Friendship in a Time of Cyberattack

On Thursday, August 22, I drove to work expecting to finish my course descriptions and syllabi a full five days before my first classes. But on the way I heard that the computer system at Regis had been invaded by malware. Josh Evans, a friend and colleague who teaches medical ethics, saw on his drop-box files early that morning words to the effect of “Regis, read this: your files have been encrypted with a military level encryption. If you want them, here is the contact information and here is how much money we want.” No one on campus knew exactly what was going on, but by the end of the day it sounded like Josh’s story was right: we were under a cyberattack. Once the IT department realized what had happened, in the middle of the night before, the entire system was shut down. Everything was off: the Regis website, email, WorldClass student resources, computers, Wi-Fi, copying and scanning systems, and telephones. The Denver Post ran a headline about the crisis a few days later: “Regis University unplugged.”

Like many of us, I had read about the fragility of the web, along with the news of a string of incidents: the North Korean attack on SONY Pictures, the breach of security at Target, Equifax, Capital One, the hacking of the City of Baltimore in May 2019, and the cyberattack of twenty-some small cities in Texas just a few days before we were hit (in fact, one rumor had it that this attack was connected to the attack on Regis). It occurred to me that if this cyberattack was like these other cases, it could go on for quite a while. I went into the office on Saturday August 24, Day 3 of the attack, to print off three weeks’ worth of readings that I would distribute to my students on one of the few copiers on campus that had not been taken off-line. In this regard, many younger faculty members were at a definite disadvantage; they had never taught without having the readings available on-line, and in some cases, had not taken college classes without it. I, on the other hand, and a few other old-timers, was in my original element. I ran off the copies, put them in stacks, lugged them to my classroom, and announced that we would be reading these hard copies, together, without benefit of on-line resources; no power-point, no YouTube videos, no computers on at all (which meant, to my relief, no fact checking my lectures). We would be going Old School. My new teaching motto for the semester became: “The Coursepak is Back!”

I also asked the students what hardships they were facing due to the cyberattack. The challenges were not insignificant. Tuition discounts were delayed; you pay the full tuition at Regis and then get it back with a reimbursement check, but with no computers there were no checks, and that meant no way to pay for rent, utilities, gas, books. Work-study jobs got canceled, putting students in the same position. Then there were on-line courses. A large portion of our health care and business students are online; so too, our on-line humanities courses for non-traditional students, along with, ironically, our program in cybersecurity. All these programs—and their tuition dollars—were brought to a standstill. These were daunting challenges. But around these dark clouds, I could not help but see some silver lining, some good things emerging.

It started on Day 1 of the attack. People were talking with each other; at first, of course, about what was happening, but at length about other things too: How things are going? What’s new with the family? I’m domiciled in the Office of Mission. Fifteen feet away is the office of Marie Friedman, Ph.D., the Director of Jesuit Worldwide Learning, who coordinates students around the globe (Africa, Asia, refugees in Syria, and elsewhere) receiving advanced degrees. I had not stopped to speak with her for ten minutes until the week of the attack, which is when I learned more about what she does, how her job was brought to a standstill for a while, how she maintained a good sense of humor about it. We plotted about various work-around schemes, such as bringing in our own computer and printer from home since our work computers had been quarantined.

Another example: Because the Regis email was down, Dan Justin, who runs the Institute for the Common Good, would pop into my office to alert me about upcoming meetings in person instead of emailing me; we would also chat about articles or books to read and what we are working on. In the provost’s office nearby, the staff would be talking in the lounge area, while a dozen computers were idle; I found myself wondering, how necessary is all the data contained within them? And, what interesting ideas were coming from these spontaneous, free-flowing conversations? Another thing I noticed: with no Wi-Fi, I got more writing done, alone in my office, with nothing to do except write, look out the window, then write some more. As the crisis continued into weeks two and three, we received hand-delivered, daily updates. Meetings were canceled. Student course evaluations were canceled for this semester. And the regular rotation of course assessments—goals, objectives, outcomes, all meticulously and laboriously presented in measurable, quantifiable data—would be suspended. With this last cancellation, I started to ask myself, why could it not be like this all the time? Why could it not be more like it used to be?

