I was walking my dog the other day, 21st century style: listening to a podcast on my headphones and checking my email on my smart phone. Even a task as leisurely as dog-walking can become a productivity-driven multitasking adventure thanks to technology. At one point I looked up from my phone screen and realized I had walked right by my neighbor several minutes before without even stopping to say “Hi” or even acknowledge his presence. I was so engrossed in the podcast and focused on the screen that I missed a chance to make a connection.
Technology isn’t going away. The interwebs isn’t a fad and these new-fangled devices won’t go the way of the Betamax tape player (kids, ask your parents about that one). Our screens – cell phones, tablets, laptops, with more sophisticated ones on the way – are now ingrained as an essential part of our daily lives, which means it’s very easy for us to take for granted the blind spots associated with these technological developments. Like ignoring our neighbors.
That’s the irony with which we have to wrestle in today’s world. We are more connected globally than ever before; we can have thousands of friends and followers; we can receive and send mail anytime and anywhere. And yet, you could argue we’re more disconnected than ever. We can become so isolated in our techno-bubbles that we rarely have any actual human contact. We can use the self-checkout at the grocery store, the ATM at the bank, the self-serve kiosk at the post office, the Fandango machine at the movie theater. We can even serve our own frozen yogurt! We can go through our whole day without needing to acknowledge the existence of another human being.
There’s a more insidious danger here than just the isolation. When we interact with others via technology, we have a lot more control over who we let into our circle of influence. We seek out voices that sound like ours and minds that think like ours, blocking or unfriending those who don’t agree with our worldview. We create these homogeneous pods of people who reinforce each other’s perspective (“The President is a Muslim!” “Parents these days are lazy!”) without allowing for any sort of balancing voice to enter the conversation. And the more we participate in these discussions, the more we begin to think we are right and everyone else is wrong.
You see how deep the pothole is here, right? Because what happens when we are forced to interact with someone in real life who’s outside of our techno-bubble, someone who we wouldn’t let in if we had a choice? Our kid’s teacher or the lady behind us in line or a visitor at church – how do we react when they do something or say something or just exist in a way that doesn’t fit our technologically reinforced criteria of what counts as normal? The work of the Spirit on Pentecost is reversed. Instead of being united together in the midst of many languages, we are driven apart by a common language used in hateful, racist, ignorant ways.
We have to look up. We have to look up from our screens, from our Facebook conversations, from our political websites to see the world around us as it actually is, not as we have conditioned ourselves to believe it should be. Author Tad Williams says it so well: “Our challenge in the coming century will be to resist hiding in the comfort of these self-made bubbles, to remember that there will also be a growing number of other bubbles, big and small, and each one will contain people who feel just as strongly as we do about their own individual truths, passions, and needs. For all our differences, we are sharing the same planet. It may be difficult, but we still need to hear what we don’t want to hear, sometimes from people we don’t like. We will still need to think about others, and not just ourselves. In fact, as the old ways disappear, we humans will need to find an entirely new way to be neighbors.”
How can we be neighbors in the biblical sense? We need to burst our bubbles. We need to welcome a diversity of voices into our conversations and then we need to listen to them, not just use them as a foil for debate. I don’t necessarily want to hear what they have to say, but in the interest of being a good neighbor, I need to hear what they have to say. It’s the only way I can ensure I’m not falling prey to the tyranny of the techno-bubble. Our modes of connection will continue to change, but our purposes for connecting – building relationships, seeking peace, sharing love – shouldn’t. May we have the grace, the courage, and the foresight to let God burst our bubbles by forcing us to interact with those around us. In doing so, we may find that we’ve been neglecting our neighbors without even knowing it.