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Raptured To Cyberspace
We are irreducibly local people. But we've lost our place.
Our Digitized Lives
With the exception of a year and a half, I’ve lived in the same house since I was three years old. Even during the four years of college, I was only less than an hour away from home and would often be home on the weekends.
The city I live in has become as much a part of me as my last name. In fact, there was a period in history when people were sometimes identified by where they were from as their last name. You were John of Yorkshire, or something like that. Your identity was tied to your location. Where you came from said just as much about you are as any other social identifier.
But now we have cars, trains, airplanes and, of course, the internet. We are no longer bound by our locations. We’ve transcended the limits of the regions we were born into and place less importance, if any, on it as an identifier of who we are.
The internet has digitized our lives where we can be online as disembodied profile pictures producing content to people we’ve never seen or touched in real life. Thanks to the pandemic, even work has ceased being a physical connection point for human interaction as the information economy has allowed us to be pixel-pushers on screens in the back offices of our homes. There’s no real reason to leave except to get groceries.
The rise of remote work has seen more people leaving the cities they lived in before the pandemic, traveling more, and replacing in-person communities with online communities. The convenience of having 1,000 friends in your pocket, curated for maximum affirmation, ready to like, comment, and share for another rush of dopamine has made us crave the attention of an audience more than the companionship of a friend.
It’s all so easy now.
As Bo Burnham said, “Got it? Good. Now get inside.”
Curated Digital Worlds
The problem with isolating ourselves by retreating into our curated digital worlds is that the world we live in doesn’t spin on a digital axis. The houses we live in aren’t made of bits and bytes but of concrete, brick, metal, and wood. The privilege of digitizing ourselves means that the people who don’t have that privilege are left to serve those of us who will do nothing for them in return. The very injustice we cry out about online is the injustice we leave behind on the streets of our city when we allow our online world to be more real than the real world we inhabit.
The internet gives us the illusion that we can effect bigger societal change because you can play the viral lottery and sometimes win. If you shout loud enough, someone might hear you. And being heard feels important. Someone might even be affected positively by your shout. It could have been exactly what they needed to hear and you happened to shout it and they happened to hear it.
But we don’t build relationships by shouting at one another but by whispering with each other in the confidence that only trust over time can create. We don’t build institutions on the loudest words but on the earned wisdom that only patience over time can create.
We are not our avatars any more than the Lincoln Memorial is Abraham Lincoln.
It represents us. But it isn’t us.
We are embodied creatures that take up a particular space in a particular time. We are not omnipresent. Building our life on the illusion that we are will only diminish our humanity and the communities that we live in. We want to make the world a better place, but we’ve been raptured out of our physical locations and into cyberspace.
Life happens locally.
If you’re not invested in your local church, giving or volunteering with your local nonprofits, shopping at your local businesses, etc, you have uprooted yourself from the very place that will provide you with a sense of duty and meaning and the place where you can directly serve flesh and blood people.
The calling you crave is down the street.
Irreducibly Local People
A few weeks ago, my pastor said in a sermon, “Some people are called to go to the other side of the world for the gospel. Others are called to stay in the same house for 60 years.”
He’s right. And I wish we would put the second option back on the table. If not the same house, the same community.
And the only way there is value in staying in the same community is if you participate in it.
We are irreducibly local people.
You are not where you are by mistake. If God appoints the times and boundary markers of his people, then he has you where you are as an ambassador so the people you live near “would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us” (Acts 17:27).
The more our lives are digitized and curated for us by algorithms, the more of a priority we will need to make to push down from the cloud to the earth and out from the web to the world.
The world is changing faster than we can keep up with. We are being changed by the technology that promised to liberate us, and realizing that it has enslaved us. But it’s enslaved us by capturing us in convenience. We forgot that we need each other. That someone needs us and we need them.
In real life.
We are made of dust, not code.