I’m not much for New Year’s resolutions. This is enough for me this year:
But if I were going to entertain consideration of any this year they would probably be about my use of technology. I recently read Alone Together and while I don’t have time these days to completely synthesize what she says with Scripture, I wanted to at least jot down a few of the more thought-provoking conclusions she draws.
“When part of your life is lived in virtual places—it can be Second Life, a computer game, a social networking site—a vexed relationship develops between what is true and what is ‘true here,’ true in simulation. In games where we expect to play an avatar, we end up being ourselves in the most revealing ways; on social-networking sites such as Facebook, we think we will be presenting ourselves, but our profile ends up as someone else—often the fantasy of who we want to be. Distinctions blur. Virtual places offer connection with uncertain claims to commitment. We don’t count on cyberfriends to come by if we are ill, to celebrate our children’s successes, or help us mourn the death of our parents. People know this, and yet the emotional charge on cyberspace is high. People talk about digital life as the ‘place for hope,’ the place where something new will come to them. In the past, one waited for the sound of the post—by carriage, by foot by truck. Now, when there is a lull, we check our e-mail, texts, and messages.” (p. 153)
“I check my e-mail first thing in the morning and before going to bed at night. I have come to learn that informing myself about new professional problems and demands is not a good way to start or end my day, but my practice unhappily continues. I admitted my ongoing irritation with myself to a friend, a woman in her seventies who has meditated on a biblical reading every morning since she was in her teens. She confessed that it is ever more difficult to begin her spiritual exercises before she checks her e-mail; the discipline to defer opening her inbox is now part of her devotional gesture… Always on and (now) always with us, we tend the Net and the Net teaches us to need it. Online, like MIT’s cyborgs, we feel enhanced; there is a parallel with the robotic moment of more. But in both cases, moments of more may leave us with lives of less… Networked, we are together, but so lessened are our expectations of each other that we can feel utterly alone. And there is the risk that we come to see others as objects to be accessed-and only for the parts we find useful, comforting, or amusing. Once we remove ourselves from the flow of physical, messy, untidy life—and both robotics and networked life do that—we become less wiling to get out there and take a chance…. tethered to the network through our mobile devices, we approach a new state of the self, itself. For a start, it presumes certain entitlements: It can absent itself from its physical surround—including the people in it. It can experience the physical and virtual in near simultaneity. And it is able to make more time by multitasking, our twenty-first-century alchemy.” (p. 154)
And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.
“In this new regime, a train station… is no longer a communal space but a place of social collection: people come together but do not speak to each other. Each is tethered to a mobile device… When people have phone conversations in public spaces, their sense of privacy is sustained by the presumption that those around them will treat them not only as anonymous but as if absent…. Or perhaps it makes more sense to think of things the other way around: it is those on the phone who mark themselves as absent. Sometimes people signal their departure by putting a phone to their ear, but it often happens in more subtle ways—there may be a glance down at a mobile device during dinner or a meeting. A ‘place’ used to comprise a physical space and the people within it. What is a place if those who are physically present have their attention on the absent? At a café a block from my home, almost everyone is on a computer or smartphone as they drink their coffee. These people are not my friends, yet somehow I miss their presence.” (p. 155)
“Audrey does everything she can to avoid a call. ‘The phone, it’s awkward. I don’t see the point. Too much just a recap and sharing feelings. With a text… I can answer on my own time. I can respond. I can ignore it. So it really works with my mood. I’m not bound to anything, no commitment… I have control over the conversation and also more control over what I say.’… Texting offers protection: … ‘There’s planning involved so you can control how you’re portrayed to this person, because you’re choosing these words, editing it before you send it… A phone conversation is a lot of pressure. You’re always expected to uphold it, to keep it going, and that’s too much pressure… You have to just keep going… “Oh how was your day?” You’re trying to think of something else to say real fast so the conversation doesn’t die out.’ Then Audrey makes up a new word. A text, she argues, is better than a call because in a call ‘there is lot less boundness to the person.’ By this she means that in a call, she could learn too much or say too much, and things could get ‘out of control.’ A call has insufficient boundaries…. When texting, she feels at a reassuring distance. If things start to go in a direction she doesn’t like, she can easily redirect the conversation—or cut it off: ‘In texting you get your main points off; you can really control when you want the conversation to start and end. You say, ‘got to go, bye.’ You just do it… much better than the long drawn-out good-byes, when you have no real reason to leave, but you want to end the conversation.’ This last is what Audrey likes least—the end of conversations. A phone call, she explains, requires the skill to end a conversation ‘when you have no real reason to leave… I don’t know how to do that. I don’t want to learn.’” (p. 190)
