“Disarmed the Thunder’s Fires” (photo: ZedZaP/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
As we approach Passover, I am reminded once again about the imperative of embracing the stranger, of diversity, as a foundation not only of a healthy democracy, but of our personal well being. Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, delivered this message when he reminded us that during Passover we remember that we were once strangers in the land of Egypt. As Sacks says, “The sense that we are enlarged by the people who are different than us, that we are not threatened by them, needs cultivating. This would lead us to see that 21st century as full of blessing and not fear.”
There is a conundrum buried in this idea. Communication technology has been the driving force of change in the 21st century, the source of much of our contemporary blessings and fears. Thanks to technology, the world has shrunk rapidly. One needs look no further than the events unfolding in the Middle East to understand the power of technology to connect and inspire. At the same time, technology mediates so much of our communication, raising the question, “Can we truly learn to love the stranger if we meet them on Facebook?”
There are those who believe that social media is expanding the diversity of our networks, exposing us to others in new and powerful ways. A recent Pew poll indicates that Internet users have more diverse social networks than non-Internet users and are more likely to join groups, both online and offline.
There is some indication that those who join online groups are also more engaged in their local communities. Keith Hampton at the Annenberg School argues that social media offers new pathways to diversity through what he terms “pervasive awareness.” Pervasive awareness offers the continual, asynchronous exposure to many aspects of our online friends’ interests and activities, giving us a broader understanding of those we are connected to and uncovering greater diversity in our existing relationships.
There are others who fear that, as we spend increasing amounts of time in tightly constructed worlds of our “friends” and pursue news and information based on our personal interests, we are constricting diversity by living in echo chambers that continually recirculate our existing beliefs. This is what Nicholas Negroponte termed the “Daily Me.” It is not just our conscious choices but personalization tools built into technologies that are exacerbating this tendency.
Eli Pariser, the first executive director of MoveOn.org, made a concerted effort to follow people online whose views differed from his own. He noticed that over time those voices started to disappear. Facebook and Google were curating the information he saw based on the “preferences” indicated by his clickstream. Pariser commented that the web “shows us what it thinks we need to see, but not what we should see.”
Beyond the debate about whether or not social media is exposing us to a greater diversity of “strangers” is the deeper question about the nature of the self we reveal in this medium. Sherry Turkle, in her recent book Alone Together, shares the story of Brad, a teenager who has chosen to give up Facebook. Turkle writes:
“In a profile, there is no room for error. You are reduced to a series of right and wrong choices. ‘Online life,’ Brad says, ‘is about premeditation.’ He sums up his discontents with an old-fashioned word: online life inhibits ‘authenticity’. He wants to experience people directly. When he reads what someone says about themselves on Facebook, he feels he is an audience to their performance of cool.”
As Rabbi Sacks wisely reminds us, it is only when I am most uniquely myself that I can “contribute something unique to the heritage of humankind.” The knowledge and expression of our most unique selves requires a commitment to authenticity, to knowing who we are in the most profound sense. This is hard work, even among friends. But it is when we encounter the other in their unique authenticity that we are enlarged. This is when the power of what Rabbi Sacks calls the “dignity of difference” is unleashed.
Social media and communications technology can offer maps that show the way toward the other, clues about who they are and some of what they experience. But we cannot allow ourselves to be lulled into confusing the maps with the reality. We must remain vigilant in our pursuit of embodied encounters that allow us to look into the eyes of the other and receive them deeply.
May we not, this Passover, forget that slavery can take many forms. One of the most insidious is slavery to the belief that technological progress releases us from the hard work of tikkun olam, of healing the world through our own unique and authentic humanity.
Jennifer Cobb is a business consultant specializing in marketing and strategy for public and private sector organizations. She has a degree in ethics from Union Theological Seminary and is the author of Cybergrace: The Search for God in the Digital World. She lives in Berkeley, California and blogs regularly at The Spruce Blog.
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