Saturday, February 27, 2016

How the Internet fights Providence

Having grown up without the Internet, I am often fascinated, not to mention dismayed, by the ways in which the Internet has changed the very concept of friendship. In this post, years ago, I discussed the way in which the "talkie" nature of the Internet makes friendship difficult. (See also here and here.) It used to be that friendship was based on more than just talking and indeed, often was based on not talking--on restraint, on leaving disagreements unmentioned, on focusing on what people had in common. In the blogosphere, we don't get together to bowl, sing, play softball, build something, eat, or run a small, local organization. We aren't doing most of the things that communities and incarnate friendships used to be based on.

Did I really want to know, in the old days, everything that my friends thought about every intellectual, political, and moral issue under the sun? Maybe when I was about twenty years old I thought I did, but deep in my heart I valued some ideological privacy and restraint on both sides. In the blogosphere, we have nothing to do but talk about what we think about everything, and what friendship can withstand that? Sometimes the blogosphere is like something out of Sartre--being stuck in an elevator with people talking forever. Of course you end up, often as not, very nearly hating each other!

But there is more: In the pre-Internet days, there was a largely unspoken notion that God "brings people into your life" and that you had some kind of duty to people just in virtue of having fallen into contact with each other. I don't know how secular people thought of this. Maybe they just let the word "community" cover it. But the idea was there for religious and non-religious alike. The fact that you just happened to work with somebody, just happened to be in the same church or neighborhood, conferred a duty to get along with each other. That, at a minimum. And over time, to develop a kind of affection of familiarity and maybe even a close friendship. One's "own folk" were to some degree chosen by chance. Even going to college had this same quality. Whom will I get as a roommate? Who will be in choir or band with me? By such chance events, or such acts of Providence (however you look at it), many of the decisions of a lifetime were made--one's spouse, sometimes one's lifelong friends, were all selected to some degree by the accidents of propinquity. And one did not lightly throw that out the window. Jones, my neighbor, might be an annoying old buffer, but after all he is part of my community, and I'm supposed to try to get along with him.

So there was a kind of loyalty that was owed to people whom one did not, or did not entirely, choose to associate with in the first instance.

The Internet makes it, I say, flatly impossible to keep on adhering to that same notion of automatic loyalty owed to those one happens to fall in with by chance. A major reason for this impossibility is that, if one includes electronic accidents of association, there are just too darned many people who fall into this category. Obviously one can't feel loyalty and a duty of friendship to every fellow commentator who hangs out at the same blog or Facebook page, including the trolls one wishes would disappear! But it's true even of the people one develops somewhat more of a friendship with on the Internet. There are now too many of them, and the friendships thus formed have too narrow and discarnate a basis (see above) for one to maintain the same sense of a duty to keep the friendship going permanently (if at all possible) or for one to allow oneself to feel the same anguish when something goes awry that one would have felt in the old days about the loss of an in-person friendship.

Worse, fallings-out on the Internet have a way of being far more nuclear than any in-person fight over the same issues would usually be. One is far more likely to find people berating each other repeatedly for alleged dishonesty, misrepresentation, disingenuousness, and so forth, in an Internet war than one would in an in-person disagreement. (And that's at the best. That's when the people involved are sufficiently decent not to descend to threats or obscenities.)

If there is an incarnate basis for the friendship, one has both more resources for working things out and avoiding conflict and also more reason to do so. If Jones has a "thing" about tariffs, he and I don't talk about tariffs once we realize that we don't agree. And if Jones and I are on the same neighborhood watch committee, I can't just drop him and walk away, nor can he just drop me and walk away. We'll be seeing each other for years willy-nilly (if we're mature people and don't drop the neighborhood watch over a political disagreement), so we both have a motive for finding a modus vivendi.

In contrast, it's relatively cheap and easy to drop an Internet friendship without a backward look when something goes badly wrong, and one is often well-advised to do so. One has one's family and other duties in life; one can't go around agonizing over every highly unpleasant falling-out on Facebook or in a blog thread.  It feels wrong to take that attitude, but it is often not only right but necessary. Let it go. Don't go back and read what so-and-so said as the last word. Don't send that e-mail. Don't worry about it. Move on. It's a freeing feeling to do that, like getting over an addiction. But those of us who have any gift for friendship also feel, to some extent, guilty about the sense of freedom itself. One finds oneself asking, "Since when am I the kind of person who wakes up in the morning and breathes a sigh of relief that I don't have to worry about 'dealing' with someone anymore, when I previously thought of that person as a friend? Do I not have a duty to be more bothered about this, to try to find a way of fixing it?" Yet on the contrary, one may well have the very opposite duty.

