Monday, January 23, 2017

Anxiety and Community In These Strange Days

Epoch (noun) 1. a particular period of time marked by distinctive features, events;
the beginning of a distinctive period in…history.
Here’s a fun little exercise in nostalgia. Try and recall the very first time you visited cyberspace. Got online and surfed the Internet. Sent or received a text message. Ordered from Amazon. Posted on Facebook. My discovery day happened in 1994, when I signed up for America Online. Sat before an over sized expensive desktop computer, plugged a phone line into the back of that electronic behemoth, and listened in rapturous hope to the chirps of a modem, as it connected me to life, in a revolutionary way.


At that very moment, we entered an experience of reality unlike any other, ever before, in human history. To be in a “place” that’s not really a place, in the traditional sense.  A place that’s not anywhere, some geographic point, but a place that is both everywhere and no where. A place to connect to other people yet also, to not be with them: face to face, physically. That’s the brave new world where most of us live these days, take for granted as the norm.

Life. On smartphones, laptops, smart TVs. On Facebook and Twitter, and email accounts.  On screens: portals through which we connect to life, not just some of the time but most of our waking hours.  As I noted in a recent post, the Nielsen Company, which tracks media consumption, reports the average American interacts with a screen 10 hours, 39 minutes per day. That’s more time than we work (6.9 hours daily), sleep (6.8 hours), eat (1 hour), and care for others (1.2 hours). 

That this revolution has happened in less than a generation means we are so far from understanding what it means for us, as a society, individuals, and a world. For comparison, think 1460, twenty years after the invention of the printing press. Before: books and the ideas therein was the realm of the elite. After: every literate person could read a book, think for themselves, with no gatekeeper like a priest or prince to monopolize knowledge. Kingdoms toppled, as folks revolted against old ways. Power shifted from thrones to the people. A small world of villages gave way to a bigger world of nations formed by populist political movements. An epoch began.

It was a chaotic, anxious time.  It is a chaotic, anxious time.

That’s how many of us are experiencing life in these early days of 2017.  With communal anxiety.  Fear.  Wondering and worrying, “What’s next?” as this new chapter in history, marked by life in cyberspace, emerges.  The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman may have summed it up best in a recent column, when he observed of our brave new world: “We’re all connected but no one’s in charge.” 

Strange days. 

We revel in the convenience and economy of being able to buy and procure practically any items or services online, from any where around the globe, instantaneously. We mourn as the shops on Main Street close, factories lay empty and idle, and the workers have no place to go. We have access to more information than any generation of human beings that ever lived. We’ve gone through a looking glass, to a time when “alternative facts” and fake news and boutique news consumption lets us see “the truth” as we alone choose.  We have thousands of friends in cyber space.  We have few friends in the neighborhood, little or no time for local communities like the church or synagogue or mosque. We love democracy unfettered, unleashed in cyberspace, and so we organize for change and direct action, the citizenry empowered.  We stay at home on the couch and fail to vote, cynically decrying the leaders we ourselves have given rise to.

The times they are a’changin. Fast.

So my spiritual advice is this: buckle up, because for the next few years and decades, it is going to be a very bumpy ride.  But as with any journey into the unknown, we are given by our Creator the chance to go on this trip, not solo, but together. Not just parked in front of a glowing screen, but instead, also, holding hands, as our parents told us to do, whenever we had to cross a busy and dangerous street, to get from one place to another.  Cyberspace's cyber-community and the epoch it ushers in: it will be only as good, as the human community it creates. Real community, with real people, caring for each other.  Living heart to heart, eye to eye, hand to hand and side by side. 

A new epoch unfolds.  I, for one, don’t want to go it alone.  Let’s always stay connected, no matter what the future might bring.


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