Seeing through a screen, darkly

A few days ago I was waiting in line at a local grocery store when I noticed an acquaintance standing adjacent to me, also waiting in line. I attempted to strike up a conversation, as it appeared we would be waiting for quite a while, but every time I asked a question or offered a prompt I received a one-word response. Not wishing to be rude, I left her be, as she was rather engrossed in an intense game of Words With Friends on her iPhone and could not be bothered.

But after a minute or so, a signal from my own smartphone alerted me that someone had mentioned me on Twitter.

“Just saw @MatthewProsser at the store, he’s really tall,” the message said, and it was posted by the woman standing right next to me in line.

I literally “laughed out loud” and informed her that (even at 6’2”) I’m only of average height for the men in my family. She smiled, and nodded politely, turning her attention back to her phone.

From there I went about paying for my groceries and on with my errands, but I thought about that encounter as I drove homeward. I started to recall a number of exchanges I’ve had with people of late, especially the younger people in my community.

A certain pattern of behavior emerged, especially among those of my acquaintance in their 20s. It seems that many of these younger people are far more outspoken and communicative electronically than IRL (internet slang for “in real life”).

This young lady, who is quick to comment vociferously on my Facebook profile or send me a “Tweet” with some snarky riposte, is virtually closemouthed when I’m standing a few feet away.

I noticed something similar at a high school basketball game I attended last month. Groups of youngsters sitting together in the stands or gathered around the concession stand, their fingers a blur on tiny blue-lit keypad screens. Jabbering idly to each other, even as they typed short messages to people sitting in the same general area.

Last summer I read an excellent article in the New York Times, in which a researcher posits that the sheer volume many of us spend communicating with others significantly impacts our ability to connect with others in person.

My own meager “field research” indicates something similar.

From the early days of television programming in the late 1940 until now, the electronic image has continued to change our consciousness… increasing in complexity, resolution, availability, and most of all in content. Whether we like it or not, these “screens” have and will continue to change the way we see and interact with other human beings.

I don’t mean to sound alarmist, for I think this technology can be a tremendous asset in communicating and bringing people together. But like anything else, it is prone to abuse.

Objectification is certainly not a new trend for humankind. Ever since Descartes we have tended to view the world outside of ourselves as an object to be controlled and exploited for our own benefit. As easily manipulated and accessible as this media is, it opens us up to be changed and affected also.

Just as movable type changed the culture of the Western world during the 15th century, for good and for ill, so did the world grow smaller with the advent of the telegraph, radio, and television broadcasting of the 20th century.

Our own time presents us with a form of technology that can be as much a bane as a blessing.

Throughout the narrative of the Biblical account, Christ does not appeal to a vague nebulous idea of humanity but refers to us as “neighbor” to each other. Literally. The precise term Jesus used refers to whoever is in closest proximity to you. So, when he is saying love your “neighbor” and share life together in community, He’s referring to those people around you: that noisy throng from whom you attempt to stave off boredom by peering intently into the shifting screen of your smartphone.

I write all this as someone wholly enmeshed within this paradigm. I have multiple email accounts, and a readily-available Internet presence on various platforms.

But when you see me in person, please see me and be sure I see you. For we can only see a dim picture through our digital screens, and darkly at that.

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About Matthew

Backwoods philosopher, itinerant journalist, and poet laureate of the pine curtain... my old writings can be found at A Place to Stand, but if you look for me again, I can be found under your boot-soles.
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