Wired. The digital age. Age of voyeurism. The “I post, therefore, I am” lifestyle (see Os Guinness’ wonderful book Fool’s Talk). I call it selfiedom. It’s where a culture is given over to worship of the self, and the sacred has been ejected in favor of the profane self. Selfiedom is the Digital Tower of Babel. Maybe the term selfiedom won’t catch on, but were folks to tweet/post/blog about it, it just might. See the temptation? Here’s the issue for consideration: Are we not more connected digitally than ever in history, yet perhaps more lonely than ever in history? There’s a paradox in the fact that people have hundreds, or even thousands, of virtual friends but few, if any, actual friends. It’s now in the vernacular to call people “Facebook friends.” That is revealing. When is the last time we went to dinner with our Facebook friends? We may view posts and tweets, but I wonder if we are meaningfully connected to other people.
Over the last few days, I served as an instructor at a marriage retreat. We were ministering to current and former military personnel and their spouses. We held the retreat at a lake in the hills of north GA. The weather was spectacular—70s and 80s in the daytime, 50s and 60s at night. Clear skies, a slight fall breeze off the lake, waterfowl sliding across the skyline at dawn and dusk. Truly beautiful. Some of the helpers who worked at the location were high school and college students. As I was walking the shores of the lake one evening, I saw a group of 6 girls assembled on a long bench overlooking the lake. The girls were all dressed in shorts, t-shirts, and sandals. And do you think they were all talking to each other? Do you think they were even looking at each other? Do you think they were even facing each other? No…to all three questions. They all were connected to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or other social media. They were scrolling but they were not meaningfully connecting.
Now, I know there’ll be those who object. “They’re actually reaching more people,” one might say. I disagree. Because I work with young people (it’s growing just as serious with older people, too, however), I know what I’m told over and over by couples I counsel: they are lonely. One or both spouses spend hours online with virtual friends but don’t spend time with actual friends. We’re connected by way of the Web instead of connecting with the heart. Be honest. Would you rather have a text message from a virtual friend or a hug from an actual friend? Now, if distance precludes that, certainly we all welcome the conveniences ushered in via technology, but you see my point.
As I watched the girls assembled by the bench, they weren’t truly with one another. They wanted to see if others approved of them in the digital world. They took selfies. They posted. Rather than making lasting memories with each other, they tweeted. But something was lost. They wanted others to like their individual statuses by portraying themselves as satisfied, as the heroines of their individual stories.
We’re awash in a culture where the favorite pronoun is “I.” The culture celebrates the swagger of style instead of still waters of character. Someone sent me a book recently entitled The Road to Character that explores this whole theme. The author’s point is that the Adam I life (your resume of accomplishments, your degrees, your titles, your status, etc.) has largely eclipsed the Adam II life (the things people will say about you at your funeral about you being a man/woman of character, of sacrifice, of trustworthiness, etc.). He’s spot on.
We’re often connected to the Web but not to each other. So, what to do? The Web is not going away, I’d venture to say. Technology will increase rather than decrease, in its availability and speed. But might we pay a price? Might we be paying it already? It bears repeating: I hear from husbands, wives, and children repeatedly: “My wife/husband/son/daughter/friend won’t talk to me. Instead they play on their iPad or phone all the time.” Again, I’m not blind to how the logic cuts both ways. Here I am writing on a computer, posting it on the Web, and hoping others will be on the Web to read it and think about it. I see the paradox. However, just like the girls gathered near that bench this weekend up at the lake, I want genuine contact, not just virtual contact. The Digital Tower of Babel is just as idolatrous as the ziggurat in Genesis 11. In the Confessions, Augustine wrote, “Our hearts are restless until they can find rest in you [God].” That’s often quoted. But what’s less explained is the context out of which Augustine wrote. Despite being raised by a Christian mother, Augustine pursued a life of sexual lust and idolatry until Christ convicted him of his sin. It was only after being convicted of his sin that he understood his own Tower of Babel, wherein he was the god at the top. Because he excelled in academia, in rhetoric, law, languages, etc. his pride led to his downfall—a constant theme in literature and in life. Yet Augustine longed for true friendship, true rest, true connection—and this was millennia before the Web.
Human nature does not change until it’s transformed by God’s grace.
Scripture records one of history’s most moving tributes to friendship: “As soon as he [David] had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (1 Sam 18:1 ESV). What you see in the subsequent pages is a story of true, rather than apparent (we’d say virtual in our day), friendship. Should we use technology to improve relationships? Yes. However, I am not confident that will occur until we scroll our feeds less, and love our neighbors more.