For a list of “don’ts” officially codified by a sixth-century Pope, the seven deadly sins continue to enjoy a surprising amount of traction in the modern imagination.
To be sure, these prominent vices are not always treated with the same seriousness as of old. They’ve been used to sell ice cream – the seductive pull of a “naughty” indulgence. ABC’s book club show, Jennifer Byrne Presents, is currently working through each of the seven and pondering their role in literature through the ages; last week the panellists agreed that pride – traditionally the mother of all sins, the most dangerous of the bunch – has become to modern sensibilities much more of a virtue than a vice.
This rehabilitation of the traditional sin-list is a mixed trend, though. A new web documentary produced by The Guardian and The National Film Board of Canada, The Seven Deadly Digital Sins, is a fascinating take on morality and modern life. Talk of moral character and temptation fits oddly with the internet’s promise of boundless autonomy, but a growing chorus of voices questions our online behaviour in just these terms. Poor “netiquette” is being called out, and self-policing standards debated and prescribed.
And The Seven Deadly Digital Sins is a strangely satisfying and successful project. It’s as though these categories were made to describe the ways we act and react to things in the digital age: from envy (comparing our insides to others’ curated outsides on Facebook and Instagram) to sloth (the temporal black hole that seems to open up as soon as we start clicking) to gluttony (food Instagramming!) or wrath (see: pretty much everything below the “Comments” line on pretty much any website).
Interestingly, the interactive aspect to the website consists in a series of statements – “I google myself”; “I wish friends happy birthday on Facebook instead of calling”; “I have an email account my partner doesn’t know about” – which viewers are called on to either “Absolve” or “Condemn”. After pronouncing wholesale judgment, you’re asked “Do you do this?” and then offered a running tally of approval vs disapproval, cross-referenced with confessed guilt and innocence. Do people condone their own behaviour? Do they judge others more harshly if they’re not implicated themselves? Not necessarily, on either count.
Of course, crowd-sourcing morality (let alone moral absolution) is at best a dubious enterprise. In this brave new world of digital selves, perhaps the old categories do have light to shed on what we are like online – but not just the vices. As the priest in the recent film Calvary muses, “I think there’s too much talk about sins, to be honest, and not enough about virtues”.
Honesty, kindness, gentleness, and humility may be in short supply on Facebook, but perhaps the tide is turning. When Jesus reiterated the ancient law, “Love your neighbour”, one self-justifying listener sought to limit its applicability: “Who is my neighbour?” The famous story Jesus told in response is truer than ever of our digital lives: online, literally everyone is my neighbour.