One of the indicators, to my kids for sure, that I have come perilously close to obsolescence is the fact I do not text, do not tweet, and rarely visit Facebook. My response to them, feeble as it may seem, is that everyone draws some boundaries around their accessibility. Landline, cell phone, mail, email, a personal visit—they all work for me. Occasional communication comes via Facebook and blog sites, but that is about it. In their eyes, I am disconnected. And maybe so, but there is something to the adage—if you are always available, you are not worth much when you are available. Being unavailable is often much more necessary than being available. But it is more…
On the latest cover of The Atlantic are two people embracing, and next to them is this caption—“Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” For all of our present connectivity, all of our amazing networking, the author’s contention is that we have never been lonelier. This seems quite ironic! We are talking to more and more people online, but actually meeting fewer and fewer people in person. A certain social disintegration may actually be taking place, and this has huge consequences. Loneliness takes a huge toll. Studies indicate a rise in dementia, obesity, and depression in people who have chosen a kind of isolation.
There is a lot of virtual community going on, but it is no substitute for face to face interaction, flesh and blood ties. The greater the proportion of time spent physically connecting, the less lonely people are. If texting and Facebook, etc. increase the probability of this, than they become essential tools. But if they become a substitute for personal interaction, which research indicates, there is the real possibility we are creating a culture of desolate people, leached of empathy, spontaneity, and humanity.
So what is the attraction to technologies and social networks that create superficial connections—that so much of culture has embraced? Here’s one answer—one can avoid the mess of human interaction. As Stephen Marche puts it, “The beauty of Facebook…is that it enables us to be social while sparing us the reality of society—the accidental revelations made at parties, the awkward pauses, the farting and the spilled drinks and the general gaucherie of face-to-face contact. Instead, we have the lovely smoothness of a seemingly social machine.”
There are a number of significant voices that are also asking the same question as Marche. A couple of weeks ago, at the Q Conference in Washington, D.C., I listened to Sherry Turkle, professor of Social Studies at MIT and author of Alone Together. Her first question to us was this—are we stronger than technology’s pull? Her conclusion? For the most part, we are not. We are getting closer to machines and distancing ourselves from one another. We are connecting “in sips”, and this does not work so well in helping us understand and know one another. Only in face to face conversation can we really hear tone and nuance, which all require time and patience and inconvenience. Without this, we are losing the bedrock skill of self-reflection. She left us with another question—will we eventually spend more time conversing with a phone App that promises companionship but offers no connection?
Yesterday, I had lunch with a recent widower, a 79 year old man who is still amazingly young. He is adjusting to life retired, and life alone. And he just may be falling in love again. But this cannot be conveyed in a text, let alone an email. Apart from face to face contact, there is no substitute for a phone—and an occasional five, six, or seven page letter—the kind I used to write before so much technology gave us instant communication. And yes, there is the wait. But this kind of dialogue takes time. Great responses need the opportunity to ponder, reflect, and linger over words.
I’m not a Luddite arguing against technology. I do like the immediacy of emails and the convenience of cell phones. But I am with Marche—I think we are becoming a lonelier culture. I spend time at an airport looking at a sea of people, most of whom are looking at a hand held device and missing those around them. I believe God would have us regularly ask some needful questions—just how available do we want to be? How much is technology crowding out a God who neither texts nor tweets? Am I losing the ability to write words that have been pondered over and crafted with the skill of an artist? Can I still sense the tone, the nuance of the person I am sitting next to? Am I losing the ability to read an expression on a face? Have I become more—or less connected—really connected into one’s soul, heart, joys, and pain? Is our church really a place of radical connections?