The downside of digital

October 7, 2015 | Editorial | Volume 19 Issue 20

Some days I would like to just unplug my computer, walk out into the sunshine and warmth of an autumn day, breathe in the clear air and pretend I was living in a time before the Internet. Find a close friend and chat face to face, rather than “like” his thoughts on Facebook.

Wouldn’t it be a pleasant change to once again feel the warmth and light of human interaction—the smile, the spontaneous laughter, the furrowed brow indicating a question or disapproval, the handclasp or tap on the shoulder—rather than living day by day staring at a screen that, yes, opens you up to a whole new world, but that brings you a lot of information you really didn’t need to know for your well-being?

Would it be so bad if my world would be more confined to the community I know and love, rather than to know the intricacies of Vladimir Putin’s over-reach for world power or all the reasons Bashar Assad must go as Syria’s head of state? Or of all the pundits’ analysis of who will win the federal election and why?

How could you be so parochial as to bury your head in the sand when the world is now a global village where events in one faraway place certainly affect your own world? How could you be so provincial as to think your tiny community is unhooked from the rest of the world?

Of course, it isn’t. But for a brief moment, allow me to enjoy the fantasy that I could get off this fast-moving train and take a walk into the dense woods somewhere and hear only the sounds of nature—the wind in the trees, the birdsong, the caw-caw of the crow, the low bellowing of a cow in the distance, the chirping of a squirrel, the stealthy crackling step of a deer.

I am not alone with my yearnings. In her recent column in the Washington Post, Brigid Schulte, overwhelmed by technology, has discovered “forest bathing” as a way for stressed-out, plugged in, tech-addicted people to find calm. The executive director of a program called Wilderness School likens our modern addiction to technology to being caught in a spider’s web.

“A spider injects its prey with poison, which doesn’t kill, but merely immobilizes. The heart still beats as the spider feeds. Just like a plugged-in lifestyle lulls you into a kind of waking sleep,” says Warren Moon.

In the past few years, Schulte says her relationship with technology has changed utterly, and not for the better, as journalism has gone digital. “The worth of our stories is judged more and more by the digital traffic we drive, and the pressure to become a ‘brand’ with a big and social media following has intensified.”

She readily admits that “sharing our stories widely helps us understand our world, makes apparent what binds us together as humans when it’s so easy to forget, and has the power to change things for the better.” But she also says she comes from an era when the story, not the storyteller, was paramount.

That got me to thinking about our own conversation in the Mennonite faith community, the one we compare to coming together in the “village square”—the stories that continually shape our values, our core beliefs, our identity as followers of Jesus in a rapidly changing culture. (See the video on our “About Us” page.) And yes, we are not only a member of our local church and community, but a part of a worldwide communion—as we celebrated this summer in Harrisburg, Pa.

And yes, a Facebook group page can help a congregation communicate better, as Doreen Martens pointed out in a guest editorial. But we should not forget that person-to-person communication is the best way to bind us together in our faith, and at the local level. We are our most authentic selves in this venue. The rules of engagement are most effective when we can look each other in the eye, convey our true feelings accompanied by facial expressions, tone of voice, a handclasp, a tap of affection on the shoulder, even a hug of affirmation.

These are not the tools of Facebook and Twitter. That communication is distant, impersonal and many times superficial. The digital venue may broaden our world, but it also allows for inappropriate animosity, cynicism and vitriol, none of which contribute to binding us together.

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