The other day, I was talking to a
person about an event that we had held at St. John’s. I said ‘If you like, you can go and see the pictures which I put on ‘Facebook’. They said ‘Well, I don’t ‘do’ Facebook.’ I asked ‘How Come?’ ‘Well’ they said “I don’t want people to know all about me. And the stupid things that people put up there like ‘This is me going to have a shower and this is me eating breakfast.’ I don’t like that!” So this set me thinking, again, about the role of the new technologies and our use of them.
When I first heard the comment from my conversation partner I thought of days gone by, and other kinds of ‘networking’ technology like the postal system, or the telephone. How would it be, for example, if I had said ‘Oh, well, I’ll post you the photographs’ and my conversation partner had said ‘Sorry, I don’t do ‘post’ or ‘photographs’. It sounds a bit silly now. Why is this? Because we have integrated the idea of ‘post’ and ‘photography’ as pieces of technology into our known universe. We know how to control them.
So part of the trouble with ‘Facebook’ is simply that it is new and not yet integrated into our sense of self. People are saying ‘I do not do this ‘new’ thing. It does not feel like ‘me’ yet.
Now my dad turned 87 last week. We had a ‘Skype’ and ‘telephone’ conversation to make contact. For a long time dad had said ‘I don’t ‘do’ ‘internet’. Gradually we ‘eased’ him into it. I gave him an old computer. He organised with a neighbour to find an internet service provider, and I gave him some lessons on how to use the computer, but as I recall it, showing him what it can do to benefit him. Now he and mum can keep in contact with a far flung family in ways that they could not do before. But naturally, like anything new, we have to be convinced of the benefits of it in order to put the energy into mastering a new technology.It takes time to build it into our sense of ‘being us’.
Another thing that my conversation partner did not like was the fact that people use ‘Facebook’ for narcissistic purposes. We have been brought up to believe that ‘look at me, look at me’ is bad. So when we see people putting so much detail on their ‘Facebook’ pages, our sense of what is proper ‘attention’ is offended.
One thing that I don’t like about ‘Facebook’ is that it is used to advertise to me. I remember being scared by an advertisement from the Sainsbury’s supermarket chain that said ‘Everything that you’ve ever bought on line will be remembered so that the next time you shop, it will be that much easier.’ I thought ‘What?!! They are collecting that kind of information about me?’ And from time to time one reads articles that say ‘Advertisers are following every key stroke you make, and every search term you use in order to ‘target’ their ‘on line’ advertising to your needs! Now this makes me scared.
The new elements in in these two dislikes of technology, including ‘Facebook’ are first, the anxiety at lack of privacy involved. This stems in part from recent revelations about the extent to which governments are finding out information about us. And second, there is the dislike of too much ‘attention seeking’ behaviour in the new technology. It was not so long ago that people thought that some of their ‘soul’ would be robbed if their photo was taken. This strikes me as the same thing. By using the new social media we fear that we will lose something of our ‘soul’ or our ‘selves’ that is tied up with the right to control the flow of information about us.
Theologically, these fears come down to a discussion about the ‘principalities and powers’ that are a part of our world. When God created the world he looked at the ‘creation’ and saw that it was ‘very good’. But soon we read in Genesis how the pleasure that human beings took in their technology (building sky-scrapers) took them away from their acknowledgement of their place in the creation, toward becoming ‘like gods’. The ‘good’ creation becomes distorted and used for the inhuman purposes. This is how evil works. It depends upon the existence of ‘good’ creation, in order to distort it, and use it for inhuman purposes. This is what I think we are genuinely afraid of in ‘Facebook’. The problem is not with the technology itself which is part of the ‘good’ creation. The problem is in the potential distortions of it to which we are exposed. But knowing that, gives us the power to choose to use the technology for human purposes.
Sometimes I get a request ‘Google wants to know your location’ So I say ‘No thanks!’ Sometimes I might pay for a service, knowing that this removes the advertising, or sometimes I ignore the advertising, knowing that this intrusion is the price I pay for using the technology. Did you know that the first feature film studio ever in Australia was begun by the Salvation Army in 1892. They knew how to use the new technologies for good purposes.
The same kind of discernment needs to be applied to ‘look at me’ behaviour. This fact is true: as babies, if we did not have the capacity through smiles and gurgling, through cries and screaming to make our parents ‘look at’ us and ‘like’ us, we would be dead. Then, later on, because we are social beings, we need our selves to be validated by others. We need to be ‘seen’ in order to get a sense of our real existence. The cry for attention ‘Look mum, no hands’ which has passed into colloquial speech comes from an eight year old’s learning to ride a bicycle. The pleasure that comes from the mastery of technology is completed by its being acknowledged. We don’t hate people for asking to be ‘looked at’ in this case. Facebook is an extension of the same process. It is a way of validating our existence, socially, by asking people to ‘look at me’ and to ‘like’ me. This is not a substitute for other forms of being ‘liked’ and having ‘friends’ who validate our existence by any means. But it is a superficial way of doing it. Again, this kind of request to ‘look at me’ can become distorted when it is all one way, and there is no reciprocal ‘I’m looking at you’ coming back. But again, I think it is a mistake to reject a technology, just because some people express their dysfunction through it. We can use it for functional purposes. I like the fact of being able to contact a wide number of people through the social networks offered by ‘Facebook’, but I don’t have to post my every moment. These reflections reach a wider audience than I might otherwise because of ‘Facebook’ and the internet, for example.
This is where the Christian story is so important. We have an alternative that lets us be engaged with the world, but with the ability to be critical, or blessing of it, in the light of our story. We do not have to be totally in love with technology, or totally rejecting of it (Are we the new Amish?) We can be ‘in the Facebook, but not of the Facebook.’ Or as St. Paul says that we do not have to be conformed to the ways of the world, but we have to be transformed by the Christian story, in order to be discerning: especially about the new technology.