Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Narrowness of the Internet

It is not fashionable to say much nowadays of the advantage of the small community. We are told that we must go in for large empires and large ideas. There is one advantage, however, in the small state, the city, or the village. The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world.

He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery.

There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing which is really narrow is the clique. The men of the clan live together because they all wear the same tartan or are all descended from the same sacred cow; but it in their souls, by the diverse luck of things, there will always be more colors than in any tartan. But the men of the clique live together because they have the same kind of soul, and their narrowness is a narrowness of spiritual coherence and contentment, like that which exists in hell.

A big society exists in order to form cliques. A big society is a society for the promotion of narrowness. It is a machinery for the purpose of guarding the solitary and sensitive individual from all experience of the bitter and bracing human compromises. It is, in the most literal sense of the word, a society for the prevention of Christian knowledge.
GK Chesterton, Heretics

Reflection – This entire essay, entitled “On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family” is so insightful, prescient and at the same time uproariously funny that I will stay with it for a couple days after this—yet another essay well worth the price of the book.

Chesterton anticipates here some of the more unsavory and unwholesome effects of the Internet. The Internet is, of course, just about the biggest society ever devised, the most extensive and varied ‘city’ in human history. And it is well known, well observed, and a very serious problem indeed that the Internet which is supposed to connect us all together into one big human family instead at least tends to be the greatest clique generator possible.

We have all seen (in fact, it’s become rather trite and tiresome to point it out) the phenomenon of people withdrawing from their families and immediate environments into the digital world – the whole spectacle of people gathered around a dinner table or some other social setting all staring at their smart phones, abstracted and ‘alone together’, in the words of Sherry Turkle.

And of course, people can indeed spend their time on the Internet talking with people who are completely different than them, who share absolutely different views on life, different temperaments, different basic attitudes and approaches to things… but they don’t, mostly. People tend to group together on-line with those who think like them, talk like them, laugh at the same jokes, get the same references, use the same shorthand… and it all tends towards precisely the narrowing of vision, the narrowing of human knowledge and breadth of experience that GKC describes here.

Some would object here, I suppose, that I am a fine one to talk, as I after all joined a Catholic religious community 25 years ago and have in consequence lived my life among people who share the same beliefs and essential world view as myself. These are people who have never been to Madonna House. We may all be Catholics, and indeed we do have the same religious beliefs… but that’s about it, ‘having things in common-wise’!

Without getting into inappropriate on-line sharing (I always assure my MH brothers and sisters that just because I’ve decided to put myself on-line by blogging, they haven’t, and I respect their privacy, and so don’t tend to blog about MH too much), we are just about the most diverse and wildly divergent group of people, and a good deal of our community life is well described as the ‘experience of the bitter and bracing human compromises’ that is the lot of all who bind themselves to a small community like a family or a village.

The fact is, it is the constant struggle and effort to understand, relate to, and get along with the people who happen to be in the immediate vicinity that challenges and broadens a person, far more than flying around into various digital cliques and clubs where everyone either thinks just like you, or if they don’t and you get offended, a click of the mouse whisks you away.

You can’t click the mouse to get rid of your snarky next door neighbor, your obtuse cousin, your infuriatingly narrow minded brother, or your fussy foolish niece. You have to just deal with them, as they are dealing with you, and there is nothing more salutary and wholesome than to have to do just that together. Alas, more and more nowadays the smart phones come out, everyone retreats back to the digital cliques, and the rich possibilities of growth and tempering recede from us. It’s a serious problem, and will have serious consequences if it is not recognized and addressed, as some of us have tried to do.

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