When did the postal service really get started? When was it feasible for an average someone to send a letter across town or country? I’m told that in America it was no later than 1639. How fun it must have been when Aunt Phyllis’ nephew, after traveling for days across the state for his once-every-two-years visit, sat at her dinner table and said “So, in Mom’s letter she told me that those corns on your feet are keeping you from wearing those expensive shoes you got from Mr. Landry, the tailor, last month.”
And what did it feel like when the first phones were installed? The first switchboards came in around 1877. What a rush it must have been to pick up a phone and hear the voice of a friend across town. How precious those first numbers must have been. Probably complete neighborhoods got wired all at the same time. I bet the new construction got it, while retrofitting older neighborhoods was a lesser priority, unless it was in the rich part of town. Did everyone really know their neighbors in those days? Did they have to go door to door to get their neighbor’s number, or were those numbers public right from the start? The operators must have known them. I bet they were private or, at least, not published, in which case you would have had to unfriend someone to their face.
The Timeline of Technology
Sometime in the late 1960s those huge answering machines became commonplace, so you could leave a message for someone unable or unwilling to answer the phone. Suddenly the guy who wanted to say something trumped the guy who didn’t want to hear anything. The speaker became the focus. Email, pagers, and then the communication staple, the cell phone, emerged. Not soon after that it seemed like the Web was born. It took several years before it found its feet, but now it has. And these days, if you are in an office building that loses its Internet during the work day, you’ll see people flood out to the street, cell phones in hand, as if the electricity had been cut and the inside was dark.
I’ve wondered why all the technology took so long to break. For thousands of years there was just the messenger. Just three hundred and seventy years ago the postal service comes along and it’s only another two hundred and forty years before the next change. Since high school I’ve seen the answering machine, pager, cell phone, and Internet. If we were to trace the development of the key communications devices and the technology we are the most dependent upon, we would see the dots on the graph pinching up closer and closer toward the end of the line to the degree where the current time, now, would be one big fuzzy dot. The curve is shooting straight up.
Here’s another way of putting this in perspective. Let’s say that there were perhaps 7,000 years of reasonably verifiable recorded history. (Even though this is no doubt a very conservative number, to make the number bigger only further demonstrates the point.) If we took that number of 7,000 years and translated it into an hour’s time, Christ came along 2,000 years ago, which would, in this example, have been about seventeen minutes and nine seconds ago. Now let’s apply this to our technology developments. The average American would have been able to mail a letter for the first time just three minutes and ten seconds ago. The first phone calls that could have been made across town took place just one minute and seven seconds ago. And the first girl to come home to a blinking light on her answering machine and seventeen unanswered calls from a guy trying to ask her to the prom, happened just twenty-five seconds ago. Facebook, three seconds ago.
Personally, I don’t give us much credit for it all. I don’t think we are smarter today than those who ran those letters by horse and runner. In fact we are not nearly as smart as the men and women before us. Nonetheless, at least technologically, we are racing forward as if about to cross the finishing line.
The Desire to Communicate
So far I have not commented on whether we should or should not be immersing ourselves in this technology. The observable timeline, though, suggests that given the opportunity, the ability to communicate at will with anyone anywhere is something many people want to do. The guys who first thought up texting must have known that. Imagine being in the room when they first pitched their idea. I can’t imagine trying to sell that. When I first heard about it I thought it was insane.
The desire to communicate is wired into us. Most of us, anyway. Even if we do it poorly, we want to do it. It is a character trait of the creature. To press the point, if we were designed with this desire, and if we cannot trace it to The Fall, then we can hardly say it is a bad thing without implicating our Maker.
Back to the recent phenomenon of social networking. I am an “older” man, about to leave my forties. And though it is said that fifty is the new forty – a phrase only spoken and popularized by those fifty and above – I cannot help but see the gulf between the teenagers and myself. Though my spirit is forever young, my tent is conspicuously older. Also, and most importantly, the context of my life is different. I have two young boys. I look at social networking on two levels. How will I be involved on Facebook, Youtube, and the like? And what degree of involvement will I allow my children?
