Technology and the Illusion of Community

Posted: September 13, 2011 in Theology
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Over the past year there has been a series of publications produced by the Church of the Brethren and some affiliated organizations that has focused upon the topic of technology and the Brethren community. I have been intrigued by the questions asked and especially the acknowledgement (perhaps even warnings) of the drawbacks. I’ll be the first to state the merits and advantages of technology, but most recently with the ever growing obsession the world has with social networking, I’m beginning to wonder whether we’ve accepted an illusion as real.

With the movement of institutions of higher education toward degree programs over the internet and religious organizations (especially churches) attempting to simulate community over the internet, I think that it is essential to ask the question, “Are we really creating community?” Looking at the dynamics of community, it is easily noticeable that communication and presence play an essential role.  I have participated in conversations where a person will argue that a simulated community over the internet is “real community” in which the participants are able to interact (verbally) and that this form of community allows for more transparent conversation because people feel less inhibited. While there may be some truth in this, it is also necessary to acknowledge the drawbacks. First, and most obvious, is the issues of communication due to the lack of physical presence. In any community the sense of presence is a core element. It is through the physicality of the members that a substantial amount of communication takes place. My concern here is that the attraction of technology will eclipse the multifaceted nature of communication, thus leading society to believe that their experience of social networking can replace community.

Recently, I was part of a meeting over the phone where one person responded to another and the tone of the person answering seemed “matter of fact” thus leading the other to believe that her ideas were being brushed aside. The question here is whether the physical presence of the two people would have aided in the communication process. How many times does a person inadvertently speak without matching her tone with her expression or other body language? My argument here is that communication, which is essential to community, is more than just the exchange of words or symbols. A nod of the head or crossing of the arms communicates significant data to the receiver. While video conferencing does solve some of that, arguably it cannot replace the physical presence of the other.

A second drawback to this is the bonds of community that are built through physical presence. Some recent studies by psychologists suggest that when children are removed or separated from their parents that they will suffer from attachment disorders.[1] If attachment is an issue due to physical separation within family circles, then what bonding dynamics take place within other communities as a result of physical presence? Physical presence is necessary for certain forms of bonding which open doors to intimacy. These are only two issues and there must be far more conversation regarding the use of technology and the building of community. Technology is a wonderful tool, but much like the virtual reality of the “Matrix,” it cannot replace the real thing (community). If experts describe the western world as being more detached than ever, then perhaps we should not be so hasty in offering less than real solutions for real issues.

[1] E.g. see, Marion F. Solomon, Daniel J. Siegel, eds., Healing Trauma (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2003)

  1. Additionally, I’ve often wondered about the economic barriers to entry as it relates to high-tech church stuff. How are we unwittingly shutting the poor and marginalized out by placing so much emphasis on high-tech?

  2. Andrew says:

    Thank you Brian for your comment. While I was addressing the question of whether the community is really created through social networking and the use of other technology, you pose an equally important question, “With whom are we trying to create community?” This question, I would argue, betrays our bias.

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