The Internet gives us the interpersonal equivalent of battle fatigue. Just as a doctor must get used to the sight of blood and a soldier in a war zone must get used to the experience of death, just as they must harden themselves to some degree in order to remain sane and carry on, the Internet user must to some degree harden himself to the blow-ups, harsh words, and losses of e-friendship that will inevitably occur. More inevitably, more harshly, more frequently, and often more irrevocably than used to be the case, pre-Internet.

This is a loss. There is no getting around it. It's a blow to our humanity. One can no longer invest each and every human interaction with the significance one previously could. The hardening of the human emotions, inuring oneself to things that are objectively sad, is always a loss, even when necessary.

So it comes to this: I am forced to admit that technology changes us in ways that its inventors could never have foreseen, in ways that no one planned. There was no conspiracy when e-mail was invented, then listserves, then blogs, then Facebook, to make people talk too much, to make them give in to their tempers too frequently, both to create and to destroy larger numbers of friendships, faster, than could have been dreamed of in the years before instant global communication. But that's where we are. It has happened. It's all very well, and in one sense true, to say, "Communication technology is a tool. It's only as good or as bad as the people using it." But in another sense that saying is a bit shallow. For different technologies, sometimes by pure accident, tap into different aspects of human nature--good and bad. The Internet has made us more cranky but perhaps also more generous. Facebook certainly makes me aware of more people's prayer requests. And fund-raising for those in need has never been easier. It's all a big mixed bag.

But one quiet loss that I would mourn, so that the loss will not occur unnoticed and unrecorded, is the loss of the stubborn friendship--the friendship that is the result of Providence and is kept in obedience to Providence, the friendship that tries many ways to maintain itself, the friendship of restraint and loyalty. I will not say that such a friendship can be maintained only in person, by the affection generated and exchanged via voice, facial expressions, handshakes, warmth, shared activities. But I would come close to saying that.

So we try to walk the fine line between being hypersensitive and emotional and being cold and cynical. We pray for wisdom. And we try to cultivate those few friendships with those we have never met, on, perhaps, the old "pen pal" model, that will last a good, long time, that will be broken up by death just temporarily, to be reinstated in and for eternity.

4 comments:

William Brown said...


Not enough is written about the damage to our souls that technology has wrought. Neil Postman was prescient as was Jacques Ellul. It seemed rather obvious that civilisation would be changing, and not for the better, with the advent of widespread ownership of personal computers in the early 80's. I'm not a Luddite, but sometimes I think I might prefer to become one.

Tony said...

I agree with a lot of what you have said here. However, let me take a devil's advocate stance for a moment and push back on a point:

Did I really want to know, in the old days, everything that my friends thought about every intellectual, political, and moral issue under the sun? Maybe when I was about twenty years old I thought I did, but deep in my heart I valued some ideological privacy and restraint on both sides. In the blogosphere, we have nothing to do but talk about what we think about everything, and what friendship can withstand that?

If I recall correctly, the old standard about true friendship was that YES, I did really want to know everything that my friend thinks about every intellectual, political, and moral issue. That's exactly what it means to be a friend in the fullest and completest sense: one who is "another self", and you get that kind of complete copy only when you explore every nook and cranny. When you are already good friends, and you come up against an issue about which you two feel differently, you (both, naturally) want to convert the other to your side, (or rather, in the spirit of desiring more to adhere to the truth and wanting your friend to adhere to the truth,) you explore the reason for your differences until you both agree - or until you both agree that it's just a matter of taste rather than truth and a difference of tastes is unimportant.

But this kind of investment in a person cannot possibly happen over and over and over with a hundred different people. You cannot be "another self" with even 50 people. Or 20, for that matter. Most of us are lucky if we truly have that deep level of connection with more than one person, frankly. But approaching somewhat close to that ideal with 4 or 5 is not too far a stretch. And achieving even that much, normally, requires that we actually, physically, do things with them sometimes. A merely intellectual interaction of "what do you think" isn't complete friendship, because full friendship entails life with the other to some extent: sharing meals, moving furniture, cleaning dishes, walking, seeing a sunset, tasting a wine and comparing notes, all that stuff that means I am with you.

I once wrote an article on how, when we form a small organization to do some specific thing like "make the park a good place for kids", what we tend to do within that organization is to allow rules or procedure to take the place of the innate trust you have with a truly close friend, because (usually) not everybody in the group is close friends with everyone else. But within that limited context, the group functions as a set of quasi-friends, or perhaps incomplete-friends.

