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So Much to React to and So Little Time!

Anyone who has read this blog for any length of time will know that one of my enduring interests is the way that we use technology and how the technology that we use shapes and forms us as human beings. A quick foray into my archives will probably yield a handful of very similar articles bemoaning the fact that social media is degrading the state of cultural discourse and turning us all into the equivalent of self-absorbed toddlers chasing after the next shiny thing to click and share. There will also, I suspect (hope?), be no shortage of frank admissions that I am undoubtedly guilty of the sins that I decry. I have a blog, after all. And I, too, am on Facebook, scrolling, staring, clicking, sharing, drearily contributing to the noise. Such are the contradictions made possible by our brave new digital world.

Even though I am, undoubtedly, a hypocrite when it comes to these matters, I still think they’re worth talking about. It’s important to ask questions like, “What is this way of being in the world doing to us? What kind of people are we becoming?” Lately, I’ve been thinking that one of the main temptations that digital life opens us up to is to become fundamentally reactive people.

This occurs to me every time I attend a major event or conference. Over the past few months, I’ve had the opportunity to attend events like the final Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Ottawa, ON (May 31-June 2) and the Mennonite World Conference in Harrisburg, PA (July 21-26). I’ve observed what seems to be the new standard protocol at these sorts of events for those equipped with a smart phone and an opinion. One is encouraged, even expected to do one’s digital duty by tweeting and hash tagging and Facebooking and social-media-ing while the conference is going on in order to raise the profile of the event, generate conversation, etc. Sometimes there is even a screen somewhere that shows the opinions, quotes, and other tasty nuggets that the people in the seats are hammering into their phones while the lecture or sermon or performance is taking place.  We’re expected to be constantly reacting in real-time (online) to the ideas we’re encountering, the things we’re experiencing.

I’ve been this guy. Occasionally, the blinding irony of what I’m doing will occur to me. Here I am, scrambling to have something to say online, trying to capture the quote, the image, etc., and all the while I’m missing the experience happening right in front of me. If I’m feeling especially brave or looking to engage in a bit of self-loathing, I’ll investigate my motives for such behaviour. Is it to share something meaningful with friends online? To allow others to, in some small way, share in the experience? Possibly. That would be a charitable interpretation. More often, I fear, it has more to do with curating my online brand with the right kinds of quotes and images and opinions. And, of course, to watch the little red notification indicators to start popping on my phone. All of which is to say, that all of this reactive sharing is—surprise!—mostly about me.

I’m not alone here, I know. At Mennonite World Conference I observed an interesting and entirely predictable phenomenon. Having spent time in both the Mennonite Brethren and Mennonite worlds, I have friends that cross the (limited) theological spectrum that existed at MWC and who were in attendance at the event itself. And so, I would observe the kinds of things that my friends would share online at MWC. My more conservative friends would enthusiastically share quotes from speakers who spoke of the centrality of mission, the importance of evangelism and other more typically “conservative” concerns. My more liberal friends would do the same whenever someone advocated for revisiting our theologies of gender and sexuality, or emphasized justice and race relations as non-negotiable components of the gospel of Christ. As soon as someone in front of a microphone said something that we already agreed with, it seemed, we were poised with our fingers at the ready. Ready to react.

And of course, this is true far beyond church conferences. Here in Canada, we have just begun what will undoubtedly be a long and tedious election campaign. And we, the citizens, have begun to do our online political duty, flinging around articles that disparage the candidates we don’t like and praise the ones that we do. This is what we do. We read a few headlines or paragraphs, and we react.  And yet I wonder how many people’s political views have been changed, or even altered by the articles that we are so fond of sharing online. If my Facebook feed is to be trusted (and it undoubtedly is not!), Justin Trudeau, Elizabeth May, Thomas Mulcair, and Stephen Harper are all either the incorrigibly stupid and corrupt living embodiment of all that is evil in the world or they are the next coming of the Messiah himself, ready to transform Canada into heaven on earth. Whatever your view, it seems, there’s a generous online serving of words to reinforce it out there somewhere. Just waiting for you to share.

I fear that we are becoming the most reactive creatures our planet has ever seen. Reacting is what we do. See something you don’t like online? Leave a snarky comment or post a link with withering commentary on your own page. See a piece of data that doesn’t fit the views that you are pleased to self-identify with? Click on to more fruitful and homogeneous pastures. Feel like this or that person in your social circles is wrong about x issue? Passive-aggressively post articles and links that prove how right you are and how wrong, stupid, and unspiritual they are. We have no patience for nuance or shades of grey, no room to say things like, “Well, even though I don’t typically agree with so and so about x, they make a really great point here.” We’ll take our news how we want it, thank you very much, and we’ll thank you not to make it too complex or cumbersome. All those extra words slow down the sharing, after all. There’s so much to react to and we have so little time.

To a person with a hammer, everything looks like a nail, the saying goes. And to a person with a keyboard, an agenda, and too much discretionary time on their hands? Well, everything looks like a cause to flog, a position on an issue to bolster, and an identity to craft. Everything gets swallowed up by a combination of our increasingly microscopic attention spans, our inability to see beyond identity politics, and the constant squalling for recognition that is the Internet age. God help us.

I was having a conversation yesterday with a friend and we were kind of bemoaning the present state of social discourse, and lamenting how the Internet was hastening the devolution of the human species. At one point, he made an innocuous remark that has stuck with me for the last day or so. It is as unremarkable as it could be revolutionary in our hyper-reactive online age where we all comfortably exist in self-reinforcing silos of pre-screened information. The only hopeful place that will be left to us is individual relationships.

Indeed. It’s pretty easy to hurl information around the Internet, misguidedly hoping that some of it might land on those we disagree with. It’s far harder to sit down over coffee with a living, breathing human being whose views do not nicely map on to ours, and to look for shared ground, common humanity, even friendship. Far harder and far more rewarding. Individual relationships can force us to move beyond the protective and self-justifying reacting that we have become experts at online. They create a space to listen, to reflect, to say, “I’m not sure about that. I’ll have to think about it for a while before I formulate an opinion.”

Wouldn’t that be something?

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