Thursday 7 May 2009

The Soul in Cyberspace: Wisdom from Groothius

Some will have read my previous posts on the Internet and its potential impact on our lives: 'Is the Internet dumbing us down? 2 Rite!' (here), 'Are bloggers robbing their employers?' (here) and 'Writing, communication and relationships' (here).

You can read an excellent interview by Tim Challies with Douglas Groothuis (Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary) who wrote The Soul in Cyberspace (published in 1997). In the interview Challies asked Groothuis to revisit the key arguments of his book. In particular he asked him to revisit his concern expressed way back in 1997, that cyberspace was taking the place of 'real', face-to-face human contact. His book was many years before Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, blogging and many other applications that keep us busy online. The following quote struck me as particularly relevant for our age:

"But overall cyberspace (and hardly anyone calls it this any more) has diminished community if one means by that embodied relationships bound by troth, friendship, citizenship, and physical proximity. People practice an “absent presence” constantly as they talk on cell phones while checking out at the supermarket or at Starbucks, as they send text messages during classes instead of attending to teachers and students, as they play video games instead of getting to know their spouses and children. One could go on."

Ouch! This goes to the very heart of the way electronic communication has changed our world. How many of us could claim that we have never found themselves being absently present due to technology? How many of us have checked emails, Facebook and other online sites while talking on the phone? How many check emails and SMS messages on their phone when they should be in a conversation with friends, family members or workmates? I've even seen people checking messages during church services. It is difficult to assess the level of impact that technology has on our lives, but it seems likely that it is having an impact on relationships within and outside families. It also seems that our level of dependence, which verges on addiction for some, can have very negative impacts. It is easy to dress up the level of our distraction due to technology and call it other things. We can even praise it as multiskilling, and we could point to other distractions in life that affect relationships. But the truth is that our growing obsession with electronic communication is a problem and that technology, particularly the Internet, is having an impact on our relationships.

What to do about it is the question? For anyone who does find that technology has an impact on their relationships there are choices that we can make that will limit the impact. Here are a few rules I apply to myself:
  • I try not to read emails at weekends
  • I turn my phone off, or put it on silent when in meetings, when out with my wife etc
  • I have set times for blogging and try to limit the hours that it takes (choose end times)
  • I limit the number of blog posts I write and the number of blogs I read
  • I limit the use of social networking sites. I'm on Facebook but I use it for very limited purposes
  • I try to avoid answering my mobile when playing with my grandchildren
  • I don't email someone when a phone call or face-to-face meeting is possible and better
I don't offer these as relevant for anyone other than myself. For each of us I suspect we know which forms of technology have the greatest potential to affect our relationships. We need to be wise in how we identify our weaknesses and then act. I know how easy it is to be absently present when I have things on my mind, let alone when technology is buzzing and blinking at me all day long.

You can read the entire interview here.


Greg T said...

I should come clean and admit that I am something of a Luddite. That being said, I am able to appreciate that, used wisely and well, the advances in technology in recent years have the ability to enhance greatly our ability to communicate and gather information. Like most inherently good things, however, they can be used in the wrong way, or too much (a good working definition of sin, by the way!). My fear is that we have gone too far, too fast, with each technological advance being embraced by millions without, perhaps, a sufficiently careful consideration of the impact it is likely to have on the lives of users and society in general.

I think Groothuis is on the ball in suggesting that “cyberspace”, or rather the use of associated technologies, has “diminished community” in a meaningful sense. The ways in which humans communicate developed over many thousands of years, and for most of that time were based on factors such as the ones Groothuis suggests (physical proximity, for instance). The telephone was probably the first great departure from this model. Over the last fifteen to twenty years, however, we have been subject to a veritable flood of new kinds of technology, which on the positive side have opened up avenues of communication and information gathering literally undreamed of for most of human history, but which on the debit side have, I would suggest, helped to begin a trend towards depersonalisation, alienation and social dysfunction whose full effects we have probably scarcely begun to see.

What can be done? I think, Trevor, the limits you set yourself on the use of certain kinds of technology are sound ones. Of course these will vary from individual to individual. Personally I am blessed (as I see it!) in that I receive relatively few calls on my mobile. Nevertheless, I always have it switched off during church, for instance. I have been trying to limit my use of the internet to absolute essentials, as I find that for all its usefulness, it can be a terrible time waster; I participate in only one blog apart from this one; and I have no intention of ever going near a social networking site! Of course, as with yours, these limits are not meant to be seen as general guidelines.


Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks Greg. Always good to hear your perspective on my posts. You're right to stress that technology isn't bad, technology is a blessing from God that is an outcome of the intelligence and creativity that God has given us. I'm also of the view that the technology offers ways to strengthen relationships and to help us create new types of extended communities. Virtual communities are not inherently bad either, but they must never replace real life relationships and take us away from face-to-face contact with others. Anyway, thanks again. Trevor