Saturday, October 16, 2010

Are We Real Anymore?

We have become disembodied spirits.

When we moved to Mount Sidney 17 years ago, our bank had a branch in Weyers Cave, about four miles from my house. The teller I dealt with, a woman I visited once a week, took my deposits, asked how I was, chitchatted a bit about the weather or how busy she was that day.

Back then, my checks included the name and physical address of my bank, “81 Franklin St., Weyers Cave.” Now my checks say “.com.”

Where is that? Similarly, where are you? Who are you?

“The worldwide network presents a state of complete equality, an equality of nobodies,” writes Read Schuchardt, a media ecologist, paraphrasing another media ecologist, Eric McLuhan. “There is no owner, nobody owns the net, nobody is in charge, there’s no head office, and every user can say with all fidelity, ‘I am everyman’ or, ‘I am legion.’ ”

Not long ago, a family member was going through a difficult time. When I ran into a family friend and shared the news with him, he said, “I’m surprised. You’d never know it by their Facebook page.”

Facebook, you see, is not real life. For that matter, none of our life is real on the Internet.

McLuhan (son of, yes, Marshall) uses Thomas Aquinas’ definition of identity: the coming together of matter and spirit. “Without the body, then, identity is not possible,” says McLuhan.

On the Internet — or television or radio, for that matter — humans are discarnate. Images with no body. “Individuality is simply not possible because there is nothing on which to base it, to give it substance,” McLuhan says. The discarnate is a mass audience.

Facebook, blogs, TV shows, are all about image. Images being projected at faster-than-lightning, instantaneous speed.

“At electric speed there is no moving to or fro, the user just manifests here or there, having left the body behind,” writes Schuchardt. “ ‘There’ might be the other side of the room or the other side of town or the other side of the world — it makes no difference, it’s all the same. You function in more than one place at once. On the air, you can have your being in thousands or millions of places simultaneously.”

So we are users without bodies. According to Aquinas’s definition, then, are we dead?

I “have” a friend on Facebook who, in real flesh-and-blood life, died six months ago. Yet he still has a Facebook page. There’s his photo, an image of him. People still post messages to him on his wall. Anyone stumbling on his page would think he’s still alive. It’s like Facebook has given him an electric immortality.

It reminds me of the “construct” in the 1988 book “Neuromancer,” written by William Gibson. The construct is a ROM module containing the saved consciousness of a person, McCoy Pauley. In the story, the main character, Case, needs Pauley’s computer-hacking expertise. So he gets this ROM module and has an eerie “face-to-face” conversation with Pauley, who is able to respond to Case’s questions.

A far cry from a headstone.

None of these Internet interactions makes sense to me unless these disembodied communications manifest in a physical meeting. For instance. A while back on Facebook, the husband and I reconnected with friends we had not seen or heard from in more than 25 years. Then when we went to New York in August, we visited Dennis and Edna. We hugged, talked, listened, ate a meal together.


This is what draws me back, over and over, to the Christian faith. God came to Earth in a physical body as Jesus Christ. He walked everywhere he went, talked with people, touched them, cried with them, touched them, laughed with them, touched them.

“What’s the basis of Christianity? It’s really a meal, it’s communion right?” says Sufjan Stevens in an interview this week with The Quietus. “It’s the Eucharist. That’s it, it’s the sharing a meal with your neighbours and what is that meal? It’s the body and blood of Christ. Basically God offering himself up to you as nutrition. Haha, that’s pretty weird. It’s pretty weird if you think about that, that’s the basis of your faith. You know, God is supplying a kind of refreshment and food for a meal.”

Incarnation. This meal, at which we share wine and bread with others. This meal, at which everybody is somebody.

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