THE DANGERS OF THE DIGITAL CULTURE

As the deer pants for streams of water,

so my soul pants for You, O God.

My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.

When can I go and meet with God?

(Psalm 42:1-2)

 

As my smartphone yearns for the power bank,

so my soul pants for my Whatsapp chat. 

My soul thirsts for my Facebook page, for more updates.

When can I go and check my Facebook page?

 

          On 13 February, I came across an interesting article entitled, “Digital natives risk losing empathy for real people”* contributed by Peter A. Coclanis who is the Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and director of the Global Research Institute at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.  In that article, Prof Coclanis quoted research that showed that despite the many benefits of the digital culture, our increasing reliance on electronic technology has “impaired our ability to relate to one another, particularly face-to-face conversational settings.  Because such conversations are vital to our moral development – without them, humans have trouble establishing bonds of empathy with other people.”  This warning is especially poignant for Singapore which is one of the most-wired nations in the world.  In a digital culture where there is rampant texting, uploading photos of one’s food onto Facebook and participating in Whatsapp chat while seated together with other people at the same table, this “continuous partial attention” to anyone and anything has profound repercussions on our relationships.

 

           To me as a pastor, this article sounds off another warning to what I have been observing all around: People who are physically present but mentally and emotionally absent; people who cannot focus and pay attention because of the need for constant media stimulation; people immersed in the online world to escape silence and solitude.  As PSPC focuses on this year’s church theme of “Christ-centred Relationships, Godly Families”, we need to build and strengthen our relationships on biblical values, but we should also be aware of how socio-cultural-technological forces are buffeting our efforts.  We should start taking note of the dangers of digital culture with its concomitant erosion of empathy and its repercussions on human relationships.  How is digital culture affecting our interactions with those who are closest to us – our spouse, children and family members?  Do we pay more attention to them or to social media updates?  Do we prefer spending time online rather than having face-to-face interactions with one another?  Do we try to escape our loneliness by finding online stimulation or do we seek to connect and draw closer to one another?

 

          I am concerned that digital culture is not only affecting our horizontal relationships with one another, but also our vertical relationship with God – we end up giving “continuous partial attention” to God and spiritual matters.  Richard Foster, author of the classic “Celebration of Disciplines” once wrote that “Superficiality is the curse of our generation.”  When our spiritual disciplines such as quiet time and prayer are given “continuous partial attention”, when times of solitude and silence to wait before God are filled with online stimulations, when we find it hard to understand the psalmist’s yearning for God in Psalm 42 (quoted at the start of this article), it is no wonder that our spiritual life becomes shallow and superficial.  If God speaks to us through a gentle whisper – like how He spoke to the prophet Elijah in 1 Kings 19 – will His gentle whisper to us be missed by our “continuous partial attention”?

 

          So what do we do?  As mentioned in last Sunday’s bulletin announcement, the Lent season had already started on Ash Wednesday (10 February).  As early as the 3rd century, the church has set aside this 40-day period in the Christian year as a time for believers to prepare for Good Friday and Easter through prayer, repentance and fasting.  The spiritual discipline of fasting has traditionally been a fasting from food so that people can focus on prayer, reflection and waiting on God.  However, fasting can also include refraining from certain habits or hobbies, e.g. it can include fasting from social media by limiting the amount of time we spend on Facebook, Whatsapp or Twitter.  In this way, we can devote more time and give constant focused attention – instead of “continuous partial attention” – to God and His Word, deepening our spiritual life, heightening our spiritual discernment and sharpening our spiritual sensitivity to God’s gentle whisper.

 

          This realignment of our vertical relationship with God will also help us live out our biblical responsibilities towards one another, e.g. showing care and hospitality to one another, sharing the Gospel with those who have yet to know Christ and fostering Christ-centred relationships in our household.  When we can relate to one another with constant focused attention – instead of “continuous partial attention” – it will strengthen our empathy, sharpen our relational awareness and enhance our care to one another – all of which are important building blocks for healthy relationships.  May this Lent season be a time for us to experience breakthrough in fostering “Christ-centred Relationships, Godly Families.”  Amen.

In case congregants may be interested to know, Pastor Darryl is a “digital hermit” because he does not have a Facebook account – if you wish to, you can “book” an appointment to see his “face”.  He uses Whatsapp to contact his wife Angeline and convey congregational care updates or urgent instructions to the Pastoral Team, but he hardly participates in Whatsapp chat groups.

* This article can be read online at the following URL:

(http://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/digital-natives-risk-losing-empathy-...)

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