“Communities are places where one feels safe enough to take the good and the bad. In communities, others come through for us in hard times, so we are willing to hear what they have to say, even if we don’t like it. What Molly experiences is not community. Those who run online confessional sites suggest that it is tie to ‘broaden our definition of community’ to include these virtual places. But this strips language of its meaning. If we start to call online spaces where we are with other people ‘communities,’ it is easy to forget what that word used to mean. From its derivation, it literally means ‘to give among each other.’… Perhaps community should not have a broader but a narrower definition. We used to have a name for a group that got together because its members shared common interests: we called it a club. But in the main, we would not think of confessing our secrets to the members of our clubs. But we have come to a point at which it is near heresy to suggest that MySpace or Facebook or Second Life is not a community. I have used the word myself and argued that these environments correspond to what sociologist Ray Oldenberg called ‘the great good place.’ These were the coffee shops, the parks, and the barbershops that used to be points of assembly for acquaintances and neighbors, the people who made up the landscape of life. I think I spoke too quickly. I used the word ‘community’ for worlds of weak ties. Communities are constituted by physical proximity, shared concerns, real consequences, and common responsibilities. Its members help each other in the most practical ways. On the lower east side of Manhattan, my great grandparents belonged to a block association rife with deep antagonisms. I grew up hearing stories about those times. There was envy, concern that one family as doing better than another; there was suspicion, fear that one family was stealing from another. And yet these families took care of each other, helping each other when money was tight, when there was illness, when someone died. If one family was evicted, it boarded with a neighboring one. They buried each other. What do we owe to each other in simulation?… What real-life responsibilities do we have for those we meet in games? Am I my avatar’s keeper?” (p. 238)
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think
We, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another
Let love be genuine.
Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.
Love one another with brotherly affection.
Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
Live in harmony with one another.
Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly.
Never be wise in your own sight.
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
“When media are always there, waiting to be wanted, people lose a sense of choosing to communicate. Those who use BlackBerry smartphones talk about the fascination of watching their lives ‘scroll by.’ They watch their lives as though watching a movie… When the BlackBerry movie of one’s life becomes one’s life, there is a problem: the BlackBerry version is the unedited version of one’s life. It contains more than one has time to live. Although we can’t keep up with it, we feel responsible for it. It is, after all, our life. We strive to be a self that can keep up with its e-mail. Our networked devices encourage a new notion of time because they promise that one can layer more activities onto it. Because you can text while doing something else, texting does not seem to take time but to give you time. This is more than welcome; it is magical. We have managed to squeeze in that extra little bit, but the fastest living among us encourage us to read books with titles such as In Praise of Slowness. And we have found ways of spending more time with friends and family in which we hardly give them any attention at all. We are overwhelmed across the generations. Teenagers complain that parents don’t look up from their phones at dinner and that they bring their phones to school sporting events. Hannah, sixteen, is a solemn, quiet high school junior. She tells me that for years she has tried to get her mother’s attention when her mother comes to fetch her after school or after dance lessons. Hannah says, ‘The car will start; she’d be driving still looking down, looking at her messages, but still no hello.’… parents say they are ashamed of such behavior but quickly get around to explaining, if not justifying, it. They say they are more stressed than ever as they try to keep up with e-mail and messages. They always feel behind…” (P. 193)
“I ask the group (of teens) a question: ‘When was the last time you felt that you didn’t want to be interrupted?’ I expect to hear many stories. There are none. Silence. ‘I’m waiting to be interrupted right now,’ one says. For him, what I would term ‘interruption’ is the beginning of a connection.” (P. 171)
“Sociologist David Riesman, writing in the mid-1950s, remarked on the American turn from an inner- to an other-directed sense of self. Without a firm inner sense of purpose, people looked to their neighbors for validation. Today, cell phone in hand, other-directedness is raised to a higher power. At the moment of beginning to have a thought or feeling, we can have it validated, almost prevalidated… Ricki, fifteen… describes that necessity: ‘I have a lot of people on my contact list. If one friend doesn’t “get it,” I call another.’ This marks a turn to a hyper-other-directedness. This young woman’s contact or buddy list has become something like a list of ‘spare parts’ for her fragile adolescent self. When she uses the expression ‘get it,’ I think she means ‘pick up the phone.’… Ricki counts on her friends to finish her thoughts. Technology does not cause but encourages a sensibility in which the validation of a feeling becomes part of establishing it, even part of the feeling itself. I have said that in the psychoanalytic tradition, one speaks about narcissism not to indicate people who love themselves, but a personality so fragile that it needs constant support. It cannot tolerate the complex demands of other people but tries to relate to them by distorting who they are and splitting off what it needs, what it can use. So, the narcissistic self gets on with others by dealing only with their made-to-measure representations. These representations (some analytic traditions refer to them as ‘part object,’ others as ‘self-objects’) are all that the fragile self can handle… A fragile person can also be supported by selected and limited contact with people (say the people on a cell phone ‘favorites’ list). In a life of texting and messaging, those on that contact list can be made to appear almost on demand. You can take what you need and move on. And, if not gratified, you can try someone else. Again, technology, on its own, does not cause this new way of relating to our emotions and other people. But it does make it easy.” (p. 176)
