Living in a connected world
One of the most striking recent changes in society is the way in which we have become digitally connected. Someone has said of young people today that they only exist either asleep or online. However, I’m not convinced that it’s only the young!
Digital connectivity has spread from computers to phones of ever-increasing complexity and cost. The near-universal presence of smartphones can’t be avoided. People text while waiting at red traffic lights, important conversations are interrupted by the need to check incoming messages, silent couples at restaurant tables stare intently, not at each other but at their phones. It seems that everybody everywhere is connected almost all the time.
Slow, subtle changes rarely provoke defensive action and in the case of the virus-like spread of universal connectivity I’m not sure that we have even begun to question whether it is a good or a bad thing.
There are certainly benefits. Smartphones allow us to consult with friends, they help us manage tangled social lives, check timetables, locate quotes and even read the Bible. Socially awkward adolescents, anxious to look cool, have something to do with their hands. That’s a definite improvement on the lighting up a cigarette which was the only option for my generation!
So what’s to dislike? That’s a good question. For a start, how much of what is said or texted is actually worthwhile or necessary? Isn’t a lot of it perhaps just noise for noise’s sake? One of the biggest things that we have lost with universal digital connectivity is something very subtle: isolation itself. Extended isolation is clearly undesirable; right at the start of the Bible God pronounces over the newly created Adam that ‘it is not good for the man to be alone’ and gives him companionship in Eve (Genesis 2:18). Yet short periods of isolation can be of enormous value. In silence we come face to face with ourselves. Only if we are undistracted by others can we ask, and possibly answer, those critical questions, ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What must I do?’ It is in silence, not in noise, that we find out who we are and come up with answers to the important questions of life. Silence, with its freedom from distractions, allows us the opportunity to focus on what is necessary. I’m struck by the fact that, at the very start of his ministry, Jesus spent forty days alone in the empty solitude of the wilderness. Most of us would struggle to cope with forty minutes of being unconnected.
On a recent retreat in a monastery, I wondered whether we are chattering ourselves to death; perhaps not physically, but possibly psychologically and spiritually.
Let me leave you with one thought to think about. Is it possible that our world has this almost manic need to stay talking because we are scared of what we will hear in the silence? Are people worried that if they put the phone down, God himself might speak to them?
Revd. Canon J.John