Community in an electronic age

Two SMS messages—one sad, the other joyful—captured for me the power and problems of communication in an electronic age. I received the first message a few years ago on a misty winter’s morning on the shore of Lake Geneva. ‘Gran has passed away peacefully. Lots of love, Mum and Dad.’ The other was on my phone when I awoke in London in February this year. It was from my wife: ‘I’m pregnant!’

I was very glad to receive both messages; it is not the sort of news you want to wait for. I was glad to receive the word, but it was only half or less of the communication; there was no-one to offer the comforting touch, and no belly to kiss. In some ways there is nothing new about this experience. Letters from the fronts of wars told an earlier generation of the passing of their sons. What is new is how much of our communication is done at a distance and how rapidly we have embraced it.

The shift to communicating electronically is not simply about increased frequency, it’s about the mobility and variety of forms it can take—voice, fax, email, voicemail, SMS, mms and video. And the revolution is far from over. In its next phase, as voice recognition software improves, these different forms will merge. You can expect to have your email read out to you by your mobile phone and to record a message over the phone that will arrive as faxed text to a colleague.

Driving the communications revolution has been the plummeting cost of connecting. For example, a three-minute trans-atlantic call cost $US250 in 1930. By 1960 it had fallen to $50. Between 1970 and 1980 it went from the mid $40 range down to the $1 range and by the 1990s the cost could be expressed in cents.

There is no doubt that there has been enormous gain from this revolution. We are more connected that ever before. For Australians, cheap phone calls and flights have conquered the tyranny of distance.

In commercial terms the revolution is even more extraordinary. Cheaper, more sophisticated communications have changed the structure of organisations and markets by lowering the costs of co-ordinating commercial activity both nationally and internationally.

Organisations have become more focused as cheaper communications have made outsourcing more economic, and more global, as cheaper  communications, transport and information technology and falling tariffs have reduced the cost of distance.

Communications are changing the nature of organisations and markets, but what are they doing to the nature of communities and the ethical structure that secures them? We would do well to remember that the printing press was the precondition for the Reformation. Until people could possess their own version of the Bible in the vernacular it was impossible for religious authority to shift from the interpretation of the Church to the personal interpretation of the written word. When those shifts occurred, both the structure of society and nature of ethics changed irrevocably. Clearly the shifts created by electronic communication will be different to those of the Reformation, but perhaps no less important.

When people don’t meet physically, there is an erosion of trust. The place where this is most obvious is the internet. Many people in the West already spend significant amounts of time in this world. What is distinctive about these relationships is that they are disembodied—people never need to meet physically. Or, more commonly, physical meeting becomes a less and less significant part of the relationship.

What are the limits of disembodied relationships? Advocates of the internet will argue that relationships in the ‘online world’ can be as rich as those in the ‘offline world’. People certainly have significant relationships through the mediums of email and chat-rooms. Some of these conversations form, and many sustain, relationships in the ‘offline’ world. These possibilities for exchange will only grow as greater bandwidth enhances the quality of sight and sound.

However, what is missing when the body is absent is vulnerability. This is not to deny the psychological vulnerability that can be present in ‘online’ encounters. Nevertheless, in these encounters of the mind our physical self is never ‘on the line’. Vulnerability and trust are inextricably linked, which means that a world with declining physical vulnerability is also one  in which the landscape of trust is changing.

The same phenomenon, often in more subtle forms, is increasingly present in daily life. Notably, we use electronic communications to deliver the tough message. Partly that’s because it’s convenient. But we also find it easier to send an email with a message that we know will cause an upset rather than deal with someone face-to-face. Rarely do we see senior executives stand in front of a workforce they are about to retrench or restructure in wrenching ways and explain what they are doing.

As we become less accustomed to dealing with our vulnerability, our ability to trust is reduced and we start to withdraw from exposing ourselves to the physical presence of others. We become less comfortable dealing with conflict because conflict when we are physically present always has implicit within it a risk to our bodily selves. As we avoid conflict we become less able to deal with difference, dissent and plurality. We lose the levels of trust that enable us to speak openly and rely on others.

