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Might as Well Face It

I was talking to a friend recently about graduate school. He asked if I knew so-n-so. I said, “I’ll have to go home an look them up in my facebook.” Oh! Mental head slap! Yes, I’d forgotten that’s what we used to call the annual printed book of students, faculty and staff in the school: facebook.

I find it hilarious. The new social media facebook has so completely and permanently replaced the previous meaning in my mind, that I’d forgotten where it started. And status. Well, yes, of course. The old facebook printed little grey-tone photos of everyone and told you what year they were and where they went to college, and the name of their spouse. You could update your status exactly once a year. Huh.

Now we’ve gone all Hogwarts and our pictures change endlessly, multiple times daily. I don’t know of a profile that waves yet, but just give it a little more time. Someone will have a Youtube video for their profile picture. They will greet you when you click on their picture. Somebody likely already does.

I’m not against technology. At all. I got scores of birthday greetings on facebook recently and it buoyed me up through an otherwise demanding day of work. But part of the reason those messages  had that effect is that I do know and interact with the people in those profiles and I know their real and actual faces and the unmediated sound of their voices and just how tall they are standing next to me, the way they smile sideways or lift eyebrows or tuck their hair behind their ears just so. I remember the way they spiked a volley ball or made that really brilliant comment in class, or held their firstborn. I read an email and I hear the voice inflection, the laugh, the slight nasal twang of the writer.

Even video chatting which seems so close to the real thing doesn’t let me feel a hug, or see the subtle off-screen gesture or hear the hushed smartalek retort.

Human beings are irreducible to technology. So I don’t have anything against technology, unless it is replacing real face-to-face relationships. And in some cases it seems to be.

Yep that’s where I’m going with this.

This week I read a stunning Chronicle of Higher Education article about the ethics of technology “Programed for Love.” Of course I read it on my computer screen. Here are a few of my favorites quotes from the article that features the findings of MIT ethnographer, Sherry Turkle. Her new book is Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other.

In Turkle’s view, many of us are already a little too cozy with our machines—the smartphones and laptops we turn to for distraction and comfort so often that we can forget how to sit quietly with our own thoughts.
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Turkle’s argument is that the “always on” culture of constant checking of e-mail messages and Facebook updates has appeared so quickly that we haven’t yet developed ways to balance our networked and physical lives. “Because we grew up with the Net, we assume that the Net is grown-up,” she writes, in what she says is her favorite line from the book.

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We’ve reached a moment, she says, when we should make “corrections”—to develop social norms to help offset the feeling that we must check for messages even when that means ignoring the people around us.

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She constructs her case with story after story from her field research: Interviews with teenagers complaining about growing up “tethered” by cellphones and endlessly required to phone home; lawyers lamenting that their clients now want quick answers by BlackBerry rather than longer, more nuanced advice; college students so carefully constructing their Facebook profiles that one worried he might forget what was real and what was posturing.

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Other previous technologies also promised greater connection and simultaneously threatened personal and social identity. Everything from scrolls and smoke signals to cars and telephones have given us tremendous gains in both freedom and connection. And they have also caused previously unimagined struggles and loss. Still whatever else technology does to date, it does not overcome the most basic human longings for the face and whole person of the other, the beloved.

This week’s psalm captures it in the lines of longing for God. It is in some way like the longing we feel for each other. For there between us is the sacred present.

Psalm 27:1, 4-9

27:7 Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!

27:8 “Come,” my heart says, “seek God’s face!” Your face, Lord, do I seek.

27:9 Do not hide your face from me. Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help. Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!

Indeed our very salvation is tied up with the real and unmediated others, with the otherness of God. Might as well face it. We need each other. Technology can both facilitate and obstruct that need. The lines between technology and humanity not always clear. Technology can even become the outlet for infatuation and addiction. But technology can’t replace the beloved.

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