The Wireless Soul
Instant communication may make us feel more connected. But it’s actually separating us—from each other and ourselves.
By Lincoln Swain
I read recently that some airlines are already providing their passengers with wireless in-flight service. Soon no manager will have any excuse for not returning calls or e-mail, and the last escape hatch from digital tyranny will slam shut.
To be unavailable, to be willfully disconnected takes a certain amount of courage. Our culture suggests with relentless belligerence that only losers aren’t hooked up and juiced in. Bureaucracies, both private and public, provide their employees with all the newfangled shackles. Palm Pilots, Blackberries, camera phones, video phones, satellite phones. When the warden rattles the chain, you’re there at the ready. Big Brother is not only watching, he’s calling in. And you’d better answer, or else.
The mobile phone has taken the place of human interaction, and even companionship. We hold it as tightly to our ears as we would a lover to our breast. We have become a race of cell phone extensions. We think we’re communicating. But as the scholar John Durham Peters suggests, the authentic signal is elusive indeed. Peters contends that much of modern technology creates the illusion of communication, which, ironically, fosters only more anxiety about authenticity. What we assume are bridges more often reveal gaps, or worse, impose them. The dropped call is no call at all. Can you hear me now? Frankly, no.
Interestingly—or sadly—enough, while we think the wireless age has brought us closer together, into a shrunken world of instant communication, in reality it has taken us father away from genuine human contact by widening the gap between the haves and have nots. Poor people can’t afford cell phones, or computers, or the other essentials of survival in the technocracy. In my book, “Dare to Defy,” I advocated that, as a gesture of civic agape, cities should provide their citizens with free wireless capability. Turn the whole metro area into a hot spot, where the socially and economically disenfranchised could use wireless communication to “hack” into channels of opportunity and influence.
After Hurricane Katrina, the vast majority of people in New Orleans were completely “off the grid” of social power. There were no authentic signals being exchanged between them and their leaders at the local, state or federal level. So when disaster struck, the communication gap instantly widened into a yawning chasm filled with the toxic mud of Ole Man River. In our crazed obsession with instant, constant communication, we arrogantly assumed that in a disaster situation, wireless technology would save the day. But in a devastating human crisis, it’s only human beings who can save each other, through compassion and action. Gimme shelter, not a server.
And ultimately, the electronic age has separated us not only from each other but from ourselves. The philosopher Martin Heidegger believed that there are two states of existence. In forgetfulness, we are immersed in things. In mindfulness, we can appreciate things for what they are. Indeed, Sartre suggested that the greatest challenge for man is to come to grips with how objective reality swamps the subjective. The soul can’t hack the pace of the material world. The modern fetish of communication technology precludes mindfulness because we have neither psychic nor physical space to be mindful. The beeping and chirping of the devices provide a ready albeit unfulfilling distraction from the hard and often dispiriting work of contemplation.
As a Christian existentialist, I also understand the need for authentic signals to assuage what Irving Yalom calls galactic anxiety. If God has left us to confront our own freedom on a living planet with its own primal agendas (such as earthquakes, hurricanes and natural selection), we can choose to go it alone in faith, praying for guidance and strength from a silent God in the great beyond.
Or we can try to foster community between fellow souls here on earth. Christ understood that we conquer loneliness and doubt through one another. A recent New Yorker article profiled Rick Warren, the author of “The Purpose Driven Life.” Warren’s special genius was to build a megachurch made up of small groups. Parishioners separated by the deadly space of Southern California suburbs nonetheless are able to form solid communities through the church’s social network. The church provides a valuable place for face-to-face encounters as well as rock star performances of pastor Rick. The advances in communication technology only provide us with extensions of ourselves. What good are they if we have not come to grips with ourselves as beings in need of authentic signals from each other?
In the film, “Contact,” a young astrophysicist intercepts the broadcast of an alien tribe from outer space. They provide her with the plans for a highly advanced space ship. When she arrives on their planet, she is met by an alien impersonating her beloved father, who died when she was a young girl. The alien apologizes for the trickery and then suggests that she go home to her fellow earthlings. The message is clear: communication begins at home.
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To read "Too Close for Comfort," John D. Spalding's companion essay, click here.
Lincoln Swain is the pseudonym of an Episcopal priest and theologian living in the Detroit area. He is the author of Dare to Defy: Conquering Fear with Active Faith, and he's working on a book that will explore technology and spirituality. His last piece for SoMA was The King of Fears.
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