Speaking face-to-face not only grounds trust, it is also the basis of an ethics of empathy. An ethics of empathy is pivotal to sustaining community because it enables us to negotiate difference and conflict. It begins with sympathy—when we recognise our common humanity in someone else. In that moment we recognise our ethical obligations towards them.

Empathy goes one step further. Empathy is not just understanding what it would be like to be ourselves in someone else’s shoes, but also what it would be like to be them in their shoes.

In our transactional encounters through electronic media, both signs of our common humanity and of our diversity are obscured. When we deal remotely with people it is usually only their voice, the description of their circumstance and perhaps our memory of them that we encounter. At best video technology may give us an image.

What is missing are the numerous smaller clues, which we often don’t even realise we notice—from seeing the key ring on the desk that shows they drive the same car to the twitch under the eyelid that betrays stress. It is these observations that create the moments of sympathy that enable me to recognise something of myself in someone else. Hidden also are the differences that enable me to enter their situation empathetically. It is the sympathetic and empathetic connections that even enemies make when they meet. That is why peace negotiations are conducted face-to-face and why the world is often surprised at the compromises each side will make. It is why when people aren’t ready for peace they aren’t ready to meet.

As greater use of electronic communication reduces our opportunity to discover our connections and limits our opportunities to practise observational skills that found an ethics of empathy, are we making ourselves a people who aren’t ready for peace?

Trust and empathy are not the only parts of the ethical structure of community put under strain in the electronic age. Because mobile communications allow last-moment changes to our plans, the fabric of commitment is also unravelling.

Consider the generation aged roughly 18–30. Hugh McKay calls this the Options Generation because an organising feature of their lives is that they seek to do whatever will keep their options open. They resist commitments—marriage, mortgages, careers or social engagements. Technology is clearly not the direct cause of this lack of commitment, however the mobile phone is its great enabler. It frees people to make last-minute decisions—not to attend if a better option appears.

It is not simply that we can get hold of people more easily. Reflect on when you are excusing yourself from a meeting or appointment. The best option is to have someone else do it for you. Failing that, we opt for voicemail, email or phone—anything that eases the awkwardness of saying face-to-face that we can’t make it. I suspect the reason is that face-to-face makes it much harder to hide our real
reasons for opting out.

The mobile phone also permits the Options Generation to create remarkably ephemeral social events, such as raves and protests. While there is appeal in the spontaneity and serendipity of these events, they do not amount to community. Their very spontaneity means that these groupings do not endure. To such groups we only give what we can get back in the moment. Where a group doesn’t endure we won’t provide others with time or resources, as we realise that we can expect nothing in return. We won’t create what some call social capital—that reservoir of assistance that a community accumulates for the mutual benefit of its members.

Mobile phones also erode community in a more insidious way. With only a small percentage of mobile phone numbers listed in the white pages, the people who are accessible to us are increasingly only those we have chosen to exchange our mobile phone number with.

The mobile phone also plays an important role in reducing the time for reflection. One of the many wise pieces of advice from my father was the idea of ‘the bottom draw letter’—these are letters or notes written in anger, often in a healthy expression of frustration, which should never actually be sent. We need sustained moments to pause and reflect.

Our moments for reflection are rapidly disappearing. Partly because we are working longer and harder than ever before. Between 1964 and 1984 the percentage of the Australian workforce working more than 49 hours a week was constant at about 15 per cent. Since then it has been on an upward trajectory and now stands at over 20 per cent. Australian labour productivity grew at 13 per cent per year between 1980 and 1989. In the following ten years it grew at an average of 24 per cent a year.