“‘Facebook has taken over my life.’ She is unable to log off…. ‘I find myself looking at random people’s photos, or going to random things. Then I realize after that it was a waste of time.’ A second says she is afraid she will ‘miss something’ and cannot put down her phone… A third sums up all she has heard: ‘Technology is bad because people are not as strong as its pull.’ Anxiety is part of the new connectivity… Our habitual narratives about technology begin with respective disparagement of what came before and move on to idealize the new… The realtechnik of connectivity culture is about possibilities and fulfillment, but it also is about the problems and dislocations of the tethered self. Technology helps us manage life stresses but generates anxieties of its own.” (p. 242)
“Like a sleek, gym-toned body, an appealing online self requires work to achieve. A sophomore girl says, “I get anxious if my last wall post was from a week ago because it looks like you’re a nerd. It really matters. People know it is a way that people are gong to judge you.’ A senior boy painstakingly explains how to keep ‘your Facebook in shape.’ First you have to conserve your energy. ‘It is a waste of time,’ he says, ‘to use Facebook messaging’ because these messages are like e-mail, private between the correspondents. ‘They will do nothing for your image.’ The essential is ‘to spend some time every day writing things on other people’s walls so that they will respond on your wall.’ If you do this religiously, you will look popular. Hannah succumbed to this mentality and her time on Facebook got out of control. She explains how one thing led to another: ‘You’re online. Someone asks you something. You feel like they want to know. It makes you feel good, so you keep on typing… It’s like being flattered for hours. But who are they really?’” (p. 251)
I’ve also been doing a little reading lately on Islam and what these two topics have in common is the combination of an unrelenting taskmaster, an impossible task and a resigned acceptance of failure. Many young people don’t feel a strong sense of sin, but an overbearing sense of failure, of not being equal to the occupation of human life with only ever-increasing awareness. It’s true that opportunities and the availability of information is unparalleled, but the caliber of the average human remains unchanged. For example, older people’s parenting advice often goes one of two directions. 1) Ignore all new information and do everything exactly the same as we did or 2) You’re so blessed to have so many fantastic parenting resources available to you now! Both strains seem to miss the fact that the problem is not information (too much or too little) but, um, me. Committing to do your best on any given task requires, well, more commitment these days. On any given topic, the available information and resources has just googleplexed* in the past twenty years. And the conversation about that topic is experiencing speed gains the way investments experience compound interest.
It’s refreshing to be reminded that the Biblical anthropology presents a design with inherent limits. God created us as physical beings, to experience life as our two feet take us**, to communicate with eyebrows, tone and inflection as well as an alphabet, and to require a pause every night. And with the ultimate limit—that doing our best will never be good enough. This is not resignation to failure but the question before the answer. We must stop asking young people “If you died tonight where would you spend eternity?” and “Why should a holy God let you into His heaven?” and start asking “Why can’t you sleep at night?” and “What will you do when you realize that you can’t have it all, do it all or be it all to someone?” In other words, at some point in life you will (or have) realized that you cannot make for yourself what you are hungry for. But the hunger is real. So that the religious person slaving away at Sundays and prayers and good deeds and the person working like a dog for the next big thing are the same. And so am I when I eschew the God-drawn boundaries upon me and bow to the summons of a datapop, the altar of Pinterest, or choose the offering of efficiency over intimacy. In the words of Isaiah, this is being “a companion of ashes.” These are idols we make out of the leftovers of our real work then carry around carefully with a “do not disturb” sign slung around the neck. They wear us out with their demands for doing.
Bel bows down; Nebo stoops;
their idols are on beasts and livestock;
these things you carry are borne
as burdens on weary beasts.
They stoop; they bow down together;
they cannot save the burden,
but themselves go into captivity.
“Listen to me, O house of Jacob,
all the remnant of the house of Israel,
who have been borne by me from before your birth,
carried from the womb;
even to your old age I am he,
and to gray hairs I will carry you.
I have made, and I will bear;
I will carry and will save.”
God, on the other hand, does things. Like hearing a prayer in the living room and sending an email to the office in answer. Like arranging for a stranger to call, offering to buy your car for your asking price whenever you leave the country. Like stroking your concerns over border agencies with stories of Cyrus and then returning visas in the mail two weeks before the minimum processing times. Like hearing your prayer for a church discussing support and sending a first-time visitor in off the streets of Maryland to hear the discussion and then comment on how brilliant the idea of church restoration is for the UK… in a thick Scottish brogue.
It’s true, His answer isn’t always “yes,” but neither is it the bait and switch of an idol, the elusive “place for hope.” And rather than calling to be tended, to be propped up and carried, he calls this: Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
*This is an entirely amateur estimation based on my child’s current favorite number.
**For more on this, The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment by Jacobsen is a good read.