“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
-Blaise Pascal, Pensées
I wonder what Pascal would have thought about Twitter. His Pensées or “thoughts,” many of which are in fact short enough to be tweets (140 characters maximum) were his religious and philosophical musings about the meaning of life and religion, a first draft of what was to become his own apologetic on the Christian faith. He died in 1662, seven years before they were published and printed on a press, using a process that had not changed much in the more than 200 years since Gutenberg invented the movable type printing.
Today they might have been only a drop in the ocean of the Information Age. I frequently muse to myself and others about our future in the age of the internet, social media and digital information.
I found out recently that Twitter has over 1 billion registered users worldwide, about 230 million of which are active. Approximately 500 million tweets are made per day; averaging 5,700 per second. Over 300 billion have been made since the first tweet was sent in March of 2006. Katy Perry, Justin Beiber, Lady Gaga and President Barack Obama all have more than 40 million followers; the top 25, with the exception of the President and YouTube, Instagram and Twitter itself, are all entertainers.
I don’t use twitter, but I am occasionally active on Facebook, though that tends to come in waves or bunches. I still can’t get over the idea that it feels like I’m only on it because I’m bored. It reminds me of its very early days—maybe 7 years ago—back when high school students still weren’t allowed to have Facebook pages—and they were using Myspace. My then-teenage children and some friends were sitting on our front porch, discussing whether it had any merits or virtues. One of the neighbor kids, probably 16, said—and I’ll never forget this—“yeah, I come home after school and go online right away. I’m looking to see who else doesn’t have a life.”
How times have changed. Now, not being on social media is almost akin to not having an existence. Not only are virtually all teens on some form of social media, but they are watching it all the time, in school or elsewhere. It pervades their existence. Even baby boomers, who came into social media in its second wave, have adopted it wholeheartedly. All this has happened rapidly and with minimal discernment as individuals, families and faith communities. The culture “happened to us” and we dived right in.
But to me the question still nags—do those people (including me) have a life? For publishing colleagues, I might as well not exist—if I don’t tweet.
My response, and what I am about to say is ironic given that my vocation includes working in publishing and media, is that I don’t, because there’s just too much information to process already. Theologian Walter Brueggemann said,
Our lives are occupied territory
Occupied by a cacophony of voices
And the din overwhelms us.
Often my hesitation to create more content (such as this blog posting) is that I hesitate to add to that “din.” Given my own sense of being overwhelmed, I also wonder if others are able to process, or ponder, what they “consume” each day through various media.
Not only are we deluged with information—or with ways of sharing it with each other—we’re having a harder and harder time just sitting “quietly in a room alone.” Along with our overdoses of screens and media, we are losing solitude, quiet and deep thought. Sitting quietly, using that time to read, think, meditate and pray, may be a dying faith discipline. How will we train and practice this discipline in an always-connected age?
Further, the digital age, which depends on electronic devices that become obsolete before they outlive their usefulness, also breeds a lack of a sense of permanence. This is somewhat paradoxical, given the fact that social media is at the same time so hard to delete.
One final thought, or pensée: As the amount of information available to us becomes virtually unlimited, it’s becoming less and less meaningful. Facebook alone stores 300 “petabytes” of information. A petabyte is one quadrillion bytes, a number so large as to be nearly inconceivable and thus, meaningless—except to marketers, who are able to measure, sort and process our digital lives into algorithms that target our personal consumption. In the midst of updating our Facebook status, are we able to ponder all the consequences of our digital age? In the future, how will we know what is most important to give our attention to? Will we be able sift through the din to see or hear what we need most? As people of faith, will we be able to discern as a community—not just as individuals—the most important questions confronting us? Or will we just sit back and wait to react to the latest tweet or status update?