In the past, those new developments in technology and engineering went through the parents to the kids. Power Steering, the microwave, the answering machine, and the video player were brought home by mom and dad. But not social networking. That started with the kids. Facebook was released by a twenty year-old, Twitter by a thirty year old (the new twenty). I am part of the only generation that sits on the fence with regard to these communication developments. My parents are distinctly suspicious. Privacy is a big concern of theirs. On the other hand, every kid in the world seems to be eager to post a profile at any one of the social networking sites in order to be rid of their privacy – in order to be known. At a sales conference about a year ago, the young tech-savvy spokesperson scolded us, “Big Brother is already here. Get over it!” He’s right. My generation is the only one that is trying to decide what to do. My kids and theirs will accept it without a question, as they already have.
Some may argue that a Stalinesque misuse of the information commonly posted on these sites could turn back the clock on our rush to share. But I think that the global power of individuals to communicate with one another is actually more powerful than any one government’s ability to abuse it. I don’t think government is organized enough, nor world governments allies enough, to organize themselves against the citizenry at large. There are cases, to be sure, where abuses have happened. But whole societies cannot be monitored or terrorized with this communication. In fact, as far as I’ve seen, the only way to forcibly control the population is to cut off the communication, shut down the Internet.
Anyway, whether I’m a prognosticator or not, it is here. And, if it is not scientific, it is at least antidotal that the young embrace it so much. I do not think they do so because they are foolish. I think they do so because they find it natural. The youth embrace social networking because it is fun. Communicating is fun. It is we jaded, burned out, tired, grumps who live for twenty years in a quaint neighborhood and never know those who live next door, who find it threatening.
When my wife and I take our young boys to a dinner party, it is a guarantee that though they will not have known anyone when they got there, they will be sad to leave because of the fun they are having with the other kids they just met. It is my wife and I that will be complaining about those who weren’t friendly.
When we were younger, we were more friendly.
And, really! How cool would these types of media and communication have been when I was in high school? It would have been such a blast (although I’m sure I would have made a huge melodrama out of all of it) to have been able to track every one and every clique on campus, to have read all the status updates, all the he-said she-said, all the wonderful drama! Who would not have loved it? I would have jumped on it. I would have been completely immersed in it.
In the years before the emergence of social media networking, I found myself wondering where all those people who had shaped my life had gone. I had lost touch with the huge chunks of people who had spent their limited days and years in mine. I was no longer responsible to them, and their effect on me. Being so far away in my memory, their impact was seeping out of me. How many times in your life can you cast away ten or twenty years work on a relationship just to have to start over again? Not many.
What does the Bible say about Facebook?
I cannot find anything in scripture that says that we should beware of communicating or that we should isolate ourselves away. I can find lessons in scripture about how to communicate. We should be in the world, but not of it (John 17:11-17, 1 Cor 5:9-10). That must mean that although we interact with the world and move in it, we do so with a distinction that sets us apart. We use clean language when we speak (James 3:6). We avoid foolish arguments (2Tim 2:24-26). We do not gossip (1 Tim 5;13). We are to be wise as serpents but gentle as doves (Mat 10:16).
C. S. Lewis, in a defense of learning theology in Mere Christianity said that as the years and millennia marched on, we had a responsibly to know more about God than our forefathers. The temperature is going up. The world is moving faster. When you’re in a car that is moving faster, you have to pay more attention. It is the same here. As Christians, we have a responsibility to act and speak with more integrity than ever before. We must know our Scriptures. We need to be alert. We must be ready more than ever with an answer for the hope that lies within us (1 Peter 3:15). And if there are a million more conversations going on now than just ten years ago, the number of times we are going to be required to give our witness is also going to rise exponentially.
But our tendency is to hide ourselves away. We attempt to avoid society and its changes. I remember when the answer to the temptations of the Internet was to unplug the computer. That didn’t turn out to be a realistic approach. Our greater responsibility was to increase our holiness to overcome the temptations of the Internet. That same challenge exists now. When technology is more and more able to satisfy our desires to be social, it doesn’t work for us to turn our backs. And, while it may be a choice for us, it will not be a choice for our kids. If we want our kids to survive (let alone leave a witness), we better teach them how to succeed with social media, not avoid it. Avoidance is not an option.
