This is the third in a series of essays about bridging the distance between generations of artists who use their gifts in the service of community, of social healing and of social justice. In the first two essays, I wrote with longing about my memory of connecting with mentors in the sixties, about the relationships of learning and support I would like to see renewed today.
My writing was grounded in my memory and imagination of face-to-face, embodied communion between generations: being in the same room together, arguing knee-to-knee, orchestrating our conversation to the rising harmonies of clicking wineglasses and frustrated sighs, to the urgent intake of breath in the full flight of rhetorical passion and the smiling, patient encouragement of a caring teacher.
In other words, I forgot about the Internet.
What is true today was barely imaginable forty years ago: a tremendous amount of learning and dialogue happens in virtual space, on Web sites, in email, in chat and other online environments. When I write something now, instead of rising from my desk to search out a quotation, if I can remember a snatch of it, I Google it, usually finding it in a flash. When I have an observation or opinion to share, I publish it.
The Internet really does replace some aspects of the in-person interaction I described in discussing study groups, teach-ins and the like. But it is not a fully satisfying substitute.
New technologies don’t obliterate the old, nor entirely supplant them. Instead, as something new emerges, old technologies’ roles shift. In communications, for instance, every technology from the log drum to Wi-Fi Internet is in simultaneous use on this planet as I write. Each one moved over a notch as a newcomer took center stage: for instance, radio, at one time the dominant medium for communications at a distance, became a secondary or background medium when television came along. There are still some people in remote areas for whom drum signals speak a useful language, but in the industrialized world, they have a new role as a medium of art or entertainment or a symbol of connection to the natural world or, perhaps more cynically or desperately, signifiers of authenticity.
In terms of passing on information to successive generations of activists and artists, the Internet does a fantastic job, often surpassing its predecessors in ease, efficiency and affordability (provided you’re on the upside of the digital divide). But in terms of helping people think about, integrate and practice knowledge, it’s only so-so, and vastly inferior to in-person methods.
This is because the kind of information meant to be lived (rather than merely collected) must be grounded in human relationship, which allows it to be conveyed and received by the whole person. You can see it, touch it, try it on for size. There is a Hasidic story about a student who crouched outside his rebbe’s room, spying through the window. Someone happening by became enraged; he accused the young man of salacious intention. “What are you talking about?” the student replied. “I only wanted to see how he ties his shoes.” I’m not dispositionally inclined to discipleship, but I’ve learned a lot from people I admire just by watching how they shake hands, interact with strangers, put one at ease.
In person, feelings are stimulated and expressed in myriad ways, most not currently communicable via computer keyboard. Unique energies are generated through interaction: the participants in an animated discussion can fill a room with contagious exhilaration (or despair), creating a “we” that lubricates understanding in mysterious and powerful ways.
A staple of cyber-fiction is the kind of virtual reality experience where characters “jack into” a computer system interfacing directly with their own neural networks. Even while remaining seated alone in their rooms, they experience the sensations of flying or sex or battle as if their own bodies were actually performing these activities. Sci-fi tends to be moral fiction; protagonists in such stories generally become addicted to their computers, wasting away from deprivation of real experience and connection.
I think these writers correctly understand the danger of starving to death on virtual food. When each of us sits alone, processing experience at the keyboard (note that I am writing here about one of my favorite activities and primary occupations), what can be born in community—in communion—is never conceived. So while I was wrong to omit the changing reality of the Internet from my last two essays, and while including it alters the reality-map of generational transmission, it doesn’t alter my hope and plea.