Sunday, May 17, 2009

A flight from God... and from each other?

Thomas Merton is currently my favourite modern prophet. Prescient?
The whole mechanism of modern life is geared for a flight from God and from the spirit into the wilderness of neurosis.
Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island, p. 109
That was written over a half-century ago, before 80+ channels of cable TV, before email, before cheap cellphones and pagers, before Facebook and Twitter. Flight from God indeed! There's a flight from ourselves and from each other too.

If you're unsure about my extrapolated conclusion, consider how many times in the past week you sent an email -- whereas a few years ago you would have picked up the phone and heard the sound of their voice in your ears? And a few years ago, you might have heard some hesitation, or a catch in your friend's voice, and asked what was happening, and maybe your friend would describe some major or minor catastrophe.

Maybe you couldn't "do anything" to help, concretely, but you would have connected in a way you didn't with last week's email.

And why email? Well, why not? You (or I) can be a lot more productive with email. You could probably contact a half-dozen different “communities” during the time it took for that hypothetical conversation, and experienced a lot less drama doing it.

This rationale has two gaping holes in it, of course -- first, as not-so-subtly hinted at by the quoted “blue type,” these communities may be diluted by the lack of face-to-face communication. If the words we exchange are mediated by keyboard and screen, our communication is thin indeed. And if our chosen medium makes it easy to avoid drama, well, it also makes it easy to avoid heart-to-heart contact. Sometimes another's catastrophe elicits feelings within ourselves -- feelings that aren't always comfortable; as Judd Hirsch tells Timothy Hutton in Ordinary People, "it doesn't always tickle." And so it's easier to send the email or text than to call on the phone.

Or avoid communication altogether and play a video game or watch a DVD. As DeGrandpre wrote,
[W]e are in flight from reality ... to escape the unpleasantness of our immediate inner and outer lives, which ranges from boredom and restlessness to anxiety and despair.
Digitopia: The Look of the New Digital You
by Richard DeGrandpre, p. 74
Immediate life is painful, so we go for experiences mediated by keyboard (or joystick) and screen; we flee ourselves, each other, and God.

The other problem with my somewhat tongue-in-cheek rationale is simply this: even if the "communities" we're contacting aren't dilute, why is it better to contact more of them in a shorter time?

Why is it always preferable to use an easier method and "accomplish more" than to follow a time-consuming process and "accomplish less"? That is the (largely) unquestioned modern assumption: that more is better. This is probably closer to what Merton originally had in mind.

The thing about this modern perspective is that it is far from false. Modern methods led to the development of dwarf wheat, by which over a billion human lives were saved. This is undeniably pleasing to our Creator. With modern mass-produced vaccines, we have eradicated smallpox.

But technology enabled Ponzi schemes, pump-and-dump fraud, the abuse of credit default swaps, and other specifically modern felonies. In addition, we have a new set of uniquely modern psychological disorders, though I don't know of the APA has identified them as such.

I recently heard about a person who is exhausted by being with a small group of people, terrified of unmediated interpersonal interactions. Over the phone or on email, though -- no problem! My heart goes out to this person, who could never have developed this affliction back when all interactions were immediate.

So what?

I'm not advocating, in this electronic medium, that we burn our cellphones and unplug our internet connections. But I do hope that you and I remember to use the phone sometimes, instead of email or text messages. And that we sometimes get on the road and meet face to face, instead of "meeting" electronically.

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