Hiding behind the screen…


The Internet is an integral part of life for most of us.  We send e-mail, we text, we surf, we Skype, we watch YouTube, we buy and we sell.  But do we understand how this computer-mediated world impacts our lives—the way we see ourselves, the way we live our lives, and the way we relate to others?


“Human relations, and the self-image of the human being, have been profoundly affected by the Internet.”  Following this observation in a stimulating essay entitled “Hiding Behind the Screen,” philosopher Roger Scruton asks two questions that many of us have either asked or heard:  “Is this change as damaging as many would have us believe, undermining our capacity for real relationships and placing a mere fantasy of relatedness in their stead? Or is it relatively harmless, as unproblematic as speaking to a friend on the telephone?”


Scruton’s goal is to analyze and to understand, rather than attack the Internet.  He begins by acknowledging that we all use computers to “send messages to our friends and to others with whom we have dealings.”


This sort of communication is not different in any fundamental respect from the old practice of letter writing, except for its speed. Of course, we should not regard speed as a trivial feature. …


Nor does the existence of social networks like Facebook, which are also for the most part real communication between real people, involve any attempt simply to substitute a virtual reality for the actual one. … These sites … enable people to keep in touch with a wide circle of friends and colleagues, thereby increasing the range of their affections, and filling the world with goodwill and happy feelings.


Although the Internet gives, it also takes away. 


Yet already something new is entering the world of human relations with these innocent-seeming [social network] sites. There is a novel ease with which people can make contact with each other through the screen. No more need to get up from your desk and make the journey to your friend’s house. No more need for weekly meetings, or the circle of friends in the downtown restaurant or bar. All those effortful ways of making contact can be dispensed with: a touch of the keyboard and you are there, where you wanted to be, on the site that defines your friends. But can this be real friendship, when it is pursued and developed in such facile and costless ways?


Real friendship shows itself in action and affection. The real friend is the one who comes to the rescue in your hour of need; who is there with comfort in adversity and who shares with you his own success. This is hard to do on the screen — the screen, after all, is primarily a locus of information, and is only a place of action insofar as communication is a form of action. Only words, and not hands or the things they carry, can reach from it to comfort the sufferer, to ward off an enemy’s blows, or to provide any of the tangible assets of friendship in a time of need. It is arguable that the more people satisfy their need for companionship through relationships carried out on the screen, the less will they develop friendships of that other kind, the kind that offers help and comfort in the real trials of human life. Friendships that are carried out primarily on the screen cannot easily be lifted off it, and when they are so lifted, there is no guarantee that they will take any strain. Indeed, it is precisely their cost-free, screen-friendly character that attracts many people to them — so much so, students of mine tell me, that they fear addiction, and often have to forbid themselves to go to their Facebook account for days on end, in order to get on with their real lives and their real relationships.


What we are witnessing is a change in the attention that mediates and gives rise to friendship. In the once normal conditions of human contact, people became friends by being in each other’s presence, understanding all the many subtle signals, verbal and bodily, whereby another testifies to his character, emotions, and intentions, and building affection and trust in tandem. Attention was fixed on the other — on his face, words, and gestures. And his nature as an embodied person was the focus of the friendly feelings that he inspired. People building friendship in this way are strongly aware that they appear to the other as the other appears to them. The other’s face is a mirror in which they see their own. Precisely because attention is fixed on the other there is an opportunity for self-knowledge and self-discovery, for that expanding freedom in the presence of the other which is one of the joys of human life. The object of friendly feelings looks back at you, and freely responds to your free activity, amplifying both your awareness and his own. As traditionally conceived, friendship was ruled by the maxim “know thyself.”


Friendship is only one of the topics discussed in “Hiding Behind the Screen.”  Scruton goes on to provide a philosophical and moral assessment of the Internet, touching on topics such as risk, embarrassment, suffering and love.  These later sections are a more challenging read, but they are definitely worth the effort.


One can only hope for a comparable assessment by some thoughtful theologian—someone who would explore the gnostic dimensions of the Internet; someone who would explore the doctrine of Incarnation for ethical guidance for life on (or behind) the screen.  And these examples are only two of the more obvious starters!  For those of us who claim to ground our existence in the Incarnate God of the universe, the consequences of computer-mediated relationships are not trivial.  



Roger Scruton is a public affairs consultant and an author who has written over 30 books.  In 2012, he has served as visiting professor at Oxford University and the University of St Andrews, Scotland.  He is also a visiting scholar at the America Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.

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