So: Are We Hypocrites?

By Susan McWilliams for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

Front Porch Technology

Claremont, CA. A student has confronted me about Front Porch Republic. So now  I’m writing the post that I’ve known I would have to write someday.

“It just doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that you would do,” she said. “You don’t like technology or online communities.”

She’s fairly right about that. I do a good impression of a Luddite.

My students know that I value face-to-face interaction, neighborliness, locally owned business, and strong place-based communities. I do not value these things because I have a simple nostalgia for the past. I value these things because I believe that the health of any political community – and the health of any political community with commitments to democracy and self-governance in particular – depends on them. I value these things because I believe they contribute to individual flourishing – and not just because people with more in-person friendships tend to live longer, although they do.

And I believe that in a society dominated and mediated by screens, a society in which we communicate through an unfathomable grid of cables and airwaves, it is all too easy to lose appreciation for these things. When our lives operate in such vast latitudes, it is easy to discount or disparage things that are smaller scale. It is easy to mistake the Internet’s illusion of intimacy for the real thing. Staying glued to screens and plugged-in to soundtracks makes it easier to ignore the people who live with us and around us.

I also believe that the constant din of technology makes it harder to think. I liked the way Bob Herbert made that argument in his commencement address at Pomona this year: “One of the essential problems of our society is that we’re losing sight of what is human in ourselves. We’re quick to go to war, and quicker to attend to our technological imperatives, and quickest of all at forgetting the truly human needs that are all around us. And that includes our own individual needs–those very special, mostly non-material things that would fulfill us, give meaning to our lives, enlarge us and enable us to embrace those around us.” He went on:  I don’t think we can stay in touch with our song by constantly Twittering or tweeting, or thumbing out messages on our Blackberries, or piling up virtual friends-trophies–on Facebook. The time wasted sending a hundred emails about nothing could be time spent holding one person’s hand.”

These kinds of commitments put me right in line with most of the people who write for Front Porch Republic. But that fact raises the very serious questions: Why on earth would a bunch of people committed to place and limits and local communities choose as their venue the Internet – the placeless, seemingly limitless, global Internet? Isn’t there a fundamental duplicity there, or at least a troubling pretense? Couldn’t we dismiss Front Porch Republic – on those grounds alone – as the theoretical blather of an intellectual elite that wants people to do as we say, not live as we live?

Some people think so, and I’m glad they’ve said it. (For the record, I have special fondness for one line – “no time to Xerox your syllabus when the hogs need to be slopped” – issued in criticism of a post on this website.)

I won’t try to answer those broader questions and criticism here, although I encourage others to do that tackling. In the meantime, I do think that I should speak to my own participation as a contributing editor of FPR.

The truth is that I joined FPR because friends asked me to do it. They convinced me that this was a worthy enterprise, that at least discussing these ideas and questions among people who spend time on the Internet was better than not discussing them at all.

I’ve tried to come up with more than that, but nothing else strikes me as true. Reminding technological people in a technological age that technology can’t do everything – including some really important things – is probably a worthwhile task. And my friends asked me.

Any explanation beyond that would be, for me, too much rationalization and blather. So I stop there and take temporary leave from the Internet, which probably we should all do, at least from time to time.

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