Digital Disciple Preview: Deserted Islands (part 3 of 3)

Digital Disciple will be on the physical bookstore shelf and the virtual website shelf on May 1. You can pre-order it here. Here’s the third part of a three part preview that can also be found on my Facebook page and on Episcopal Cafe.com.

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One of the first great computer games, "Oregon Trail" ended more often than not with these words.

The new dimension of virtuality that the Tech has added to our lives has brought with it new locations, new situations, and yes, new opportunities and dangers. We are pioneers moving not along a riverbank in rickety covered wagons but along the virtual paths marked by cell towers and wi-fi hot spots. The lay of the land has changed, so to speak, and our new virtual environments are affecting us on multiple levels, which we will address over the course of this book. But before entering fully into our discussion of connection and isolation, we must address briefly the influence that the new frontier of the Tech has on our identity as social creatures.

To explore this influence, join me in a quick illustration. You attend a party; say, a company Christmas party. Spouses and children have been invited, so there’s a mix of generations milling about the lobby. On the buffet table sit cheese and crackers and one rather forlorn-looking vegetable tray. The eggnog comes in two varieties, one for grown-ups only. Bing Crosby croons softly over the PA system. Adults chat in that awkward way that always happens when home and work collide. One man’s laugh keeps rising over the low murmur in the room. Everyone attempts to avoid the mistletoe because that one creepy guy from the mailroom has claimed the territory underneath it.

Walking back from disposing of your paper plate and plastic cup, you notice a trio of people sitting on one of the lobby’s couches. A teenaged daughter of a middle manager, a graduate student doing her internship at the company, and a cubicle drone in his mid-thirties each occupy a cushion. But the cushions might as well be deserted islands for all the contact among the three of them. They sit facing forward, heads bowed. And all three are tap-tap-tapping away on their cell phones, completely disengaged from one another and from the conversations happening around them and from good old Bing dreaming of his white Christmas.

Ask yourself if you’ve ever seen this behavior. (Or perhaps, ask yourself if you’ve ever engaged in this behavior.) Now ask yourself if you think the three couch dwellers in the illustration are being antisocial. “Yes” is a perfectly acceptable answer: of course, they’re being antisocial. All those folks around talking, laughing, carrying on. So many conversations to join and eggnog bowls to hover around, and those three sit in a corner glued to their cell phones! Didn’t their parents raise them better?

If this is your reaction, I heartily agree with you, but take a moment to view the situation from another angle. Perhaps these three aren’t being antisocial. Perhaps they’re being (and I’m about to make up a word) trans-social. They may not be interacting with the bosses, employees, spouses, and creepy mailroom guys who inhabit the lobby during the Christmas party, but they are conversing with (possibly multiple) friends via text message. They are checking up on what their friends are doing and where they are doing it via Facebook and Twitter. They are being social—just not with the people close at hand.

At its broadest, trans-social behavior consists of socializing with people across a distance that makes face-to-face contact difficult. Of course, this has been around as long as there have been methods of delivering messages from one person to another: smoke signals, the Pony Express, and long correspondence like you find in Jane Austen novels. But as anyone who has read Pride and Prejudice knows, there’s an awful lot of anxious pacing around sitting rooms and garden paths during the excruciating period between letters. So beginning with telephone calls and eventually continuing with e-mails, the Tech added a dimension of immediacy to trans-social behavior. No more anxious pacing— just an upbeat “You’ve got mail” from a digital voice. With the advent of online social networking in the last decade, the Tech has combined this immediacy with widespread distribution, thus providing the infrastructure for trans-social behavior to explode.

Let’s turn back to our three trans-social folks and take a closer look. The teenager on Cushion One is updating her Facebook status with a rant about the creepy mailroom guy who keeps staring at her. The intern on Cushion Two is texting with three of her friends and showing remarkable aptitude for keeping all three conversations distinct. The cubicle drone on Cushion Three is selecting the starting lineup for his fantasy football game against the friend of a friend whom he has never met in person, but with whom he has been messaging spiritedly about the game on the league’s online forum.

The threesome sit on their respective islands, but it’s no matter that the islands are deserted because they have open lines of communication to distant friends. They may be isolated in the physical world, but in the virtual world they find connections that bridge the gaps between deserted islands. We’ll pick up the threads of connection and isolation in chapters 2 and 3; for now, let’s think for a moment about the environment that the Tech has redesigned and the people like me who have never known any other environment.

We older Millennials (along with the last few GenXers) began blogging before blogging was even a word. On websites including LiveJournal and MySpace, we poured out all the mundane secrets, petty jealousies, and terrible poetry that used to belong to the private diary under lock and key. In the past, none of those words would have seen the light of day, but the Internet enticed us to divulge these confidences with an artificial promise of phony anonymity. Then older folks started warning us about our tendency to overshare on the Interwebs. “If you put something online, it can never be fully removed,” they said. We adopted the appropriate shocked expressions until they went away, and then we joined Facebook and found a sleek new interface through which to bare our souls.

We extol the benefits of social networking: friends’ birthdays right there on our profiles, reconnection with that old high school crush, the ability to organize a flash mob to re-create the Thriller music video in the middle of the mall! But only in the last few years has the danger inherent in social networking begun to sink in: the inevitability of sexted nude photos winding up on the Internet, the ability for robbers to pick easy targets based on Facebook vacation updates, the omnipresence of cyberbullies online, and the data mining that follows every clicked link.

Social networking has enabled and amplified trans-social behavior to such a degree that all definitions of privacy are being rewritten. Until recently, private, direct, personal communication dominated; now it is giving ground to wide-spectrum, impersonal communication that may be private in nature but is public in disclosure. (Think about professional athletes who trash-talk over Twitter rather than on the field or court.) Indeed, the Internet is essentially a public place; however, to many of us Tech users, Millennials especially, it sure looks private because we interact with the Web while alone. For a Millennial blogger like me, I need to keep a personal journal in a physical spiral notebook just to be sure I keep myself from revealing things on my blog that aren’t appropriate for public consumption.

The Tech has designed this public-disguised-as-private environment, and Tech users interact socially in this environment. What should be an individual’s private identity often has public access enabled. The opportunities inherent in sharing socially across boundaries of distance are tempered by the dangers of ceding too much of oneself to the virtual world. Following Jesus Christ involves locating our identities first and foremost in the God who breathes those identities into our very souls. If we allow too much of our identities to escape into the ether of the virtual world, there may not be enough left to escape into God.

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