Do you know this person? “Well, we’ve met by email,” or “I know her voice from phone conversations.” I recently returned from meetings in Washington, DC, where this scene played out several times. Communications technology allowed us to exchange information and discover mutual interests before the trip, but I could not say that I knew the person until meeting face to face.
In a small way, this illustrates the power of digital technologies. On the plus side, they connect us with people we otherwise could not meet, such as the researcher in Australia I only know through a Skype video call. On the negative side, these technologies have the power to dis-connect us from people, by creating virtual relationships with nameless strangers, whether on Words with Friends or Facebook. When I occasionally—and ever more rarely—drop in to Facebook, I notice posts from people I do not even recognize. (How did they “friend” me?) If I met them in person, no name would come to mind. What aspect of friendship, or even mere acquaintance, could I attribute to these “Facebook friends”?
Perhaps there is nothing new to be said about these cyber-relationships. Yet, I continue to be troubled by the potentially de-humanizing effects of digital technologies. Digital communication, ostensibly a means of bringing people together, can also divide us. Physical presence, by itself, does not ensure that our attention is engaged. Video screens are mesmerizing, even the tiny ones on our mobile phones. Our devices insistently demand our attention, with pings, ringtones, and vibrations that alert us, enticing us to glance, even when driving. The temptation and the pressure to be always “on,” always connected, is unrelenting. Sherry Turkle observes the corrosive impact on families: “teenagers complain that parents don’t look up from their phones at dinner and that they bring their phones to school sporting events.”
Digital technologies may encourage us to create personas or alter egos, or at least to present a carefully groomed picture of who we are. Ooh, I’m reading a trendy book; I should post that. It even affects our language and how we refer to our self. When you hear, “Hi, this is Paige, I’m sorry I couldn’t take your call . . . .” you know it is not me, but a digital recording I made some time ago.
With voicemail and Facebook, Instagram and Vimeo, texts and Tweets, are we scattering bits of ourselves around the digital universe, while losing our sense of true identity? As we become more adept at, and more dependent upon, online communication, and digital representations of ourselves, we risk becoming less comfortable in being with people “in person.” College student affairs staff have noticed the growing phenomenon of undergrads who only communicate by texting, reluctant to use cell phones for verbal communication, let alone join a face-to-face conversation. While technology extends the reach of relationships with people we have already met (what a blessing to email missionaries thousands of miles away!), it cannot substitute for a handshake or a hug. Thus my concern that digital technology tends to dis-incarnate.
The immediacy of face-to-face encounters with other human beings stands in visible contrast to the disembodied prototypes envisioned by the transhumanist goal of uploading one’s brain onto a computer or other substrate. The transhumanist “self” becomes a digitized identity, dis-integrated from the physical body. We may scoff at the transhumanist futuristic scenario, not realizing that we, too, inhabit more and more of the digital, online world.
Yes, the technological imperative is inexorable. We cannot return to the analog, pre-digital era. How then do we live whole, integrated lives, discerning the benefits of technology and resisting its traps? We have a resource unavailable to digital avatars: wisdom. I believe we must actively, purposefully pursue God’s purposes for our life and health. Wisdom does not show up, uninvited. It requires the generative soil of thought, time, and silence. In that “de-technologized” encounter, we can learn more deeply and more fully what it means to flourish as human people created by a loving, incarnate God.
 Sherry Turkle. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. (New York: Basic Books, 2011), 164.