We all know the benefits of communication technology. Communication technology allows us to see and hear people we don’t get to see very often. It allows us to read more, see more, and open ourselves up to new experiences. Communication technology gives us websites that let us order pizza without actually having to talk to a human… or put on pants. Technology is beautiful and valuable.
However, I’m afraid that our culture has too eagerly consumed communication technology without considering the ways that it actually forms us. Humans have been around for a long time… iPhones have only been around since 2007. The way that communication technology is shaping our culture is much more profound than anyone realizes. In all of our years on this earth we have never seen anything like it.
Media and technology give us the ability to perceive that we are a part of something that we aren’t by allowing us to observe, like researchers in a laboratory, things that are going on in other parts of the world. We feel intrinsically connected to Middle East freedom struggles, impoverished children in Africa, and the inner-workings of CIA surveillance programs simply because we are able to read about them, see pictures and videos, and listen to first-hand accounts. We do not actually experience these things on our own. We simply consume the stories of other people who may or may not have actually experienced it.
It is one thing to look at pictures from a war and be emotionally stirred by them. It is another altogether to experience war firsthand. When we read stories about the world we pretend like we have experienced them. We decide who is right and who is wrong. We even identify ourselves with whoever we decide is the victim. But our emotions, no matter how sincere they may be, are only dim shadows of reality. Seeing a picture of a dead protestor is not the same experience as standing next to a protestor as she is shot to death.
This way of engaging culture is intrinsic to the way modern people live our lives. We consume stories, pretend like we are a part of them, then turn around and comment about the stories as if we have any real knowledge about what is going on. We have become natives in a world of perceived reality.
This perceived reality affects our relationships too. When our relationships are primarily located in communication technology we do not experience the full range of human emotion that communication requires. We do not have to look someone in the face to deliver bad news or give criticism. We don’t even have to hear their voice. Part of the human experience is learning that our lives affect the lives of others. Our words matter. Our actions matter. Technology allows us to say more without actually experiencing more.
You have probably watched the clip from Louis CK on Conan a few months back. If not, go ahead and spend the next 4 minutes watching it (the video has some profanity).
In the video Louis brings up the point that using smart phones has ruined our human ability to feel. We are scared to be alone with our souls so we fill the loneliness with constant communication. We use technology to keep ourselves from experiencing human contemplation.
Further, as he points out, technology gives us (especially teenagers) the ability to be awful to one another without seeing the look of anguish on the face of the one they are hurting. Almost half of teenagers have experienced some sort of online bullying. Unfortunately we have seen multiple teenagers take their own lives as a result of the bullying they experience on the internet. The case of Rebecca Sedwick, a 14-year-old who killed herself after relentless online bullying, is particularly troubling. Even after Rebecca took her own life one of the girls that bullied her wrote on Facebook: “Yes IK [I know] I bullied REBECCA nd she killed her self but IDGAF [I don’t give a F].” Even though this girl’s actions led to the death of a classmate she had no remorse and was willing to declare it publicly.
I know this seems like a rogue incident that I shouldn’t be making into such a big deal. But let me remind you… almost HALF of teenagers experience online bullying. Most of them don’t take their own lives. However, there are too many people hurting each other to ignore this. One-sided, emotionless communication is an epidemic.
This is the same reason that 30% of all website data on the internet is pornography. This is why we constantly see news stories about people getting arrested or fired for texting inappropriate pictures to one another. This is why Facebook is mentioned in one-third of all divorce filings.
We have forgotten that our lives are, inherently, wrapped up in the lives of others. We don’t have to look people in the eye when we make bad decisions. We don’t have to experience reality. We have forgotten how to feel.
Impersonal communication technology is bad for our ability to develop as compassionate, empathetic humans. When we grow up using social media and texting as our primary form of communication we do not get to feel. We do not get to hurt. We lose our ability to consider the effect of our actions on others.
We are turning ourselves into a society of sociopaths.
It is true that communication technology does give some individuals the ability to express themselves more clearly and confidently. I count myself among the ranks of the socially awkward who are bad at forming sentences on the spot. However our relationships are usually not actually enhanced by these improvements. They are distanced.
When we consume media and communication through technology we participate as spectators, not as participants. Comment sections and social media make us feel like we are “contributing to the conversation”. However, more often than not we are just creating more impersonal noise.
Jonathan Safron Foer wrote a fantastic op-ed in the in the NY Times called How Not to Be Alone. I would highly suggest that you take five minutes to read it. In the article he points out that our communication technologies are developed as an inferior substitute to interpersonal communication. The telephone gave us the ability to keep up with people we could not actually see. He says:
“These inventions were not created to be improvements upon face-to-face communication, but a declension of acceptable, if diminished, substitutes for it.
But then a funny thing happened: we began to prefer the diminished substitutes. It’s easier to make a phone call than to schlep to see someone in person. Leaving a message on someone’s machine is easier than having a phone conversation — you can say what you need to say without a response; hard news is easier to leave; it’s easier to check in without becoming entangled. So we began calling when we knew no one would pick up.
Shooting off an e-mail is easier, still, because one can hide behind the absence of vocal inflection, and of course there’s no chance of accidentally catching someone. And texting is even easier, as the expectation for articulateness is further reduced, and another shell is offered to hide in. Each step “forward” has made it easier, just a little, to avoid the emotional work of being present, to convey information rather than humanity.
THE problem with accepting — with preferring — diminished substitutes is that over time, we, too, become diminished substitutes. People who become used to saying little become used to feeling little… I worry that the closer the world gets to our fingertips, the further it gets from our hearts.”
The way we are using technology to form our social interactions is making genuine, human interaction the diminished substitute. We now live in a world where setting aside real time to meet with humans is seen as an inconvenience. Our problem is not simply that we are too busy for relationships. Our problem is that we have, as a society, forgotten how to have relationships.
In the next few days I will be posting some thoughts about how all of this relates to Christian mission.