Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The Irony of Cyberspace

Thomas Curwen, travel writer for the LA Times, has written a 'travel shorts' column entitled Travelling Through Time, in which he explores the changing nature of travel and particularly our seemingly spiralling anger and frustration with it. He contrasts this with previous generations' experience of travel; he does not romanticise these previous generations, just the opposite. Compared with them, we have it good. Usually.

He muses that it seems the difficulties of travel have to do with several factors at once: rising expectations of the experience, coupled with a sense of 'needing' or 'deserving' a holiday, along with a growing but unrealistic expectation that it will be cheap. He approvingly quotes Pico Iyer in part of his analysis:

"I think it's more than possible that we are growing more angry these days as we grow more spoiled, more used to having our own way, more masters of our own tiny domain," says traveler and writer Pico Iyer. "Cyberspace, in fact, tempts us to live ever farther from the world at large and ever more within our own ideas and niche interests and selected friends. In that regard, going out into the world, where things can't be controlled, may be a greater shock than ever."

Beyond its service to Curwen's point, I find that a striking quotation, for if Iyer is right (and I suspect he is) then the very thing which hastens globalisation and shrinks the world ever more is also the same thing which distances us from the world, cocoons us off from all but those (like-minded) we allow in. We ensconce ourselves in a fantasy world, an echo chamber in which we do not need to negotiate with others, or even listen to them, only to emerge now and then and find - yikes! - that the world is populated with idiots who don't think like me, and don't do what I want. The irony of Cyberspace.

I thought at first Iyer's use of 'spoiled' was a bit over the top, but on reflection I think it is right on, for if this analysis is correct then this is essentially a matter of childishness on our part.

This dynamic - for now let's call it a fragmentation based on special interests and echo chambers and agree to come up with a better term later - reflects in all sorts of facets of our contemporary world in the West, but I might just mention two.

The church wrestles with this dynamic on at least two fronts. First, the church is increasingly satisfied with niche marketing: this is seen in churches planted to reach 'boomers' or 'xers' or whatever. It is also seen to some extent in its use of marketing techniques in place of evangelism (and the unbalanced and occasionally sick way we do evangelism). And it is seen across denominations as we are increasingly content to either simply 'take care of our own', defined usually by race, class, marital or family status. These are all ways of lining up people who are (more or less) like minded; to put it another way, it is a recipe for a sect rather than a church.

The second front on which the church is faced with this is in the controversies it faces - and here, of course, I have in mind the Anglican Communion particularly, but it is no different across the board (although of course it takes different forms, with different issues, with different degrees of openness or publicity). The ill-kept secret reflected in the actions of most conservatives and most liberals* is that we are quite eager to split, despite rhetoric to the contrary. If we split then we don't have to deal with those with whom we disagree, we don't need to hear what they have to say, we don't have to acknowledge that they are Christians or that we might be wrong. We will have not only an authoritative Scripture, but also our - my - authoritative intepretation. The fragmentation, distancing, and echo-chambering in this case is obvious; it reflects a lack of maturity and ought to be occasion for shame.

Both of these fronts are temptations to idolatry.

The other facet I had in mind is the disappearance of anything like a public square. I mean that literally, in terms of civic design, but it is also true metaphorically. A public square - unlike its ersatz contemporary form, the shopping mall, which anticipates the narrowing found in internet echo-chambering - is an open, public space in which life unfolds. The best public squares combine commerce, municipal functions, church presence, housing, and flexible space for multiple uses. They are places which are easily accessed by a wide variety of people (including the homeless or those on the margins), and admit of spontaneous 'trial enounters' in differing ways: meeting a new friend, children playing, encountering a stranger, protesting or rallying, or simply spending time in a place which is both ours and not ours. A well-designed public square is the heart of a city and allows for sociality in its many varied forms to unfold with a richness - specifically in terms of people who are different from oneself - that cannot generally be found elsewhere. Their loss (in terms of usage) is deeply unfortunate, but would be less so if it were replaced by some other forum which served the same purpose. In the event, however, we are just poorer for not realising the potential of the public square and settling for that which is far less.

*I specifically mean reflected in our actions, not in what we say; I also don't take 'liberal' and 'conservative' to exhaust the field of options theologically or ecclesiologically.

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