People are “connected” to others more than ever before because of technology: Texting, emailing, social-networking—we are constantly plugged in and communicating with other people from across town to the other side of the world. But are we really sharing our lives, or are we just passing information back and forth? Are we actually “connecting” with others, or are we like stones skipping across the surface of relationships, never diving into their depths?
Sherry Turkle, in her book Alone Together, says, “Developing technology promises closeness. Sometimes it delivers, but much of our modern life leaves us less connected with people and more connected to simulations of them.”
The problem with social media is three-fold: It robs people of the importance of connecting on a physical level; it delays reactions, enabling people to create their own persona and avoid awkward situations that they are forced to deal with in real life; and, more importantly, it fails to cultivate self-knowledge and presence—the key to real human connection.
People are physical and spiritual. We are mind, body, and soul. If we are going to truly connect with someone, we need to communicate on all levels. We might share information, send pictures, hear one another’s voices, maybe even see one another on a screen. But until we are in the physical presence of other people, we don’t really appreciate who they are. We don’t fully communicate as complete human beings. We don’t really share.
When you talk to someone—in the flesh—you exchange information without even realizing it. The sharing that’s involved is at an organic level—not just passing of information through a text or email. The movement of their hands, the flash of their eyes, the curve of their lips, the shifting of their body, the crossing of their legs—all of this communicates aspects of the person that you can’t get from an online chat. When you’re face to face with someone, you are entering into their complete presence in a way that’s impossible online.
In the Greek, there are two words for “knowing”: Gnosis and Epignosis. Gnosis is practical knowledge or knowing something or someone intellectually. The knowledge we share about one another through technology is mostly this kind of knowledge. Epignosis, though, is a deeper knowledge. It’s experiential knowledge. It involves not just the mind, but the spirit and the body, a full embrace of what can be known. This is the kind of knowledge that creates real connection and allows people to find the comfort and joy of being in a relationship with another person. When we experience other people, we aren’t just sharing information—exchanging thoughts and ideas—we are sharing ourselves.
Until you touch someone, see the light of joy on their face or the shadow of pain, until you experience them as a physical, intellectual, and spiritual creature, you don’t really know them. And that is what we want. That is what human connection is all about. It’s being known. This is one of the great themes (and great comforts) of Scripture. We are known by God. Before we were born, he knew us (Jer. 1:5), he knows us better than we know ourselves (Rom. 8:27), the Shepherd knows his sheep (John 10:14), our Creator has searched us and knows us—and still loves us (Psalm 139).
This is our desire: To be known and to be loved in that knowledge. The problem is that we are often afraid and insecure, and so we hide behind technology to escape the very thing we so desperately need.
Michael Price, at the American Psychological Association, says social media allows us to “sidestep what is difficult, what is hard in a personal interaction and go to another place where it does not have to be dealt with.”
It can be as simple as what happens when 15-year-olds gather for a birthday party. As anyone who has ever been 15 knows, there is a moment at such events when everyone wants to leave. Things get awkward. It is, however, very important that everyone stay and learn to get along with each other. These days, however, when this difficult moment comes, each 15-year-old simply retreats onto Facebook. Whether or not they physically leave the birthday party, they have “left.”
When teens tell me that they’d rather text than talk, they are expressing another aspect of the new psychological affordances of the new technology — the possibility of our hiding from each other. They say a phone call reveals too much, that actual conversations don’t give them enough control over what they want to say.
When you interact with people face to face, you can’t avoid conflict. You don’t have time. But when you’re online or texting, you can avoid that immediacy and “walk away.” You can make adjustments to how you’re perceived. You can, in a sense, recreate yourself over and over again. This ties back to the point about being known. If we’re always creating an image for others to see or hiding from them, we can’t be truly known. We’re not real. We’re, as Turkle said, a simulation. We isolate ourselves from the very thing we need to grow as fully actualized human beings. It’s when we are known—when we’re, in a sense, exposed—that we mature as we’re challenged to change how we think, how we interact with other people, and how we view ourselves. This growth happens in the context of relationships—in the context of sympathy, compassion, and love.
Knowing others—truly knowing them—can only come when we connect with them on a physical, spiritual, and immediate level. But something else is necessary too. We have to be present. Unfortunately, we live in a society in which most people are not present; they’re not open in an honest and real way. They are not sharing their real selves—only information or an image of themselves that they want to project. They are wearing masks. This is true not only in social media, but in the real world.
We have a society that has been raised on distraction. Watching television. Flipping through Netflix. Sitting at the computer for hours. Texting. Not long after birth, children are plopped down in front of the television or they’re kept busy playing with gadgets and toys, running from one play date to another, never stopping, always with people, never alone. Extroverts are praised while introverts are often forced to abandon their self-reflective ways to be more “social.” People are busy moving from one thing to another instead of settling down and really thinking and reflecting on their own thoughts—what they believe and how they want to live their lives. This is dangerous on a political level because if people aren’t really focused and don’t know what they think and believe—if they don’t know themselves—and if they’re constantly being moved by distractions, then they can be easily manipulated and controlled.
One of the great ironies of our time is that people are never alone but they’re lonely. They’re lonely because they never really connect with other people, and one reason is they never connect with themselves. They are not present in their own thoughts and minds. They have been too distracted by outward entertainments to get to know themselves, to learn to be comfortable with themselves, and even to like themselves.
Aristotle said, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” It is also the beginning of all relationships. If you don’t know yourself, then others won’t know you either. If you aren’t present in your own mind, face to face with your own soul, then you won’t be present with others. They will never know you. You will never know them. And you will be alone.
As a society, we have allowed technology to distract us from ourselves. While it has given us seemingly limitless knowledge of the world, it has robbed us of “knowledge of our self.” We get news from across the world. We know what our friends had for breakfast. But we don’t really know what we think or feel, we don’t understand our fears and our joys, we don’t know why we do the things we do or why we gravitate to the people we do. Many of us don’t know what we believe. We simply act on impulse, responding to outward stimuli instead of directing our own course from within. We’re passive, instead of active, drifting on the currents of distraction instead of steering our own ship.
“It is not good for man to be alone.” We are alone. Alone in ourselves, having little knowledge of who we are because we have been distracted from ourselves. Until we stop, be still, put down the distractions, stop hiding behind technology, and spend some time getting to know ourselves, we won’t be able to connect with others. We will remain adrift, sharing information about ourselves, but never ourselves, never knowing the joy and the fullness of true human connection.
D.C. is a journalist who lives in Charlotte, NC.