[The following question did not come through the internet but in a conversation on a train. I reconstructed it in my own words.]
…I saw a young man yesterday on this train who was enclosed in earphones and, from the distant look on his face he seemed to be living in a separate world. With a slight shock I realised that I was using earphones too, smaller than his but equally separating me from the other people on the train. Like many people today I'm above my head with electronic gadgets, but the look on that young man’s face has stayed with me. Today I've kept asking myself what is the human toll of all this gadgetry. Are all these means of communication in fact separating people from one another?
It is very paradoxical when the means of communications actually put people out of communication, temporarily, with those nearest them. Even the first clumsy telephone in 1876 did this, but modern mobile phones enable you to be ‘out’, no matter where you are or what the time. When mobiles first became popular I was walking along a street in Cork one day and saw a young couple walking ahead of me, holding hands. She was using her mobile. But her telephone conversation continued for the entire length of the street, and the next street, and the next…. I thought: this must be a new form of loneliness. You can be holding hands with your girlfriend but she is not there. The philosopher Bertrand Russell, who died in 1970 and therefore never knew our modern mobile phones, liked the idea of being able to be ‘out’ to his neighbours. He wrote: "The idea that one should know one's immediate neighbours has died out in large centres of population, but still lingers in small towns and in the country. It has become a foolish idea, since there is no need to be dependent upon immediate neighbours for society. More and more it becomes possible to choose our companions on account of congeniality rather than on account of mere propinquity."
What has changed since 1970 is that this development has penetrated to the smallest village and the remotest farm.
Still, we get reminders from time to time that a virtual community can never fully replace a real one. The people on your SIM card cannot spot the smoke from your upstairs window, or the prowlers around the back, or the suspicious vehicle…. The word ‘neighbour’ comes from ‘nigh’, meaning near, and ‘boor’, meaning a farmer. So your neighbour is ‘the farmer who lives near you.’ (The word ‘boor’ is related to the German word ‘Bauer’, which still means just a farmer.) It’s not surprising that Russell, who lived in the splendid isolation of Richmond Park, London, found it “a foolish idea.” But most people are happy to have near neighbours. It provides variety, for one thing: your virtual community is made up of people who are of like mind with you, while your real neighbours may be bracingly different. You choose your friends, Chesterton said, but God chooses your neighbours.
All these devices – mobile phones, ipads and the rest – have their uses. You have to be fair: mobile phones have saved lives. The problem, as with everything, is when we are no longer in charge of them, but they are in charge of us. It seems to be quite like any other addiction. If we have a defective sense of our own life we will be very vulnerable to this kind of addiction. We all have to experience solitude at times, and to welcome it – otherwise we will have no depth. But these electronic devices enable us to avoid solitude completely and to live in a world of total distraction.
Buddhists call this state “the realm of the hungry ghosts.” These are represented as having enormous bellies and very narrow throats, so they remain forever hungry and dissatisfied. The image is a shocking one, and could be very therapeutic!
Why the frenzy to communicate? It may be because deep down we feel totally isolated and we can't leave that wound alone – like someone who keeps picking at a scab. On the train, that day, I happened to be reading David Lodge’s Ginger You’re Barmy, his novel (almost a memoir) of his two years of National Service in the British Army. After the stranger had left I picked it up again and read the passage where he laid out what the army had taught him: “There was no such thing as society: just a collection of little self-contained boxes, roped untidily together and set adrift to float aimlessly in the waters of time, the occupants of each box convinced that theirs was the most important box, heedless of the claims of the rest.”
“There is no such thing as society” is a phrase with echoes: echoes of Margaret Thatcher, who quoted it from her favourite political philosopher, Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679). Homo homini lupus, he wrote: every human being is a wolf to every other. Our wounds go deep and there will always be people who try to make them deeper. The Word that holds us together – the Logos – is being fractured and trampled underfoot. Is it any wonder that we want to hear friendly voices?