Thursday, September 27, 2007

More mulling

Tim made some really good comments in response to this morning's mullings that have got me thinking more about the issues he raised in his post last night.

Last summer I spent an afternoon with a group of friends and we had a long conversation about community. We split into two distinct groups. For those of us born and raised before the age of internet (I only got email about 15 years ago) community was about eating meals together, taking soup to a sick friend, lending a hand with a chore, spending an evening watching a movie.... For the group born more recently community was about finding a like minded group, usually on line, to talk with. The conversation became quite heated as they argued that it wasn't safe, nor desirable, to get to know your neighbours.

Part of the issue was their perception of safety and vulnerability which is a whole issue in itself. But part of it was what Tim is raising and that is the tendency to disembodied or 'gnostic' relationships. I think he is right that we are tempted to find in internet 'community' relationships where we get none of the hassles, or the joys, of relating to real live in the flesh people. I don't think it is a coincidence that none of the younger folks in our conversation were involved in a church or community organization where they would be forced to work together with people very different than themselves. I too think that this is really problematic.

I guess my point in raising Paul and 84 Charing Cross Road was to say that it is possible to develop relationships of significance only through written form. But I certainly agree that in those relationships is also a longing for physical presence. Helen laments that because of circumstances she is unable to make it to London to meet Frank in the flesh before he dies. And Paul had visited these churches he would later correspond with. And I look forward to meeting Tim one day too :-)

Part of the issue Tim is raising relates I think to the issues of vulnerability and safety that my friends raised. Part of the advantage they see in relating through the internet is that they think that it is safer. They can conceal their identity, they can choose what they reveal of themselves to others, they can conceal themselves if things get creepy. We tried to argue that it makes you safer when you know your neighbours (never mind enriching your life in so many ways) but they didn't buy it.

What astounds me now that I'm on facebook and reading blogs is how often people don't seem to worry about safety (emotional, financial, physical) when they reveal all sorts of things on line. And as Tim points out people are often not very civil on line. One of the older participants in our conversation last summer made the point that people have a really odd inverted sense of 'privacy' when they don't want their neighbour to have their phone number but they talk about their sex lives on the internet.

I have discovered all sorts of interesting books, music, films, art by reading blogs. And I've 'met' some interesting people. I've read some interesting reflections and I have gotten some great ideas for my ministry. But I'm mindful of my friend who said she decided she should start spending more time with her 'in the flesh' family and less time on line with her virtual community.

Btw, our spring lecture series put on by the chaplaincy/university/college and public library this year will be on friendship and I hope one of the talks will be on virtual friendships. Stay tuned for more details.


Tim Chesterton said...

Erin, we are truly on the same page on this one.

By the way, I forgot to answer your question about whether letters are different from the internet. I think they are - especially handwritten ones. They take longer to write, and you have to walk down to the post office and mail them, and I think that just gives an element of deliberation to the letterwriting act which isn't present with sending an email or a comment on a blog.

About six years ago a very good friend of mine died. I emailed a few friends to let them know that I was grieving a bit and might not be myself for a while. A few days later a handwritten letter arrived from my good friend Jan in England, who I have known since high school days. Jan and I often exchange emails, but she said 'This seemed far too important for an email' I treasure that handwritten letter from an old friend at the right time. I have it still. I doubt if I would have kept an email.

Erin said...

Tim, I agree about the handwritten nature of letters versus emails. One of my best friends sends me long emails despite the fact that we live in the same city but will also send long letters. I love them - and I phone her when I receive them to say so :-)
At the same time I have a problem getting a written letter in to an envelope and a stamp on the envelope and the whole thing to the post office so email has been my salvation. But incentive helps. I lived in Germany for a year before email and I sent almost a letter a day and received a letter about every second day. Then it was a priority. And I still have all those letters somewhere.

Erin said...

And aren't those kind of friends more precious than rubies - the ones who get that a hand written note would mean more.

sameo416 said...

Thanks to Tim for the link here.

I wonder if one of the challenges for those of us who remember when time was BC (before computers), is to conceive of an entirely new mode of communication & community. We easily look at the written word as more valuable than a hasty email. Likewise, I can't get my head around e-books; there is just something important about holding a bound bundle of paper. It makes the reading feel deeper.

Is there now a generation that has not been conditioned into that perspective of things paper? My 12-year-old daughter looks at me like I'm insane when I talk of B&W TV's...the same way I looked at my dad when he told me about radio shows and no TV.

Perhaps our challenge is to anticipate what is developing and, like St. Paul, to figure out how to apply the gospel through it. Is the 'unknown god' of this era Facebook?

Marshall McLuhan said that modern communications technology would change the world. What would he say today?

Sarah said...

This is an interesting conversation. For me, I think I use the internet so much just because it's easy. Like, I can email or message people while doing a whole bunch of other things at the same time. Basically, you don't have to really focus your attention on the other person. I know I feel like I 'don't have time' to go through the hassle of writing people letters (even though my apartment is literaly right on top of the post office). I feel a bit 'convicted' reading these posts. My one grandmother (not the one you've met, Erin) would like it if I wrote to here, I am sure. I have said that if she got a computer I could email her every day, but I don't think that is going to happen. I'm teaching a computers class right now and I know how intimidating computers can seem if you are not used to them. So I'm thinking, why do I have the time to comment on someone's blog but not send a handwritten letter to my grandma??? I think I'll go write her one right now, before I get 'busy' doing something else ... thanks guys for the good discussion.

Erin said...

This has been really thought provoking for me too.
Sameo416, I can't do the ebook thing either and I always think of Jean Luc Picard on Star Trek NG collecting books because there was something about holding them he liked. I think McLuhan was telling us that the medium changes the message and if he is right then there are all sorts of implications to our using computers instead of writing - or as Tim started by saying, relating to internet friends instead of real flesh and blood people.

Have to think more about this...but have to go to the college now.
Sarah, congratulations on writing your grandma! I regret not doing more of that to my grandmas before they died. And you are right about the intimidation factor. I have friends for whom just turning on a computer is a big deal. I'm not like some of the students I know who have facebook notifications sent to their cell phones which then beep waking them up in the middle of the night so that they can answer a message...but I do love the internet.

Tim Chesterton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Erin said...

I've been thinking about it some more and I think part of what is so lovely about receiving a handwritten piece over an email is the handwriting. I may recognize the voice of a friend in their email but I'm going to recognize their handwriting in a different way and that communicates something of who they are. That evokes memories of all the other times they've written - and maybe memories of watching them write.

Pam said...

Hi Erin

I'm reading this post and comments after reading the quote on love you posted later by CS Lewis.

I see internet "friendships" like hobbies. We can wrap them up and put them away like we do a knitting project or unfinished jigsaw puzzle. It isn't until there are "real" commitments to our friends that we become truly entangled and vulnerable.

One of my best internet friends mentored me with my breeding program for three years before either one of us had any more of a commitment than throughtful emails. Then I rescued one of her cats from a bad situation nearby; he was near death. Suddenly our relationship was real. We both loved Mickey.

Now two of her cats live with me, I go to visit her "for real" once a year, and picking up the phone is almost as easy as sending an email. I think -- no, I know -- we are real friends now. I mentor her and she mentors me... and its not all about cats. Oh, Mickey recovered after four months of TLC and who knows how many phone calls to his breeder/owner. He even fathered a litter for me.

Real friendship, real love, involves complications that can't be logged off or tucked away in a cupboard. While sending a handwritten note might not be an entanglement, it is an extra effort and it does provide something to hold onto.