Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Do Social Media Promote Narcissism?

In a previous post reviewing Judith Shulevitz's book The Sabbath World, I touched on her contention that cellphones promote more flexible ways of being in time. Instead of fixing our social engagements on the calendar grid, we may "play it by ear" more. I've noticed that my kids tend to do this with their friends. We get calls or texts from them as their "hanging out" shifts from place to place. But maybe this is just what teens do. Are new communications technologies shaping adult society?

Yesterday's New York Times helps answer the question affirmatively, with an excerpt from a new book Nick Bilton, one of their technology writers/bloggers. While Bilton may overstate the case, I think he's touching on a pretty profound shift that technology allows--a shift that may change how we experience time. The opening paragraphs of the story grabbed me right away (the bolded passages especially):
If you pull out your smartphone and click the button that says “locate me” on your mapping application, you will see a small dot appear in the middle of your screen.
That’s you.
If you start walking down the street in any direction, the whole screen will move right along with you, no matter where you go.
This is a dramatic change from the print-on-paper world, where maps and locations are based around places and landmarks, not on you or your location. In the print world people don’t go to the store and say, “Oh, excuse me, can I buy a map of me?” Instead, they ask for a map of New York, or Amsterdam, or the subway system. You and I aren’t anywhere to be seen on these maps. The maps are locations that we fit into.
But today’s digital world has changed that. Now, we are always in the center of the map, and it’s a very powerful place to be.
When people want to know how the media business will deal with the Internet, the best way to begin to understand the sweeping changes is to recognize that the consumer of entertainment and information is now in the center. That center changes everything. It changes your concept of space, time and location. It changes your sense of community. It changes the way you view the information, news and data coming directly to you.
Now you are the starting point. Now the digital world follows you, not the other way around.
Wow, if Bilton is right, then all that talk about postmodern society might really be onto something. If our experience of space is that "we are always in the center of the map," then how can we understand the idea that we are to "fit into" God's glorious Creation? We risk losing sight of the grandeur of this big world.

If "you are the starting point," then how do you experience time? Isn't it yours to control? Traditional Christian teaching holds that time is a gift from God that we must receive and give back (see Dorothy Bass' wonderful book, Receiving the Day). This teaching has been the most important, most transformative lesson I've learned in my adult life.

While I don't want to insist that the old school print world/map world is absolutely God's technology, I appreciate Neil Postman's argument about how print technology disciplines our thinking (as opposed to the superficial, image-based communication fostered by television--see Postman's book Amusing Ourselves to Death).

As a Christian, I think we need to learn how we "fit into" the world. If technology makes it harder for us to do this, then I think we need to be careful in how we let it shape us. We may need to learn from the Amish, who practice discernment with technologies and avoid those that threaten community.

The German philosopher Heidegger was fond of saying that "man is not the lord of beings; he is the shepherd of Being." He hated technology, because he thought it made humans think that they were in control. This humble dependence on something outside ourselves seems like the proper posture for humanity in a world that is much bigger than us. We may feel that we are in the center, but in reality we are just a speck of dust in the universe.

If Bilton is right, then we'll be facing whole generations of narcissists who really believe that they are the center of it all. I hope he's wrong. But, if he's right, I hope the Church can still inculcate humility in its members. I'm just not sure how one teach teach a person about the God who is really at the center when that person thinks that he or she is God. 

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