January 27, 2010

Global Village Idiocy

It is a commonplace that new communication developments have made the world smaller and more intimate. I would like to opine that this is more appearance than reality.

The proliferation of social networks, twitters and tweets, facebooks and googles and myspaces and second lives may create new electronic connections and foster communication by these means, but I do not think this makes us a global village. Look at how difficult it has been to get real food and medical supplies to real people in Haiti — for all the almost instantaneous footage of the disaster, and the goodwill to text-message a contribution, the aid seems to be taking about what it did a quarter or a half or more of a century ago to reach those in need.

And that is because whatever the speed and form of communication, it remains communication: a text-message may speed the message on its way, but the actual human contact (perhaps well aided by simultaneous improvements in travel capabilities) will still take a while to get up and running. There is, in short, a humanity gap — the gap between the virtual communication and the real presence.

There is also the question of how intimate one can be with hundreds of facebook friends or twitter followers; and how deep an engagement of persons can be when limited to 140 characters. Does this not rather substitute for intimacy something analogous to fast food? Perhaps starved for true intimacy we accept the appearance of dispatches from facebook or tweets from twitter as eagerly as war-brides once looked for the postman.

I"m not saying "Down with social networks." What I'm saying is, "Let us not kid ourselves." It takes a village to be a village, and for all the benefits of quick and easy and voluminous communication, true fellowship and intimacy will always take more than speed-dialing.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


R said...

Thanks for this. Living in one of the most hyper-individualized and hyper-technologized parts of the world, I continually encounter the consequences of isolation and loneliness -- even for those who have every conceivable way to remain "connected" with others.

Where I serve, we continually find people walking in the doors of our faith community seeking something more than Twitter, Facebook, or the silent musical chairs of the geographic neighborhood can offer.

Ah, yes! You provide an argument for why parish ministry still very much matters.

Erika Baker said...

The answer is a definite Both.
This is not an either or question. You can have close internet friends and blogging communities as well as solid local connections.
If you're a sociable person you're likely to have a firm foot in both camps.
And sometimes the internet community can be a respite from a difficult local world.
Others find it a cold place and prefer to remain in the physical world.

Yet, I know so many isolated lgbt people who could not remain in the church but for caring online support. And when Davis was in exile it took the Internet to create an instant and very real support network that also provided practical help and friendship, not just electronic chatter.

Haiti shows that we still need to do more to improve our physical response strategies. It is not really an argument against the global village but it shows that, at the moment, global still means "instant money" more than "direct access".

Brother David said...

Just a by-note on those IM contributions: it will be a minimum of 90 days before the charities see any of that money because of US cellphone billing cycles. The cell service providers will not pass it on until they have actually receive it by their customers having paid their bills.

Fr. J said...

May I simply offer a hearty "Amen!"

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks for the thoughts, and the Amen!

Richard and Erika, this is in part what I'm trying to address. The technologies supplement but do not replace. They do not in fact extend our human presence, but convey information -- and for that we can be grateful, and make good use of it. To convey information quickly and widely is an important part of our life, and the connections made via the new networks are valuable. But these are technologies -- that is, methods and tools. The medium may be the message, but it is not the messenger.

Dahveed -- that is one of the practical implications. Those who text a contribution may feel they have done something "now." But the effect of their contribution may be months away. Not bad in itself (there will be needs months and years from now) but a good example of the disconnect inherent in virtual fellowship.

Fr. J., thanks!

Marshall Scott said...

"In the Early Devouring Period...."

Oh, excuse me: back in the 80's when online communications were new and chat was the most exciting thing among the technical classes since Rubik's Cube, there was a major scandal, I believe on CompuServe. A person presenting as a paraplegic, chair-bound woman began popping up in chat rooms seeking support. Several other handicapped women responding, happy to offer support and share about their lives. This included details when the person began asking about having an active sex life despite these limitations.

Unfortunately, the premise was false. The person was actually a male psychotherapist, also known in the same chat rooms. Someone noticed first that these two "people" were never on line at the same time, and that they both signed on through the same node. The man was exposed. He presented his efforts as "research," which only added insult to injury, as well as demonstrating poor professional ethics generally.

