Saturday, October 12, 2019

Does the World of "Social Media" Make Us More Lonely?

Ah, social media! Everybody wants to beat up on social media.

This is not without reason. First of all, in 2019 we need to recognize the tag "social media" as a shorthand term for the entire "new media" explosion of this decade, the whole scope and variety of mobile audiovisual access that seems to allow every individual the possibility of turning their life into a reality TV show.

In our daily lives we are immersed, far more than we realize, in a communications media environment that did not exist fifteen years ago. This is a fact worthy of reflection.

Anxious questions often arise. Is the phenomenon of social media destroying our psychological health? Is it taking us away from "real" human interaction and cheapening communication? Is it turning us into reactive, antagonistic, illogical, irresponsible, and damaged people?

It must be, surely... right? "Social media is the scourge of our society" — I read or hear statements like this all the time... on social media!

The Internet has certainly displayed, facilitated, and exacerbated our dysfunctional patterns of engaging with one another. People too easily post or comment or tweet without adequate thought or sensitivity. These kinds of media are open to abuse because of their speed, dislocation, and variability. They are also used to raise the levels of expectations, complexity, and stress in our society.

To put it in more concise terms, we've got a real mess on our hands.

I do think it’s interesting that almost everyone seems to agree that “social media is the problem” — which to me is an almost certain indication that it is not THE problem.

The realm of social media is crazy like everything else in our society, but it’s also a forum where people desperately try to “connect” from out of their isolated spaces. Of course, it’s generally too facile and superficial and involves too little personal risk to really build connections (though it’s not impossible, and I have seen remarkable uses of it).

The Internet today is the gathering place, the hangout spot, the public square of "the global village" (and McLuhan's paradoxical term continues to express the inherent tensions of an environment that aspires to such a vast intimacy). It's a bit uncanny, this global village square, where our attention and agency can operate in multiple exchanges involving multiple locations, all of which are physically very distant from the place in which we are bodily located at any particular time. Indeed, the “virtual commons” — in itself — requires no actual investment in any particular "feet-on-the-ground" common life, no commitments to “elbow to elbow” relationships.

People come from everywhere to social media in search of human connection, “present themselves” (by constructing their image) and seek applause or affirmation or just to know that they are not alone. This can be very helpful, as far as it goes. There was a marketing slogan about an "old media" platform that connected people over great distances (and still does) in a more private way, the telephone. Regarding the phone call, the slogan said: "It's the next best thing to being there."

Something analogous could be said about new media. Interpersonal and even communal exchanges are possible in ways we scarcely could imagine when I was young. But it still remains "the next best thing" to a whole experience of being with others. As a substitute, it inevitably proves to be frustrating and disappointing. It's not surprising, therefore, that here we are today, feeling more isolated, more alone, more "depressed," more shallow, and more bellicose than ever. Social media gets blamed, but the problem is much deeper, I think. The problem is perhaps that we have no real “commons.” We have few places where we are wholly invested in being together — places of unmediated “belonging-with-others,” where relationships can grow on a human scale.

It’s a problem, in part, of the great human crisis of this “new epoch” (what Guardini calls the “epoch of power”). I'm in the process of developing a more general survey of this emerging epoch in human history. Here let me note that this terminology must not be taken to indicate unambiguous progress for humanity, much less any kind of evolutionary trans-humanism. Human nature as such doesn't change by going through a historical process. Nevertheless, because of the richness of the inherent stature of human beings as both spiritually transcendent and concretely embodied persons in the world, human potential tends to unfold the full range and depth of its capacities through the experience of discovery during the course of history.

Thus the knowledge and agency of human beings grow through time. This growth is not linear, but it tends overall to accumulate. What we discover about the world and our own humanity, however, can never replace the basic challenge of living, which is a task for freedom. The perennial responsibility to choose the good will always entail the risk of resistance against the good. In the "field" of human history, the wheat and the weeds both grow together.

