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The Internet & Parched Souls

What happens when we enter a world of constant connection—a world in which technology infiltrates nearly every moment of our waking existence? “We all feel the porcupine quill of constant contact, the irritant of ever presence, and long to escape, if only for a moment,” Rabbi David Wolpe writes [1] for TIME Magazine. But Wolpe also believes that, in a sense, this new form of constant connection is just an echo of past forms:

People tired of living in villages, where everyone knew everyone’s business and where there was no privacy or space. So, we built large, anonymous cities with ample rooms and deliberate neglect of others. Finding that such space parched our souls, we began to devise technological ways to bring us closer, from texting to tinder. Now, back in the virtual village, we are too close, and long for the space that we had just two decades ago.

Wolpe is right to note the role that urban disconnect and division has played in driving people apart, and the way in which it’s led to increased technology use. Many Americans live in an extremely atomistic space: whether we commute to jobs far from home, live far from family and friends, rent space in an apartment complex full of people we don’t know, or go to a mega-church filled with unfamiliar faces—many of us could report feelings of disconnected, loneliness, isolation.

But I think there’s a problem with comparing the closeness of the social media era with the community we might have seen in villages (or small-town communities) past.

First, one must note the obvious fact that real villages/towns are limited in time and space. They are necessarily small, while also being inescapably diverse: they hold people of different ages, interests, vocations, ideas, and values (while it is still worth noting that some communities are not diverse enough, and can fall into the sort of tribalism that is, in fact, deleterious to true community).

The “virtual village” that Wolpe describes, on the other hand, is a mass. It cannot be easily defined, and does not have limits. It is movement-driven and emotionally-oriented, a beast quick to react with passion instead of with reason—and thus, interestingly enough, prone to the same sort of tribalism that is so often condemned in real-world villages. On social media, you can choose and curate a “village” according to ideological or characteristic preference—by unfriending or following, you create the space and listen to the voices that you prefer, those that suit your own virtues and vices. This can lead members of the virtual village to become calloused or ignorant toward issues outside of their sphere of interest.

Second, while real villages/towns are often nosy and gossipy and contentious, the people within them live, work, worship, and rest together. Their lives are inexplicably intertwined, and cannot be turned off or logged off. Thus, people in a real village must learn to forgive, to work through differences, to heal hurts and find societal solutions to real-world dilemmas. The “virtual village,” on the other hand, gives us the opportunity to disconnect whenever we become offended or angry. It enables us to be as nasty, narcissistic, and demeaning as we please—with very few real-world consequences. And this creates a dangerous sort of atmosphere, one that is in fact poisonous to real community.

When we consider the amount of cynicism, anger, envy, and FOMO [2] (fear of missing out) prevalent online, it is no wonder that our souls have become “parched,” as Wolpe puts it. But I don’t think it’s because we are too close—rather, I believe it is because we are slowly learning that communication cannot replace community.

We live in a world that runs on incessant communication. Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, chatting, FaceTime spill together an endless pooling of words, pictures, audio clips, videos. The Economist reported Thursday [3] that people ages 16 to 24 use their smartphones for nearly four hours a day. But the incessant nature of our communication does not necessarily turn dialogue into community rapport. Something more is required to build a real community. Wendell Berry, in a recent interview, told me this [4]:

… Community is not made just by communication. It is a practical circumstance. It is composed of people who have a place in common. But it is made by people’s willingness to be neighbors, good and faithful servants, to one another. It survives by its members’ recognition of their need for one another, if only to keep the small children from getting lost or run over, or to keep their trash out of the streams and roads. My guess is that a healthy community would be indivisible from its own, its local, economy.

You don’t have to agree with Berry wholeheartedly to appreciate his conception of community: it’s more holistic and service-oriented than the “virtual village” described by Wolpe. I think the Internet can complement community—Facebook and Twitter are useful tools in fostering the networking and gathering of individuals—but it cannot replace it. Service, proximity, need: these cannot be cultivated, long-term, over a long distance. Friendship must have limits [5], like a real town does.

Wolpe does not seem to consider that, while the virtual village does indeed leave us feeling “parched”—at once lonely and overwhelmed by clamor—the real village has a rhythm and cadence of community and rest. While every village is imperfect, it can preserve individual spheres and private spaces. It can complement the individual’s desire to come apart and be alone. The virtual village, on the other hand, will alway clamor for more status updates and pictures, for ever-greater involvement and immersion. It is, as Wolpe says, increasingly difficult to ignore that “tug”—to turn off one’s phone, or iPad, or laptop, and ignore the virtual “village.” It will not leave us alone.

Once again, the Internet isn’t evil. Social media isn’t useless. But if we view it as an end, rather than as a means, we can in fact lose our chance for real community. The presentation of village life that Wolpe presents—always prickly and discomforting, ever too little or too much—may point to the imperfection of our natures, our inability to ever perfectly satiate each other’s need for community. But it is in delving deeper, growing to know each other, and cultivating virtue that we slowly begin to build proper bonds—to understand each other’s needs, both for camaraderie and for privacy. Such knowledge can’t be fostered online: it requires time spent in each other’s company, frank acknowledgement and honest forgiveness. It requires the sort of living together, side-by-side, that a virtual village cannot provide.