I was acquainted with one of the victims at the time. The story was published, I think in NewsWeek, and my friend was among those interviewed.

While our electronic spaces have become more sophisticated, the limitations remain. We only see on our screens what someone else chooses to post, and we do well to be thoughtful and careful about what we see.

I think there are relationships on line, but mostly where relationships already existed. I think most folks do go on line in good faith, and share truthfully about themselves (within the limits of human frailty, and often more than is wise); and so a sense of relationship occurs. But like any other relationship it is no better than the people who participate, and is even more prone to projection and fantasy than relationships face to face. Communication can support a relationship, but it is not a substitute - especially when without some other means to support the relationship we can never be certain what is trustworthy, however trustworthy it may feel.

Deacon Charlie Perrin said...

Tom Friedman wrote an op-ed piece in the NY Times a couple of years ago where he recounted his time in a taxi somewhere in the middle east. The driver was on his cell phone for the whole trip and he and the driver exchanged not a word.

It reminds me of my son-in-law. I'll be conversing with him and all of a sudden I realize he's taken a call and no longer in the conversation!

The more "connected" we get, the more isolated from actual face to face contact we become.

June Butler said...

Tobias, but for internet interaction, I'd never have met either you or Erika, which I'd consider a loss. I've learned so very much from reading blogs on the internet, which has also led to my reading books that I've been referred to through other bloggers.

I don't visit Facebook often because of time constraints and because it's not really my milieu, except that it's now become a way to keep up with friends when I do find the time to visit.

As for Twitter, I was in and out in a matter of a couple of hours. Twitter is definitely not for me.

I'm more than grateful for internet interaction for enriching my life. Still, what you say is true, "It takes a village to be a village...."

IT said...

This is really noticeable in our kids (18 and 20) . they never leave the texting along, they answer texts instantly. They don't answer the phone or email. They are divorced from groups or conversations, interacting on a binary basis in 160 character bits. Ideas, conversation, society is crumbling under the weight of twitter.

Erika Baker said...

"The technologies supplement but do not replace"... yes, up to a point.
But they also facilitate what would otherwise not be possible.

We were able to become friends with Davis and then give him proper support because of the Internet. The Internet didn't just supplement the contact I already had, but it facilitated it in the first place, and all in all, the Internet changed Davis' life because of all the actual contacts it allowed to develop.

In the world of ideas, too, I am gaining through the Internet a completley different view of the world. There is so much complaint that Rowan Williams doesn't understand TEC. It's only because of my access to the Internet that I believe I understand it a little better. If I were in a decision making position in life, this would be invaluable to me, and if Rowan used the Internet effectively, it might well change the course of history.

It's a tool, like books, the radio and television are tools. But like them, it does not just supplement but it facilitates involvement that would otherwise not be possible. In our more and more interconnected world, that's crucial.

PS: meeting Mimi was, of course, an absolute Internet highlight!

Bob G+ said...

I've been engaged in the Internet from the early '90's establishing the first webpages for an academic unit at Kent State. I was responsible for their technology back then. I've been saying for the last 10 years that one of the primary "services" or ministries of the Church in coming decades will be to teach and enable people to learn how to have tactile, real-world relationships once again.

It makes no difference what we think or believe at this point, what is happening among emerging generations and technology will shape their fundamental understanding of life and their place in the world regardless of our support or neglect or condemnation. Some of it is incredibly good and beneficial, and of course some of it is destructive and deadening.

We need to begin yesterday to understand the pschyco-social-religious interaction of younger people, faith & social development, and technology and how to navigate the waters to help bring them into more balanced and "humanly tactile" relationships. Yet, not from a negative approach or from an approach that obviously conveys, "the old people don't get it." To often we want to overlay our limited understanding onto their world, and as we know that doesn't work very well.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks for the additional thoughts. It seems to me that what emerges is a consensus that the new technologies have a very powerful role to play, and are indeed playing it, but may also have a down-side; and that we had best be aware of all three aspects of this new reality.

