. We mean the spiritual capacity to perceive the visible reality as it truly is.”

We see more than we have ever before. And yet our capacity to see what is real, true, and beautiful is occluded like never before.

We see more than we have ever before. And yet our capacity to see what is real, true, and beautiful is occluded like never before.

The well-known invisible gorilla experiment can help explain Pieper’s argument. Participants are asked to watch a video of six people—three in white shirts and three in black shirts—passing around basketballs. The test subjects are supposed to count the number of passes made by the people in the white shirts. Halfway through the video, a gorilla walks into the middle of the frame, thumps its chest, and then saunters away. Half of the people in the experiment missed the gorilla. Focused on the task at hand—counting the number of passes—these people miss something as obvious as a gorilla in the room.  

The visual noise of the digital age can cause us to miss the wonder and beauty of God’s creation. Checking our phone for the 151st time, we will surely overlook the patient hopefulness of leaflets sprouting from trees. The siren song of screens directs our eyes away from the simple beauty of sunshine, shadows, and soil. Facebook’s constant pull obscures our ability to see the faces of neighbors right in front of us.  

There are dire consequences to this blindness. As Pieper writes, “Going below a certain bottom line quite obviously will endanger the integrity of man as a spiritual being. It seems that nowadays we have arrived at this bottom line.”

Indeed, the visual noise all around us can blind us from seeing what is eternally meaningful: “Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in your ways” (Ps. 119:37).

Difficult, Yet Not Impossible

Learning to see again in a digital world is not easy, nor is it impossible.

Though he lived before screens and smartphones, Pieper’s advice for learning how to see remains helpful. He proposes two actions we can take in order to better see in a visually noisy age.

First, visual fasting can help us learn how to see again. According to Pieper, it is helpful to develop a “regimen of fasting and abstinence, by which we would try to keep the visual noise of daily inanities at a distance.” This is, in modern terms, digital fasting. Choosing a period of the day or week to be screen-free allows us to limit the meaningless visual noise in our lives. Similarly, turning your smartphone to grayscale is a form of visual fasting that may decrease your phone usage.

Second, art may also help our digitally impaired vision. Pieper thought creating and viewing works of art developed “a deeper and more receptive vision, a more intense awareness, a sharper and more discerning understanding, a more patient openness for all things quiet and inconspicuous, an eye for things previously overlooked.” The artist must linger over tiny qualities of a face or cityscape. Likewise, viewing art invites a slow gaze and leisurely reflection. Patiently pondering a work of art is the opposite of swiping a finger for more color, images, and dopamine.  

Patiently pondering a work of art is the opposite of swiping a finger for more color, images, and dopamine.

The Treachery of Images, by the surrealist painter René Magritte, illustrates how a work of art can help us learn to see again. Magritte’s painting shows an image of a pipe along with French text, Ceci n’est pas une pipe (“This is not a pipe”). Indeed, the painting is not a pipe; it’s an image of one. Looking at it makes us aware that we are not looking at a pipe, just a representation. Magritte opens our eyes, albeit in a small way, and helps us learn to see again. By ironically calling attention to its not-a-pipe nature, the painting helps viewers consider the reality of a pipe in way they might not otherwise see. This work of art helps us see both pipes and paintings in a new way.

The psalmist also speaks of a healthy and attentive mode of seeing:

One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple. (Ps. 27:4).

Gazing upon the beauty of God’s creation requires eyes that can see. The digital age is making it harder—yet not impossible—to do this. For Christians, it’s a worthy challenge to take up. We of all people have reason to clear away the visual noise and open our occluded eyes. God’s glory is waiting to be seen.


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