Thursday, August 27, 2009

Alone, but Watched

Many have observed that contemporary life in America suffers from a lack of community. Defining "community" is not easy, but a significant factor is the presence of significant and lasting human relationships in public and private living spaces. And by this, I mean face to face interactions, not what occurs on the Internet or cell phones. This is being lost, especially amidst our electronic "connections."

One dominant feature of contemporary life is anonymity. We are often alone together, with others but isolated from them because we do not know them and they do not know us. We shuttle around in our automobiles, isolated spatially and sonically. We may sit next to someone on a light rail, but most are listening to iPods, tapping on laptops, or yakking on cell phones (as if no one in the car was hearing them). And so it goes.

Anonymity also means a lack of responsibility and accountability to others. Who knows if you check into a hotel (where no one knows you) and watch a pornographic film? Yes, God knows and you sin will find out you; but in the short run, you feel safe because you are anonymous. You are unknown. But one would not do this openly at home in front of one's parents or spouse. Of course, anonymity is a way of life for many on the Internet. Many who post on this blog use false names. I always take their comments less seriously.

To compensate for anonymity, however, we have become a surveillance society. More and more of our public activities are monitored electronically. Look at the cameras at busy intersections. The Denver Light Rail cars also have hidden cameras, as I was told yesterday by the conductor through a public address system after someone pulled the emergency stop wire. "We will get you," he said in an annoyed voice.

Surveillance tries to provide the accountability lost in anonymity. It cannot. It can only detect infractions and punish them legally. Surveillance overcomes some aspects of privacy that might be used in anti-social ways, but it cannot provide moral incentive for the common good.

Surveillance is no replacement for friendship, citizenship, and membership in embodied communities. These are being lost at a rapid rate. Love is lost as souls are untethered from one another and their God.

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