I say this as an old "techie" having built my first computer with a two digit hexadecimal readout and a tape cassette memory, and having introduced "815" to desktop publishing when it lumbered ashore panting and trying to walk on its fins in the late 80s.

Yet I also write icons with egg-yolk and tempera, and do like to write longhand from time to time. I suppose the real convergence for me is in the area of music -- as a player of actual physical instruments (historical woodwinds, at that!) but as a user of some of the most sophisticated music composition and synthesis software on the market (and the reason I was soldering things back in the mid to late 70s, and encoding programs in hexadecimal to compose canons at the fifth on the fly!)

So I am all for making use of technology, but I want us to be clear that it changes things, creates new possibilities, but may never be able quite to replicate something as simple as a real handshake at the passing of the peace.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

" It takes a village to be a village"... Amen to this! And I sit here in my little village and feel quite happy ;=)

Erika Baker said...

I'm still not sure I agree with your clear demarcation. I have successfully established extremely close relationships with people on the internet, on some occasions they were confirmed when we finally met in person. True, I'm not talking of speed dialling but of hours spent communicating: e-friendships grow at the same rate and only with the same genuine care as personal ones.

But for many people there simply isn't the option of having both. They might like the real handshake, but it is their broadband connection that actually saves their sanity.

I'd like to say that people who take care over relationships in real life also do so on the Internet, and people who are casual about relationship in real life speed-dial and skip hop and jump their way through the web too.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks Göran!

Erika, I didn't mean to include such situations as you describe in my demarcation. My point is more about the casual twittering and texting, not the deep engagement of long conversations via any means at our disposal.

I recall, for instance, the many cases of long epistolary relationships that developed among people in earlier eras when the post was the latest technology. Which is why I mentioned the war-bride: letters to and from soldiers serving away from home were precious tokens of love and communication, not to be dismissed. (Have you ever seen Powell and Pressberger's A Canterbury Tale?)

So I am by no means saying that as circumstances require, electronic communication may not lead to deep relationships. But rather that for many the texting and twittering, while giving the appearance of connection, are really to superficial to count as true engagement.

I am also concerned, from the perspective of social systems, to challenge the concept that one can have thousands of "friends." Most people can really only form a few truly deep friendships. In parish life we know that a parish of 50 will have a very different dynamic (both between members and with the pastor) than a parish of 500 -- and this is true of all societies. This is the primary reason I think the world is not a village -- the connections may be real, but too numerous to accomplish what a village can.

Is that more agreeable?

Erika Baker said...

Thanks, Tobias!

Interestingly, I read the other day that we tend to have a maximum of 150 friends we can genuinely engage with. And people who have more than that number on Facebook find that they are only in regular FB contact with about 150 too, the rest lies dormant.
There seems to be a kind of self regulating happening automatically.

Not sure about Twitter, of course you can tweet to thousands. But I wonder whether those of us who follow tweeters again only follow up to 150 of them?

Anonymous said...

Well, I offer myself as an example of how the Internet can enhance a life. Some years ago, I was organist for 2 churches that Tobias pastored. I left that career. In the old world, that would be that. Today, I can choose to type in "Tobias Haller" and find out what interesting things he is up to (always something).
I met one of my two closest friends on the Internet. He moved to New York City to start a new chapter of his life (no, we are not "together" that way): just close friends.
The Internet is real. We are the entities that have the potential to be false.
- peace, Sylvester Wager (I changed my name from "Scott" - don't ask why...)

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Sylvester -- great to hear from you! I think you are quite right that the Internet opens up possibilities impossible in earlier times: it is a "net" after all, that catches all sorts of interesting fish. In this as in much else it is so very different from a village -- in which one might have little or no experience outside his or her own circle. My suggestion is that there is a qualitative as well as quantitative difference; and I by no means rule out the development of close friendships in a virtual means (as by analogy the epistolary friendships of St Francis de Sales). And you are absolutely right that falsehood starts with the person, and that can happen in the flesh or over the wire...
Peace to you, too!