It’s tempting to think the technology that surrounds us is drawing us towards a bright future. But maybe it’s pulling us towards something darker – a kind of neo-monasticism.
I wake up at the same time. Every day. Usually a few minutes before the alarm goes off. I pick my morning attire from a selection of nearly identical indigo-coloured cotton jinbei (Japanese pyjamas). Breakfast is a bowl of granola, yogurt and berries, followed by some sort of home-cured meat, smoked salmon or bacon, with homemade bread. I eat this in silence while reading. Usually something inspiring about living well and having good habits. After writing for an hour or so, it’s time for coffee, made every time according to the same precise ritual and carefully measured combination of ground beans and hot water.
This is how I’ve lived for more than six months now. Here in London. During this pandemic. Call it quarantine, isolation, lockdown, or shelter in place.
I call it neo-monasticism.
The Trend Of Neo-Monasticism
The morning routine above is tinged with aesthetic hipsterism. It isn’t meant to be. But it’s not hard to imagine it being turned into a motivational YouTube video. There are so many methodical morning routine videos out there.
This is just part of a bigger trend in the productivity and self-help world, even in the fashion-oriented end of the influencer space.
Everyone is behaving increasingly like medieval monks.
We’re obsessed with habits and rituals. We don’t just write journals and self-reflections, capturing the ways we’re trying to be better people, but we decorate these journals in ornate ways. We embrace minimalism and minimise waste and emphasise the wholesomeness of what we consume. We treat our clothes like a uniform. We meditate to discipline our mind, and we exercise to discipline our bodies.
We’re focussed on being on the side of good in the world.
The Medieval Internet
Late last year, New York Magazine had a special feature with articles speculating on what life would be like in the coming decade. Amongst them was a piece by Max Read, entitled In 2029, the Internet Will Make Us Act Like Medieval Peasants.
Unlike the usual criticisms of internet culture, Read suggested that being online is fostering an enchanted, crypto-magical worldview, where behind every conversation lurks invisible, seemingly mystical forces.
“The internet doesn’t seem to be turning us into sophisticated cyborgs so much as crude medieval peasants entranced by an ever-present realm of spirits and captive to distant autocratic landlords.”
Technology’s Mystical Qualities
This hasn’t happened because we shun technology but because we embrace it. You could say the internet is our new religion, while apps and devices are the altars and churches. But there’s something deeper.
There’s a metaphysical quality to so much discourse today. Beliefs have replaced ideas. An abstract battle between good and evil stands in place of more substantial and nuanced moral reasoning. It’s not hard to imagine the warring hordes fighting it out on daily online battlefields as New Age virtual crusaders out to lay claim to their own slice of the holy land.
“Thanks to ubiquitous smartphones and cellular data, the internet has developed into a kind of supernatural layer set atop everyday life, an easily accessible realm of fearsome power, feverish visions, and apocalyptic spiritual battle.”
Waiting For The Reformation
The social order that included monks dominated European society for centuries before it came to an abrupt halt thanks to the Reformation. Depending on where you study the Reformation, it might be presented as a much-needed cleansing of church and society, or a needlessly brutal upheaval of a system that needed improvement.
But regardless, it feels impossible to justify the suffering, the people killed and tortured in order to purify society.
In a way it feels like we, the new monastics, are also waiting for change, for reform of our social order as well. We’re obsessing about habits and rituals and daily practices because we know so much of the way we’ve inherited doesn’t work.
We are right to want change. We’re also right to believe change will start with the way we live our lives down to the smallest details.
But we’ll need to think hard about the way today’s internet culture is changing the way we speak, and think, and treat the people around us. The way ideas travel from disembodied voices online into our own bodies, out of our mouths, and through our actions.