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Social media’s soulless society

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November 4, 2014

We are becoming a soulless society. The Merriman-Webster online dictionary defines soulless as, “Not having or showing any of the qualities and feelings (such as sympathy and kindness) that make people appealing.” I am no technophobe, but we must come to terms with the fact that our 24-hour-a-day digital environment is not neutral.

Disconnected though connected

Our instantaneous global connectedness through electronics has produced a technological addiction that often disconnects us from physical reality. Rather than liberating us, our technological addiction has resulted in a depersonalizing technological servitude.

Sherry Turkle is a psychologist and professor at M.I.T. and the author of, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other. She writes,

Over the past 15 years, I’ve studied technologies of mobile connection and talked to hundreds of people of all ages and circumstances about their plugged-in lives. I’ve learned that the little devices most of us carry around are so powerful that they change not only what we do, but also who we are.

We’ve become accustomed to a new way of being “alone together.” Technology-enabled, we are able to be with one another, and also elsewhere, connected to wherever we want to be. We want to customize our lives. We want to move in and out of where we are because the thing we value most is control over where we focus our attention. We have gotten used to the idea of being in a tribe of one, loyal to our own party.

Texting and e-mail and posting let us present the self we want to be. This means we can edit. And if we wish to, we can delete. Or retouch: the voice, the flesh, the face, the body. Not too much, not too little — just right.

Human relationships are rich; they’re messy and demanding. We have learned the habit of cleaning them up with technology. And the move from conversation to connection is part of this. But it’s a process in which we shortchange ourselves. Worse, it seems that over time we stop caring, we forget that there is a difference.

Losing our compassion

“Alone together,” is a powerful way of describing our present dilemma. Brad Paisley puts it this way:

I'm so much cooler online.
Yeah I'm cooler online

When you got my kinda stats, it's hard to get a date
Let alone a real girlfriend
But I grow another foot
And I lose a bunch of weight every time I log in

We laugh, but it is an uneasy laughter because it hits too close to home. If we depersonalize our own identity in favor of an avatar image version of ourselves, then we will lose a sense of humanity in others as well. Our wired environment is inherently impatient and demands an immediate response and declaration of our political/cultural tribal allegiance to every cultural event. Thoughtful reflection and deliberate conversation are often mocked as a sign of weakness.

And, I fear the dehumanizing impact of our cyber-lives has resulted in a pervasive loss of human compassion.We have traded personally shared values, often forged over countless face-to-face conversations around the dinner table, for a tweetable cultural party identity. Status updates help us provide an instantaneous statement of what side we are on without having to actually do anything but hit the post button.
Media talking heads (liberal or conservative) become our moment-by-moment de-facto theologians and ethicists even though their profits depend on fomenting an outrage culture. Every cultural event is immediately framed as “us” against “them,” and our side scoring points now trump any expression of human compassion. In such a dehumanized environment, all you need are talking points and not thoughtful conversation. Compassion for someone on the other side is immediately castigated as compromise and cowardice.

Thinking of people as people

I fear that we no longer even think of people as people. When the pictures of Michael Brown’s dead body lying in the street began to circulate on the Internet, the immediate reaction was beyond disturbing. In the face of unspeakable tragedy many people on all sides of the cultural divide immediately began to politicize the horrific scene.

One representative evangelical Christians reaction on social media was, “It was not a tragedy. An accident is a tragedy. When you are a criminal, it is simply justice.” Of course, I do not know of a single evangelical pastor who would look a church member in the eye whose son had just died while running afoul of the law and make such a cold assertion. What is the difference? That it is “us” and not “them.”
The flesh-and-blood humanity of people changes the equation.

Christians ought to be those who stand up in our soulless society and declare that these events are not a video game and that we are not talking about avatars but about men and women who are God’s image bearers. As Christians, we have the responsibility to bear faithful witness to Jesus Christ by clarifying who our enemy really is: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). The gospel empowers us to see the value of those who society views as valueless and to seek the rescue, not destruction, of our cultural opponents.

Writing about the priority of Christian compassion, Jonathan Edwards points to the way the gospel should reshape our thinking.

Christ loved us, was kind to us, and was willing to relieve us, though we were very evil and hateful, of an evil disposition, not deserving of any good . . . so we should be willing to be kind to those who are of an ill disposition, and are very undeserving. . . .

As Christians we must not get trapped in a depersonalized cyber world. The reality that we are sinners talking to and about other sinners ought to make us communicate our convictions with courageous humility. Satan would love for evangelicals to win political and cultural victories by fighting against flesh-and-blood image bearers as our enemy because it would mean we have forsaken the spiritual war. For what does it profit a man to win social media debates if he treats others as if they have no soul?