To return to the immediate subject at hand: an important feature of our shifting into the aforementioned new epoch is the ongoing technological revolution. He we note specifically how technology has affected our way of "inhabiting" space and time, and this has jolted the bases for human relationships in ways that we still haven't adequately considered. Our technological power has vastly expanded our "mobility" (among other things), allowing for many new opportunities but also dislodging what had always been the grounding of the human communal experience: that physical-location-determined network of human relationships that were “given” by the inescapable fact of being “stuck” in a place (village, neighborhood, town, etc).

People rarely consider how much their humanity is extended (and stretched, stressed, dislocated) by the entire infrastructure of technological power we live in, which is so pervasive we don’t even notice it. We live in an environment that puts powerful tools in our hands to “manage” life and relationships. This opens fascinating possibilities but also gives rise to the tendency to try to “escape from ‘the given’” whenever it conflicts with our comfort or desires, or imposes obligations (especially interpersonal ones).

It can be enriching to get away from the local village and its limited perspectives, and choose a place (or places) to live where we can grow as persons. But there is the corresponding danger that we will use our mobility to distance ourselves from the responsibilities that come with stability and commitment, and search for places to hide and stagnate. We can end up isolating ourselves in our chosen places, with whatever technological distractions we choose to provide for ourselves. Not surprisingly, rootlessness, superficial social relations, and relentless distraction prevent many people from making progress in personal maturity.

This is the “problem” that I think we need to consider. I’m not saying, “everybody should go back to the village” — this is not a realistic possibility even if it were desirable. There is much good in having possibilities to move about: thus we can travel, expand our horizons, appreciate different cultures, engage in collaboration on a global scale, and also go off (again, even far away) to specially protected nature parks when we want to “get away from it all.”

There is significant value in the unprecedented availability of all these options for human experience. Nevertheless humans are made for connection and commitment in real relationships. And since we are no longer “thrown together” in the village with literal neighbors, we are challenged to live more intentionally, more consciously aware of this constitutive human need. Multiplication of casual encounters governed by one’s own whims (powered by all this enormous technological enhancement) does not meet this need. People who "play around with" the need for human connection by using social media while trying to evade the work involved in committed relationships will eventually experience distaste, frustration, and greater alienation.

One key is to recognize and commit to the relationships that are (still) “given to us” (God is good, and He provides for human beings in every era, especially when they allow their essential needs to become prayer — to open themselves to relationship with Him). There are persons who are given to us, who are meant to be basic companions for all of our lives. Family is, or should be, the obvious example.

But here again we meet the problem of the absence of connection. Our power over material reality — combined with the pressure of extended expectations, impatience, and the desire to dominate and radically control reality — have led to the technological and sociopolitical manipulation of the family’s natural constitution and fruitfulness. While often celebrated as a new achievement for "freedom," this has already proven to be an enormous human catastrophe, painfully evident wherever the ice of "demographic winter" has taken hold. Sooner or later we will have to face it: turning sexual relations into a game (with the help of many varieties of technological power) has dissipated the energies that build and sustain family bonds.

What value is there to progress and development if they cannot be passed on to future generations? The history of persons, communities, peoples, nations, and humanity itself depends on the vitality of family life as a gift from God "written" profoundly into our human nature. In our legitimate concern for the earth's environment, we must not forget the imminent dangers that we face because of the wanton pillaging and destruction of this immensely delicate “human ecosystem,” the organically generated human structures that constitute and sustain the most fundamental human relationships.

The family remains an ineradicable source and sign of the human vocation to love and to be loved. But also I think we are entrusted to one another in various ways, by the interpersonal gifts that arise from encounters within the circumstances of life. These may even generate organic forms of community, but it is always important to discern and commit oneself to friendships that can constitute a “vocational companionship” — friends who really help and accompany us in the journey of life.

Social media platforms may be able to play a role in facilitating and fostering interpersonal relationships, and in reaching out to others. In themselves, they are another form of technological power which must be integrated into a more profound sense of being human persons called to a communion of love.