Divided presence

Posted Feb 06, 2017 | New Media Project

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By Nick Buck

It may seem that the New Media Project has been, should I say, overly sanguine about the proliferation of new forms of technology and communication. That is at least in part because we don’t see a reason to think new media is, in itself, a problem. Yet we’ve always insisted on approaching it critically, which is another way of saying that it isn’t innocent. However, I want to reflect a little on what I do see to be potentially problematic about its use.

Speaking only for myself, my primary concern about new media isn’t really about the amount of its use or the time spent using it. Legitimate concerns can emerge there, but none do immediately for me. Rather, I’m generally uneasy about the way in which emerging (and in particular portable) technologies imbue us with a compulsion to do something while we’re already doing something else. This isn’t quite multitasking, as the thing I’m talking about isn’t about productivity, although it is related. It’s less intentional than that. A number of people have written persuasively about this in terms of distraction, etc., and I think they’re on to something.

However, this concern takes particular shape when turning to new media, and especially its social forms. In this context, such technologies very often compel us to be with a person (or groups of people, or otherwise social situations/environments) while we’re already with someone else.

My recent reflections on presence and new media contribute something to this. As I wrote, we experience one another’s being with in terms of a person’s presence. Being with another person has less to do with proximity and more with the character of one’s active relating. Indeed, we all know what it's like to feel lonely in a crowded room.

Being with, or being present to, is essentially meaningful, attentive relating. As such, it is demanding on those of us who labor under the conditions of finitude. Our being is limited and can be exhausted. We have only so much presence to give, only so many to whom we can be present.

Framed in this way, the concern I have about new media isn’t immediately about productivity and mental resources but presence. It’s about the limits of our relational capacity. Our presence can be divided, and I fear that uncritical, abundant use of new media likely does precisely that.

Such a concern is especially pertinent for those in ministry whose vocation it is, in many ways, to be present. The sacrament of presence isn’t only found in the Eucharist; it’s a matter of holy calling. But unlike the infinite God, our presence has limits.

One of the things that makes this so difficult to adjust for is the way in which forms of social media pull on us. The research on this tends to frame the issue in terms of productivity and efficiency, but we do well to sit long with its relational implications. Digital media can extend our presence – our meaningful, attentive relating – but it also threatens to divide it. This Janus-faced nature is exactly the promise of new media and its underside, both of which deserve theological attention.

Nick Buck is the associate director of the New Media Project.

The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact newmediaproject@cts.edu.

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