The newness of new media, for me, does not come down to real vs. virtual connection but to the digital, hyperlinked reality that is quickly pervading the world.
In 2000 and 2001, I spent two summers traveling around Romania working on a documentary project. If I couldn’t find reliable bus transportation, which was often a problem, I would hitchhike. Everyone in Romania hitchhiked. Not everyone owned a car, and by pitching in a few leu for gas, it was a great way to get somewhere cheap.
Occasionally my drivers would have to make stops along the way—for gas, food, or to run the errands that were part of their intended trips. On one of my early hitchhiking forays, my driver, a 30-something man name Iuliu, stopped at a nondescript ramshackle building. I thought it might be a store or maybe even someone’s home, so I prepared to grab my book and wait in the car while he did his business. Iuliu didn’t speak too much English, but he pointed at me, the shack, and said in a heavy accent, “e-mail?”
The building that looked like it couldn’t possibly contain a working toilet (it didn’t!) turned out to be an internet club. Eight computers unceremoniously teetering on old plastic tables were hooked up to high-speed cable lines, offering the long line of patrons patiently waiting against the dirty plaster walls access to email, Google, and for the younger set, online gaming. It cost very little, even by Romanian standards, to log on for an hour. Iuliu and I eventually sat down next to each other sharing the strange quiet bond of two people comfortably immersed in our separate digital worlds.
I am not so worried about living “virtual” lives or escaping to “virtual” realities. There is nothing particularly less embodied about reading online than reading in print, reading email than reading long letters. Our nostalgia for older forms of materiality can prevent us from seeing and feeling the materiality of the digital age. My elbows and wrists, for instance, assume a very particular posture when I sit down at my desktop keyboard verses my laptop; I have come to naturalize the smooth, simple heft of my Kindle. I might prefer the musty smell of an old book, and I probably always will want to own some things in print, but digital is not non-material. It is differently material.
But neither do I want to say that the digital revolution is just a tool to be used for good or evil without any meaning on its own. The digital revolution is remaking not just what we think but how we think. I am far more interested in what it says about the humans we are becoming, on a neurological and physiological level, than harping on a digital/virtual vs. non-digital/real divide. The digitization of the world means access to more information than human beings have ever imagined existed before. It means connecting that information via hyperlinks, absorbing that info through Wiki Leaks, and receiving that info through hierarchicalized Google searches (which are strongly dictated by the dollars that bid for highest place in a search result). And then, of course, there is the creation of our own personalized, digital information-sharing in Facebook, Twitter, You Tube, and blog sites.
Iuliu and I could assume very little common ground in our life experiences, though had we been able to talk at real length, we might have found more to unite us than we expected. What does it mean that we can assume the same experience organizing our world in digital terms? Kathryn Reklis, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is the Executive Director of the Institute for Art, Religion, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary, where she also serves as the outgoing Director of Theological Initiatives. 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 email@example.com.