I heard of a youngster who once saw a rotary phone for the first time. He looked at it and asked, “How do you work it?” In the computer age, with a smart phone seemingly in everyone’s hand, the rotary phone looks like a mysterious contraption. For all us seasoned veterans of life, we can laugh and feel slightly superior because of our mastery of such a complex contraption!
But this brings up a very important point: what has technology done to us? Electricity has changed the circadian rhythms of the body, extending the dominance of daylight and banishing the comforts of the night. The automobile and the plane have shrunk distances and created unheard-of levels of mobility. The computer and the smartphone particularly have linked us together in ways that are both wonderful and frightening.
The smartphone especially has altered daily reality and created many benefits, but also many downsides. Have you ever looked around a subway car when you are traveling somewhere? If you were to look 25 years ago, people would be buried in reading their newspapers or paperback books. Almost everyone is now connected by their smartphones to a whole world that is both private and public in a very frightening way. We exist now as isolated towers living in our own worlds, catered to by the likes of Google and Amazon.
Our sense of community has been altered, too. A family now can be physically together, but as each member looks at their little screen, they are participating in virtual communities that are more real for them than the presence of each other to one another is. Or at least so it seems to them.
This is so because virtual communities are communities by analogy. They are communions of meaning and communication. The ultimate form of community is being physically together. Every other form of community is secondary to that primal form of interchange that has the total presence and transparency and revelation that physical presence can be.
This is, at least, as a basis. People in a subway car are physically together (sometimes too together!), but it is not community, only just physical presence.
Getting back to that family: if they all could put down their phones, or better—turn them off (O horror!!), they could look at each other, pick up the visual cues of body language, listen to the intonation of voices, and mindfully serve each other with the clarity of intention. The accumulation of moments such as these reinforces the bonds of family love that knits us together and provides the connections that will serve our future selves within the family and also form the basis and model of interactions with the other real communities of our lives.
This direction stands in stark contrast to what is happening to our life through the advent of these powerful technologies. The good that they undoubtedly produce has an underside of negative forces that subvert our development and even warp it. This loss of community is a sort of “soft damage”. But the fragmentation of our larger community, of our nation, has more pernicious dangers. The loss of decency in our civil discourse can be seen as at least one of its causes this loss of a sense of our common destiny and the virtual alliances that fester on party lines. These have subverted our call to love one another. People no longer gather with each other to discuss things for a mutually satisfactory resolution. Through identifications with online associates via chat rooms and hashtags, however, we have become a nation of shouters, each trying to get what they want said to be heard alone, and drown out the rest. These movements have something of what our founding fathers feared as the dark side of democracy: mob rule. Just because the majority feels something to be right, it does not mean it is right and does not mean the opposition that happens to be in a minority must be suppressed. Our founders tried to ensure the rights of minorities. But that does not seem to be the aim of these vociferous and sometimes violent interest groups. It takes a community to have civil conversations and we are no longer good at forming communities, only movements that are strident and that brook no opposition.
Enter the Church. The Church, like the people of Israel, is God’s striking example for the world to follow. The very nature of the Church is community. When we receive Holy Communion (an obvious etymological connective), we partake of the one Christ. This makes us one on a deep level of being. Whether we truly live this and experience this is a different matter. But it is clear that God calls us to be a community of faith. The Church should be a place where enmities are confronted and resolved; where we seek the true good of each other; where we have a common purpose; where we a truly and really present to each other. The Church is not a virtual community. She constantly calls us out of ourselves and seeks to have us sacrifice our agendas to the will of the One who is beyond us and at the same time our very purpose of being.
This is a task for a lifetime, but it needs to begin today.