2012-10-16

Hurricanes

Facebook is best at the humor. Through such media, the self we fashion and present is fragmented into small bits. We make ourselves into "A Million Little Pieces" -- and, as that title suggests, the result is semi-autobiographical and semi-fraudulent. The result is also often very funny.

As a hurricane was approaching, one of my Facebook friends posted this:
"As Hurricane Irene prepares to batter the East Coast, federal disaster officials have warned that Internet outages could force people to interact with other people for the first time in years. Residents are bracing for the horror of awkward silences and unwanted eye contact. FEMA has advised: 'Be prepared. Write down possible topics to talk about in advance. Sports, the weather. Remember, a conversation is basically a series of Facebook updates strung together.”
Funny. Is there a truth in that humor, that all this facebooking causing a loss of the face-to-face arts? Or are social media just a nice complement to in-person contact?

The answer is up to us -- it depends on how we use these media. The social media technology, and email, like any technology, help us with some of our old purposes and offer us possibilities of new purposes. Yet there are dangers, so engage the technologies mindfully.

UU Minister Mary Katherine Morn suggests these questions for any technology:
  • Does it help or hinder in the living of our days?
  • Does it include many or leave many behind?
  • Does it make us wiser, or merely increase information?
  • Does it bring people together or alienate people from one another?
  • Technology is always power -- so is it the power over, or power with, others.
  • Does it free us, or reinforce addictions that imprison us?
  • Does it increase our circle of compassion or limit our ability to love?
The technology itself doesn't answer those questions. It's in how we use it, mindfully or not, with love truly as our guide, or not.

Speaking of hurricanes, for instance, the Red Cross has found that social media have become a key part of emergency response. A report from the Red Cross (2011 August) says that nearly one-quarter of the general population would use social media to tell loved ones -- all their friends and acquaintances and associates at once -- that they were OK, or weren't. And how did I find out this Red Cross survey? One of my congregants posted the link to the article on . . . Facebook.

When it comes to the self, hurricanes are an apt metaphor. Here's this being -- it's got a name: Camille, Katrina, Andrew, Irene. But what is it? It's just air and water. As of mid-August 2005, all the same air and water that would hit New Orleans on August 29 was around, but there was nothing to call "Katrina." By mid-September, the same air and water was still around, but there was again be nothing to call Katrina.

And a hurricane has very fuzzy edges. Hurricane Irene just weakens the further out we go, but there no bright-line circle we can draw and say "that's Irene on that side of the line -- and not-Irene on the other side." Same with you really. What's you about you -- what's Alice about Alice or Phil about Phil doesn't stop at their skin -- if it did it would never get through to anyone else.

We are basically hurricanes -- temporary swirling masses just coherent enough to be namable, but no clear edges, beginning, or end, and made of nothing but the universe itself.

Who is Irene? Irene is a hurricane. Well, what's a hurricane? It's an identifiable pattern of circular winds with speeds of blah, blah, blah. What's wind? What is Speed? What is Pattern? Four-year-olds can be persistent with questions, "Why?" and "What is...?" The wisdom of the four-year-old teaches us that anything you say with words can be questioned.

So who is Irene?

Irene is: WhoooOOOOoooshsh! See? You knew that. But for a minute there, you couldn't see how to express it. So, if that's Irene, who are you when you're on facebook? You're a little picture, which you can control, and you're something pithy you've written, which you can control, and you're appearing on the facebook page of every one of the people you have friended, wedged into as many different contexts that you can't control.

Who are you when you're emailing?

It is nice to see the electronic selves that those of you who are active on facebook present: with your quips about music or politics and your photos of puppies and roller derby bruises. That's just a very small part of who you are. It links us and creates the possibility of new kinds of community not to replace, ideally, but to facilitate the traditional kinds of community. Yet there are dangers.

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This is part 3 of 4 of "The Electronic Self"
Next: Part 4: "Neither Problem Nor Solution"
Previous: Part 2: "Blessed Be. Who Are You?"
Beginning: Part 1: "Facebook?"