No Text Please, I'm British!

Article by   February 2009
Despite the rumours, I am not a technophobe.  True, I am no good at technology; but I do not particularly fear it, as I might fear, say, the revival of disco music as a popular cultural phenomenon or a government-enforced William Shatner season on Turner Classic Movies.  Thus, I love my computer; I just have no interest in using it for anything beyond writing, emailing, and the occasional internet purchase.   Fortunate to have a secretary who does the technological bits for me, I have neither need nor desire to master any further aspects of the technoworld.   Indeed, I take some perverse pride in the fact that I can only type with one finger on each hand, romantically seeing this lack of polish as making me the modern equivalent of the 1930s hack journalist, cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth, glass of bourbon on the bedside table, hammering out copy on an old typewriter in a dingy motel room.
Nevertheless, I did indulge in one journey into the virtual social world for a month or two just to see what, if anything, I was missing.   Late in the summer, I received an email from a good friend, inviting me to sign up to an internet professional network.   This I did, typing in a minimum of personal information; then I sat back and waited.  By the time I cancelled my account in late December I had, I think, the grand total of seven contacts.  This fact alone made me suspicious, as in real life I have only three friends.    To be honest, I did nothing beyond accept invitations from others to link up; but then I started to get invitations to link up with people I did not know, hardly knew, or knew but with whom I didn't want to connect; at the same time, I did not want to cause offence by a refusal.  So I closed my account and returned to the oblivion of the `Billy no virtual mates' milieu from which I had only recently escaped.  The ethical dilemma of `to link or not to link' was thus definitively solved.
Now, I am basically a private person.    Teaching and writing are my job, not my life; real life I reserve for family and church.  As Bob Dylan sang in "Hurricane," `It's my work he'd say, I do it for pay, and when it's all over, just as soon be on my way.'  Outside of work, therefore, I have a small circle of close friends and otherwise keep myself to myself.  Indeed, my wife would go so far as to tell you there are only two kinds of people I generally avoid: those I know; and those I don't know.  I don't even have an answering machine on my home phone, not because I think they are inherently evil, but because I have no use for one.  I take the view that if someone really wants to contact me, they'll phone again; if they don't phone again, then it couldn't have been that important.   

All this makes the whole idea of these internet networking things, like personal blogs and Facebook and MySpace, a naturally somewhat alien phenomenon to me.  After all, why would I want to parade the details of my life before the world?  And why would I want to pretend to be friends with, or connected to, people I either do not like or have never met?  Yet these web networking phenomena are exactly that: phenomena, remarkable in their power and their reach.  For example, I recently heard from my mother in England that my eldest son has a girlfriend.  How did an elderly English lady living in a tiny village in the West Country of England learn this detail of the emotional life of my Philadelphia-based son, something which he had had successfully concealed even from my panoptical wife?  Well, my niece had seen it on his Facebook page and she had told my mother who then happened to mention it to me, assuming that I knew already.  What an amazing world, where someone half a world away has access to domestic information about my household unknown even to myself.

Yet, while they may be phenomena, I am not sure that the success of things like Facebook, texting etc. is entirely to be welcomed.  True, there are advantages: for example, families and friends living at a distance can exchange photos and news with ease; but a touch of skepticism about these wonderful new webservices is perhaps overdue.  

For example, take the language of `friend.'  The way of connecting with people on Facebook is, apparently, to `friend' somebody.   That the noun has become a verb is scarcely cause for concern; but the cheapening of the word surely is.   Simply to be linked to someone on the internet is not true friendship; yet the use of the word creates the image that such is the case, or at least blurs the difference between casual internet acquaintance and somebody for whom one might have real affinity, affection, and concern.  Our language should make it clear that textual intercourse on Facebook or the like is not to be considered true friendship, any more than viewing internet pornography is to be considered true love making.   

Further, as the language of friendship is hijacked and cheapened by these internet social networks, this cheapening itself is part and parcel of a redefining of intimacy based upon the erosion of the boundaries between the public and private.  Self-obsessed exhibitionist celebrities have for many years had the option of the Oprah-style chat show, where they can parade their dirty laundry for all to see; lowlifes have had Jerry Springer and Big Brother and a myriad of `reality TV' shows; but now, with blogs and social network pages, anyone with a computer can continuously flaunt their private lives and conversations, from the boring and trivial to the weird and perverted, for a potentially countless (and faceless) multitude to see.
Now, notions of privacy have always been fluid; but we stand at a point in history where the private could be potentially abolished in its entirety.  Satellites allow anyone on the internet to observe our houses; and pornography has mainstreamed to the point where, according to a recent article in Business Week, even Playboy  is under huge financial pressure, being squeezed because equivalents of its softcore product are available in ordinary weeklies, and it is simply too tame to compete with the hardcore material on the internet.  Many Christians would see this latter as the triumph of lust, and so it is; but is it not also a function of the dismantling of the notion of privacy whereby everything can and should be paraded for public consumption?  Might it be that chat show confessionals, navel-gazing personal blogs, and virtual social networks possibly stand in continuity with pornography, being functions of the same exhibitionist drive that dismantles decency by collapsing the public and the private?
More significant, however, is not so much the con-trick of false intimacy but the childishness which such language then encourages.  As friendship is cheapened, so it begins to lose connection with adulthood.  This is best seen in the negative.  Last year, my then-secretary came to work one day, burst out laughing and told me that somebody on Facebook had removed her and her husband as "friends" from his. Oh my! What was she meant to do?  Beg to be let back in?  Immolate herself on the seminary lawn as an act of atonement?   The terminology made the move seem ridiculously childish. Indeed, it reminded me of nothing so much as those times, many years ago, when my younger sisters would come home from primary school to tell my mother that they had stopped being friends with Jenny or Mary or Louise, because of some perceived slight inflicted by the (now former) friend. You can just imagine the kind of scene which caused such reaction: one girl excludes another from a game of hopscotch as part of a puerile playground powerplay, provoking the retort,  "I'm not going to be your friend, so there!"    Just the kind of idiom, honed to perfection in the playground bitchiness of prepubescent girls, which the terminology of Facebook seems to have universalized across the age barriers of the real world.  The language of Facebook both reflects and encourages childishness; indeed, judging by the tantrums, spitefulness, and cowardly rants on many blogs and webpages, childishness has become something of a textually transmitted disease.

