Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Facebook and the Dynamics of Intimacy

More thoughts on Facebook (www.facebook.com)...

I've been spending a decent chunk of time each evening on this immensely popular platform, catching up with family, friends and those in my various professional or social networks--and adding new numbers to those networks as well. This experience has given me pause to think of how the boundaries of presence and time have become significantly blurred through technology...and how we have grayed them all along regardless of our machinery, from Gutenberg to Gates.

At any given time while traversing the Facebook universe, I can be chatting with three or four friends or relatives. They are typically located across the other side of the city or country (the latter, more likely). At the same time, each of us participating in the conversation is likely talking with another person or two, or at least navigating the various Facebook tools to either add new connections or catch up on the details, photos and comments offered by those already in their "friends" column. It is a vibrant, multi-layered, non-linear dynamic of interlocking circles of conversations and learning, bearing non-correlated subjects that are yet unified by the participants having some formalized link to each other. Courtesy of Facebook.

Many of the persons in my network were classmates when I was in high school back in the glorious 1980s (bet you just thought of an 80s band and all that crazy hair). It is hard to imagine that my interactions in those days were all but strictly limited to linear modes. I called one person at a time on the phone. I scarcely knew how to multitask. I jotted down people's telephone numbers and addresses in some sort of "little black book." I wrote a sloppy note and folded it several times if I needed to pass information along to someone during a school day, then waited hours or days to find out whether the girl might accompany me to homecoming!

In short, I could typically only communicate with one person or group at a time on only one particular line of thought at a given moment (to do otherwise would seem like rambling or uninvited stream of consciousness)--at what now seems like a snail's pace.

The information that was available to me also was obtained in far more laborious manners. How many of us can recall photocopying pages out of a World Book or some other archaic, dusty tome for a research project that we would write by hand on loose leaf paper? Now, through technology, information about anything and any place is a click away and overwhelms us in its sheer volume. Growing up I did not know what I did not know, and now I know there is more to be known than I could possibly ever know from dust to dust.

As I communicate in the same multi-sensory moments with people from my past, present and emerging future, the limits of time are demolished and all of my human experiences seem to blend together like ingredients in a promising recipe. Several people on Facebook I have not seen for around two decades, and yet such a time-related distance matters little in the proximity culture that Facebook has created. On this platform, life is a constant now.

I parlay these observations to a person's participation in a particular faith group or the spiritual disciplines that one embraces. To worship, fellowship or study with other sojourners is to also join hands, in a metaphorical if not mystical sense, with those who have embraced the same customs across the centuries. A profound example of this is the communion services offered by Christian houses of worship, where those kneeling at any particular altar to receive the bread and wine (or juice) that signify the body and blood of Christ are said to be part of a larger table that is unseen but potent in its power nonetheless.

In addition, the act of praying seems to be a sort of virtual interaction, connecting to another entity or source of life that is invisible yet very real to the supplicant. Undoubtedly countless others are praying at the same time to any one given source, each prayer as oblivious to the other as the multiple chats cascading across the Facebook platform.

I would take this further to a work of art such as a painting. Visit a museum and glance upon a great work such as those of Michelangelo, Raphael or da Vinci, and you are virtually joined with the legions from every era, culture or language who have had their spirits nourished by the same depictions of color, lines and canvas. The painting was completed in a specific time and place, but its impact certainly ignores any such boundaries. It is an ever-present dynamic. The artist is still at work, nourishing whomever happens to gaze upon his or her enduring work with any semblance of anticipation. Apply this same concept to a great book, play, film, piece of music. The artist remains at work.

Decry Facebook as an artificial connection that is replacing efforts at human intimacy, and you run the risk of undermining the same premises that support prayer and the humanities as some of the most valuable vehicles for nourishing spiritual and emotional needs. Persons of all cultures and perspectives have demonstrated for centuries that the umbrella of relevancy is far larger than we might assume in a reactive state of mind.


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