At first, I said this only in jest. But it gradually occurred to me that this was a valid and important question. After all, there is plenty written about how academic life has become more bureaucratic, more frenzied, less personal, less conducive to creative teaching and scholarship. In The Slow Professor, Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber set about “challenging the culture of speed in the Academy,” as they put it in their subtitle, a culture generated by digital life, which, while making for efficiency also allows for more distraction. The solution, as they see it, is not found in all the self-help, academic-success books, but in cultivating a sense of “timeless time,” a deliberately slow pace and process that gets beneath the fragmenting and disruptive power of our schedules. The only problem, they report, is that too many academics see this as simple nostalgia, wishful thinking, a flight from the real world, utopian. This last word, utopian, means that such a vision actually does not exist anywhere and implies that it cannot exist anywhere. But this is not really true. It was not so long ago that we did things much differently, much more like life under cyberattack. In fact, to take one example, as recently as the early 2000’s, the process of turning in semester grades at the University of Notre Dame meant you had to fill in the circles with #2 pencils and take the computer sheets over to the registrar’s office on the bottom floor of the Main Building. The nice women there would take your paperwork and reward you with you a cookie for getting your grades in on time; after that, I would make a stop at the Grotto, offer a prayer for my students, and then maybe check to see if Dave Solomon was in his office and wanted to go for lunch. Then one year it became as simple and cold as clicking a mouse: “Submit.” Is there something lost in today’s more efficient patterns of work? Something along the lines of more space for genuine interpersonal relations, for true friendship among colleagues in higher education?

These are not unlike the questions posed by Pope Francis in his encyclical Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home. At the outset, Francis notes the problem with what he calls “rapidification,” whereby “the speed with which human activity has developed contrasts with the naturally slow pace of biological evolution” (§18). The pope is addressing the ecological crisis, but his point applies to digital culture and higher education as well. He urges us to cultivate a slower, more integrated, more contemplative approach to our lives together, including our working lives; and in doing so, he calls into question our deep, almost slavish dependence on technology and what he calls the “dominant technocratic paradigm” that has prevailed for two centuries, since the onset of the Industrial Revolution. His approach is nuanced. He does not condemn technology itself, but he insists that our development and use of technology must be proportioned to our true nature, which can only be properly understood when we overcome the modern intellectual habit of placing ourselves at the center of the universe to rule and master nature instead of situating ourselves in relation to God and all creation. This anthropomorphism lies at the theoretical core of justifications for abusing he environment, neglecting the poor and marginalized, aborting the unborn. It needs to be countered with a theocentric perspective.

In making this argument, Francis relies on a book entitled The End of the Modern World by Romano Guardini. The book was written in the 50’s, in the wake of the Second World War, in an effort to challenge the unlimited exercise of power that, Guardini argues, has emerged in modernity. Francis criticizes what he calls “the technological paradigm,” which assumes that technological advance is good without addressing questions as to how the technology will be used: In what contexts? In what ways? To what end or ends? In a passage interspersed with quotes from Guardini, Francis writes:

Technology tends to absorb everything into its ironclad logic, and those who are surrounded with technology “know full well that it moves forward in the final analysis neither for profit nor for the well-being of the human race,” that “in the most radical sense of the word, power is its motive—a lordship over all.”

This “lordship,” the pope goes on to explain, is exerted over politics and economics. Power’s lordship is also exerted, we should add, over higher education.

Guardini expressed much the same concern in his Letters from Lake Como, written almost a century ago, in the 1920’s. Reflecting on the changes that had overtaken the place of his youth, Guardini noted how the sailing vessels are now replaced by steamers, plows by tractors, the open hearth by coal stoves; how carpentry, bricklaying, and cabinetmaking have been rendered superfluous by pre-fab houses—all of which contributes to a life that is more artificial, more barbarian, and less human. Guardini lists several cultural features that characterize this new process: the tendency to abstraction in thought, to universalism, to an over-reliance on statistics, surveys, systems, and mechanisms that allow for mastery. He openly wonders if we will be able to place the vitality and creativity giving rise to these changes into a setting in which they can be properly ordered to a human and humane end. In the conclusion, it seems he is not sure. Without endorsing a wholesale turning back of the clock, we would do well to ask if our technological advances are actually helping us or hindering us on the way to human flourishing. Parents of tweens and teens are asking this precise question when it comes to Snapchat and Instagram on cellphones.

