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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.
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.
As I view the intersections between connection and isolation, Tech culture and following Jesus, you should know that I make my observations from the perspective of a member of the first generation that has never known a world without the Internet. I'm a Millennial, one of the vanguard of the generation whose first members were born in 1982. As one of the eldest of the Millennials, I remember artifacts such as Prodigy and CompuServe, which lost the evolutionary battle to AOL. I remember when Napster was new and innovative and not at all threatening to the music industry. I remember when e-mail caught the attention of spellcheck.
But I don't remember a time before http and www were more than just letters. I don't remember my father owning a computer without a port for a phone cord. Ask younger members of the generation, and they won't even realize that computers came with phone ports rather than Ethernet ones. My first cell phone was for emergencies only because it had a paltry fifteen minutes a month.(Don't tell my dad, but most of my emergencies were of the pizza-ordering variety.) Younger Millennials have had cell phones since they were in elementary school. But from the eldest of us who remember the cretaceous period of dial-up to the youngest who were born with Bluetooth implants, we Millennials are dependent on the Tech, on all the gadgets and machines and Series of Tubes that connect us one to another and each to the world.
Of course, Millennials aren't the only ones affected by the rise of the Internet and associated Tech. GenXers, Boomers, and computer-savvy older people like my grandmother feel the strong current of the Internet pulling them online just as much. As a Millennial, I have felt this current pulling me since I could reach the keyboard. As a follower of Christ, I feel God moving in both my virtual and my real lives. Knowing that these dual influences are neither mutually exclusive nor entirely compatible gives rise to a series of questions.
How do the Tech's simultaneous forces of connection and isolation affect our walks with Christ? How does living in a virtual world influence living in both the physical and the spiritual ones? How do we maintain the body of Christ when the physical bodies we see and touch in church expand to include the virtual bodies we inhabit online? What place does prayer have in our instantaneous, Tech-driven world? Where do we keep our knowledge of God when our preferred method of storing information has shifted to the external? How do we resist isolation while remaining plugged into the Series of Tubes?
Now, I can speak only from my own experience. But I know that we humans are ineffective at arriving at the truth on our own, so I hope and pray that you will interact with my experience to delve more deeply into the truth revealed in Jesus Christ. Each of us has a call from God, each a ministry. Within each of the questions above, we find this fundamental one: How do we continue in the tradition of the personal nature of the ministry of Jesus in lives that are increasingly siphoned off into remote, disembodied, virtual space? I invite you to explore this question with me.
But first, you might be wondering why you should take what I say seriously. Who am I to write this book? Well, I claim neither special revelation from the Almighty nor a mandate from my generation. I'm just another disciple of Jesus Christ who has a few words to share with you. I endeavor to follow Christ wherever he leads me, but increasingly I find myself walking along the data streams and fiber-optic paths of the virtual world. Is it possible that Jesus might find me and I might find him on those virtual paths? Is it possible that God can use the Tech to create better followers of Jesus Christ? I am convinced that the answer is a resounding yes, but a yes stamped with a necessary warning label. Our Tech-driven world is changing rapidly, and we are changing with it. Unlike the great cloud of Christian witnesses that has preceded us, we're not simply earthbound, pavement-pounding disciples of Jesus Christ. The Tech has added a new dimension to our lives; we are physical, emotional, spiritual, and now virtual people. But I believe that God continues to move through every facet of our existence, and that makes us new kinds of followers. We are digital disciples.
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 Live Journal 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.
Excerpted from Digital Disciple by Adam Thomas. Copyright © 2011 Adam Thomas. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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Posted March 11, 2012
I found this book to be really interesting coming from the perspective of someone of the younger generation who has grown up plugged in 24/7. A good read for those trying to figure out how to stay connected spiritually while living in the 21st century.
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Posted May 23, 2011
This book is really dumb. I don't believe people relate to the lord thru cyberspace. I also feel people are not that disconnected to the world even if they spend alot of time online. Thank goodness I didn't spend money on this book.
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Posted April 4, 2012
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Posted November 2, 2011
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Posted May 13, 2011
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Posted June 26, 2011
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