Digital Disciple Preview: Virtual People (part 1 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 first part of a three part preview that can also be found on my Facebook page and on Episcopal Cafe.com.

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We call it an Internet “connection.” On any given day, I know that an acquaintance from high school just had a baby shower. I know that an old college friend chose the strappy sandals. I know who had one too many at a party last night. Through my keyboard, LED monitor, wireless router, and ISP, I’m connected to several layers of people—my close friends, my acquaintances, strangers with similar interests, and the hordes of people with spelling so dreadful it would make Noah Webster weep.

Doesn't Noah Webster look sad?

But we could just as easily call it an Internet “isolation.” While millions of little connections happen every day—from friends and relatives to subcultures and fan bases—these connections always happen remotely. I can see and hear people thousands of miles away using the warm box on my lap. But I can’t touch using Facebook. I can’t taste a friend’s tweets. And I sure can’t smell a Wikipedia entry. My senses are reduced by 60 percent. I have a contacts list on my Gmail account, but I rarely make contact. A wall of technology isolates me from you, and the more we use the Tech, the more comfortable we feel hiding behind it. We develop a dependence on what can only be described oxymoronically as remote intimacy.

Yes, we are connected, but more often than not we connect remotely. Yes, I may know your favorite bands and books, but I may never know the timbre of your voice or how heavy your footfalls are. Yes, community forms on the Internet, but how can you share a meal or look someone in the eye via an online forum?

I make the observations found in this book from a vantage point overlooking a pair of intersections. The first intersection occurs where the opposing forces of connection and isolation meet. These two forces have been around since the Garden of Eden, but never have they been as coupled as the Internet makes them. The second intersection occurs at the junction between Tech culture and the greater reality of following Jesus Christ our Lord.

Following Jesus Christ is first and foremost about connection, about the arms of love reaching from the cross to embrace everyone. The Word became flesh in Jesus Christ in order that we might see more clearly the connection that God yearns for us to have with one another and with God. The Internet offers wonderful opportunities for connection, but they always come attached with the danger of isolation. Like most things in this life, we can’t separate the danger from the opportunity; we can only hope to trend toward the opportunity while trying not to ignore the nature of the danger.

As the Internet continues to change the way we communicate and connect with one another, the opportunities and dangers grow increasingly intertwined. The trouble is that the speed of innovation has kept us from pausing, breathing deeply, and taking a hard look at technology’s effects on our lives. Consider that a hundred years ago, people dashed and dotted with the telegraph and wrote long correspondences in perfect cursive. Seventy-five years ago, they shared a phone line with half a dozen neighbors and sat in front of the radio in the evening. Fifty years ago, they had their own telephone numbers and televisions. Twenty-five years ago, mobile phones and personal computers had begun the big, boxy stage of their evolutions. Fifteen years ago, my computer spent an agonizing forty-five seconds doing a fuzzy R2-D2 impression while attempting to dial up a connection to the Internet. Ten years ago, my family got our hands on a shiny new piece of technology called a cable modem, and the connection tripled in speed. Today, broadband allows connections of ease and immediacy. The breadth and depth of content online have now matched the blazing download rate; indeed (and I’m saying this with only the slightest hyperbole), I could live my whole life virtually and never notice the lack of fresh air and exercise.

We communicate more quickly, more frequently, more globally (and often more anonymously) than ever before. The Internet, once a harebrained idea hatched in a military think tank, has pervaded our lives and our society. Removing it would be like amputating not an arm or a leg, but a central nervous system. I know I’m not alone when I confess that, while I don’t live my whole life virtually, I do almost everything online: shop, check baseball scores, read the news, watch TV, play games, chat with friends, research my sermons. I even met my wife through some combination of divine intervention and the Series of Tubes.