"A Web of Relationship"
- along a wilderness trail -
Several years ago as the internet was beginning to take such a center-stage in the everyday life of popular culture, I had pretty much convinced myself that the new age of electronic technology and social media would be a tool for creating a new world-wide spiritual revolution. Spirituality, after all, is an awareness of our dynamic interconnectedness. The enlightened person is one who experiences all being as "interbeing," so what better way for human beings to connect with one another than through a "world-wide web?"
Over the years I have come to seriously re-think the value of social media and digital communication as tools for enhancing spiritual awareness. In fact I wonder and worry if our new age of electronic technology has the potential to divide us more than to connect us?
The kinds of base, crude and cruel communication that has emerged in social media is quite disturbing to me. One commentator has referred to the barrage of tweets, posts, reviews and online comments as "consequence-free hostility." People can attack other people, humiliate them, threaten and debase others and it all can be done very anonymously; and in most cases no one ever really knows who you are and there are rarely any social consequences for what is being said.
In a very thoughtful article in this morning's New York Times, titled: The Epidemic of Facelessness, author Stephen Marchie helps explain why so many people disconnect from one another rather than connect when using digital communication. He suggests that the problem lies in the fact that we can't see each others' faces when we communicate online.
This morning's article cites some recent neuroscience research about how human beings need and use our faces to empathize with and connect with one another:
Through imitation and mimicry, we are able to feel what other people feel. By being able to feel what other people feel, we are also able to respond compassionately to other people's emotional states. The face is the key to the sense of intersubjectivity, linking mimicry and empathy through mirror neurons.
This all makes so much sense to me. I know in my own personal experiences that whenever I ever have any type of conflict with another person I have always done my best to set up a "face-to-face" meeting. It is much harder for people to be bitter and contemptuous to each other when they look at each other face-to-face- it's far easier to spew out bitterness in an email or an online comment.
When we don't see the face of another we can easily forget that the other is in fact a fellow human being.
The truth is, however, that digital communication is here to stay. In fact in the days ahead human beings will be less and less likely to communicate face-to-face as more and more people work from home, take courses online, shop online, maybe even go to church online. So it seems to me that we need to develop a new spiritual discipline for the use of digital communication - a new ethic for how we can connect with one another when we cannot see each others' faces.
The article in the Times this morning offered this piece of helpful advice:
In a world without faces, compassion is a practice that requires extra discipline..we need a new art of conversation for the conversations we are having - the first rule of this must be to remember that we are talking to human beings, and so:
Never say anything online that you wouldn't say to someone's face, and conversely,
don't pay attention to what other people online wouldn't say to your face.
I actually think this is great advice - a good first step in developing a "spirituality of the internet." Who knows, maybe our electronic technologies may yet be that tool for a spiritual revolution.