If we permit our relationships to be mediated digitally in the future, we may be drawing the kind of veil over our faces we are critical of some cultures for doing in practice.
Among the disciplines of Lent, we may see a growing preference for the digital fast in years to come. There has long been a tradition for giving up things to which we are mildly addicted, like caffeine and chocolate, as a way of showing we do not have to be entirely led by our desires. To this list may be added the compulsion for online activity: Britons now spend an average of two and a half hours a day on Facebook alone.
In decades to come, we will be known as the first generation of the digital age. We may feel we are managing its challenges with savvy self-awareness, but there is a chance future eras will be aghast at our failure to handle the new technology in a way that enabled human flourishing rather than undermined it. On the other hand, if we do not find ways of mastering the digital revolution in our generation, we may bequ
Thankfully, there are welcome signs of a backlash against the digital domination of human relationships. Social networking in particular is ripe for reform. The speed with which this phenomenon has emerged within the last decade means there are few norms surrounding its use. Over decades, social etiquette has developed slowly to deal with the challenges of modern life. Good manners are no anachronism; they guide and advise human relationships, ensuring we treat one another with respect and equality. Rapid advances in digital social networking have not been accompanied as yet by similar codes. One social commentator recently observed her horror at seeing people update their online statuses during a funeral they were attending. While natural empathy and tact should ensure we do not show such disrespect, it is not so clear to those whose minds are befuddled by the restless imperative of social networking.
A strong case can be made for saying such digital communications have brought us closer together. It enables us to know much about the lives of people we would like to live nearby but which a mobile society has prevented us from doing. In this sense, digital advances are restoring something of the sense of connectedness that the modern era has done so much to erode. Yet this connectedness should not be confused with community. Digital communication is pared down, lacks subtlety and often encourages exhibitionism where the priority is to put oneself on display rather than demonstrate the kind of listening skills which are the foundation of genuine community.
The Oscar winning screenwriter of the critically acclaimed film, ‘The Social Network’, Aaron Sorkin, remarked recently:
I have a ten year old daughter who has never really known a world without Facebook, but we’re going to have to wait a generation or two to find out the results of this experiment. I’m very pessimistic. There’s an insincerity to it. Socialising on the internet is to socialising what reality TV is to reality. We’re kind of acting for an audience: we’re creating a pretend version of ourselves. We’re counting the number of friends that we have instead of cultivating the depth of a relationship.
Digital communications are wonderful tools in lots of ways. They enable us to respond to issues in our own time and after reflection; to pass on requests for intercessions quickly and widely; and to share photos of people we love, to name just three privileges randomly, but they also easily misrepresent intention and emotion, as anyone who has received a terse email can testify. God has gifted us with unique human faces which demonstrate with great subtlety what we are feeling. Most people are able to pick up the clues they are being given in face to face conversation. Digital communication by contrast draws a veil over the face. God made us for relationship one to another. If we permit more and more of these relationships to be mediated digitally, we may come to find we are effectively veiling our faces in ways we are critical of some cultures for doing in practice.
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