There’s a television commercial running currently that shows a twenty-something woman standing at the counter of a car dealership. Behind the counter, an earnest customer service representative is watching her. What grabs me immediately about the commercial is that the protagonist is completely absorbed in texting on her smartphone, oblivious to whom and what is around her. The representative asks what she’s doing, and the texter replies that she’s polling her friends about what color car to purchase. The friendly car person asks her how many friends, and without looking up the texter replies with false modesty, “Four … thousand seventy-five.” She never stops texting.
At this juncture in the commercial, I want to be the person behind the counter, take off my shoe, and smash that smartphone into a million pieces of unacknowledging indifference. Does this technology junkie not realize there is an actual human being in front of her, attempting to establish some kind of meaningful rapport? To cheapen the situation even further, the car rep then adds to the shallowness of the encounter by saying brightly, “Oh, I’ll be your friend!” In response, the texter rolls her eyes in mock exasperation and says “Four thousand seventy-six!” All without ever stopping texting.
The reason this commercial so violates my sensibilities is that it’s an accurate portrayal of what we have reduced modern relationships to, with all this amazing technology. I’m no Luddite tilting at digital windmills. I enjoy the benefits and convenience of high technology as much as the next person. But there’s no way on planet Earth that young lady has four thousand “friends” of any kind. If this is how she spends her life, fixated over that tiny glowing screen like Narcissus over his reflecting pool, then I doubt she has four actual friends.
We’ve never been more “connected” than we are today. Cell phones, Instant Messaging, BlueTooth headsets, WiFi and an overwhelming array of communication devices mean we are never unable to reach someone – electronically. Yet in this cacophony of keypads, iPads, voicemail, email, tablets and headsets, we are often more isolated from each other personally than ever. Actual human contact has been supplanted by AI. Not Artificial Intelligence mind you, but rather Artificial Interaction.
We seem to be losing our ability for personal interaction, the proof of which is all around us. There are a plethora of “introduction services” now to help lonely singles find other lonely singles, but it’s all done through the filter of electronic contact. I’m not against such things as a means of helping pre-sort the field a bit, but human compatibility is a strange, enigmatic animal. If you don’t agree, please explain how diametric opposites and former presidential campaign adversaries James Carville and Mary Matalin make a marriage work … for twenty years now. Have we forgotten how to approach people and strike up honest, meaningful dialogue? Do we really need to rely on surrogate electronic courtship to find a soul mate? I can tell you from personal experience that the same technology enabling those introduction services can also be used by the clients to misrepresent the truth.
Another example of our search for significance through the surrogate of technology is this apparent obsession the Japanese have for developing increasingly humanoid robots. In this most crowded nation in the world, are there not enough real people to interact with that they need to develop artificial ones? Or is their collective insecurity so great that an artificial friend is preferable to an actual one? What a sad contemplation.
Other commercials depict families all “staying connected” with each other, which sounds wholesome until you see them sitting by each other in the same room, staring at their texting screens but nobody speaking to each other. The very devices that are purported to keep us connected to each other have become facades and filters behind which we hide from personal, human contact. It’s a tragedy, not a comedy.
Let’s admit it; our “thousands” of “virtual friends” consist almost entirely of people we have never met personally, but who exist merely as account names, an avatar or photo (who can verify if it is really that person or not?), and digital characters streaming across a lighted mini-screen. The problem with “virtual reality” is that it isn’t reality at all. The same can be said of virtual relationships.
The Latin root of the word “virtual” is virtualis, which denotes strength, virtue and efficacy. These connotations evoke a sense of substance and wholesomeness. But once the battery power runs down or the modem crashes, so does the virtual relationship.
Real friends aren’t people who stop by randomly and decide to “Like” our Facebook page (even the word “Like” has been co-opted and gutted of its meaning). Friends are people who look you in the eye, whose vocal inflections convey a panoply of human emotion, people who hold your hand for reassurance. Friends are people with whom we connect on an intimate level interpersonally, not some photo-shopped image on a screen, or a compilation of numbers and letters cobbled together into an “identity“. How did we become so disconnected?
I believe it begins with God. When we opt out of a personal relationship with the One who created us for personal relationship with Himself, we violate our own created nature. From there, it runs downhill to every other area of our increasingly sequestered lives. As we grow indifferent to Him, it becomes easier to dehumanize ourselves and others. When people choose to remain anonymous behind a façade, it usually isn’t for the best intentions. Quite the contrary, when we feel shielded from detection, it often brings out our baser, darker inclinations. When we feel disconnected from God, it grants us false license to do as we please. You may recall the fig leaf incident from so long ago – the original attempt at dissembling before God.
We’re more hungry than ever for that personal and even divine touch of love and acceptance, but instead of going directly to the source we use surrogate devices which often deceive us about the actual level of intimacy (or lack thereof) taking place.
Real relationships are a hands-on, face-to-face transactions. Anything that reduces that transaction or acts as a surrogate is not facilitating the process, but rather diminishing it. Four thousand seventy-five “friends“? I doubt anyone could effectively manage one tenth that number of real relationships.