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Living in a World of Mutual Display

Living in a World of Mutual Display

The philosopher Charles Taylor once said that we live in a world of “mutual display.” I’m more and more convinced that he’s right. Whether I like it or not, I’m stuck and complicit in a system that encourages me to judge others according to what brands they’re wearing, what causes they’re supporting, how happy they look, and so much more—all in comparison to myself. And it forces me to ask: am I good enough?

Perhaps this isn’t anything new. You might tell me that humans have judged each other this way for all time–it’s just a feature of our humanity that we compare ourselves to one another. I’d agree, of course. But I’m worried that it’s worse than ever before. We can—and we do—put ourselves on display more often now as well as observe and judge the display of others almost perpetually.

If you’re on social media like I am, you’ll know what I mean. How many times do you find yourself wishing that your life was as happy and interesting as all your friends seem to be when you see their pictures on Instagram and their big announcements on Facebook about achieving life goals or reaching that fitness milestone? Thinking about my own life in the midst of this constant flow of everyone else’s “see how happy I am!” and “see how interesting my life is!” can get downright depressing.

I feel the pressure of technology in demanding that I’m always “on.” I feel the tyrannical imperative of being interesting (think of the old Dos Equis commercials) or watchable. I can’t shake the feeling that I’m in some sort of competition with everyone else to see who has the happiest, most envious life. And if I don’t get the likes, the views, the comments, the clicks—all made possible by technology’s interconnecting networks of all of us—I’m not sure my life has much worth.

Some lament the fact that we’re “addicted” to technology. Faces are buried in smartphones as I walk across campus trying to avoid running into distracted students and colleagues. Sure, that alone might indicate we have a problem. But it makes me wonder if we’re not really addicted to technology, but rather, as Alan Jacobs has noted, we’re addicted to each other. And the technology, with its “there’s an app for that” readiness, is eagerly waiting to serve up any and all methods of social validation that we desire. And boy do we desire it! (However, as much as I try not think about such things or try to resist how important this has all become to me, I’m secretly hoping you’ll share this post on your social media feed.)

Did you know that the UK just hired a Minister for Loneliness? I think that’s a stunning admission by a major representative nation in Western society that we have a problem. Sherry Turkle, a researcher at MIT who investigates the way relationships are affected by social media, wonders if we’re experiencing a loneliness epidemic. The irony of her work is that it examines the very technology that is supposed to be bringing us closer together, creating greater and stronger connections, but seems ultimately to be making us more lonely.

Turkle is no Luddite—she’s not interested in getting rid of technology. She is convinced, however, that we’re immature users of immature technology. So she suggests some ways that we might overcome the loneliness brought on by our constant engagement in our personal devices through which we look for social affirmation but only end up being depressed, and by means of which we search for community but only end up with social connectivity without the connection (as she says, we’re “alone together”).

Curiously, some of her ideas look remarkably like old-fashioned spiritual disciplines. She suggests solitude and silence. More than 70 years ago, the theologian, pastor, and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggested the same thing in going about building a community of mutually supportive students at a small, secret seminary he started in Nazi Germany. In a classic and well-loved book, Bonhoeffer taught that solitude and silence actually prepare us for the deep, intimate community we desire because such disciplines teach us that our worth actually comes from God, our creator, who made us for community—first with Him and then with each other. Furthermore, in silence and solitude, Bonhoeffer suggests that we get to know ourselves and our own thoughts better, such that we’re more able to share deeply in those relationships with one another for which God created us.

I find hope here. It’s not only that I’m caught up in the distracting, competitive, and often depressing world of technology, especially when it’s meant to bring us closer together, not to mention happier. But I see so many around me who are too. Turkle seems to be channeling something ancient to help us to achieve the kind of community we’re aching for. There may not be an app for our present problem, but there does seem to be an ancient kind of technology (if you think of spiritual disciplines that way) that can help.

This post reflects the views and experiences of the author, and is intended to start a conversation. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

Or, if you’d like to hear some overall thoughts on digital technology from Christians at THRED, you can find those over here.

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Chad Lakies teaches Religion at Concordia University in Portland, OR. He’s into coffee, beer, drumming, video games, and buying more books than he has time to read.

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