Going virtual in proportion to being actual

This is the title of the talk that Sister Judith Zoebelein gave at LIFT07. After some weeks from the conference, the echoes of the ideas she presented still resounds in my brain. New technologies push the limits of what is human-to-human communication, co-presence, ‘sharedness’, etc. The trend is clear: what used to be a actual experience is now a mediated event. If somehow this has clear advantages like the ability for communication to cross time and space, the same possibilities expose also to a wide range of threats. News are full of stories that shows the limits of the system: identity theft, identity loss, etc.

The talk of Sister Judith insisted on two points: the importance of symbols and the importance of an actual human encounter. The internet is full of symbols: replacements for the actual world. Sometimes this substitution is transparent and consensual for the user, sometimes is not. Sometimes this relief is necessary, sometimes is imposed to us by the technology, the society or the corporations that drives particular platforms.

This might led to confusion. Confusion on who I really am. Who am I? Am I, Mauro, the blogger? Am I the researcher? Am I the Second Life player? Maybe none of them. The point is that being virtual does not help me to understand who I really am. We understand our life in the interaction that we have with others in actual encounters. My virtual life put me in the center of the world: social = me first! Everything is about me, my contacts, my facebook, my flickr, my del.icio.us, my blog, … Everything becomes the projection of my self: an egoistic, egocentric projection.

I quote here some passages that I found extremely interesting:

The idea of a local parish which centers a people in a geographical area through worship, social outreach, and common lived experiences, is much less functional in many parts of North America and Europe.  There are many reasons, not in the least of which are the mobility of persons today, the changing social structure of towns and cities, the increase in all kinds of media for communications that keep people more “connected” in one way, and more isolated in other ways.  Today people find each other on the net, witness only all the “match.coms” that exist, and try to sell relationship from virtual contact.  How do these communities end up in some kind of actual encounter? Can the Internet foster a real life, person-to-person exchange, without an actual eye-to-eye and face-to-face contact?

Today’s young often get their “persona experiences” through the games and pseudo-communities available virtually. But then how do they leave this make-believe world and integrate that which they realized about themselves through gaming? Can their life really be changed for the better when they are away from the gamestick? Often what can happen instead is a unconscious confusion about which person I really am, the virtual or the actual, particularly if I don’t like my life very much.  Any community should give a greater sense of personhood, not less a sense of who the person is.  How much more this is true when it is virtual community and nothing real that tests the truth of my conclusions.

© Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist 2007

I share, with Sister Judith, a vision for new virtual communities that will lead to actual human encounters: “The anonymity of the Internet must at some point lead to the desire and opportunity for an actual human encounter. This, of course, is a basic tenet of the Church, that there must be a sacramentality to our lives.  We need to live in a concrete, shared dimension of human community. ”

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