- Tuesday, May 11, 2010
Let's begin with a reasonably safe prediction: you are not likely to finish this article. That is not merely because of the prose of the author (though I concede it doesn't help). It is based on reliable statistics that indicate how attention spans have shortened.
It may be an exaggeration to suggest, as The Atlantic Monthly provocatively proposed a few months ago, that Google is making Americans stupid. But the internet giant and its coconspirators are rendering us more restless, and, as in the title of Maggie Jackson's recent book, distracted. In our digital age, focused attention is made more difficult. Multitasking fragments our thinking, and moments of reflection are punctured by the urgent text message. Concentration drifts after a few paragraphs, and we have lost the art of deep and thoughtful reading.
We are all reasonably computer literate by now. Technologically enhanced social networking via cell phones, email, blogging, twitter, or whatever is next are unavoidable features of our electronic landscape. We have come to accept the reality of them with little reflection. Beyond our atrophied reading habits, the effect of our social networking world is at least twofold: it trivializes the notion of friendship and it erodes our sense of community.
I have a colleague who has 1,035 Facebook friends. By Facebook standards, that is probably unremarkable. At the same time, of course, it is also a lie. Friendship is humanly impossible on such a mass scale. What results is exhibitionistic too-much-information for most: your colonoscopy this morning is really not my business. Meanwhile, those who are genuinely close to you wonder why they learned of the death of your mother from your twitter that instantly informed untold masses.
However Facebook may claim to "manage" our friends, we simply cannot keep track of such volumes. I have accumulated more than I can handle, at least 400, a quarter of whom I have never met. (On at least a couple of occasions, I confirmed a friendship with a perfect stranger fully convinced the person was somebody else.) Above all, no one can assume the expense of these associations. As Maggie Jackson observed, Facebook friends do not increase the number of folk to whom one is prepared to donate a kidney.
I have fallen into the habit of closing emails to friends I have not seen in years with words to the effect that "I hope our paths cross soon." This has become a cliché that I am trying to eliminate. But it illustrates the truism that friendship demands real contact. Electronic culture separates as it disembodies. The paradox is that it links us to folk far away while it separates those from whom we are closest. We are increasingly isolated even as we make the false boast that we have overcome time and distance and "reconnected."
The superficiality of these technologies is demonstrated by the proliferation of e-conflict. Scarcely anyone who has been on email has not experienced a serious miscommunication, even with an old friend. I have made what I thought were extremely clever online jokes, only to be accused of "flaming" because my humor lacked the non-verbal messaging to couch it in the proper context. Is it any wonder, therefore, that our Lord in Matthew 18 commands reconciliation through direct, face-to-face engagement?
Even worse, social networking has transformed friendship into a commodity. We collect friends in our desire to build status. Online personalities (even to the point of multiple identities and gender-bending) are carefully constructed as we crave the attention we hope it stirs. Christine Rosen has observed that the Socratic imperative to "know thyself" is altered in cyber culture to "show thyself." Here there is little shame. (One acquaintance of mine used his Facebook status in order to chronicle his writer's block.) Even the novelty of it all sinks in the vast ocean of pointless public diarists. Rosen describes Facebook as "an overwhelmingly dull place of monotonous uniqueness, of conventional individuality, of distinctive sameness."
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