A late May afternoon in Frisco, Texas, finds me sitting in a quiet coffee shop with five other people. We’re scattered among various sections of the shop as we stare into our computer screens, quietly sitting near one another, yet apart. We are all here physically, but we’re somewhere else completely. A year or two ago, I would have envied this predicament and the opportunity of sitting down at a coffee shop, logging onto my computer as I connected with others on my blog, Facebook, and Twitter. But today, I’m wondering if the promises of technology misled me. Today, all I really want is to connect with people in person over a cup of coffee.
In April 2009, I wrote an article for COLLIDE titled, “Why Twitter?: Shaping Our Narrative One Tweet at a Time.” Though I didn’t use blunt or absolute terms, I imagine most readers finished the article with the feeling that one, especially pastors, “must” or “should” use Twitter. A year later, I no longer feel that way. I do still believe that Twitter can be helpful in the engagement between pastors and congregants (and there are other statements in the article I still agree with), but Twitter as a vital tool? That I no longer believe. I, like many others, was quick to see all the wonderful sides of social media (and there are many), but I was slow to recognize many of the drawbacks.
Over the course of the last year there have been several “aha” moments that helped me form some of my new beliefs on the topic. The first came while I sat in an Echo Conference breakout session in 2009 titled, “Using Technology without Technology Using You.” The speaker was my good friend John Dyer, and one of the things he helped me understand was that technology is not neutral. Rather, technology transforms us in some way—we just tend to ignore the effect or cost of that transformation.
After that, I began to ask myself the question, “If technology is not neutral, in what ways is it transforming my life?” As I took a more introspective look at the issue, I realized that I didn’t like how technology was primarily transforming my relationships. I found that I was never fully present with those around me, yet I always wanted to be connected with the people in my social media stream. I started to wonder what this exchange was doing to my family relationships, especially in my marriage and in my relationship with my daughter.
My second “aha” moment came when I found myself tweeting during a Coldplay concert I attended with my wife. What was it about that concert, and the time with my wife, that wasn’t enough for me? What was wrong with me? Why was it so important to tell others (who weren’t physically present) what I was doing rather than focusing my attention on the present moment (the concert, my wife, etc.)? Though the people and places changed, situations like this occurred time and time again. I began to dislike the restlessness and the constant desire to be connected online.
My final “aha” is what I consider to be divine intervention. An error message on my BlackBerry Pearl told me that my operating system was dead. Overnight, I went from constantly connected to nothing. I put my SIM card in a free Pantech “dumbphone” courtesy of AT&T. I didn’t use my new phone to check email, Facebook, or Twitter, and the noise seemed to die overnight. It was painful at first, but over the last couple of months I have fostered better online habits. Now, I simply use my phone for talking and texting. Sure, I still want an iPhone, but this forced sabbatical taught me a lot of things.
One of the things I learned is that technology and social media present me with a glaring paradox in my own life: Social media have the ability to make me feel connected and isolated. I found that this isolation, or loneliness, is often rooted in disconnection with those we are in physical relationships with, and as we spend more time fostering online connections, the chasm widens.
Another concept this last year taught me is to protect my “inner fire.” In his book The Way of the Heart, Henri Nouwen says that all of our sharing doesn’t actually create community but can actually flatten our life together instead. He advocates for the need for silence, saying:
“A second, more positive, meaning of silence is that it protects the inner fire. Silence guards the inner heat of religious emotions. This inner heat is the life of the Holy Spirit within us. Thus, silence is the discipline by which the inner fire of God is tended and kept alive.
Diadochus of Photiki offers us a very concrete image: ‘When the door of the steambath is continually left open, the heat inside rapidly escapes through it; likewise the soul, in its desire to say many things, dissipates its rememberance of God through the door of speech, even though everything it says may be good. Thereafter the intellect, though lacking appropriate ideas, pours out a welter of confused thoughts to anyone it meets, as it no longer has the Holy Spirit to keep its understanding free from fantasy. Ideas of value always shun verbosity, being foreign to confusion and fantasy. Timely silence, then, is precious, for it is nothing less than the mother of the wisest thoughts.’”
I found that constantly pouring out my thoughts, words, and ideas via technology actually left me feeling pretty empty. I had nothing left to say, and it impacted my work and relationships with others. I didn’t protect my inner fire; I let it dissipate through constant online chatter.
I have also been asking myself if technology and social media have compressed my relationships into a process that I can barely recognize. While on the one hand there is something cool and convenient about clicking a button that brings us into contact with a person, on the other hand, the ease and convenience has disconnected us from the process of relationship making. (See Albert Borgman’s Device Paradigm—something else I learned from John Dyer.) Has technology disconnected us relationally by replacing processes (befriending, getting to know each other, sharing life, breaking bread, etc.) with a focus on quantifiable end results (number of followers, blog traffic, etc.)?
I believe that what we think will help us feel connected can actually work against us, making us feel lonely and more disconnected than ever. I have often felt this in my own life and continue to wrestle with it. In addition, I see this issue becoming more and more prevalent in my work as a therapist and a pastor.
There are a lot of ways I try to combat these tendencies in my own life. I work hard to set better technological boundaries in my personal and relational life. I won’t go into detail, but I don’t let technology, especially my mobile devices, dictate to me how I should live. I ask more thorough questions about how a new technology I introduce into my life may transform my life. I also try really hard to make in-person contact with the people that I communicate with online. Connecting in person with those people helps me value the relational process and the friendship itself, and it can help prevent me from compressing relationships into a “Like” button. This process keeps me grounded.
Obviously, there are limits to how many offline relationships I can cultivate with online friends, but I have come to have different expectations and boundaries with friendships that lack a rootedness in offline life. With these new expectations and boundaries comes new insight and understanding about relationships and the loneliness I sometimes try to alleviate through technology.
This has been a process for me, and I know it will continue to be. But now, instead of telling people they should or should not be on Twitter or Facebook, my primary concern is to help people think through the use of these tools and how technology may transform them. That’s a pursuit I feel comfortable saying we should all undertake.
Rhett Smith is a pastor and licensed marriage and family therapy associate in Plano, Texas. He is interested in the intersection of theology, psychology, and technology and their impact on our relationships. He is married to Heather and has a daughter, Hayden, and a son, Hudson.