Guardini was not alone in raising alarms about the dark side of technology. Josef Pieper, also writing in the post-World War II setting, famously posited leisure as the basis of culture to counter these same basic forces. In Pieper’s description of modernity, the human person gets reduced to the status of a worker, one who lives to work rather than works to live, one whose life is meant only for producing, analyzing, organizing, at a rapid pace, around the clock, in order to increase profitability within a world of “planned diligence” and “total work” or “total labor.” Pieper was clearly concerned about the European post-war situation in the Communist East, but he also aimed his critique at the Capitalist West. In either case, the antidote he prescribed was to restore leisure to its central place in life; leisure, in this sense, understood not merely as inactivity or idleness but rather an openness to the whole of reality. In explaining leisure, Pieper draws a distinction between two modes of understanding, ratio and intellectus, with ratio being “the power of discursive, logical thought, of searching and of examination, of abstraction, of definition and drawing conclusions.

Intellectus, on the other hand, is the name for the understanding in so far as it is the capacity of simplex intuitus, of that simple vision to which truth offers itself like a landscape to the eye.” Pieper notes that for Kant, knowledge is understood in limited terms as ratio, whereas in ancient and medieval thought, knowledge is “simultaneously ratio and intellectus” so that “the process of knowing is the action of the two together.” Ratio “is accompanied and impregnated by an effortless awareness, which is not active but passive, or rather receptive.” For Pieper, this receptivity accounts for the importance of contemplation in knowing the whole of reality, which is thwarted by the utilitarian nature of modern life. Technology enhances and intensifies this activity-oriented mode knowledge. In Pieper’s time, this was evident with the onset of the constant activity (seven days a week, 24 hours a day) of machinery in new industrial factories. In our time, this is evident when we go on vacation, bringing bring our work—now contained within our computers—with us. Nothing like sitting on the beach checking emails.

Another mid-20th century Thomist also addressed the role of technology in our lives, namely, Yves Simon. In the final chapter of Philosophy of Democratic Government, Simon takes up the issue of technology, noting that it creates settings in which our authentic capacity for self-government is often frustrated. For Simon, this was a crucial matter because without a capacity for self-government, for guiding our appetitive and intellectual capacities in pursuit of the good, we lack the ability to govern ourselves politically and economically in a free society. Indeed, technology brings with it a kind of determinism whereby we imagine that it brings us freedom, what Simon calls “emancipation through the machine,” whereas in fact it embeds us in a universe that is removed from nature and has no qualities, ideas, or ends. This mechanistic picture of the world leaves us longing for true mystery, wonder, and awe, which can best be found, Simon maintains, in rural settings and in particular, in the family farm. In this context, a communion exists between people and nature. Work is less abstract and divided. Relationships are more personal. Politics is more likely to be grounded in familiarity and friendship. And one is more capable of determining how, when, where, in what ways, and to what extent we should shape and re-shape our relationship with technology; we are more capable, in other words, of exercising, to draw from Simon’s Aristotelian lexicon, phronesis, practical reason. The key here is to maintain a deliberative and discerning relationship with technology. “It is unreasonable to oppose technology,” Simon observes, “but “it is not unreasonable to consider that a small number of lofty souls can give the family farm, in our time, a historic and . . . transcendent meaning,” a meaning that features “communion with universal nature, the conquest of time through everlasting faithfulness, temperance, dignity in poverty, holy leisure, contemplation.”

All of this may seem to indulge in pure Romanticism verging on utopianism, especially in our current context where our lives seem more immersed than ever in technology. But before dismissing it out of hand, we should note that this vision is not far from what Wendell Berry has been arguing for years now, decades actually. Since the 1970’s, Berry has criticized the government and large corporations for imposing a profit-oriented approach to food production that has almost destroyed farming as it has existed for centuries. At the same time, he has commended rural farm life as a means of restoring our relationship to creation, to the land, to each other, a process that entails regaining a sense of the whole. Berry’s call for restoration of an integrated life and intellectual vision sets forth in plain language, straightforward language what thinkers like Guardini, Pieper, and Simon were saying in the generations before. In many ways, Berry is a leading Aristotelian of our time, as Alasdair MacIntyre has suggested, which, as MacIntyre also notes, does not mean he reads Aristotle but rather exemplifies the virtues and the good life articulated by Aristotle and his successors. One of the clearest ways Berry does this is by placing emphasis on practical reasoning or prudence when it comes to farming—judging the fertility of the land, reading the weather, deciding what crops are best planted when and where; choosing what machinery to use and what to forgo; making judgments about financing, going into debt, and so on. And in one case, Berry articulates his practical reasoning (or prudence) in his essay “Why I am Not Going to Buy a Computer,” first published in Harper’s (December 1988), and republished many times, most recently in Plough.

