It was Marshall McLuhan, the erstwhile Canadian communications guru, who coined the phrase, “the medium is the message”. McLuhan died before the internet became as pervasive and as accessible to all of us as it is now. If he were alive today he would no doubt have much to say about how the internet is changing our every day life, and that not always to the better. Most academics agree, that what McLuhan meant by his famous the medium is the message phrase, is that the message imbeds itself into the medium that is used to transmit that message. If that is so, then the internet, and all the electronic toys that go with it are used not only in order to communicate with one another, but some of what we communicate is in that message. And what exactly is that message that is imbedded in a tweet, or a text message, or an email?
Allow me to come back to that after I digress for a moment to a fascinating book that I am currently reading. It bears the simple title THE AMISH and it is written by three researchers (Donald Kraybill, Karen Johnson, and Steven Nolt) who carefully trace their Anabaptist origins in 16th century Europe, their migration to the United States and Canada, and finally their lifestyle here. I say that the book is fascinating, because I grew up (and now again live in) a part of Ontario surrounded by some Amish settlements. My contact with them has so far been only visual. That means that before reading this book, I knew very little about them except that they do not accept Daylight Savings Time, they ride around in horse drawn carriages, and they are dressed very plainly. The Amish eschew the modern way of life, along with its many gadgets. In other words, they would not have access to the the internet, cell phones, and the lightening speed communication which many of us deem as essential in order to “keep in touch with all the people in my life” as many of us would say. Yet here is the fascinating thing. The Amish are in no way communication-challenged. While they live in their own communities, those settlements are closely knit. While a person living in a high-rise often doesn’t know the name of the neighbor next door, an Amish family would know what their closest neighbour 2 miles down the road had for breakfast. And despite the predictions that this isolation from the rest of the world would lead to their eventual extinction, the Amish are in fact flourishing. From a mere 6,000 of them in 1900, their population has grown to some 275,000 across thirty states and the province of Ontario, about half of them living in the State of Pennsylvania.
Now fast forward to 2016, to an experience that I had only last week. While travelling by car, I stopped in at a roadside diner. A very popular place it was rather crowded. Almost every one of the closely spaced tables was occupied, but I managed to get a table for one. The table next to me was less than 2 feet away and it was occupied by an elderly couple. Directly across from me was another table for 2 with a somewhat younger couple. I could see that couple, and I could hear the couple next to me. I tried very hard NOT to listen, but it was unavoidable. The couple was absorbed in a lively conversation about nothing that they wouldn’t mind someone overhearing. They minded their own business and I minded mine.
The couple across from me immediately pulled out their smart phone after sitting down. Each was busy either facebook checking, texting, or whatever. So absorbed were they in this that the waitress actually had to interrupt them to take their order. When his wife excused herself to powder her nose, the man checked voice mails on his phone and began making calls to answer them. He was still talking when the meal arrived. Surely, I thought, they would put their phones down in order to eat. Well sort of. Between mouthfuls, the couple exchanged a few sentences. But soon one of the cellphones rang, and the wife took the call. I guess it was important or maybe she doesn’t have voice mail. When she was done with the call, time for a few more mouthfuls while the husband picked up his smart phone either to text or tweet or whatever.
Now the couple next to me was definitely communicating with one another. The couple across from me was also communicating in their own way, but not with each other. Or were they? What does it say to you, when you are having a face to face conversation with someone or enjoying their company , and they reach for their cell phone or smartphone? I have had this happen to me so often that I know that it means: “you are not as important as this message that I am getting on Facebook, on Twitter, or on my phone.” I know some ofmy friends who have done this would argue: “that’s not what I’m communicating to you at all!” And I would reply, “maybe not. But that IS the message that I pick up”. The medium is the message.
When I was still in pastoral ministry, I often observed people texting while I was preaching. You would be amazed what you see while you are up there. Sometimes people would even text someone else who was right in the room. People think that we don’t notice these things, but hey, when you turn around and make goo goo eyes at someone in the balcony after receiving a text, how obvious is that? And by the way, we preachers can also tell if you are using your smartphone to follow along in the Bible (which is totally OK), or doing something else. What message does that send? I don’t mean to judge, but I wonder whether that person is really focused on God and what HE has to say at that moment.
Now don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against technology. I like to think that I am up to date with all of it. In fact, during a sleepless night in Kenya, I reached for my iPhone to check whats happening on Facebook. I noticed a friend who was online, and we went into a private chat. Amazing that we could communicate in real time 8 time zones away.
But seriously there is a difference between a smart phone that is tool or a toy. There also is such a thing as an addiction to technology, and yes i know that they said that first about the radio, then the television. But it is not without reason that health care professionals and others talk about children having too much “screen time” (that covers both the big and the small screens) and not enough fresh air, exercise, and real time social interaction with others.
Are we perhaps raising a generation that will be lacking in communication skills despite the most modern gadgets? Is the medium the message?