This is an article that has been published in the June edition of Julian's Window, a publication of the Order of Julian of Norwich.
We are in a new age of connectivity. The technologies that have given us the personal computer and the internet are creating as large a sea change in our society as the Gutenberg press did. While the Protestant and Roman Catholic Reformations formed and were formed by the new technologies of the printing press, whatever the church is heading into at the end of this emergent “Rummage sale” (as Bp. Mark Dyer puts it) is being fundamentally shaped by these new communications technologies that were unthinkable just a few decades ago. One person recently pointed out that if a modern teenager were to be handed one of Captain Kirk’s communicators, they would play with it for a minute and then ask, “Is that ALL it does?”
The amount of communication that is enabled by the new social media technologies is simply astounding. An average person can be in instant communication with anyone else anywhere in the world. Geologists have noted that Twitter is a better early warning system for earthquakes than seismographs. Employment is applied for and found on LinkedIn. We are able to be in touch with old friends we haven’t seen in years on Facebook, and all it takes is a few clicks of a mouse. The profound effects of social media on politics is being shown again and again in Egypt, Syria, and other places. We are all in touch with a burgeoning percentage of the world population.
There are those that decry this revolution in communication as the death of community, but I’ve not experienced it that way. If we want to blame technologies for destroying community we need to start with air conditioning. That invention, which is life-saving for many during summer months, also changed the ways we interacted with each other, moving summer social contact inside and making it much less public. The second negative technological impact to community in the last century was television, which set up a one-way tap of information that kept us isolated in our (air-conditioned) living rooms. While people sitting in front of their computer screens using social media might not be as desirable for society as evening strolls in the 1800s were, it sure beats the growing isolation of recent decades. Whatever we want to say about social media, we need to remember that it is SOCIAL. At its best, it keeps connections alive that might otherwise be dead and enhances rather than replaces community in the real world. Social scientist James Fowler has shown evidence in his studies that those that are more “connected,” either in the real world or in cyberspace, are happier and less prone to depression. My experience with younger people is that they are less glued to their screens than my generation (Gen-X), as they are more apt to use social media on smart phones and tablets while they move from one real-world meetup to another.
But what does such a communications medium mean for people of contemplation? The need to clear our minds of outward distraction during prayer is a part of all contemplative praxis. The “Monkey Mind” is a common foe we all face, and was an issue for thousands of years before the multiplication of distraction that social media offers. In our everyday lives, as we try to be more centered, social media can pull us away from that center if we let it have control. It is not too uncommon these days to see people ultimately distracted - grabbing for their smartphone the instant it beeps or purrs. How should we approach these new communications tools as we strive for balance?
As Members Regular and Affiliates of the Order of Julian of Norwich, we seek to live our lives according to a modified Benedictine rule in the spirit of our patroness. While we spend much time reading and reflecting on the Shewings, it is sometimes helpful to reflect on her manner of life, or at least what we imagine it to be. We often think of Julian as isolated, as the band Bombadil sings in their track “Julian of Norwich”
Julian of Norwich, why did you go away?
Don't you know your family thinks of you every day?
And though your faith is strong it has to be said,
to your own family you may as well be dead.
But we know from historical accounts that this is an incorrect interpretation of her condition. While Julian spent her life as an anchoress in her cell, she was anything but isolated - her window was her interface to the world. She was one of the most sought-after spiritual directors of her age. People came from all over England to speak to her. Julian’s window and Twitter share some aspects - they both give a view onto a different world and they are both limited in their scope. In addition, they both share a feature - one that is obvious in the case of the window but may not be so obvious in the case of social media - they can be closed down.
The perceived problems with social media generally don’t have to do with their reach or their scope - they have to do with their distraction factor. Julian did not keep her window open 24/7. It would have been death to the contemplative life that was the core of her vocation. Just as it was important for her to shut her window, it’s important for us to be able to shut down the distractions that social media can interject into our lives. When I’m praying, my phone goes into “Airplane mode.” Yes, I need to be in contact with people, but is anything really so immediate that I can’t be “off the grid” for half an hour? Does the need to be in constant touch really trump the primary need to be still in the presence of God for a short fraction of the day? Likewise, if I’m in a conversation and my phone chirps, do I really need to answer it just this second, or can I finish the conversation and give due attention to the person in my immediate presence? The message will still be there later. Do I really need to know every time a new email appears, or should I check it on my schedule so I am the one in control rather than the device? No one can serve two masters.
While some decry the social media revolution, I’m a firm believer in its positive aspects. Every new technology has its challenges to society, and this one is no different. We can celebrate the gifts it brings while still being wary about its drawbacks. And when push comes to shove, we can put the phone on silent so we can find silence within ourselves.