Saving Face and the Personal Paradox

“We all are born into the world looking for someone looking for us, and we remain in this mode of searching for the rest of our lives.” —Curt Thompson, The Soul of Shame

You’ve likely experienced the awkward moment when you realize the guy next to you in the grocery store aisle, who greeted you unusually loudly, is not greeting you at all. Instead, he’s talking to a nameless, faceless entity on the other end of his Bluetooth-enabled phone call.

You feel embarrassed, of course. But more than embarrassment, you feel overlooked, forgotten.

So you try to save face. You blush and explain that you thought he was talking to you, but your efforts are only met with a head-nod and vacant smile before the man turns and is gone.

To him, at that moment, you are not a person to engage in conversation or a neighbor deserving of niceties. You are a person without a face. A non-person.

While that kind of interaction was once novel due to the high price of smartphones and Bluetooth headsets, the mass adoption of smartphones and earbuds (and now, AirPods) has formed a world where we expect facelessness.

Now we desire anonymity, and sometimes demand it; a reality our “personal” devices are more than ready to facilitate. Yet our “personal” devices are also impersonal.

The Personal Paradox

If you’ve paid a convenience store cashier, taken the subway, or hailed an Uber lately, you more than likely enjoyed exercising your power as a citizen of the digital age, while simultaneously sensing the hollowness that comes with being a nameless face in a sea of nameless faces.

This is the paradox of the modern world, that it is more personal than ever but also more impersonal than ever. Stephen Marche, writing in the Atlantic, notes,

We are living in an isolation that would have been unimaginable to our ancestors, and yet we have never been more accessible. Over the past three decades, technology has delivered to us a world in which we need not be out of contact for a fraction of a moment.

… Yet within this world of instant and absolute communication, unbounded by limits of time or space, we suffer from unprecedented alienation. We have never been more detached from one another, or lonelier.

In a world consumed by ever more novel modes of socializing, we have less and less actual society.

Most of us feel that societal void, at least those of us who have some memory of a pre-Internet world. We bemoan parts of what was lost — but only parts. Because, if we’re being honest, it’s kind of nice.

The Dream of Personal Computing

Booking a flight, boarding a plane, and laying your head on a hotel pillow later that same day, all without knowing the name of a single person you encountered, is a modern bliss. There is no friction, no awkward small talk with uncomfortable silence.

As Rod Dreher writes in The Benedict Option, “To go through the screen of your computer or smartphone is to enter a world where you don’t often have to deal with anything not chosen.”

It’s just you and your devices connecting you to the people and content of your choice. The dream of personal computing come true.

Churches often allow for that same level of impersonal anonymity. And many of us like that, too. You can watch services online or, if you go in person, sing along with the worship, enjoy a sermon, and leave without connecting with another person in any meaningful way.

If you do sign a card or give online, you become an entry in a database and receive “personalized” emails that rely on metadata instead of first-hand knowledge. And you can stay in this impersonal state of connection as long as you wish.

The Redefinition of “Personal”

Here we return to the paradox mentioned in the opening line, that our world is more personal than ever but also more impersonal than ever. It’s not entirely accurate to call our devices or our world “personal,” but that’s part of the problem.

We have allowed mass-market consumerism to redefine the word — which used to refer to one’s private life, relationships, and emotions — to mean something like, “you are the center of your own universe.”

The smartphone isn’t a “personal” device in the traditional sense of the word; it’s a device that makes “I” the center of my own universe, which caters to my unspoken desires for constant connection, endless knowledge, and relentless distraction, all perfectly curated according to my preferences.

What happens when everyone is the center of their own universe? We get lonely.

In my next post, I’ll tell you about the loneliness epidemic in America and why it’s ultimately a spiritual problem.

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