I am 52 and come from a generation where one can be bewildered by, and dismissive of, the proliferation of instantly accessible information (not knowledge, there are important differences) online. This is often in my hand or in my pocket in the form of my Android. However, I use the social media to my advantage, especially Facebook. I enjoy surfing “FB” for about ten minutes every day and use my network to source business and to have useful conversations. Being a gardener, it is useful to have on record before and after pics of the sites I work on.
Like many, I have online friends I have never met, a practice which is a distant but direct relation to the “pen pal” letter writing hobby I had as a child. However, thinkers like philosopher and fellow blogger Professor Bert Olivier are alarmed by what one could guardedly call the “post-human” (suggesting the non-human) which has been created by the rapid, indeed scary, advance of technology. He wrote recently:
“When, during discussion, I pointed out that someone of the stature of Sherry Turkle (in Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other; New York: Basic Books, 2010) has voiced serious misgivings about the headlong rush towards smartphones, tablets and the like, to put their screens between oneself and others (via Facebook, among other internet-based sites), I was summarily castigated by one of the academics attending the session. She told me that one has reason to reject Turkle’s ‘dystopian’ views, and that Facebook offers an altogether healthy experience, or something to that effect.” (Emphasis mine.)
My concern here is the words “put their screens between oneself and others”. The opposite of this is: be present to others (instead of rudely fiddling about on some pixelated device whilst supposedly listening). In other words, to have the courtesy to listen with the ears and with the eyes, to honour the other’s presence. To be present and mindful of others and their needs, to put other things aside and absorb what they are saying is extremely important. This mindfulness lies at the heart of caritas. This is some of what Olivier probably implies and I could not agree more. Technology has put — literally — into the hands of people a smart little box that at times cuts the person off from others, and from the world unfolding moment by moment around us. Give me, like Olivier, the wonders of nature any day, a walk in the forest or on an unspoilt beach (I am truly blessed to live in Brown’s Bay New Zealand). In this regard, I am grateful for my job as a self-employed gardener near beaches in often rustic settings.
However, and this should be obvious, there are screens that people already put up all the time anyway. Further, the physical screen presented by a tablet, smartphone or any other pixelated tablet is simply presenting to us in tangible — even symbolic — form the screens that were there already. The isolation and alienation of humankind, especially the urban human, is nothing new. The loneliness of people, the rage and the visceral need to be heard is at the heart of Allen Ginsberg’s angry performance poem Howl and in the psychological classics of that time, such as any book by Ronald Laing and Erich Fromm.
There are countless screens between people. Ageism, classism, “money-ism”, sexism, racism, xenophobia, depression, anxiety. This screen takes place in many “transactions” (or acts of communication). Here transaction is an apt term as often there is an agenda (a screen or filter going up) if two people are in conversation with each for more than a moment. The salesperson in a store will definitely stop and give you heaps of time if you show interest in purchasing one of his products. There are screens between people and their environment. For example, seeing a lovely landscape for its property value instead of something that ultimately owns us more than we will ever own it. Or there is the current mood, the all too often self-preoccupied “mental weather” people carry around with them, which is literally around them.
Olivier (and others) does not seem to be taking cognizance of the fact we have a variety of screens between us and others and our environment anyway. What is helpful about these “modern gadgets” is that the tablet or the phone are making tangible the overall sense of a “screen” which was beguilingly, treacherously, already often here between people. The screen is often present between two depressed and/or anxious people putting on the fake smiles as they go through the robotic motions of one act of communication or another. (Include here many husbands and wives in denial whose relationships are long dead.)
In a roundabout way, Facebook sometimes, if not often, reminds us of our humanity. Enormously so. Have you not noticed on Facebook the proliferation of commemorations of loved ones who have passed on? The online cenotaphs? Some of the Facebook memorials are heart-breaking. I know of a mother who observes every year the birthday of her late daughter, a girl who was about seventeen when she passed on and would now be twenty one. Then there is the old friend, whom I have known for a quarter of a century, also a mother, observing the death of her son every year, and even keeping his Facebook page alive. That son is someone to whom I used to read bedtime stories to more than twenty years ago. I would never have known of his death, as I now live so far away from South Africa. The death of an old school friend is observed on his Facebook page on both his birthday and his date of decease. Then there are the friends who observe the deaths of their parents and other loved ones every year on FB. Many commemorative posts are very moving to look at as well as the photos. They remind one of one’s humanity. Of course, they cannot replace real funerals, but FB gives us ongoing access to a ritual confirmation of our grief and humanity whilst a church service does end.
I commemorate the death of my mother every year on her birthday on FB and post one of the precious, very few pictures I have of her along with some “private” thoughts about what she meant to me … as if she were still here. There is my absolute need to address her as if she were still alive in my online tributes, knowing many others will read it. (I notice others do this; we have an atavistic need to address our departed loved ones.) One photo of her I use, which I am very fond of, is of her wedding day, long before I was born. In this photo she is escorted by her father, my grandfather, a man I never knew. Why do so many of us do this? Because we are less than human? “Post human”? It is because we want our healing. We want others to know our pain and to have some knowledge — a knowing that is like the whiff of a perfume (and is not mere information) — of our loved ones. We want them to know the anguish we feel. Mine is the anguish of losing my entire family: a bitterness and grief that is assuaged by my making it public. Like, I suppose, a smoking funeral pyre that can be seen for many miles.
So yes, I and many others have found this experience of participating in online ceremonies to be very healing. Yes, this includes the “Likes” (acknowledgements) and respectful comments made. (The FB use of the word “like”, now more a transitive verb than an intransitive, will never be the same again and bears testimony to the amazing mutation of language.)
No doubt, others who commemorate deaths and keep FB pages alive of those who have died feel the same as me. Notice how people often do not close down the FB pages of their beloved who have passed on. What we do through these online celebrations — in contrast to what Olivier and other say, to some extent — gets to the heart of what makes us alive. We want to be heard. Ginsberg in Howl tells us again and again that our pain and longing die unheard. Think of our love for music. How that brings us alive.
Of course there is a superabundance of clutter on the social media. Of course it is changing the way we think and feel and the way we engage with each other and pass on even “family news”. These are matters I hope to explore in future blogs. But the treacherous nature of the invisible screens that were already in place is no longer quite as treacherous. And when someone out of courtesy deliberately puts away their device, and turns to face you — there is a slightly better sense of presence, something more worthwhile in the conversation that follows. Because they have ceremonised, albeit even slightly, the act of symbolically putting away screens. In the past, and still today, these tiny acts of ceremony to create presence include putting down the telephone, or a book or a pen. Before these inventions the little ceremonies included simply closing a door to create more privacy, drawing a curtain, lighting a candle, or snuffing it out. The function of these acts has simply become half-forgotten or sometimes completely forgotten. Ceremonies pervade us, make us both human and spiritual, even, sometimes, on Facebook.
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