One of the great enablers of this increased productivity has been communications technology, but it has come at a price. Emails and voicemails mean that there are always messages to be answered, and we feel an increasing compulsion to check and respond. Under this sort of pressure our very ability to pick up and respond to these messages anywhere and anytime means that we do. When I saw recently that British Airways is introducing onboard in-seat email connections I despaired—one of the last sanctuaries from accessibility, where you genuinely get space to reflect and where I have some of my fresher thoughts, is about to be invaded.

This reduction of time to reflect is a problem for the ethical structure of community in a number of ways.

First, the immediacy of responses means we have no time for ‘second thoughts’. These ‘second thoughts’ are critical because they are often about the wider effects of our decisions. When we suddenly set a demanding deadline for a piece of work, for example, do we reflect on how that will affect the commitments of people to their families?

Second, when we are constantly caught in what Harvard Professor Ron Heiftz calls the ‘dance’ and never have the opportunity to get on the dance hall ‘balcony’, we don’t see the larger patterns. If you listen to stories of oil and mining companies caught out by human rights protesters you will find that many were so busy just running their business that they weren’t seeing the patterns of social concern shifting.

Third, more and more of our communications are about co-ordinating activity rather than about letting someone else know who you really are. In the attics of the future I don’t think we will find many bundles of emails tied with a ribbon because they are the treasured memories of a life. They don’t carry the marks of the journey they have taken—no elephant stamp from India, no black postmark from a heavy-handed postmaster—and they don’t provide a physical link to the person—no sense that this paper was once in one’s lover’s hands, no spidery writing that can only really be deciphered because you know the person well. Communication, rather than bringing us closer, making us more connected, will make us more distant.

If electronic communication risks eroding trust, empathy, commitment and reflection, how are we to respond? We can no more end email than we could have stopped the printing press.

Awareness of the risks is a good start because it allows us to make the thousand small choices that will help retain the balance. It allows us to recognise that it matters to turn up in the call centre or on the factory floor if we are a senior executive, to choose to deliver a difficult message in person, to carve out inviolable time in our diaries for reflection, to pause and find out how our colleagues are travelling.

We also need to re-ritualise the workplace. The passing of the tea trolley was one of many opportunities, now lost, to connect with workmates. To compensate, some workplaces now begin their day with a ‘stand-up’, in which everyone stands and says how they are in addition to what they are doing. If you have been at a stand-up and heard that a colleague has been awake half the night with a sick child, you can react with sympathy rather than fear their grumpiness later in the day. If this sounds like a time commitment that will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, then the camel’s back has long since been broken.

It is not only in workplace rituals that we need to re-embody our communications, it is also in social and religious rituals. And perhaps the greatest and most important of those rituals in Western culture is the Mass. The very act of regularly turning up for the Mass creates community and social capital. More deeply, it is an invitation for us to be physically present to one another and to God. You simply cannot celebrate mass over the Internet. Every time we physically gather to receive the Eucharist we are once again being entrusted with the body of Christ. We are being entrusted with the bodily care of one another—to care for one another as vulnerable people.

The Mass is centrally about bodiliness, vulnerability and trust. This is startlingly clear if we reflect on the biblical passages that record its institution. Jesus took a loaf of bread and said: ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ We often tend to read this as though it’s a one-sided transaction—Jesus is giving his body to us. But that giving is in fact a trusting—Jesus is entrusting his body to us. Jesus makes this disconcertingly apparent when he ends his words of instruction saying: ‘But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table.’ This is the type of trusting that is necessary for a truly intimate relationship—for a relationship that is not based on power, but on love.

Whatever else the Mass is, it is essentially ethical and political. It calls us to care for one another and all those we physically encounter as part of our daily lives. It is a reminder that true intimacy and trust with God and with one another is founded upon this type of trusting physical encounter. In the contemporary world this is profoundly counter-cultural and, in an age of electronic communication, profoundly important if we are to remain a connected community.  

Rufus Black is an ethicist, theologian and management consultant.

Acknowledgements: I would like to acknowledge four current and former colleagues for conversations that gave birth to important thoughts in this paper: Cameron Hepburn, Scott Keller, David Dyer and Jules Flynn.



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