So where is all this leading?  I want to suggest that one of the key problems with internet friendships, with texting, with blogs etc. is the lack of the body in the means of communication and relationship. The elimination of bodily interaction on the web is not just significant in the realm of sex and pornography. Think about it: virtual relationships of all kinds, not simply the sexual, inevitably lack depth and nuance.  When I speak to my wife, or one of my friends, the tone of voice, the look on my face, the touch of my hand, the million and one unconscious physical `tells' communicate to the person as much, if not more, than the words I speak.  Mature, deep, meaningful friendships involve the ability of both parties to read and understand each other in ways that enrich and often transcend the words that are spoken.   Even the telephone allows for some nuance, but the web/text medium, reducing bodily input to the mere tapping of a keyboard, allows little or none, especially given the poor grasp of prose style that most web warriors exhibit.   So when you read yet another of those embarrassing blog conversations of the `All the people I hate are Nazis!' sophistication, ask what the discussion might have looked like if the conversationalists had been in the same room with their chosen targets.   The more that human relationships play out in the disembodied world of the web, the more superficial and unnuanced they will be; and a generation will grow up that is cheated of the true joy of knowing the meaning of real friendships.     

Second, bodies impose limits on us.  Thus, in its virtual elimination of the body, the computer world offers users the potential (albeit illusory) of transcending their bodily limitations.  On Facebook, I can be anybody I want to be: an eighteen year old Californian with a six-pack, good teeth, a sun tan and a pilot's license; or even a 25 year old blonde beauty queen from North Carolina with a degree in astrophysics.  I can become the ultimate in self-created beings - a factor which, I am sure, also partially explains the massive, if little noted, popularity of role-playing video games in the modern world.   In virtual world, be it Facebook or the undersea city portrayed in Bioshock, I can be anyone I choose to be.  I am the Creator; or at least, I have the potential to think I am.  

How should the church respond?  Well, the virtual world is new but it is here to stay; and it will no doubt continue to shape human behavior and self-understanding.  We cannot ignore it but neither should we simply allow it to dictate to us who we are and how we think.  Thus, we must teach people by precept and example that real life is lived primarily in real time in real places by real bodies.  Pale and pimply bloggers who spend most of their spare time onanistically opining  about themselves and their issues and in befriending pals made up of pixels are not living life to the full; nor are those whose lives revolve around videogames; rather they are human amoebas, subsisting in a bizarre non-world which involves no risk to themselves, no giving of themselves to others, no true vulnerability, no commitment, no self-sacrifice, no real meaning or value.  To borrow a phrase from Thoreau, the tragedy of such is that, when they come to die, they may well discover that they have never actually lived.  
For myself, I rejoice that I grew up before the web and the videogame supplanted the real world of real friendships, real discussions, real lives.  I did not spend my youth growing obese and developing Vitamin D deficiency in front of an illuminated screen, living my life through the medium of pixels.  However she does it, the church should show this generation of text and web addicts where real friendship and community lie, not with some bunch of self-created avatars on Facebook but with the person next to them in the pew on Sunday, with the person next door, with the person they can see, hear, touch and, of course, to whom they can talk, and who is created not in webworld but by the mighty Creator.  And never, ever allow your church to go virtual so that people think that logging on to a service or downloading a sermon is really being part of the body of Christ. Of course, I write, as I indicated last month, as a self-proclaimed miserable middle-aged git.  My instinct, therefore, is that things like Facebook, along with low-rider jeans, dances that involve the `splits,' and sentences such as `It was like you know like totally awesome and stuff,' are probably best left to the under-25s.  Use these web doohickeys if you must; just don't mistake them for real life, or the relationships that only exist there for real friendships.  As for me, I'm simply going to continue sitting in that metaphorical dingy motel room, a cigarette hanging from the corner of my mouth, a glass of bourbon on the bedside table, bashing out copy on my typewriter.

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