9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "The Internet & Parched Souls"

#1 Comment By Winston On February 28, 2015 @ 5:03 am

It depends. I have made great connections with people. You can make meaningful contacts;but not if you are not choosy about who you connect with.

#2 Comment By the unworthy craftsman On February 28, 2015 @ 9:20 am

It was my experience at Occupy Wall Street in New York in October 2011 that convinced me of the truth of this. Crowds of people, who on meeting were total strangers, engaging in intense meaningful conversation that went on for weeks…I had never experienced anything remotely like that in my life. So this is the “public square” that fans of “civic engagement” are always going on about, I thought.

#3 Comment By Frank Stain On February 28, 2015 @ 11:02 am

My guess is that a healthy community would be indivisible from its own, its local, economy

Berry’s point hints at a deeper problem that you don’t really mention here. Community requires that a town or village controls its own economic resources. What chance is there for community, then, in the countless American small towns where a massive Walmart supercenter has a local monopoly on all kinds of commerce? What does community really mean in these small towns in which people have been reduced to the status of pre-revolutionary Mexican peasants, totally dependent on the Hacienda for their quality of life?
Real community needs independent citizens. I think the technology or no technology debate is pretty much irrelevant to that. When people are working alienating, low wage jobs for massive trading companies that don’t actually have any interest in the well being of the local community, and which suck wealth from that community for their distant shareholders, how on earth can the absence of technology make up for the massive breakdown of community life?
These local communities have been turned into armies of serfs for distant financiers. To romanticize this as community would, I think, be rather shortsighted.

#4 Comment By K. W. Jeter On February 28, 2015 @ 12:34 pm

while it is still worth noting that some communities are not diverse enough, and can fall into the sort of tribalism that is, in fact, deleterious to true community

Yeah, right; tell it to the people of Rotherham. So somehow they had less of “true community” before they had mass immigration forced upon them?

#5 Comment By Chris 1 On February 28, 2015 @ 12:40 pm

The “Global Village” is a real thing in a limited sense of having the 18th century construct of privacy replaced.

But social interaction on the internet is more of a revolving cocktail party…which is why internet discussions so often come to resemble drunks talking at the bar. 😉

#6 Comment By Giuseppe Scalas On February 28, 2015 @ 10:37 pm

Frank Stein,

Do you know the works of Ivan Illic? He focused exactly on your points. His core concept is that community is about ‘care’, but that such care cannot be practiced because of the industrialization and professionalization of caring (food preparation, healing, teaching, repairing, transportation…).
In order to rebuild the community he proposed to re-empower its members through localism, reshaping of the use of technology (rather than organizing people’s work to serve a the functioning of a technocratic machine, he proposed to repurpose the techology to provide tools controlled by individual or small group workers) and – most important – to de-professionalize as much as possible both medicine and schools.
Quite an utopianist, but he has seen clearly through the problem.

#7 Comment By Giuseppe Scalas On February 28, 2015 @ 10:38 pm

Sorry Frank Stain

#8 Comment By Kurt Gayle On March 1, 2015 @ 8:19 am

Another tremendously insightful look at community by Gracy Olmstead who writes:

“I think the Internet can complement community — Facebook and Twitter are useful tools in fostering the networking and gathering of individuals – but it cannot replace it. Service, proximity, need: these cannot be cultivated, long-term, over a long distance. Friendship must have limits, like a real town does.”

If a physical community already exists – a real community based upon “service, proximity, and need” – then social media might be useful in a limited way to “complement” that existing physical community. But I agree with Wendell Berry’s more circumscribed view of the usefulness of social media:

“The usefulness of electronic communication to cultivate community, I think, is tightly limited. It may be useful in emergencies, useful to people who are sick and shut in, etc.”

Frank Stain quotes Wendell Berry: “My guess is that a healthy community would be indivisible from its own, its local, economy.” Stain goes on to say that “Berry’s point hints at a deeper problem…Community requires that a town or village controls its own economic resources. What chance is there for community, then, in the countless American small towns where a massive Walmart supercenter has a local monopoly on all kinds of commerce?”

Stain sees one of the reasons for the breakdown of physical communities in the fact that people are forced to work “alienating, low wage jobs for massive trading companies that don’t actually have any interest in the well being of the local community, and which suck wealth from that community for their distant shareholders.”

I see it the way Frank Stain sees it — and the way Alan Jackson sees it in his 1998 hit “The Little Man”:

[6]

#9 Comment By Mark Jamison On March 1, 2015 @ 7:31 pm

Another nice piece – thank you.
Neil Postman had some interesting things to say about the impact of technology on our ideas of community in his books “Amusing Ourselves to Death” and “Technopoly”.
Social media has its uses but it doesn’t replace or even always enhance our more traditional ideas about community, especially in a society that seems ever more inclined to separate itself along economic lines.
Social media technologies are tools, how we use them and integrate them into our lives is critical. I am reminded of Thoreau’s contention that we don’t ride the railroad so much as it rides us.