Believing that morality is nothing more than a human construct, Jean Paul Sartre in his book Existentialism and Human Emotions, places emphasis on the importance of being self-actualized – which is predicated on the idea that the act of choosing is of paramount value. Such a view finds no moral significance between the young man who assists an old lady across the street, and the one who pushes her into traffic – the only important thing is that they make their choice.
But within his existential framework Sartre offers this caveat – the choice of an individual must always be made with the full awareness of its impact on the collective. So even Sartre, given his atheistic relativism, understood that the identity of self is inextricably linked to its sense of community. This, of course, has long been an axiom of anthropology . . . and theology – that as the individuals shape the culture, the culture in turn, shapes the individuals. It is an unavoidable symbiosis.
Technological advancements have had a profound effect on how our sense of community has changed — making the world smaller, by making travel faster, and multiplying for us various avenues of communication. My father was born at a time when radio was the principle window on the world, until television came along and largely displaced the impact of radio. In the same way, television was my baseline context – so for me the impact of personal computers wouldn’t become a factor until after I was married. Like my father, I had enough time to anthropologically adjust to the curve of technology’s influence on culture, and in turn its influence on me – shifting at a pace that could be assimilated and adjusted to reasonably.
But my children inherit quite a different context. For my oldest son, Ryan the world begins with a PC as a prominent fixture of the home, but barely into his adulthood, his brother Benjamin, my youngest, inherits a world where computers are in everyone’s pocket. So the time for assimilation and adjustment to the rapidly shifting cultural influences of technology has collapsed. Where there was once a generational time span to respond, it now occurs within a single generation. At this pace technology is beginning to outstrip our ability to anthropologically absorb its impact.
Therefore, it is my suspicion that this has led to a fragmented understanding of community, which in turn, has led to an ambiguous sense of self. In many ways our sense of self has been virtualized – as we are glued to back-lit screens. Rooms full of people texting one another, present together yet isolated, allowing a reductive superficiality to replace real human contact. On social media, we’ve become increasingly uninhibited, but not as a means of genuine vulnerability, but as a self-possessed spectacle, hiding behind our calculated anonymity, spoiling for a fight.
My point here isn’t to denounce technology – my point is that we have, in many ways, become culturally adrift in very dark waters. The technological influence on how we understand our place in the world is pervasive . . . and we don’t even know to what extent — our mores and ethics are beginning to reflect our disembodied sense of self. We seem so eager to carelessly pitch out many of our long established anthropological moorings without a moments pause — as we begin to inhabit Sartre’s existential relativism . . . where what’s real is diminished daily.
As a follower of Christ, all of this is so antithetical to the sense of self and community that is native to my faith confession. Because for the Christian, imago dei is the primer code for calibrating our comprehension of reality, and not merely as a religious abstraction. But in such a disembodiment of the self, I fear there is a wholesale form of forgetting taking place, where the irreducible value of human life is being eroded by all of these vain attempts to deconstruct reality and remake it in our own image. Invariably this leads to disillusionment and despair — because either we embrace existence, as created by God, or we disappear back into the non-existence from which he spoke us out of to begin with . . .
It’s a disembodied emptiness — like a hole in the heart