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Web serf

KESTER BREWIN on the shadow of the digital revolution

Ftechnology.jpgIn a recent article for the New York Times, Matt Ritchell documented the 'screen time' of one US family. Kord Campbell, the father of the house, sleeps with an iPhone on his pillow and immediately checks for messages when he wakes, using an iPad over breakfast to surf the net before sitting at a workstation for his long working day. Despite all sharing similar habits, the family are highly critical. 'He forgets things like dinner plans,' his wife says. 'It seems like he can no longer be fully in the moment.' (1)

The Campbell family are interesting because they show us what the future norm could be: over the next decade we will see relationships far more heavily mediated by digital devices. Currently, we are being sold this as a good thing. Facebook promises so much - we'll never miss out, we can always stay in touch - and the relaxed, cross-legged people in the iPad advertisements project the perfect moment: productive, yet not busy. Yet while the marketing is positive, some critical voices are beginning to be heard who worry that our digital social networks are putting quality relationships and human empathy at risk.

All devices change the way we see the world: we make our tools, and our tools remake us. Susan Greenfield, a professor of synaptic pharmacology at Oxford University, recently expressed concerns that 'children's experiences on social networking sites are devoid of cohesive narrative and long-term significance.' (2)

The result of this? Our minds will be 'characterised by short attention spans, sensationalism, an inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity.' (3)

Mark Twain once quipped that 'to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail,' and one can see how Greenfield's observations can be extrapolated into the next decade to show us that, to the person who is permanently online, the world will look childish, no more than an opportunity for a kooky status update.

The recent spate of suicides at the FoxConn plant in China is the underbelly of the co-evolution of us and our devices. In our desire to become more productive, more connected people, we demand better and cheaper machines, and in doing so demand that those who make them work like machines themselves. In Capital Marx noted 'the conversion of things into persons, and persons into things,'and the apotheosis of this is the iPad and iPhone manufactured at FoxConn, which are anthropomor­phised by their 'i' prefix and slick marketing, while those who make them are reduced to machine-like labour by the long shifts with no talking and (up until recently) terrible pay. To take Marx's point further, the more multi-tasking and machine-like we make ourselves, the more like machines we will treat one another, and the more of us will end up discarded in skips and rubbish dumps as broken, obsolete people.

As Christians we need to be more aware of this. I have seen ecclesiastic versions of Kord Campbell: churches that are well-organised, responsive, multi-faceted and efficient - but lacking genuine presence and empathy. We need to be reflective enough in our technology use to ensure that we remember that we are the body of Christ, not the machine of Christ.

As the virtual reality guru Jaron Lanier puts it in his recently published manifesto: 'You are not a gadget.' The tools we have are an incredible opportunity, but, just as the industrial revolution created an underclass of workers whose relationships were scarred by overwork, continuing this digital revolution unchecked over the next ten years risks creating an infantile generation, lacking empathy, whose relationships will be harmed by overwork masquerading as relaxation and networking. The more time we spending surfing the net, the more we are in danger of the net serfing us.

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http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/07/technology/07brain.html
http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2009/feb/24/social-networking-site-changing-childrens-brains
3  Marx, K. Capital vol. 1, Penguin Classics, London 1990, p. 209