(Courtesy of Zoom)

For roughly a half-century, we’ve been told that the interconnectedness of global telecommunications promised to deliver something akin to global consciousness – a “cosmic mind” fed by the experiences and expressions of billions of people who are physically separate but nonetheless coexist in a technology-enabled world.

It’s fair to ask whether this theory, given these months of pandemic-enforced lockdown, has worked out as it was first imagined. After all, the most immediate form of connection throughout this time, beyond the people with whom we shared quarantine, has been with those we could see or talk to on our screens.

This is a test of the world predicted by philosopher – and Catholic convert – Marshall McLuhan, who was influenced by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a twentieth-century French Jesuit. de Chardin predicted that due to the rise of technologies like the radio (he wrote before the advent television and well before the Internet), men and women would find themselves “simultaneously present, over land and sea, in every corner of the earth.”

Well, we’ve seen how this has played out in reality. People may like technology and what it does to promote productivity, information-sharing and even for entertainment. However, it’s no substitute for authentic community. We are seeing, in one way or another, the limits if not outright refutation of that vision of virtual reality – a revulsion against physical disconnectedness, a revolt against the idea that we have moved to some kind of higher consciousness where we are all-seeing and somehow always alert even while passively removed from each other.

The most obvious symptom of the dysfunction of what we might call “Zoom fatigue.” It’s exhausting to pretend that staring into a phone or a laptop and seeing our friends is the same as being with someone in corpus realis.

I see it with my own kids. This is a generation raised to think of technology as an extension of their brains, and they have long constructed parallel digital communities that often surpassed the connectedness of those they call “IRL” – in real life.

But deprived of their friends by COVID-19, and nagged to keep socially distanced, to what do they turn? They’re riding their bikes, sitting in the trunks of their cars in high school parking lots, and talking from a safe distance. Anything to just be with each other. Something I couldn’t get them to do last summer no matter how much I cajoled or commanded they rush to do now without prompting.

They’re putting limits on the very technology that has defined their lives. They’re rushing to find authentic connection. Same with work-weary adults who are tired of becoming Zoombies. They are declining the Zoom happy hours, and choosing instead to sit on their lawns/patios/balconies and chat with the neighbors, or meet for a long walk.

We are quite literally turning outward to the world, precisely when we are supposed to be most afraid of what’s out there.

We are quite literally turning outward to the world, precisely when we are supposed to be most afraid of what’s out there.

I believe that even in the public reaction to the murder of George Floyd we are seeing a similar rejection of the technology-enabled “cosmic consciousness” of the Internet. We have seen injustice and police brutality captured on camera before, and the movement to reform police practices is hardly new.

But now, we are alert. We can’t allow the “cosmic consciousness” to speak for us as individuals against injustice. There is no excuse for looking the other way. We have nowhere else to look but at what is happening “out there.” We aren’t letting someone else worry about it. We’re concerned. We should be. This is a change – and it partially explains our unhealthy polarity and rage.

McLuhan was wrong. He said we were building an “electric culture” where what matters most of all is the medium, not the message. But we see that there is no culture when the medium gets in the way of the message. No improvement in the technology will address the limitations of technology – and we should finally admit it. It’s true we can talk to people across the globe in a way that we once could not. But what we say is still what matters most of all.

Connection through technology has its place, but we can’t substitute technology for community. We always knew this, because among us are communities that have existed happily for centuries before humanity turned speech and vision into electrical waves and bytes of data.

For millennia, Jewish communities could not depend on shared places of gathering as all other cultures did. Often exiled and spread over a diaspora, they organized not around holy space but around holy time. You can be a Jew – and be part of the community – even in exile, even alone, just by sanctifying a moment of time – the Sabbath, one of the Holy Days. Separated from his people, a Jew knows how to belong. No Internet necessary. Imagine what our society would look like if we agreed to mark time more mindfully and ritually as a community?

Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, Sabbath Rest, 1866 (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Then there is the Church, which formed from the ordinary wafer and wine a sacrament and a reminder of Jesus’s teachings and sacrifice. Imagine what our society would be if we consecrated ordinary objects and meals with meaning, so that we were reminded of our higher purpose? The Internet can do no such thing. But communities of faith can.

Father Robert Spitzer, a well-known Jesuit philosopher and former president of Gonzaga University, has written on the spiritual roots of true happiness. Fr. Spitzer observes that by engaging in a real-life “church community” we can make contributions that are “unconditional and of absolute significance.” The message is the same: The deeper our efforts to achieve spiritual transcendence, the more we can help others.

Through the spirit do we achieve community.

We know that we still need each other in the flesh. Faithful communities require communion and fellowship. In prayer, there is a call, but also a response. All humanity is that way. All the great illnesses of the soul and mind are rooted in loneliness and detachment. The cosmic consciousness of the Internet may open doors to communication, but it does not create a community. That comes with connection, engagement, sanctification and the spirit.

Thomas Chiapelas

Thomas Chiapelas lives in St. Louis, Missouri and serves on the Board of Directors at DeSmet Jesuit High School.