as we are overcome

or, a pause without resolution.

This semester I am writing a thesis about Christian virtue ethics and smartphones, so now more than ever I am constantly observing and wondering where all this is going. It would be easy to condemn much about smartphones, social networking, and constant connectedness wholesale, dismissing the many ways these things can enrich our lives. It is also easy to wholeheartedly embrace these new wonders, turning our minds over to be augmented, scattered, overawed, and manipulated by turns. What is difficult is to really understand new technology and use it wisely. For better or for worse we have stolen fire from the gods – now what?

Even the most enthusiastic adopters, I think, are ambivalent about some aspect of the information age. We have concerns about interpersonal relationships, our ability to pay attention, our privacy, our own use of time. But overall, we think, who are we to complain about Progress? It is many people’s job to encourage us not to think about these things, and we are relieved to let them hide our worries from us.

Those of us who think about them anyway are familiar with a pile of stories about earlier inventions. People found reasons to oppose the use of writing, the printing press, railroads, the telegraph. These stories are often trotted out by people with some interest in promoting new technologies; “What silly reactionaries!”, we are meant to say. Some of them, to be sure, were just naysayers, fearful of all change. But some of them raised important points that could have led to wiser adoption of these things. I, like most literate people, am quite glad for the invention of the printing press; but I often wish that my own childhood (and the nascence of modernity) had kept alive more embodied and emotional practices, ways of knowing, ways of connecting with the rest of the world – alongside the miraculous, beautiful practice of sitting in a chair alone, following line after line of argument and story, learning of the viewpoints, lives, desires and loves of people one would have never otherwise met.

Five hundred years later, we had only begun to fully grasp everything movable type had done for us – all the ways it changed our species – when TV and radio came along. We had barely even noticed TV’s effects on us when the Internet sprang out of scientific labs and into our homes. It took over a century for use of the printing press to become widespread; today, change is truly exponentially accelerated. It will be much more than five hundred years until we can understand today’s revolutions of high-speed internet and microcomputers. It is nice to think that we will figure it all out in time, that we only need space and grace to iron out the wrinkles in our new way of life, and to some extent I believe it. But at this rate, we can have no idea where our technology will take us if we do not shape it and use it according to our own well-defined intentions. In the meantime, I do not think it is unreasonable to be completely exhilarated and terrified; the rate of change and the power of our tools has moved far beyond a human scale, a human capacity to manage the emotions, responsibilities, and totally novel situations that are occasioned everyday by our newfound powers.

Just consider one relatively small new world we have created. Many days as I scroll through Facebook, I am filled with envy and irritation at people’s posts; self-doubt in the face of their successes; despair at the ideas and priorities of some friends, and their abuses of their power to broadcast them. I wonder if it is wrong to experience compassion fatigue as I am bombarded with updates on illnesses and emergencies, deaths, breakups, depressions, and job losses – not to mention the neverending barrage of armchair activism. I use the “unfriend”, the “hide”, and I consider an exodus from this spastic microcosm of bare acquaintances and husks of old friendships. But the draw of connection, the instinct not to abandon people to anonymous has-been-friend status, is too strong. I know it is too much for me, but I cannot look away.

And today. Today I watch the posts pile up and I remember the times I have sat in traffic, in the mall, in church, and wondered about all the lives streaming past me: Where are they going? What are they worried about? What are they looking forward to? What makes their faces light up and the pitch of their voices rise to talk about? Today, I feel that I can know. Snowball fights, babies, home-cooked meals, hard-won health goals, all the moments that make up the lives people live for, all the ordinary marvels of a day well-made, celebrated and shared – I wonder if the vulnerability of joy isn’t peeking out from behind the rugged, Stoic individualism Americans thought we had to live up to, laughter, light, and the things we love splashing without ceremony across each other’s screens. I do not know if the jokes shared to cheer a friend with cancer are more comic or tragic, but they are there, they are not indifference, they are all of us warring against loneliness together, and I think that to fight and fail in a hundred such battles is to win a war if we can only stand, shaking, to foolishly seek each other out once more. My breath is caught by the beauty of vacations and hikes, dinner parties and family reunions. TIMG_20140829_214138he very sites of God’s revelation are the answer, where they are going, and even the comment-squabbles take on a Muppet-like, happy character with all this life going on, this is the world, this is time, this is life. Am I really entitled to such a God’s-eye view over all the people I’ve met? I do not know, I only know it is too much for me, and I cannot look away.

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1 Comment

  1. Morgan Guyton

     /  February 26, 2015

    All of us warring against loneliness together. Indeed.


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