Technology and Intimacy

In finishing Wendell Berry’s Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community a couple weeks ago, and then Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead last week, I’ve been thinking a good bit about human relationship and technology. Gilead isn’t really a story about technology per se, though it does make some commentary about television, but it is certainly a book about human relationships and the myth of progress. Gilead features a small rural town that doesn’t seem to have much to compete with against the rapidly “advancing” city and outside world.  The novel is written as a long letter or journal to the narrator’s son, an attempt in some measure for the son to know more about his father once the father dies.

Berr’s book, Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community is a series of essays that make an argument for making local economies and communities the center point of our lives. Berry argues that sex, economy, freedom, and community are all inter-related, that the lack of sanctity around sex leads to the breakdown of local communities, the loss of community ruins local economies and takes away freedom. At the heart of Berry’s essays is a suspicion and indictment of technology, the myth of progress, and the mechanization of labor and therefore human beings. These things have led to the downfall of many communities.

Both of these books have me thinking again and again about how computers and cell phones (and the current merger of the two) really have continued to destroy the remaining fabric of local community and tear at the nature of human interaction. It’s almost cliche to say it because it’s so obvious. We all know that cell phones and computers make it possible to “communicate” with millions of others yet never have to talk face to face with another human being. Games like World of Warcraft have led to an entire demographic of people who almost never leave their homes and whose entire social lives are enacted on a computer. We laugh about people like that, we shake our heads at the absurdity of it, but most people continue to indulge in a similar kind of behavior. “Texting” isn’t just sending a text message on a phone, it’s a whole genre of conversation that involves truncated ideas and no time commitment so that someone can be having another “conversation” simultaneously.

We live in a world of multi-tasking and divided minds and commitments. We have no real concept of stability so we find our stability in technology, which is utterly ironic since technology changes daily. But very few people seem to stop and recognize this as a problem. Even people who acknowledge that it’s not good tend to think it is inevitable, that they must participate in such a system. Three years ago, I wrote an article for my college newspaper about why cell phones were destroying our ability to be in relationship. At the time people thought I was crazy for not having a cell phone. (I have one now, though I daily think about ways to get rid of it.)

I could list off a million ways that I think that computers and cell phones are ruining our lives, but I’ve realized that many people associate ease with necessity or improvement. Cell phones make our lives easier, therefore they make them better (or are needed). Telling people why cell phones are bad seems to be pointless as long as cell phones make life easier. We have eyes but cannot see, ears but cannot hear–we are only able to see the surface level. We have to look deeper to see that the soul of our common life is at stake when human interaction is reduced to the sending and receiving of electronic signals. Wendell Berry makes a similar point, that even the discussion of human beings in mechanical terms tends to reduce them to the terms themselves. The human brain is not a computer that sends electronic signals to the body in the same way a computer sends electronic signals to another computer. We have no concept of mystery in regards to creation, and therefore we have no awe for creation itself, and therefore no reverence for the creator over the human created thing.

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