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Distracted by instant messages

28 February 2014

New communications technology can fracture people's lives, says Rachel Mann. Lent could be a time to connect with others by writing proper letters


Standing together: means of communication at St Faith's, Havant, in Hampshire

Standing together: means of communication at St Faith's, Havant, in Hampshire

IF NEW forms of social media have transformed our ideas about human relationships in recent years, they would be nothing without the technology that supports them. Yet, despite being an evangelist for Twitter and Facebook, I have come to ask significant questions about our online culture. I would argue that our obsessions with new technology run the risk of depriving us of vital religious and spiritual virtues such as stillness, space, and taking time to value our human distinctiveness.

For the sake of clarity, it is worth rehearsing how technology has increasingly encouraged people to lead online-centred lives. In the past ten years, two key technological developments have taken place: first, the development of Wi-Fi internet access as standard in most parts of the UK; and, second, the availability of extremely powerful hand-held computers in the form of smartphones and tablets. The BBC says that during the last Christmas holidays, for the first time, more tablets than laptops or PCs were used to download iPlayer content.

The implications of these two developments are manifold. Powerful hand-held technology enables us not only to entertain ourselves on the move, but also to carry our offices around in ever more mobile ways. For anyone caught up in a daily commute, or, like me, using public transport to get from meeting to meeting, the computing and communicative power we hold in our hands is extraordinary.

Large-screen phones and tablets have become "playgrounds" for both adults and children, enabling us to distract ourselves with sophisticated games almost anywhere. This is the age of the app (or application) - a programme you download on to your phone or tablet to undertake a particular purpose. Apps exist for almost everything, including measuring the distance of your run, or checking rail timetables, and so on, ad infinitum. In a time-poor culture, new technology feels like a blessing for work and play.

PERHAPS this is the problem. Technology promises human beings the prospect of controlling our environment. Indeed, the idea of "control" is one meaning of the Greek root techne. Only a fool would deny the power of technology to enhance human life. Many of us - including people with a life-threatening illness, like me - rely on advances in medical technology to have a relatively trouble-free life.

Yet because we are a tool-dependent species, we are also shaped by the technology that we create. There are some grounds for believing that our current obsessions with mobility and connectivity signal that we are being controlled by our technology.

This might be controversial, but you do not need to buy into Aldous Huxley's vision of a brave new world, in which people are "placated" by pleasurable technology, to appreciate its appeal.

Some writers, such as Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, have explored the extent to which our modern devices facilitate distraction and limit our attention span. Pang - an academic who studies the relationship between technology and people - has even published The Distraction Addiction (Little, Brown, 2013), an attempt to encourage people to apply the lessons of Buddhist mindfulness in order to counter the fracturing effects generated by our powerful technology.

Equally, smartphones have certainly redefined our social identities. For example, if families are still watching swathes of TV, they are increasingly doing so while using their laptops and phones to offer reactions on Twitter.

Many of us are struggling to distinguish between work time and "down" time, because emails and social-media messages are constantly available. We seemingly cannot go more than a few minutes without checking our online statuses. There is even a new word for checking the phone or tablet in the middle of a face-to-face conversation or meeting: "phubbing", aka "phone snubbing". In our individualistic age, mobile technology feeds our desire to believe that "I" matter and am at the centre of the world.

CHRISTIANITY has traditionally prioritised community over individuality, and mutuality over self-centredness. This is not without its own dangers. One of the dangers of this can be the crushing of difference and the oppression of those who do not fit the norm. We should not forget that social media and technology offer outlets to alternative networks.

Our current fascination with being ever-available, however, strikes me as troubling, and even potentially sinful. Being constantly connected only worsens that common perception of modern living: we lack space to be and to breathe.

It is striking, then, that one of the implications of the Hebrew term for salvation, yasha, is "spaciousness". To be "saved" in Old Testament terms is to be brought into a place of space. It does not take an especially lively wit to recognise how significant this notion is for Jewish understandings of the Promised Land. The land is conceived as a spacious place, a place of salvation.

It should equally not come as a surprise that yasha is a root for Jesus's Hebrew name. While we should not rush to over-spiritualise the notion of yasha, it is surely significant that the experience of spaciousness - of a place where you might breathe - should be important to us as people of faith.

If, however, technology can leave us feeling lacking in space and time, the human hunger for relationship will not be kept down. In an age when communication has become instant and unmysterious, many people are rediscovering the pleasures of doing something as simple as physically writing to others. I take this as a sign of people's hunger for salvation and God - for space and connection.

ONE IDEA that has sought to balance the wondrous power of the internet with physical connection is "Postcrossing". It is a project that allows anyone to receive postcards (real ones, not electronic) from random places in the world.

The main idea is that if you send a postcard, you will receive one back from a random Postcrosser from somewhere in the world. This is simply for the old-fashioned pleasure and sense of connection that comes from receiving real mail. Getting postcards from different places, which might seem obscure to you, turns the mailbox, in the words ofthe website, into "a box of surprises".

To my surprise, I have also become a regular letter correspondent with people whom I know only through social media such as Twitter. The pleasure lies, in part, in being able to choose an interesting card, then set aside time to try to say something, and perhaps to offer something bespoke to the correspondent - a handmade card, for example.

The once-fashionable theorist of technology, Marshall McCluhan - he of "the medium is the message" - offers an insight that helps us understand why older, seemingly obsolete forms of technology can help us connect with our deeper selves. McCluhan argues that one of the effects of a new technology or medium is that it tends to push older media in the direction of art.

So, for example, consider the emergence of digital downloads for music rather than, say, buying a CD or vinyl album. McCluhan would suggest that the impact of the new technology has forced the music industry to redefine how older, seemingly obsolete forms of delivering music such as CDs are seen. In order to make these older forms seem still attractive, smart musicians have sought to reclaim them as more like "art" - defined by scarcity and quality.

This has led to a new life for these older forms of technology: a public used to downloading an album instantly (and often for free) is persuaded to spend money on CDs and LPs by being offered limited-edition, bespoke versions with distinctive art covers.

THE implications for how we communicate with each other in an instant age should be clear. Instant messaging, Facebook, and Twitter make communication quick and effortless. They make older means of communication, such as letter-writing, seem obsolete, and yet simultaneously - because of the scope for the bespoke and distinctive - deeply attractive.

When someone receives a personal card or a letter in the instant-message age, it really matters. It is not a necessity or a primary means of communication; it requires choice and care, and signifies love and attention.

I would not wish to be an old fogey and talk as if we can or should turn back time, like some information-technology-resistant Luddite. But there is something spiritually significant about leaving aside the instant distractions of the web and the power of the keyboard for a period of time.

In recent years, I have taken a break from social media during Lent. It has become an opportunity to reorientate myself in a busy, distracted world. This year, I want to try something else. I want to take some time to write physical letters and cards to people who really matter to me.

Jane Austen once wrote to her sister Cassandra: "You deserve a longer letter than this; but it is my unhappy fate seldom to treat people so well as they deserve." By taking some time to stop and write someone a proper letter rather than a mere tweet, we might treat people as they deserve, and thereby be better agents of the gospel.

The Revd Rachel Mann is Priest-in-Charge of St Nicholas's, Burnage, Manchester, poet-in-residence at Manchester Cathedral, and the author of The Risen Dust (Wild Goose, 2013).

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