Taylor: Putting distance between us

Advancing technology seems to distance us from one another.

The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize last week got me thinking about the weapons we use in wars.

In the beginning, combatants had to confront adversaries directly. They fought with hands and teeth. Clubs and spears moved combatants fractionally further apart. Bows and arrows allowed people to kill at a distance. Guns let snipers pick off victims who didn’t even know they were targets.

In recent wars, airplanes flying so high that they were almost invisible dropped bombs and missiles on unsuspecting victims far below.

Today, remotely controlled drones pick off houses, villages, even individuals, halfway around the globe.

You can’t get much more distant than that.

But then it occurred to me that the same thing has happened to our communications.

In the beginning, all communication took place face-to-face, one-to-one.

The first mass communication probably involved someone standing on a pyramid or a hilltop and shouting. Like Moses, perhaps, transmitting God’s commands to the Hebrew escapees huddled at the base of Mount Sinai.

Since religions are the oldest organizations I know, I’ll continue with the religious theme.

There’s no record of Jesus writing anything—except for one ambiguous reference to him writing in the sand. But the story doesn’t specify what he actually wrote; some translations suggest he merely doodled in the sand.

Communication was still oral. Peter spoke to the crowds after Pentecost. Paul spoke to people around the Mediterranean.

The written scriptures—the epistles and gospels—didn’t come until later.

For centuries, letters were also one-to-one. With no way to make multiple copies, you wrote to a specific individual.

Perhaps, like most of Paul’s letters, you expected your correspondents to pass your message around. That makes them a bit more distant, a bit less personal.

The gospels came later, written for a more undefined audience. Matthew apparently wrote for Jewish converts to Christianity, Luke for Gentiles.

Each new technology since then has further distanced the writer from the audience. Gutenberg’s movable type and the printing press meant that Bibles and other documents could be distributed to anyone, anywhere. Writers no longer needed to know their audience personally.

Today, most of us get most of our information from dramatically distant sources—from newspapers edited in Toronto or Vancouver, from television studios in Atlanta or New York, from observers in South Africa or Egypt, transmitted by satellite or Internet.

There’s nothing face-to-face about most of our communication anymore, even if faces appear on the screen.

Electronic social media supposedly bring us closer together. But unlike personal letters, 90 per cent of the electronic communications I send and receive involve people I’ve never met, and probably never will.

A sociologist somewhere calculated that it takes 17 hours of continuous interaction to build a friendship. Continuous—not a few seconds at a time.

That statistic casts some doubt on the validity of “friending” someone on Facebook.

Increasingly, therefore, I treasure those situations—like congregations, clubs and recreational activities—where I can build real relationships with flesh-and-blood friends, face to face.