So, perhaps what we should say of blogs and fb and the like is that these, too, are mechanisms for that sort of incomplete-friends that enrich life even when it is impossible to go deep enough for complete friendship...and that like other such groupings it requires a good set of rules / policies / procedures to ensure that the (limited) friendship-forming is not endangered by the impersonality of the medium. I think Paul hinted at this sort of thing - that we will (hopefully) eventually develop habits of behavior that will humanize the sphere of interaction.

Lydia McGrew said...

If that extreme level of "hammering things out" and wanting to know everything about what the person thinks about all issues is achieved only with, on average, one or two people in one's lifetime, there must be a great many friends whom one would even call close friends to whom it does not apply. (That is, assuming that one has more than one or two people one would call close friends.)

My own experience, over time, has been that it's wise not to exhaust oneself by trying too hard to achieve that "we tell each other everything we think about everything" level of friendship. It can be off-putting and exhausting to the other person if one is constantly trying to convince him about everything. And even when deep closeness develops naturally there has to be a kind of considerateness and a willingness to back off, a lot more quickly than some of us would like to do, in order to keep the relationship healthy. This is even true in a marriage. I suspect that most people who have been married for any length of time and have happy marriages have realized that it's not the greatest idea to insist on trying to achieve some kind of hypothetical ideal in which every intellectual disagreement is resolved by one person's converting to the other point of view. And striving too hard for that can actually do harm.

Sometimes I look back on my younger self and wonder how any of my friendships ever survived my incredible outpouring of energy, trying tirelessly to duke it out until we achieved agreement. And yes, precisely for the reason that you cite--that truth is important, such-and-such is a sufficiently interesting and important issue that I want to know the truth and have my close friend know the truth, too, so we have to keep working at this, darn it!

There is a place for _some_ of that, but making it the highest ideal or an absolute ideal is, I think, a sign of a kind of lovable immaturity that has to be mellowed with the ability to drop it at a certain point and agree to disagree, an ability to pick one's battles, etc. Yes, even in the _very_ closest friendships--the one or two greatest of one's life. And a fortiori in the next "ring" outward.

Mia said...


As far as why your friendships survived from when you were younger, Lydia, I’m sure they would say your strengths far outweigh any possible misuse of your energy reserves. That’s easy to see.

I have tended toward only a few close friends in life, and generally view friendship as a very sacred thing. I do believe there is a vital component to friendship that involves finding a high degree of resonance… of shared values and vision…. in the other person. The Lewisian idea of “what? You, too? I thought I was the only one!” I think this is necessary in order to walk together, and to a certain degree, understand each other. But in reference to what Tony said, I don’t think true friendship is about finding “another self” or twin, who will be the mirror image of you in every area. I think it’s very valuable to have another who compliments in many ways; different in gifting, methodology and perspective. I also think to be able to know someone, disagree with them or see their faults, and simultaneously uphold, affirm, and believe in who they are as a person is a critical component of loyalty. As I look back over my life, the best friends I’ve had had values very similar to my own, but were a mix of similar and different to myself in terms of personality, style, abilities, and traits. I think this is one way God balances us out, and helps us grow. The man and his wife were naked, and unashamed, and their lack of shame didn’t have to do with being the same. The truth is paramount, and should never be subordinate in any relationship. But in my quest for the full truth in matters, I’ve learned that differences can actually be an asset, and if I choose my closest companions wisely, choosing Godly, rational, gifted, and character-driven people, that I’m usually better for being open to the pieces of the puzzle they bring to the table.

I would also say the idea of not being truly “known” is antithetical to friendship in its fullest and truest sense, because intimacy is predicated on being known (and this makes online friendships much harder, because being known isn’t just overt sharing, it’s also the ability to be observed). The members of the trinity experience this. There is nothing hidden in the trinity, and no fear of rejection. This doesn’t mean vomiting out everything all the time, but I think a huge foundation of friendship is being able to “be yourself” or be real with another person, and have it be safe to do so. It’s more about the safe, welcoming environment and positive regard of the relationship than it is forced yammering. It would make me deeply, inconveyably sad to be like ships passing in the night in my closest relationships, with me never really or fully knowing them, or them never really knowing me. With them feeling like they had to keep a part of themselves hidden from me, fearing my reaction. Or like they couldn’t express something important to them. I think the heart of humanity cries out to be known, in the same way God wishes to be known, and thus there is value in being known even when agreement can't be reached in that moment.