Unplugging and its Discontents

The New Yorker website just published a provocative piece called “The Pointlessness of Unplugging.” I’m ambivalent about some of the author’s arguments, though I’m totally in agreement with its final takeaway: “If it takes unplugging to learn how better to live plugged in, so be it. But let’s not mistake such experiments in asceticism for a sustainable way of life. For most of us, the modern world is full of gadgets and electronics, and we’d do better to reflect on how we can live there than to pretend we can live elsewhere.”

Perhaps of most interest to the readers of this blog, however, is the author’s citation of Pope Emeritus Benedict’s thoughts about the relationship between online communication and our authentic selves:

I was struck last year when Pope Benedict XVI, after he started tweeting, delivered a message on social networks. “The exchange of information can become true communication, links ripen into friends, and connections facilitate communion,” the Pope said. He added that, with effort, “it is not only ideas and information that are shared but, ultimately, our very selves.” Perhaps most surprisingly, the Pope argued, “The digital environment is not a parallel or purely virtual world but is part of the daily experience of many people, especially the young.”

I think the most important point of the Pope’s address is his claim (referenced but not quoted in the New Yorker piece) that those involved in social media must “make an effort to be authentic.” Really making ourselves available to others is not simply about physical presence: we can be physically present but still be miles away emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. The Pope seems to be suggesting that the opposite may also be true: we can be hundreds of miles away from one another but still bear witness to others through our emotional, mental, and spiritual presence.