Reformed Luddite Talks About Communication

In the wake of my recent treatise against Twitter in Relevant magazine, I’ve felt a little bit guilty. I’ve felt like I need to apologize to technology for being so hard on it, for assuming the worst about it always. I still and always will insist on critical analysis of new technologies, and I still believe that we should err on the side of skepticism rather than unthinking embrace, but I’ve come to realize this week that the technologies I often and have very publicly railed against (Facebook, Twitter, Bluetooth, etc) can and are being used for good things. God uses these things in spite of their creepy digital impersonality.

I’ve recognized that Facebook isn’t all bad. I’ve met some impressive, enjoyable people through Facebook and have (believe it or not) made existing friendships stronger in some cases.

I’ve realized that, on a depressing night when there is nothing but relationship trouble and regrets and waning resolution, getting a text message from a friend is a rollicking piece of grace.

I’ve discovered that, when e-mails are too distant and phone calls too invasive, g-chat often strikes the right balance. Sometimes the hour-long g-chats are the most enlightening and comforting, sometimes more so than face-to-face conversation, strange as that is for me to admit.

But I’ve also remembered that there is nothing better than a handwritten letter or note. Digital communication may be more immediate, but getting a letter in someone’s personal pen is really unrivaled.

But I think what I’m talking about here isn’t so much a discussion of technology or specific media forms as it is a reflection on the beauty of communication in general. No matter how it happens, it’s a miracle. Communication is a miracle. This is what I told my students when I taught communication theory at UCLA last year. It’s a miracle because it allows us to create meaning together. As James Carey would say: Communication is to share in the creation of a reality that we then live within and under.

I was required to teach James Carey (he’s a heavy hitter in Comm Theory), but I think a few times I went off-script and talked to them about Martin Buber and his book I and Thou, which is a deeply religious, mysterious book but has some application to communication theory I think. In it, Buber talks about the holiness of communication, about that possibility. There’s no way I can begin to summarize it here, but essentially Buber talks about how, in our communication with each other—that is, in the space between I and You—we experience a meaning that transcends either me or you but encompasses us both; it’s a miracle that exists only when shared, and lives only in the temporal act of communicating. It’s what gives us those strange, incomparable feelings of fulfillment when we feel like we are connecting with someone in a conversation.

Here’s a quote from I and Thou that I like, even if it is a bit abstract:

“Between you and it there is a reciprocity of giving: you say You to it and give yourself to it; it says You to you and gives itself to you. You cannot come to an understanding about it with others; you are lonely with it; but it teaches you to encounter others and to stand your ground in such encounters; and through the grace of its advents and the melancholy of its departures it leads you to that You in which the lines of relation, though parallel, intersect. It does not help you to survive; it only helps you to have intimations of eternity.”

I’m not sure exactly what all of that means, but it rings true. Communication isn’t easy, and doesn’t solve all of our problems… but it is a miracle, a blessing, and can open our eyes to the holy in ways that solitary experience surely cannot.

And if that communication occurs on Twitter and it happens to offer someone an intimation of eternity, well, who am I to say anything other than thanks be to God.