Let us not sacrifice human contact and self exploration on the altar of social media
In his novel Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzche unwittingly set the agenda for something that is happening today. Call it “techno-babble” – an intolerable noise level noted more for its amplitude and attitude than for its depth or appeal to contemplation.
It seems that I have somehow offended the modern culturati and, heaven forbid, the technocratic cognizante, by an off-hand comment I made in a previous column. The offending line – “Anyone who thinks tweeting and texting is human contact is a fool” — sparked a small firestorm in the social media/geek crowd, who have a higher view of the art form. Here’s the question: Was this merely ‘Henry hyperbole’ meant to inflame, or do I feel that all humanity is lost when the miseries of the world are reduced to ones and zeros? Yes and no.
To begin, the quote was the end of a larger message about our fundamental human desires for stability, actual tenderness and close encounters of the first kind. Real flesh and blood meetings — where both problems and pathos are palpable.
It is good to remember that the great works, which we look to as true transmitters of culture, such as the Iliad, the Odyssey, were initially disseminated through the spoken word, long before they were read or put down for others to read. Shakespeare’s plays are never really understood until they are heard live, performed by those who know how to make the words come to life. The prologue to Henry V asks us to forgive the players that they cannot truly recreate: “Within this wooden O the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt, alive, real, holding the mirror up to nature.”
Here’s my take: For many people today, and especially our young, nothing is real. Fabulousness has gone viral. And most of what is written in e-mails, texts, tweets, and blogs is trivial garbage. It seems there’s no longer a need for an editor to vet what is being printed. The value of such fodder has lowered the entire value of what is being posted. What’s of value and what’s worth looking at? Where is there a standard for excellence? Even grammar and spelling have gone the way of the dodo. Every two-word phrase has become a portmanteau known only to the literati of that genre or generation.
I am a devoted student of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian whose dissertations Sanctorum Communio (1927) and Act and Being (1929) set the stage for one of the great confrontations in history: Bonhoeffer versus Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffer was no saint – a child of privilege who never lost his taste for finer things – but when he needed to, he stood in front of the crowds to defend the marginalized and the outcast. Were he alive today, I doubt that Bonhoeffer would have tweeted. He certainly wouldn’t have broken up with anybody over email. In Flossenburg concentration camp two weeks before the war ended, Hitler had him hanged. Before he died he insisted on seeing the commandant of the camp face-to-face, so he could give him his blessings and absolution for doing his duty, just as Bonhoeffer thought he had done his. The commandant wept. I have no idea what the commandant’s blog post said that day.
I’m a man of letters, meanings, and words. There are times I search for the perfect word or phrase to confront people or to convey a feeling. But I am no Shakespeare. I lack that skill to move men’s souls. So sometimes we just need the experience of being together. Life as it is, not as we want it to be — not the way somebody wrote it down in their blog. I don’t feel that because everyone can now publish, we have turned out a generation of insightful writers. We move forward in protected cocoons, commenting on everything and understanding nothing.
We have entered an age where everything is hyperactive, full of continuous noise and lines that blur between fantasy and reality – which is always duller, more consuming, more filled with shades of gray – and always betwixt licentious pleasure and salvation. The West, we are told by the 24-hour nonstop, non-reflective media – has entered the secular age. Everything can be explained and we all eventually will be governed by “scientific reason.”
Will traditional belief structures, such as Judaism and Christianity, be replaced? I don’t know. But humans are subjective beings who look for more than what can merely be proved. We’re being sucked by technology into transhumanism as a social movement that promises a worldly transcendency through a faith and belief in electronic gods. We are seeking ourselves in a post-human image. We are told that cyberspace will bring us radical life extensions, perhaps even electronic immortality, by uploading our minds to the cloud. People like Google’s Ray Kurzweil, and Oxford University’s Nick Bostrom boast that science will soon dry our tears and erase elements of all pain, sorrow, and even death. For all these things will pass away through the light of technology. O death – where is thy sting?
Yet we as emergency providers are in the here and now. Dawkins’ four-dimensional atheism doesn’t make sense where we sit, where we live, and where we work. This world without pain is an illusion, like Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island. Dealing with pain and suffering and inhumanity, we begin to appreciate random acts of kindness that would make no sense in the rational world. No emergency physician lives virtually.
If you think I am overreacting to current trends, bear with me for more than 140 characters and explore with me the idea that social media is a culprit if not the culprit in some of our demise. Earlier this year, Facebook boasted 1.23 billion active users. Meanwhile Twitter’s 200 million users sent an average of 400 million tweets per day, according to Nielsen Media. And check this out: A teenager with a mobile device sends out an average of 3,300 text messages per month and logs 650 minutes in phone calls.
The rage is to give it a socially acceptable name, like hyper-sociability, where leisure time is mostly spent listening to some other chucklehead, who has almost nothing to offer or say on the greater issues of humanity. This is the next generation’s hidden cry for human acceptance. In 2008, data analyst Bill Tainer found that “social media hits have surpassed pornography as the teens’ most popular search.” They are afraid to be alone, even for a few minutes.
It’s interesting to note what constitutes high-level search in the Twitter crowd. Katy Perry has 53 million followers; Justin Bieber 52 million. Pope Francis is way down the list at 4.6 million. Stephen Hawking did not even make the list, just in case you thought your kids were carrying on conversations about the 11 dimensional universe. In his Time magazine profile of 2010 Man of the Year Mark Zuckerberg, Lev Grossman stated: “Facebook wants to populate the wilderness, tame the howling mob and turn the lonely anti-social world of random chance into a friendly world, a serendipitous world. You’ll be working and living inside a network of people and you’ll never have to be alone again.”
Social media is everywhere. That way we never need to be alone with our thoughts. To me there’s nothing more lonely than four teenagers sitting at a restaurant booth all texting someone else. There is no place lonelier than a crowd. One can be lonelier in New York City than in Ishpeming, Michigan. Big city, bright lights, no real feeling, no real love, no understanding of the pain. Some time alone without noise, without tweets or texts is in my opinion a good thing. Constant noise dulls the soul. Robert Frost felt it coming:
“And lonely as it is, that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less.”
Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter, states with great self-assuredness that “the future will be social” and that “social” will be the killer app of the 21st century. The need to think, well that’s really unnecessary. In conversation with Stone, journalist Andrew Kan referred to social media as the “new god.” God help us all.
If social media is not the new god, it is certainly the new narcotic. Withdrawal for some will be difficult, and a 12-step program may be necessary. But I am certain the meeting will be held online, so you don’t even have to get out of your pajamas. I just have a hard time picturing myself signing into a meeting with “I’m Greg, and I’m addicted to Twitter.” And thousands of people will tweet back, “Hi, Greg!”
So back to the original question: Am I against all social media? No. Do I think there is a void in our humanity that these outlets only pretend to fill? Yes. When my children were growing up, we would sit at the table after dinner when I was home and talk about all kinds of issues. This was not optional. No phones, no distractions. My children today will tell you that they learned quite a lot during those sessions. The fact inventory was quite secondary to the art of interaction and conversation.
So I invite all my younger colleagues to be as current and hip as they would like. But when you are spending more time following the progress of your friend’s love affairs on Facebook than you are having real human contact, you need to reassess your priorities.
Vincit veritas — truth conquers all.
Talk Back: Respond to this column on Twitter @epmonthly. The EPM staff will then chisel your message into cuneiform and send it by carrier pigeon to Greg Henry’s log cabin in Michigan.
Image by Matthew G.