Last week, I read an opinion piece in the New York Times by Jonathan Safran Foer titled “How Not to Be Alone.” In it, Foer discusses some of the ramifications of the recent developments in technology and how they have affected our ability to connect with others.
This article resonated with me on a lot of levels. I think Foer is completely accurate in his assessment that although technology is meant to bring people closer together and facilitate connections, it sometimes has the effect of giving us “diminished substitutes” in place of actual interactions. He writes that “[e]ach step ‘forward’” – whether that means phone calls over face-to-face conversations, voicemails over phone calls, or texting over voicemails – “has made it easier, just a little, to avoid the emotional work of being present, to convey information rather than humanity.”
While Foer isn’t necessarily writing for an audience concerned with interfaith dialogue and pluralism, I found this to be absolutely relevant to the subject. As face-to-face encounters become substituted for other informal, impersonal modes of interaction, it seems like it becomes so much easier to make someone the “other” (religious or otherwise) and consequently distance ourselves. It’s easy to do this when we have these “diminished substitutes” in place of actual conversations. Could all religious and ethical conflicts be resolved with more face-to-face interactions? Probably not, but I am convinced that a lot of discrimination and hate stems from ignorance, which could partially be curbed if we put down our phones and talked to our neighbors.
This isn’t to say that I am anti-technology; I may be one of the last people without a smartphone, but advancements in technology have definitely increased my quality of life. I love reading my Kindle on the bus. As an avid texter, I can communicate with friends near and far about day-to-day happenings in my life. I email my mom, who lives halfway across the world, daily, allowing us to keep in touch in a way that is not possible through letters. Technology has also drastically improved how ideas can spread – think of YouTube videos or TED Talks that have gone viral worldwide, or the social movements that may not have been possible without technology. In the context of interfaith work, we can now exchange ideas and have conversations with people in every corner of the world in a way that builds relationships and fosters beneficial, productive, and challenging conversations. State of Formation is just one example of how technology may actually facilitate, rather than hinder, interfaith work and religious leadership.
Foer admits that his “daily use of technological communication has been shaping [him] into someone more likely to forget others. The flow of water carves rock, a little bit at a time. And our personhood is carved, too, by the flow of our habits.” What will be our habits when it comes to the use of technology? How can technology be utilized to further pluralism, rather than as another tool of discrimination and segregation? I admit that I don’t have the answers, but I am hopeful that religious and interfaith leaders will engage in conversations about the best ways to reap the benefits of our technology-driven society.