THE WINTER OF OUR DISCONNECT
Profile Books, 288pp, pbk
Only connect,’ pleaded E.M. Forster in his 1910 novel Howard’s End. Susan Maushart’s clever, funny and stimulating book is an attempt to answer the issues thrown up by the fact that we have achieved Forster’s goal with a vengeance. The scenario which the author considers is one which Forster ‘never anticipated: the possibility that the more we connect, the further we may drift apart, the more fragmented we may become.’
Faced with this possibility, Susan Maushart, an American single mother of three teenagers, living in Australia, embarked upon what becomes known as ‘The Experiment’: a period of six months during which all forms of electronic media and communication are prohibited from the family home. The book is built around her original diary entries from the period (handwritten, of course, since computers were banned); although by far the greater proportion of the text actually consists of Maushart’s subsequent ruminations on lessons learned. There are thoroughly researched and well-written diversions into topics such as boredom, parenting, eating and sleeping habits, the nature of email as a form of communication, and even at one point a brief detour into the realms of moral theology: ‘… instincts are not reflexes. Instincts can be informed, and reformed. They can also be managed. ‘Human nature,’ as Katherine Hepburn reminds us in The African Queen, ‘is what we were put on this earth to rise above.’
The unexpected use of cinematographic illustration is typical of a writing style which can also be found referring (quite correctly but a little archaically) to media in the plural and discussing the merits of the word ‘friending’ as a gerund one minute; yet quite happily making use of acronyms such as LOL and ILY the next (Google it, if you need to – or ask your curate).
But the most touching aspects of the book are those in which Maushart discusses the impact of The Experiment on her children – who beforehand would have ‘sooner volunteered to go without food, water or hair products’ than their electric media – and their family life as the months go by. In short, they learn to enjoy one another again. ‘Unstoppered from our digital dummies, we looked around for some substitute means of soothing our spirits and found – among other things – each other,’ she writes in conclusion. Elsewhere she wonders, ‘this drug we’re craving … could it simply be each other?’
It is at this point that the relevance of this book to the Church becomes explicitly clear. Many of our current problems are aggravated – caused, even – by the advent of instant news and communication. A lesbian is elected to a bishopric in California and the world knows about it instantly; before long the bloggers are giving their opinion, Facebookers respond, and the stakes are raised. Technology also creates other dilemmas not faced by previous generations: for example, does the monastic greater silence, or a quiet day in a theological college, preclude the use of email?
But more importantly, because more pervasively, electronic media has changed the way that many of us – and thus the society in which we live – exist on a daily basis. Email, text messages, iPhones, blogs, Facebook, and a host of other, similar forms of instant communication have revolutionized the way in which we behave and interact with others – and such a profound change has to be the Church’s business.
Maushart maintains that these changes are not in themselves necessarily a bad thing – but the overall tone of her book suggests otherwise. ‘The more frantically we connect, one to another, the more disconnected our relationships become. We live in an age of frenzied ‘social networking,’ where up to a quarter of us say we have no close confidante, where we are less likely than ever before to socialize with friends or family, where our social skills and even our capacity to experience empathy are undergoing documentable erosion,’ she writes. Later, she concludes, ‘We are both much, much better connected, and in clear and present danger of forgetting how to relate.’
Since we are dealing here with the way in which we live alongside others this is clearly relevant for the Church, because we can only exist fully as Christians when we do so alongside our brothers and sisters in Christ. Indeed, Maushart comes to recognize an important distinction between connectivity and communication.
This is in essence the same point made in an article in the May 2010 edition of New DiRections (‘Only Connections’), in which the author argued that whilst we desire connection we need Communion. Maushart’s point is very similar: as connection (connectivity) becomes easier, so Communion (communication) becomes harder. When this is true of society as a whole, is it any wonder that Communion in the Church is currently so hard to come by?
Janet Backman ND