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Connected without community, alone without solitude
Is there a spiritual cost to the technology that many of us have consumed? Although Sherry Turkle didn’t specifically answer that question in her 2011 book, Alone Together, she gave me a lot of material to consider. How does technology affect our souls? Is it just a tool? Or is there more to it? I’ve written a lot about this subject, so Dr. Turkle’s book was especially compelling to me. (Also, if you are so stuck in technology and can’t get through her 300-page book, try her TED Talk.)
I bought Turkle’s book in March and I dredged through the first half of it. I was actually feeling a little disappointed that I bought it at all. The first half of her text is fascinating, but it is rather abstruse since it refers to at least a dozen high tech robots that have come out of MIT (where she works). Her basic thesis is truly spiritual, however—she even uses the word communion. We long for communion, connection, as kids with our Tamagotchis and Furbies and even as older people with robots that actually help us survive. Has artificial intelligence replaced that community that we want? That we truly desire? Turkle asks these questions and provides a compelling spiritual narrative for the consequence of our preoccupation with robots. Robots are often the solution to our problems, even the problems that the technology itself has brought to us. As our technology has grown us apart even more, we have robots and other means of communication and connection that now facilitate that human connection that we have totally replaced.
What does it mean that our elderly are now cared for by robots instead of nurses or family members? What’s the economic cost? What’s the social cost? What are we left with?
When I moved on to the second half of Turkle’s book, it became much more relatable. I mean, as a kid I did have a Tamagotchi, and I took care of Pokémon on my Game Boy Color, but I never really had much interaction with robots. But the world of Email, Facebook, cell phones? I’m totally enmeshed with it. Even as I was reading the text on the shore of a lake in the Poconos, I was checking my phone to keep up with Emails and taking phone calls with the contractor that was insulating my home. I was frustrated that I only had a 3G connection and I couldn’t download the videos that the contractor sent me!
Turkle makes the argument that we’ve grown increasingly apart. The advent of telephones made long distance communication possible, answering machines meant we were always accountable for our phone calls (eventually we would “let the machine get it”), cell phones changed that (my wife and I don’t have never had a land line), texting even more so, smart phones are even a bigger change. Now teenagers don’t prefer to talk on the phone—only texting. They can’t seem to even let a text sit still for ten minutes. We’ve created online projects of who we want to be on using technology like Second Life and Facebook. For teens it has increased anxiety while benefiting them marginally. It is amazing to be connected and so alone. To be constantly available, but never intimate.
We’ve turned to all sorts of other things for intimacy: dating websites, hook up services (Tinder anyone?), and even anonymous message boards
My personal experiment with Facebook resistance this summer has paid off. I was worried I’d lose connection with people, that I wouldn’t be able to do my usual inclusion as well, and that I’d miss out on all the parties. Maybe I did miss some of the parties (whose social connection seems to be limited anyway), but I’m not sure I personally suffered or was damaged. For one, I lost my instinct to check my phone all the time. I learned that people actually read what I write and want to connect with me—a few people even said they missed me on Facebook and missed my comments and likes on their stuff!
But still, I learned that I’m way too attached to my device. I’m like a cyborg, I'm way too tethered. I return texts and Emails promptly. I have a reputation for meticulously organizing my messages too—I almost always have a zero inbox. Turkle encouraged me to actually consider the spiritual consequences of nearly always being connected. It may in fact be affecting my anxiety level, attention span, and ability to respond relationally. How often am I sending a text or an Email because I’m anxious about a phone call?
For Christians, Turkle hits a bit dilemma: we are so connected we can never be in solitude with God. We are so isolated because of our technology, we can never be in true community! In one sense, our connected culture could be killing the whole church!
The answer to these problems isn’t in being a neo-Luddite, nor is it in being super connected. I’m not sure a balance is good either. I think we should be masters of technology, but critical about each new incarnation. I think Jesus would have had a cell phone. But I think he would really prefer to have just as much of a face-to-face connection as he did 2,000 years ago. There’s really nothing like it.