The Young versus Not-so-young
Let’s talk more about our children and social media networking. I see three primary fears that we have about our children and the Internet and social networking. First, we fear that they will have interaction with those they should not trust. Second, we fear they will involve themselves in things and practices that we are unfamiliar with and fall out of our ability to protect them. Finally, we fear that our kids are going to choose the facelessness of the small screen as their primary way of being social.
The first two fears are all the more scary because my experience has been that my child can change his set of friends and have a whole new set of interests in a very short period of time. On the one hand, he’s experimenting, testing this and testing that. On the other, he’s trying desperately to fit in. If I’m not checking in regularly, I will be completely disconnected with his world within a very short period of time.
So, I have to stay connected. His mom and I have to regularly check in. Or maybe the best approach is not to check out. In our house, we sacrifice privacy for freedom. That is, our kids get only as much freedom as we can monitor. All emails are considered reviewable and are only sent through phones, computers and devices that we can monitor. The Internet connections are monitored and tracked – we use Covenant Eyes. Devices that do not allow a flow through that, go through the parents, or are not allowed.
To pull this off we have to handle the information we are reviewing very carefully. We have to give our kids room to converse as they wish, for the most part. Most of the time we say nothing. Once in a while we’ll risk offering advice. Of course, when we see something potentially dangerous, we step in.
This doesn’t work unless our kids feel they have the freedom to ask us anything. This is much easier said than done. The questions my sixth grader comes home from school with are unbelievable, frankly shocking. Nonetheless, we answer fully, honestly, and calmly. If your child does not see you as his or her best source of information, then he or she will seek another source. You don’t want that.
For me, a key part of this has been realizing that it is my child’s sense of his own survival that is more powerful than my sense of his survival. Each day he gets older, he becomes more driven to take care of himself, to see himself succeed. My goal, then, cannot be to slow him down, but to serve that desire. I have to come along side him, not stand in front of him.
Of course we are trying to steer our children, and sometimes we put our foot down. But the fact is that our days of being able to do that are evaporating quickly, especially for our oldest.
These days require more responsibility and involvement on the part of parents. That will only increase. As for the fear that they will prefer the Internet to face to face involvement, from what I’ve seen, that is not a legitimate concern. If you watch kids these days, you’ll see them involved on the Internet, texting etc., but not at the expense of being face to face. It’s not all glazed over eyes, staring at the small screen. The only time a kid prefers the Internet to actually going to the party is when he can’t stand those at the party. Kids want all the connection they can get.
Now, back to us. How should we adults approach social media networking? What about the happily married father hooking up with the high-school girlfriend and blowing up his marriage?
Here, too, the answer is more responsibility. If you can see no good coming from a conversation, don’t engage. Don’t be naïve. Be suspicious. Use some common sense.
On the other hand, social networking could legitimately get you back in touch with the people of your life, those who know you and want to talk to you, those you’ve had memories with. And it is very important to stay connected. These are the only days and years that you have. Beware of walking away from relationships. Resist isolating yourself. Be willing to be accountable to those who know you.
Saving the unsaved on Facebook
As far as being a Christian witness, you can’t be accused of being a good witness or a bad one if you’re not interacting with people. You have to get out there. But here’s a social networking rule. When you’re on Facebook, pretend that you are at a house party. No one at a house party wants you to sell them anything. People who use social networking to try to get their friends to buy stuff from them, don’t get far. It is the same with witnessing. No one wants to hear you preach. On the other hand, they do want you to be yourself. They want to know how you honestly feel, what is really happening in your life, and they want you to chime in to the conversation. They may want to ask you about God directly, but wait for them to do that. Otherwise, just be real. Don’t have an agenda.
I believe that being Christian means being social. Yes, social networking is scary. I’m not advocating that parents sit back on the side lines. And as mature grown up individuals, we must watch our step out there. We must act with integrity and treat this as the awesome frontier that it is. Obviously there comes a time to turn off the gadgets. Do it. But let’s look for the good in it, too. Let’s try to remember what it was like when being social was more important than work. And, most of all, let’s face those technological developments that are here to stay, and that, by the way, have been driven by the pure ageless desire to be in community. Get involved. Get on the net. Remember your old friends, and be social. This is the world now. It’s not going anywhere.
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