The Digital Deep Dive: What Are Its Effects?
Are there two realities?
During the last few years, I have gotten a strange feeling every time I walk around campus at Pacifica. It is a new feeling. It feels as if everyone else is in a different world. They are physically present, walking to class, and gathering books. There is noise, even laughter in the hallway. However, people do not seem to recognize or acknowledge me the same way they did only a few years ago. During presentations, they seem more absent, less present, and not like before. What is going on? Yes, I am older. That is part of it. Are people living in a different reality? They seem to be in a different world. Even their interaction with each other seems to have changed. The physical connection has been lost. People appear to have disappeared into another reality, a digital reality. I asked my students, “Are you lost or immersed in a digital world?”
Most of them answered, “Yes, and no.” Yes, they are engrossed in social media. However, there is a tipping point for them—it eventually becomes too much. They snap out of social media and crave physical connection. The digital deep dive makes them appreciate the real thing. The question is, at what cost? What is this deep dive doing to them? How is it shaping them?
There is no doubt that social media has positive outcomes. One young man told me, “Mr. Knight, before I was a gamer, I had no friends. Now, I have hundreds of friends. I talk to them all the time, and I am happy.” People can connect through social media. They can access more information and learn faster than before. The digital world results in increased efficiency.
However, has this digital immersion had a negative impact? Has it severed the physical community’s bonds? Has it depleted the mysterious connection that is made in person? Can we substitute real flesh and blood with digital connections and digital relationships? To my mind, the answer is no. For all its benefits, the digital deep dive comes at a price. Ultimately, the cost of digital connections is increased isolation and loneliness. Something extraordinary occurs when you can look at someone in the eye, when you can see more of their surroundings… It may be the difference between seeing a lion on a screen and seeing the same lion in person in the wild. There is no comparison. Do we want to see an image of Michelangelo’s Pietà or the real thing? Do we want to see live streams of the Amalfi coast or lie on its beaches? The answer is clear to me. Despite its many benefits, the digital world cannot replace seeing, feeling, touching, smelling, and getting to know the real thing.
A young lady said, “I never really saw my grandmother. She lives in Iowa. Now I know her, and I can talk to her.” She is right. The digital world has brought us excellent benefits.
The copy is not the original. God made us flesh and blood so we could be in both physical and spiritual relationships.
Of course, many students would say, “You just don’t get it! You are from a different generation.” In fact, some of my students asked me, “Which generation are you from?”
I answered, “I am a baby boomer.”
They laughed, turned to each other, and said, “Makes sense.” That made me smile. They did not dismiss me completely. However, it gave them some context. I am not a purist. I do not think we need to move away from the digital world. We need to understand its influence to make good decisions about its use and scope. We should not allow the digital world to displace the physical and the spiritual side of our nature.
Is the digital world making us more self-centered?
Everything is personalized, and it feels good. I like it when Alexa knows what I need and when I need it. I enjoy it when I get into my car, and my iPhone tells me it will take 15 minutes to get to work. Did I ask? Thanks to Siri for being so helpful and anticipating my needs before I even knew them. Alexa and Siri are my new best friends, my personal assistants, who cater to my needs. Scrolling through Instagram to see the exact bookshelf I want to buy or the perfect vacation I want to take is helpful. It saves so much time. I love my personalized playlist, my personal digital library, my personalized news feed, my personal everything. I am at the center, just the way I like it.
Again, is there a price for so much personalization? Just a question here. There are not many answers. Is the personalization of social media making us more narcissistic? Perhaps that is excessively harsh. Is it making us more self-centered? Maybe that is also too harsh. Is it making us more individualistic and breaking the communal bonds between us?
I think personalization might be doing just that. I find myself and my family paying far more attention to our own worlds, agendas, to-do lists, and needs than ever before. We are being encouraged to get more done and focus on “our” day. If someone asks me something about their world, it is no longer intuitive for me to respond. I need to shift gears. I usually have to say, “Hold on a second, let me get back to you.” It is as if the world around me, the world of others, is annoying me.
Go to the airport and watch what happens. Eighty percent of the people will be on their phones. No big deal, right? Well, not exactly. Did we miss out on a conversation with the person sitting just across from us? Are we annoyed by the person who talks to us when we are engrossed in essential issues? I know that I can be. I have tried to make it a habit to put my phone away, especially in settings like airports, to see if I can connect with the stranger sitting next to me. It does not always happen. However, when it happens organically, not in a forced way, it is lovely and an excellent addition to my day. These things do not occur when I am 100 feet deep in the digital world. This kind of interaction happens in all sorts of settings: the grocery store, a restaurant, a game, or even the dinner table. Is it now weird to talk to others at length, talk to acquaintances or strangers, or talk at the dinner table? Sadly, talking is becoming strange.
Once more, in-person conversations with family members, intentional or scheduled meetings at the office, and happenstance conversations with strangers are all part of a good life. Long talks over a meal or a beer are healthy. We should not lose these habits. Let us fight to preserve these crucial aspects of our humanity and our souls.
Here is one final fear of mine: Can our brains, especially those of younger kids, handle all the information coming to us through digital devices? I am not a scientist, so I do not know the answer. However, I suspect that there is a breaking point. I am merely posing the question.
At the push of a button, we can have the world at our fingertips. We also have the world right in front of us, in person. How should we spend our time?