Human beings are wanderers who roam the world in search of adventure. And this love of adventure creates a need for home: homecoming makes wandering worthwhile. Hence human beings have devised instruments that help them to navigate, so as to guide them to their destination and — most importantly — to guide them back again, to the place where they are at home.
The sextant was one of the most beautiful examples of this: an instrument for steering by the stars, which you held to your eye, and which reminded you of the vastness of the space across which you peered and the littleness of your own ambitions. Our ancestors who steered by the sextant never doubted the fixed background to human life, the unchanging heavens by which they navigated. There was a place they were going but also a place where they belonged. Adventures ended in homecoming, and the need for home remained. Thanks to the sextant they could venture further and still return safely, but it was they, and not the sextant, that chose where to go.
Modern gadgets are not like that. They are less and less our servants and more and more our masters. We think we can use them to achieve our ends, only to discover that they are using us to achieve ends that we had never anticipated and which nobody owns. The adventures to which they tempt us are far easier to embark on than those journeys of our ancestors across the seas. And they seem to be entirely without danger.
We travel round the world with the click of a mouse; we visit friends and strangers on the screen, chat on the cellphone and post on our Facebook wall all the things we want the world to know.We can sit at our desk and enjoy every kind of thrill at no cost in danger. So we think. But all the while the World Wide Web is reaching out to us, and we are caught like flies, wriggling in the suffocating bonds of screen addiction. And it is only then that we realize that we don’t know the way back; that we are sitting at our desk but far, far indeed from home.
The power of gadgets to enter and possess the human soul is brought out by the new vice of sexting. What an adventure, to take a picture of yourself all naked, and send it to your boyfriend of the moment. The mobile phone is there, asking you to do it. And what’s the problem, when nobody sees? Thus it is that girls have fallen into the latest trap, only to discover their nude image in the mobile phones of friends and enemies, in the fantasies of strangers, in the lustful plans of predating men and displayed all over cyberspace.
How to get back home from this one? We should not be surprised that girls, unable to live with their prostituted images, have committed suicide, and that others are finding themselves in trouble with parents, teachers and the law.
The problem is not the use to which the gadget has been put, but the gadget itself. Sextants were innocent means to our ends which had no agenda of their own. Modern gadgets are not like that. They are bundles of temptation. They offer new choices, new visions, new adventures. They stand at the door of your life, asking to take over. And young people, who have no defenses against them, very quickly invite them in.
Parents like to think that, by providing their child with a mobile phone, they are providing him or her with a mere instrument, something that can be used for legitimate purposes that already exist — like letting your parents know where you are and when to collect you. In fact they are providing their child with a new master, one designed by sophisticated adults to take over the person in whose hand it sits.
Unfortunately, because of television and the internet, people have lost the sense that images are morally questionable. All images are OK, provided they are in the hands for which they were intended. The Old Testament and Koranic interdiction against “graven images” extended to the human form, and in all cultures people have looked warily on images that are sexually explicit. This wariness is now disappearing, and the first victims are children — those who are just beginning to be aware of themselves as sexual subjects and don’t yet know the cost of being a sexual object instead.
A culture of resistance among parents could help, of course. There are those who refuse to have televisions because of the rubbish that pours from them. And there are those who train their children to survive without a mobile phone, as until recently everybody did. There are those who allow the mobile phone but not in the bedroom. And so on. But still the problem remains for the majority of teenagers who are left to their own devices, which turn out to be the vices of their devices.
There is only one clear way forward, which is to recognize that the shame that young people, and girls in particular, used to feel at being seen naked is not itself shameful — that, on the contrary, shame is, as Scheler said, a Schutzgefühl, a protective feeling, which is part of healthy sexual development. To teach this to children today, when the whole tendency of their courses in ”sex education” and “health education” is in the opposite direction, will be hard. But maybe one good consequence of sexting will be in persuading parents and teachers that there is no other remedy.
This previously unprinted article by the late Sir Roger Scruton will appear in the forthcoming Against the Tide: The best of Roger Scruton’s columns, commentaries and criticism (Bloomsbury Continuum). This article was originally published in The Spectator’s December 2021 World edition.