The human is a social animal, wrote Aristotle: “an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.”
Modern society fosters the idea of personhood as a singular thing: we believe that living in community is not necessary, though often beneficial. Social obligation and community are voluntary: they can and should be discarded whenever convenient for the individual. Some believe these trends are based in the increase of technology; but according to Mark Oppenheimer’s January 17 article in New York Times Magazine, any sort of isolation we experience isn’t technology’s fault:
Hampton found that, rather than isolating people, technology made them more connected. “It turns out the wired folk — they recognized like three times as many of their neighbors when asked,” Hampton said. Not only that, he said, they spoke with neighbors on the phone five times as often and attended more community events. Altogether, they were much more successful at addressing local problems, like speeding cars and a small spate of burglaries. They also used their Listserv to coordinate offline events, even sign-ups for a bowling league. Hampton was one of the first scholars to marshal evidence that the web might make people less atomized rather than more.
Keith Hampton’s experiments in sociology and technology give us interesting insights into humans’ interactions with technology and each other. He reminds us that technology, at the end of the day, is merely a tool. It can be used for good or ill, can cultivate community or individualism. Much depends on our attitudes and philosophies toward the medium. Ben Garner made this excellent observation on technology at Humane Pursuits:
Since Neolithic man formed some crude farm implements for himself, we’ve been using technology, and there’s no reason to think that we’re ever going to, or even should want to, stop using them. But we can encourage ways of thinking that will, in the future, change the direction of our technological development. We can question the democratic, individualistic assumptions that made our current technologies so juvenile … We can actively affirm the truth that life is best experienced in the flesh, not mediated through a screen.
If Aristotle was right, we still need community, and cannot merely shrug off this craving for human interaction. The old pleasures of breaking bread and eating in communion, working side-by-side with friends and family, enjoying times of labor and leisure together—yearnings for such things will always simmer beneath the surface of our souls. We should not blame our isolationist lifestyle on technology or modernity: paths of community or individualism are paved by choice, not computers. The difficulty here, as in most of life, is that community takes sacrifice and selflessness. Since humans have always struggled with selfishness and pride, it would follow that humans have always struggled (and will always struggle) to join in communal life.
Aristotle wrote that anyone who can exist outside the common life “is either a beast or a god.” But interestingly, even the Christian God does not choose to live outside communion: the entire idea of Trinity, three Persons in One, underlines the fact that God Himself has eternally lived in fellowship. The three Persons of the Godhead are in perfect harmony, each glorifying and honoring the other members. If God Himself chooses not to exist in isolation, what makes us think it’s an advisable course? If humans are the imago Dei, the image of God, then we also were created with a built-in desire for fellowship—with the Divine, of course, but also with earthly companions. If we refuse to enjoy this communion, we are not choosing a godlike status; we are merely beasts.