Alienation: Technology & The Synod on the Family

The Patheos Catholic Channel is hosting a Symposium on the Family in light of the upcoming Extraordinary Synod on the Family in October and the recent release of the working document for the Synod.


Yesterday, I wrote about Tech Addiction as one of several technology- and media-related problems cited in working document for the upcoming Synod on the Family. Today I want to write about another issue they mention: alienation.

Alienation is part of addiction, but can also be found in individuals and families without addictive behaviors. Addiction works through stimulation. The addict begins with pleasure-seeking behavior, and ends in destructive dependence.

Technology adds two new factors to this stimulation: 1) it often stimulates an emotion or sensation by proxy, and 2) it is ubiquitous and instant.

Things we encounter in the virtual space are proxies for reality. Even a dialog with a good friend over email or Facebook is one step removed from a conversation on the phone, which is itself one step removed from a conversation in person.

We can’t automatically assume these removes are bad. There are people I either would not or could not communicate with in person or on the phone. Thus, I am drawn closer to them by communicating via social media, text, or email.

On the other hand, there are people who I should and could communicate with in person or on the phone, and yet I opt for email or social media. Why do I choose this distancing mechanism for communication?

There are several answers to that question.

We do it for convenience: It is easier for us to respond to messages at a time of our choosing. Talking to someone takes work. Sometimes, it requires an emotional investment. Often, we’re unwilling to put ourselves out for that.

We do it for brevity: One thing gained by this more efficient form of communication is also something lost. In gaining the brevity allowed by a text or email, we lose the more expansive dialog inherent in personal conversation. What we save in time we lose in a certain kind of quality.

We do it for control: Asynchronous communication allows each side to ponder their replies more carefully. We can create an answer that might not come to us in more immediate forms of communication. We can shape an image of ourselves as we want to be perceived, not necessarily as we are.

In person, people can be nervous about their appearance, speech, and the way they present themselves. With new forms of communication, the individual can present the best side of himself. There may be a falseness to this, as we craft a persona that is inaccessible to us in real-time encounters. But there is also freedom for those with social anxiety issues, poor self-esteem, and other personality traits that make live conversation challenging for some.

Conversely, these new forms allow an anonymity that encourages some to unleash an id that would otherwise be kept in check by social pressures. Even when the subjects are not anonymous, new media communication easily leads to a dehumanization of the other. People are not reflexively seen as humans on the other end of a two-way conversation, but as abstract entities.

We will always incline to respond with greater humanity to the individual in front of us that we will to some abstract idea of an individual a thousand miles away, being represented on screen by a picture of their cat.

Communication online mimics human conversation without fully capturing it.  Without the verbal and visual cues that are a natural part of human conversation, misunderstandings leading to anger and pain are commonplace, a now amount of emoticons can really rectify that. Texting, email, social media, and comboxes will always be pale imitations of conversation.

On the other hand, in their ideal state (N.B.!) some of these forms of communication can actually improve upon standard dialog. Slowing down the need for a response enables emotions to cool and reason to work through a point in contention.  That this ideal state is rare speaks to the evolving nature of the medium and the temperamental and emotional nature of much human interaction.

Alienation is also a product of the ubiquity of the technology. It has become inescapable.

Technology that alienates is not new in the home. Television already directs people to a single point rather that providing a point of communication with one another. Looked at this way, new media is almost an improvement, since it tends to reduce television-watching time and adds elements of interaction. A parent can text a child to stay in touch when a phone call is not possible, send her a link to an interesting article or website, or discover something new to do together.

Parents who leave children to play on their game consoles are missing an opportunity. Many games have splitscreen play modes that allow parent and child to play side by side, both competitively and cooperatively. Games do not need to be a point of alienation in the family. In fact they can be a point of communion. Certainly this was an essential part of the appeal of Nintendo’s Wii system.

The concern expressed in the Synod working document is that “television, smart phones and computers can be a real impediment to dialogue among family members, leading to a breakdown and alienation in relationships within a family, where communication depends more and more on technology.”

This is an image of the atomized home, with each person disappearing to their own electronic bubble, thus isolating individuals in the family.

Some of this is essential in modern life. I could not work without it. My children learn and play and create using many of the same tools singled out for criticism. My son is studying college-level biology this summer in an online course. My daughter is writing a book and painting on her iPad. These solitary moments are not necessarily an evil, any more than someone sitting alone sewing, reading, or studying would be.

The problem is that the atomization is spreading to more and more parts of ordinary life. The smartphones are at the dinner table. The time spent gaming or online is growing. The escape into a boundless electronic world of instant gratification and stimulation can mean a retreat from the comparatively mundane world of the family.

As this happens, family relationships can suffer. As with addiction, awareness of the problem and a conscious decision to do something about it is part of the solution. Families need to make choices and rules: no devices at the dinner table, digital-free time, family games or activities, and similar actions to carve out un-wired time.

If a piece technology does not serve the human–individual, family, community, and beyond–then it is destructive and should be avoided. Any technology, from the wheel to the mind-controlled artificial limb, must function for our benefit. Our family is a domestic church. If the technology we allow into this church profanes it, interferes with its mission (making saints), other is otherwise destructive, then we need reconsider our use of that technology, and whether or not it gives us more than it takes away from us.