A man got on the tram this morning and remarked to his companion how quiet it was. I could not help but hear him, and realized he was right. Though the tram was full of passengers, the usual buzz of conversation was completely absent. But as I looked around, I noticed that the majority of people were in fact ‘communicating’—texting, reading on tablets or listening to music from their devices.
Much has been written about the impact of our communication-rich culture. We have so many means of keeping in touch. There is virtually no place or no time when we are ‘out of contact’. And yet there are so many ways in which we live without genuine contact. Are we actually in touch—with each other, with those we love, and indeed with ourselves?
During this same tram ride I read a newspaper item (on my iPad) written by a Gen Y person, saying how fundamentally out of touch was the political party they had tried to join: the idea of ‘joining’ and ‘belonging’ offered by the local group of elderly people, meeting over scones and tea, just did not engage the generation who will more likely sign an online petition with GetUp!
A generation ago, in an amazing book called The Greening of America, Robert Reich analysed the changes being brought about through the 60s generation of young people (my generation). I remember being struck by one prediction he made that has proved profoundly correct, though not in the ways he imagined. He suggested that in the future people would relate closely to small groups (such as friends and perhaps immediate family) and to large groups (perhaps through mass events or mass communications). What Reich imagined was that the medium sized groups, such as the clubs and associations, church groups or local political parties, would basically cease to provide meaningful relationships for people and would more or less disappear.
I thought of this today as I rode on the tram, seeing people ‘in touch’, through communication sources that connect us to potentially millions of others, simultaneously, while we sit next to people and have no contact with them at all. We are in one sense so connected and in another so out of touch.
There are many benefits of our wonderful new communications devices and systems. I value Facebook and Twitter, in many ways. I find it hard to imagine how we lived without email. The ‘world wide web’ has created a new world for us, indeed. Yet it is also true that loneliness is endemic in this highly connected world. I heard someone speak recently of a ‘touch’ deficit in our ‘in touch’ world.
So there are also many challenges and needs.
There are many challenges for those of us involved in education. It is very helpful to have so many sources of information. But education has never been simply about delivering information. In theological education we have always known that the main game is formation: the development of character, the person who may be shaped by knowledge. Knowledge, understanding, wisdom: these things are much more than can be delivered by digital communications. How then do we work with these new technologies, but achieve the goals of education and formation?
Similar issues arise for the leadership of community groups such as a local church. In our current situation, there are many newly emerging small groups with a spiritual focus. There are also a number of ‘mega’ churches. But the overwhelming majority are groups of 50 to 150 people—exactly the grouping that Reich suggested would cease to be meaningful for people. His prediction is largely correct, in that these church groups are falling away, along with the community organizations, sporting clubs, service groups and political parties, all struggling for members.
Yet again, those of us who do persist with groups such as a local church find that there are both meaningful relationships there and the great potential for helping others who are experiencing loneliness, alienation and all kinds of personal suffering. Whether it is a small group, a mega church or that medium sized group that is perhaps a little disheartened by the constant criticism that we are not large (or small), in all these contexts it is possible to be together, to relate, connect, care—even love.
There is in fact an interesting word that used to be used in the churches, about those who participated in the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Communion or whatever we call that worship event. We used to say that we communicated.
Our challenge today, in the face of all our means of communication, is to retain or perhaps regain the idea of communicating.