I sit here in my office and poke around on a keyboard that is not even physically connected to my laptop and characters appear on a screen. I have a phone in my pocket through which I talk to someone around the world, send a text message, and to which I can ask questions and give commands. Usually, when all things are working as they should, the phone responds. At times it will even talk back to me asking me clarifying questions or telling me it doesn’t quite understand me.
I still marvel at this technology. As a child I watched television shows such as Star Trek and dreamed of a time when those communicators would be real. Not only did they become real. The flip phone that they resemble is already technologically passé. One generation’s science fiction dream world is the next generation’s relative necessity.
These technological dreams and advances are an aspect of our being created in the image of a creative God. As such, they are not only good; they are also necessary. We are created to take dominion over the world, making it fruitful in every way. When God created Adam and told him to tend and guard the Garden, Adam had to figure out new and creative ways to plow the ground and, eventually, fight the thorns and thistles. He and his descendants created new and more effective and efficient ways to accomplish their tasks, making the world an ever-increasingly fruitful place.
Throughout history man has continued to create new technologies for these purposes. From farm implements to the vast array of computer technologies, we have made our lives and world flourish. But there is something interesting about the technologies that we create. As Sherry Turkle observes in her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology And Less From Others, “We make our technologies, and they, in turn, make and shape us.”[i] Our technology begins to drive and shape the culture.
This is not inherently bad. It is simply the statement of a fact. One generation invents the automobile. The culture of the next generation is driven (pardon the pun) by the automobile. Schedules, work, play, markets, and other cultural matters assume the use of the automobile. What was a luxury to the culture in one generation becomes the necessity of the culture in the next. Electricity, phones, and computers are now the staples of the culture. We have developed our technologies, and our technologies, in turn, have shaped the way we live our lives.
As a pastor, I have been especially intrigued by the world of “relational” or “social” technology; that is, technologies designed to keep us connected in some form of communication. How are these relational tools affecting our relationships? How do these technologies affect the expectations that people have when they come to be a part of a local church? Is there a dark side of these technologies that the gospel must address? As Christians we are called to engage the culture. What kind of culture are we engaging? How much of that culture has affected (infected!) the church? How does the church counter those cultural trends?
It is becoming painfully evident that our social technology is being used in such a way to make us more lonely. We are connected more than ever by telephones and social media, yet we are more and more isolated from one another. This is not the conclusion of some Bible-thumping Luddite. Non-Christians are recognizing it. Ironically, I suppose, you can find articles online such as Is Facebook Making Us Lonely? , The Loneliness Epidemic: We’re More Connected Than Ever - But Are We Feeling More Alone? , and The Age Of Loneliness Is Killing Us. Here is a video that explains how our connectivity is isolating us. That video is based on a TED Talk delivered by Sherry Turkle summarizing her full length treatment of the subject in her book Alone Together. None of these is an explicitly Christian evaluation of the situation, but they are all recognizing that our social technology is developing a culture that, while connected, is becoming disconnected from full human interaction.
This technology gives each of us the sense of control that we haven’t had in the past. We always have a measure of control to be sure, but today’s technologies give a perception that we are more in control than ever before. Looking at a sliver of the metanarrative of our culture, we can see huge cultural shifts and, consequently, how we have gained more and more control of our lives and interactions with others.
There was a time in our country when, by and large, to have a job, one had to go to a place of work, was forced to work with others he didn’t know, and submit to “the man.” A man was “forced” to learn to interact with others in an amicable way and, generally, wanted to keep his job for forty years and retire with a gold watch. Though we still go to places of business, internet technology has changed our situations tremendously. Now we can be employed by a huge corporation and rarely go into “the office.” We connect online, control our schedules, and control our interactions with people.
This was brought home to me at a dinner with a young couple who were both urban professionals. We talked about their work. The lady to whom I spoke worked from her home and only chose to go to the coffee shop to work when she felt as if she needed to be around people. She was in control of her interactions. In the previous generation, unless you were a farmer, you weren’t able to isolate yourself to this degree. Now technology has allowed us to interact only as much as we feel comfortable doing so.
We have customized our lives with our control. There was once a time that if you were going to watch television, you had the three networks. Now we can customize our television viewing. We don’t have to have someone force-feed us through a radio station, we can customize that as well. I can even customize my conversations with people. Texting allows me to control a conversation, answering when I choose, not having to interrupt my schedule to talk to someone.
Social media gives me even more control. I can control my image, putting out there what I want people to see ... whether it is true or not. I can create a me that doesn’t exist, friend hundreds and even thousands of people, and unfriend them at a click of a button. The way we think about relationships is being shaped. We want relationships. We need intimacy. But we always want to be in control, never in a situation that makes us uncomfortable or demands inconvenience from us. As Turkle says, “Today, our machine dream is to be never alone but always in control. This can’t happen when one is face-to-face with a person. But it can be accomplished ... by slipping through the portals of a digital life.”[ii]
She summarizes further in her TED Talk: “We're lonely, but we're afraid of intimacy. And so from social networks to sociable robots, we're designing technologies that will give us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. We turn to technology to help us feel connected in ways we can comfortably control. But we're not so comfortable. We are not so much in control.”[iii]
With these constructs in our minds, we go to the local church. People’s lives aren’t the avatars or the perfect little worlds that they have wittingly or unwittingly created on social media. We become disillusioned and simply “unfriend” the church and move to another. That’s the way we are thinking about relationships.
In this culture, I define me and the community around me. Rosenstock-Huessy attributes this to Descartes’ Cogito coming to full-bloom in a society: “I define me/my existence.” He rightly observes that it is more biblical to understand our existence defined by another, particularly in hearing and responding to another: Audio, ut fiam; respondeo, etsi mutabor. “I hear in order that I might come to exist; I respond although I will be changed.”[iv]
The gospel that is proclaimed and embodied in the church clashes with this developing culture. The God who created you defines who you are. In order to understand who you are, you must respond to him. The church community precedes your existence and, in the name of Christ through baptism, tells you who you are. You are being called to come into and submit to others and allow those relationships to define who you are. You are being called to give up the control of your life that is isolating you from others and enter into face-to-face relationships by which the answer to your loneliness will be realized and you will be changed from one stage of glory to another (2 Corinthians 3:18).
People react differently when they come to realize how they are being shaped by their connective technologies. Some in the church might want to throw all the devices away and disengage from all social media. Maybe we can feel ourselves being disconnected from one another. We can’t live up to the social media standards and neither are others. We want to run when our friendships demand more of us than the superficial. The answer is not to throw out all of your devices and completely unplug.
The answer (at least a partial answer) is to reflect deliberately on how all of these media are affecting us and our relationships. As a church, are we capitulating to the culture by being “customizable?” Are we fostering genuine friendships by our activities or deepening the isolation by using technology as a substitute for face-to-face interaction? How much am I being shaped by this culture of connective technology? Do I avoid genuine conversation by the convenience of texting? How are my expectations of others being shaped by my life on social media?
The technology in and of itself is good, but “we have to find a way to live with seductive technology and make it work to our purposes.”[v]
Bill Smith is pastor of Cornerstone Reformed Church in Carbondale, IL.
[i]. Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology And Less From Others (New York: Basic Books, 2011) 263.
[ii]. Turkle, Alone Together, 157.
[v]. Turkle, Alone Together, 294.
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