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Presence

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The other day I was having dinner with some other pastors and the conversation worked around to the ubiquity of electronic communication and entertainment. One of my colleagues was lamenting the umbilical cord that seems to exist between young people and their electronic devices – iPod permanently on, phone ceaselessly examined, you know the story. Another pastor interrupted him, pointing out the extent to which we, too, were wired up – I had been playing online chess with another pastor via my phone, we had been looking at someone’s photos on their iPad, texting had taken place. Rather than seeing our electronic connections as worrisome, argued my friend, we should recognize how useful they are, and the extent to which they can build communication, and thus community. He had a strong point, and is the kind of person who expresses his points strongly, so the discussion rather fizzled out at that point and we moved onto something else.

It’s worth thinking about though.
 
One of the interesting things I have observed is the strong opinions that can be generated by the subject. Any perceived attack against TV or Facebook or gaming, or whatever it may be, tends to get pretty hostile feedback. And when something like that generates that kind of defence it tends to make me think, “Oh – maybe there is something deeper going on here. Maybe an idol has just been exposed.”
 
The arguments for technology are generally as hackneyed as those against them, and thus barely worth the effort of articulating. But let’s try to clear some ground – let’s assume, for the sake of the argument, that:

- Every media development since the Guttenberg Press has upset someone, and could be used for either good or bad ends – it’s not the tech that is the problem, but the use to which it is put.
- I am not anti-tech.
- I recognise the irony of using a blog to discuss the subject.
 
What, then, are some of the cautions we might want to think about in our use of tech? The kind of questions I would want to ask are these:

- Are we being entertained to death?
- What is the balance between the potential benefits to community of connecting via electronic media to its potential downsides? E.g., if I spend lots of time on Facebook, does that mean I end up with more meaningful relationships or fewer?
- At what point (assuming there is one) does our dependence on tech become unhealthy? Is it a problem if we never unplug?
- Is there a point at which our enthusiasm for the utility and fun provided by tech elevate it to the place of our god?
 
I have a sense that for many people the use of tech does become problematic. This sense is similar to what I feel about the place of music in our lives. Music is good. Music is God’s gift to us. But I have a sense that the role music is meant to play has become somewhat distorted when we are unable to live without it – when we are so nervous of silence that every gap in our lives has to be filled with sound. And then we find ourselves in the place where we don’t even notice the ubiquity of music. It’s like porn – porn is now so ubiquitous that we don’t even notice that many of the images we see every day would have been considered pornographic not that many decades ago. And if we have to check Facebook, or email, or Twitter every day, or couldn’t imagine living without a TV, or never switch off our phones, then perhaps – and this is no more than a suggestion – perhaps we have a problem.
 
As a personal spiritual discipline, for the good of my own soul and emotional health, I like to unplug on a regular basis. So it is my habit to have one day a week when I turn off the phone and don’t check email or social media (or even WYTM!). I find that helpful. In a similar way I often choose not to listen to music, although I love music, and listen to it often.
 
So I think I would want to affirm the observations of both my friends over dinner the other day. Yes, tech can be great. But, yes, tech can be a real problem. And here’s the clincher – the fact that we were actually physically present with one another, sitting around an actual table, eating real food, made the whole experience much more meaningful than if we’d merely been communicating electronically. Presence counts.

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