Written more than thirty years ago, his reasoning is directly pertinent to the issue of our dependence on computers today. Berry sets forth several well thought-out criteria for using new technological “tools”: It should be cheaper than the one it replaces. It should be at least as small in scale. It should use less energy. It should be purchasable and repairable as near to home as possible. It should come from a small, privately owned shop. It should not replace or disrupt anything good that already exists, including relationships of one’s family and community. And so on. Berry’s conclusion was that that he will not be using a computer but will instead be sticking with his Royal Standard manual typewriter, bought in 1956, and, of course, a pencil or pen and a pad of paper, and a reliable proofreader, his wife. This exercise of practical reasoning has certainly worked for him. His writings have been collected into three volumes of The Library of America.

Perhaps Berry’s decision would not work for many academics. There may be too many important research resources readily available on the web, in archives, journals, books, and so on. But what we need is a communal setting like Wendell Berry’s within which to sort through these complicated matters; and by “setting” I mean primarily a community of people whose lives are devoted to their common good as well as to pursuing each of their personal and familial goods. We need a polis. And universities can, it seems to me, qualify as a polis in this Aristotelian sense, at least universities of a certain size, with people—faculty, staff, students—sharing certain beliefs in common, including a commitment to an intellectual tradition(s), to teaching and learning, to serving others, to the overall purpose of the university. In teaching Aristotle, I often invite my students to think of Regis University as a polis. In doing so, I hope to help them understand and sympathize with Aristotle’s claim about the interdependence of politics, ethics, education, and true friendship, that is, friendship forged in a common pursuit of the good.

Not long ago, Josh Evans, my co-worker who first told me about the Regis cyberattack, pointed out that the day it happened, August 22, is the Memorial for the Queenship of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and that the first reading for Mass that day includes the following from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah:

For the yoke that burdened them,
the pole on their shoulder,
And the rod of their taskmaster
you have smashed, as on the day of Midian (Isa 9:3).

At least for a short time, the “rod” of our technological taskmaster was smashed.

What the cyberattack did for us at Regis is open up the possibility of recognizing how our life and work together is so deeply dependent on digital technology and to consider the ways it could be enhanced by making ourselves less dependent on it. The first way in which this occurred was simply by giving those who work there a greater collective identity. It was a crisis that affected people across the university. It brought us together like a snowstorm does, when people are more cognizant of each other, more concerned. Everyone was more aware of what the IT Department does. People in IT reported that they became aware of what the other departments within IT do. People learned how it affected those in the other colleges. So, the realities of specialization and fragmentation gave way to a more common, indeed transcendent identity.

The cyberattack also created commonality between faculty and students, for we were in the same boat, with emails failing, assignments not posting, tests and exams running late. More importantly, there was a more personal touch to the interactions between students and faculty. Papers were graded by hand, in the penmanship of the grader. With no email, more students came by during office hours to ask about something. And there was a deeper sense that class was going to occur in the classroom, with everyone together, rather than dispersed through list-servers, online bulletin boards, and such. Finally, most importantly, it created common ground among faculty, for the simple fact that there was more time, what with fewer meetings, no department and college wide assessments to do, and so on; and with more time comes more conversations about what we are teaching and working on. An added factor here was that with on-line resources down, intellectual conversation is more likely to occur locally, which can be surprisingly fruitful. In other words, with our on-line capacities down, we were less able to have conversations with colleagues across the country and found ourselves drawn more into talking with colleagues down the hall or in the building across the quad.

In these (and other) ways we found ourselves gifted with the time and space for cultivating or renewing friendships in all the varieties and permutations discussed by Aristotle: utility, pleasure, among equals, among those older and younger, and, most importantly, true friendship, based on a common pursuit of the good. In this sense, we at Regis were given a real opening to reflect on how we can limit and shape our relationships with digital technology and thus our relationships with each other. My fear now is that Regis is returning to normal, getting plugged in again, doing business as usual. It is all too easy to forget what we have learned amid the cyberattack about getting by even when we are unplugged. But at least for a time, we were presented with the possibility of working with a more careful, discriminating relationship with our digital technology, so as not to be dominated by it—a relationship that can subordinate the purpose of digital technology to the higher purpose of higher education, to the higher purpose of our lives as a whole.

EDITORIAL NOTE: A version of this essay was delivered at the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture 2019 Fall Conference

Featured Image: Gustave Courbet, The Meeting, 1854; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Michael Baxter

Michael J. Baxter teaches Religious Studies and directs Catholic Studies at Regis University in Denver. He is currently completing a book of essays, Blowing the Dynamite of the Church: Radicalism Against Americanism in Catholic Social Ethics.

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