We live in an age of magic. I’m a wizard. I can talk to Skopjans from Laguna Niguel with no effort. I can instantaneously send my thoughts across distances my ancestors would never have dreamed to cross in their entire lives. I can examine images of the most distant celestial bodies known to man from my bedroom. I can capture my portrait and alter my own appearance with a few flicks of my fingers. It’s uncanny to consider. Our time is a time of marvels. But has this wizardry blessed or cursed us? What effect has it had on humanity as a whole? My answer to that is another question: what do 19th-century Russia and Facebook have in common? Dostoevsky. Bear with his thickness for a moment and it’ll make more sense:
“The world has proclaimed freedom, especially of late, but what do we see in this freedom of theirs: only slavery and suicide! For the world says: ‘You have needs, therefore satisfy them, for you have the same rights as the noblest and richest men. Do not be afraid to satisfy them, but even increase them’––this is the current teaching of the world. And in this they see freedom. But what comes of this right to increase one’s needs? For the rich, isolation and spiritual suicide; for the poor, envy and murder, for they have been given rights, but have not yet been shown any way of satisfying their needs. We are assured that the world is becoming more and more united, is being formed into brotherly communion, by the shortening of distances, by the transmitting of thoughts through the air. Alas, do not believe in such a union of people. Taking freedom to mean the increase and prompt satisfaction of needs, they distort their own nature, for they generate many meaningless and foolish desires, habits, and the most absurd fancies in themselves. They live only for mutual envy, for pleasure-seeking and self-display.”
(The Brothers Karamazov 313-314)
Here Father Zosima, the mentor of the main character in Brothers Karamazov, is sharing the burden of his heart, the major problem with Russia in the late 1800s––isolation. People are believing that they should try to get whatever they think they need at the moment. The rich have increasingly greater accessibility to their pleasures, and the poor have increasingly strong motivations to believe they should follow in the self-serving footsteps of the rich. The rich’s luxurious lifestyle isolates them and breeds envy in the poor––which tends, in turn, to isolate them as well. The promises of modernization to unite all people of the world––the speedier communication of the telegraph and the virtual elimination of distance by the train––are empty, Zosima warns. In fact, they’re worse: they accomplish the opposite of what they claim to do. Increased ‘communication’ increases people’s ‘needs’ and multiplies the avenues by which these ‘needs’ can be immediately and individually satisfied––it decreases brotherly communion. It doesn’t meet needs––it creates them. The end result, he laments, is a self-propagating, increasing cycle of envy, pleasure-chasing, and self-exaltation.
Clearly Dostoevsky is critiquing the culture of his own time and place. And we may not be living in an age of increasing modernization, but we’re certainly living in an age of increasing technological advancement and exponentially expanding ‘connectedness.’ Consider social media alone, for instance. Mark Zuckerberg, the starter of perhaps the largest network in history, recently said, “In our effort to connect the whole world with Internet.org, we’ve been working on ways to beam internet to people from the sky.” (The picture above shows an internet balloon designed for this purpose.) Connect the whole world––that’s what’s being attempted. As of April 22, 2015, Facebook had 1.44 billion monthly active users. That’s more than one out of every seven people in the world. One out of seven. Magic. Kind of scary.
Maybe Americans today aren’t struggling through a class divide with serious isolating ramifications. But from the studies I’ve heard of, the ‘connection’ offered by communication technology isn’t bolstering community for us. It often seems like it’s hardly meeting needs at all. Internet advertising blasts us day in and day out with ‘needs’ we never knew we had before––while simultaneously making the satisfaction of those ‘needs’ accessible with the click of a finger. Be it the temptation of excessive online shopping, the appealing vegetative state of binge-watching media, or the twistedness of the pornography industry, the internet has bred more than its share of ills.
And notice how its evils themselves do nothing good for community––they are aimed at appealing to the part of us that wants what we want when we want it in whatever way we want it. We, we, we––us, us, us––I, I, I. There’s self-service aimed at self-satisfaction––individuals solitarily seeking their own selfish cravings. Isolation. Even amongst my own social circles, our smart phones are like whirlpools, dragging our eyes down into cyber voids and away from meeting each other’s eyes.
But I’m not saying we should trash our communication technology or dump the internet (not that we could anyway)––I’m a firm believer that it can be a force for good as well as for ill. I couldn’t write this post without the internet, for instance. And as I’ve been typing this, I’ve been messaging my brother who I rarely see (and who happens to be 400 miles away at the moment). With negligible effort, we can enjoy the subordinate good of each other’s words from opposite ends of the state. Speaking of subordinate goods, I can keep friendships formed on the other side of the globe, or ask my parents for advice when I’m away. I’m not complaining about that––that’s fantastic! It’s magic in the most wonderful sense of the word. At the same time, interpersonal communication is cheapened when it’s digitized. The delightfully irreducible nuances of in-person talk are reduced to pixels or sounds. Letters (even in digital form) may just be the second best thing to face-to-face conversation, but I believe most firmly that nothing can replace in-person relationship.
Granted––I’d like to establish a vigorous doubt that anything we could do with communication technology or social media can bring us out of isolation. But I also want to posit that ultimately not even face-to-face interaction can de-isolate us (though I’m sure it’s necessary). OK, then what can? I just asked my friend about this as we walked. We had a 20-minute conversation on it, and as we wrapped up our walk he voiced what I think must be the answer. I’m convinced that the gospel alone can bring us out of our isolation. My hypothesis is that our isolation ultimately comes from the self-worship of our sinful condition, what has been called incurvature (bent-inward-ness). The gospel calls us to die to ourselves and worship someone else. Only a meta-narrative that centers on someone other than me can save me out of myself––and the gospel is exactly this. It demands a life that consists of me dying and Jesus directing, a life defined by bringing the good news of love and reunion to my isolated brothers and sisters. Its end is the death of what leads to our death––isolation from each other and from God. The end of the gospel is the ultimate reunion, the union of human with human with God.
So ‘connecting’ clearly isn’t enough. Even getting everyone in the world on the same magic (a.k.a. online) network would not save us from isolation. Whether it’s Dostoevsky’s “transmitting thoughts through the air” or Zuckerberg’s “to beam internet to people from the sky”––which sound uncannily similar, now that I think about it––‘connecting’ will not bring us out of inward-bent selves, which is what we need to escape isolation. Only adoption into the divine universal family––often referred to throughout history as the holy catholic (universal) church––only answering the call to take up our cross and die and follow Jesus can provide us with the power to escape our incurved, self-isolating selves. We don’t need ‘connection’––we need love.