Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Poverty of the Wealthy Social Network

Lately I’ve been thinking about the human tendency to mistake means for ends (and vice versa), and how this seems to be a possibility especially afforded to people with leisure time and buying power—essentially, to us, the wealthy.

And before you protest, let’s all face it: we—that is, most anyone who is reading this blog post—are the rich.
This becomes undeniably evident to me when I spend time in Africa, as I have this past month. My friend Mary makes a wall out of a cardboard box for her home in Tanzania, while I ponder over which neutral shade I’ll paint the walls in my newly purchased home in Tennessee. Mary is just as smart as I am, and more industrious; the only reason why I have what she doesn’t is because of happenstance and privilege. This is the situation in which we, middle-to-upper-middle class Americans, find ourselves.

When I spend time with Mary, I notice her energy and generosity and humor, not her comparable poverty. I feel like she exudes with ease something that I’ve nearly lost, but can’t quite articulate—something akin to a connection between who she seems to be and who she is.

But as much as I am amazed by Mary’s spirit, it would be disrespectful of her humanity for me to idealize her. I’m better to remember that our Lord surely spoke the truth when he said, “Blessed are the poor,” who cannot easily place their faith in superficialities, and “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your reward in full.”

That’s a frightening thought indeed, for what reward have we really gained for all our striving? Only bigger barns: a larger network of false security sources. And, it seems to me, a greater and greater estrangement from authentic existence comes along with those false securities.

These “bigger barns” can include technological advancement—reliance on technology is certainly one of the most stark differences between Mary and me. Of course, they don’t necessarily include it…humankind has always pushed forward, technologically-speaking; and this can’t be an evil in and of itself. Granted, I wish we all still composed letters via quill and parchment; but I don’t think that anyone could launch a respectable argument that the advent of e-mailing inherently marks a downward slide in human morality. Technological advancement in itself is neutral, ambiguous—a mark of human ingenuity, which may prove either helpful or destructive in our quest for authentic existence.

An example of this ambiguity may be found in social-networking e-venues. I often wonder if they are as good for us as they are bad. Of course, Facebook (I don’t MySpace or Tweet, so I can’t speak to them as confidently) can be and is an efficient forum for keeping up with distanced friendships. I’m sincerely thankful for this, because as much as I enjoy more proactive, personal forms of communication, I’m lousy at keeping up with everyone’s e-mail addresses, much less their physical ones. Perhaps more importantly, Facebook and Twitter (and all such sites that I’m behind on) can facilitate participation in conversations regarding issues that concern all of us. The recent phenomenon of the Facebook group, "We are all Khalid Said," that sparked the demonstrations in Egypt is an excellent case in point.

Such are the upsides of these innovations…good things indeed.

But don’t most of us also have a vague, lurking sense that sites like Facebook more easily lend themselves to a cheapened relational existence, rather than its solidification? At least half the time, I log off of Facebook with a slightly Brave-New-World-type feeling, like I’ve just been personality shopping online. People and nature both end up seeming much like objects in advertisements, and I often wind up feeling farther away from them than I would if I had never looked at them under this glossy light.  

But now that we have Facebook and its sister sites, can we ever go back? I mean, how else can we so easily comfort ourselves with the impression that someone out there knows (and, we assume, cares) about where we’re travelling, what we’re thinking about or annoyed by, what we’re wearing or reading or crafting or eating?

Ironically, most of us know that this is cold comfort in the face of our isolation epidemic. I’ve heard enough people talk about it to know that I’m not the only one who feels like it’s dehumanizing when we interact with each other so much—which is absolutely too much—in this way. Within the social networks of the wealthy, our poverty is revealed, for here we easily present ourselves and perceive our acquaintances as if we were all products for consumption.

The problem is, we so readily mistake the means for the end—that is, we so mindlessly make online profiling the endpoint, rather than a means for reaching the real goal of authentic connection (which only occurs through vulnerable, proactive interaction)—that we are left with an emptiness we can’t seem to fill. And so we log onto Facebook to see if anyone has commented on our posts.
Quite the vicious cycle…and a difficult one to overcome, particularly if you live in a world of overabundance, easily lost in the barn building.

I realize that this blog post reads much more like a journal entry than my other posts thus far…I have a hard time making all of this connect in a non stream-of-consciousness way. But it’s weighed heavily on my mind, and I don’t believe that we’ll ever overcome our confusion of means and ends until we become the poor in spirit to whom the Kingdom of Heaven belongs…that is, until we make room for the Divine Spirit for whom “no thing is merely a thing.”[1] Within this schema, we may employ social networking technology with a less desperate purpose; we should enjoy it as a means to press deeper into the mysteries of God that take the shape of our friends and relational experiences.

Lest we receive our reward in full now—and a pretty paltry one, at that—let us practice some self-restraint. Let us remember that just because we can do something does not mean that we should do it, and that the possibilities afforded to us by excess are not just benefits; as Tillich says, “they are also temptations, and the desire to actualize them can lead to emptiness and destruction.”

[1] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, III (Chicago, 1963), p. 260