I remember reading Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics in college. Today I pulled it out, blew off the dust (I ceremoniously sprinkle dust on all my books just in case I get the opportunity to pull one out in front of someone and impressively blow it off) and read until I landed on the section that I knew was there, “But experience teaches us what exists and how it exists, but never that it must necessarily exist so and not otherwise. Experience therefore can never teach us the nature of things in themselves.”
When we’re dealing with the mix of “virtual” and “community,” and I think an issue focusing on community should have virtual ponderings in this day and age, we have to wonder just what is the nature of this intersection: virtual/community.
Is a virtual community real like an Elks Lodge? A virtual friendship, is that real? A virtual classroom? Virtual Eucharist? And if it is, what is its nature?
I have experienced a virtual classroom, and a virtual friendship of sorts, so my hunch would be to affirm that they are real insofar as they exist.
But the presence of something obviously doesn’t mean that it is helpful. What I mean by that is, affirming that something exists through experience does not indicate whether or not it helps me or society to exist in such a way that we lean toward the good.
And that is the real consideration (even above trying to delineate if what I’m experiencing can be considered “real” though the medium is virtual) that I think we must make when looking at the human use of technology for fostering relationships and communal spaces.
I sat down for coffee with a college professor in my congregation. We were meeting about other things, but I wanted to pick his brain about this topic as I had this article swimming around in my head.
“Do you teach any online courses?” I asked.
He rolled his eyes, “Unfortunately.”
“Unfortunately? So I take it you don’t enjoy teaching them.”
“It’s difficult enough to get to know students face-to-face in three and a half months. Online, it’s virtually impossible.” He smiled. He’s punny like that.
“What makes you dislike teaching online the most, other than the lack of connection?” I pushed.
He thought for a moment and sipped his coffee. Finally, what came tumbling out seemed to be a mixture of professorial guilt and vulnerable truth, “It’s much easier to be harsh with grading, with comments, with teaching style. I don’t like that.”
The virtual classroom didn’t bring out the best human in him.
Likewise, I imagine, it is much easier for a student to regard a teacher’s style and ability to translate information with less nuance in a virtual classroom. Without the human response to another human physically present we are…well…less human.
Nuance, by the way, should not be discounted as something that bends humanity toward the good. Our own blessed Martin Luther, in his explanation of the 8th Commandment, entreats us to “interpret everything (our neighbor) does in the best possible light.”
This is hard enough to do face-to-face, let alone face-to-screen. And, let’s face it, even Facetime or Skype or other such ways of communicating aren’t like sitting in the same room where you both have to pause as the same siren goes past, smell the same stale air blow through a bad ventilation system, or negotiate a small shared table.
It’s not the same, though we pretend it is.
It’s not all negative, though. We must speak to the amazing capabilities that the internet provides humanity. No doubt virtual connection does provide us with increase: increased communication, increased awareness of global issues, and increased ease at doing tasks.
This little article will be sent with the click of a button.
And yet some days this increase seems like a decrease. If I didn’t know this editor in person, I may never know what their voice sounds like. I may see a picture of them on a website, but as a recent experience at a conference showed me, such pictures are often out of date. I may never know what they look like.
There is a decrease in connection there.
And the increased number of things on my daily docket thanks to technology actually tends to prevent me from getting work done in the macro-sense. More and more I see people using stand-up desks in their offices. Wrist or back issues are sometimes to blame, but more often than not I hear that people utilize them so that they don’t spend hours upon hours in front of their screens, being virtually connected in a black hole of decreased awareness of time, space, and physicality.
The days of handwritten letters in the mail were days of some disconnection, too. I don’t mean to romanticize those days. I’m just saying that, well, it’s the same as it ever was in some respects.
The appearance of connection does not mean there is real, intimate, connection being fostered.
My son will grow up not having to (and possibly not ever) using a landline phone. That’s fine. But, as one person recently pointed out to me, the icon on my iPhone still has the old-fashioned landline model phone as the button to talk. And when you disconnect the line, the little icon turns on its face as if you are “hanging up”.
We no longer hang up the phone. We press a button. We disconnect.
The same is true for the little icon for email, only it’s an envelope instead of a phone. Other than a wedding invitation and a birthday card from his grandmother, will he ever even receive something in this type of envelope? Will he ever physically open one?
We no longer physically open mail anymore; we just download the pdf and call it “open.”
What does it mean that we retain these icons in a virtual world? Or that we retain this verbiage? We have people sign up for a virtual “class” and even call the online space a “classroom.” Why?
I’m all about expanding definitions; I think it’s a necessity as society grows and changes.
But when it comes to the virtual, I’m wondering if we’re trying to retain something by using these icons and these phrases that cannot be retained.
The theologian in me is even more at odds when it comes to the virtual. The Bible app on my phone is handy; don’t get me wrong. But the God I read about there, always mediated in some way, comes to a person in things that can held and felt and touched.
Touching things changes things.
I think it’s a shame that penance is not an official sacrament in the Lutheran church. A more holy moment than Maundy Thursday’s absolution given through the laying on of hands, hands on my head, I cannot imagine. In fact, all of my holy moments have come through touch: Eucharist, childbirth, hugs, kisses, hand-holding, wiping away tears, high-fives.
This is why I don’t think we can ever, should ever, have virtual Eucharist. Just because we’re doing something at the same time doesn’t mean we’re in communion. If you wonder if that’s true, just go to your local coffee shop or hop on the L.
There you’ll find tons of people doing the same thing at the same time yet totally devoid of communion and community.
The apologist will at this point no doubt say, “Well, sure. Nothing will replace human contact.”
Nothing will, or nothing should?
Because if nothing should, then we must think carefully and critically about how we use our tools.
The coffee conversation was ending, and as it was ending the professor sitting in front of me conceded the fact that, as a positive, the online classroom did allow people to participate in the class who otherwise might not be able to participate.
Perhaps that is a real good that does bend us toward a broader, universal good.
But if the way we participate is somehow cheapened, or makes us cheap in our responses to one another as humans (as I think the virtual does), well, then I think the good will always be limited.
The good will be cheapened.
Look, I’m not going to put on blinders and pretend we are not where we are.
With Liberty University and University of Phoenix commercials interrupting all of my Saturday morning cartoons, virtual classrooms are not going away. Neither, then, is the virtual friendship or the virtual romance (and seeing as I have married four couples who met online, this last function seems particularly effective at getting people into the same room).
But I’m a skeptic at how good this all is. I’m unable (or unwilling) to embrace it without reservation. Especially when it comes to virtual community. Just because it exists does not mean that it is good in its nature.
I think it’s hard enough to treat one another with respect and honor and nuance when we’re face-to-face, and I hold that the ability to do so moves society toward a good. Being more connected, but less empowered to be nuanced and respectable and honorable toward one another doesn’t seem to be helping things.
The difficulty is still there, same as it ever was.