Turning My Head

For millions of years, we lived on this earth with simply the knowledge of our own experiences. All the people we knew about were those within a few miles of our home; all our knowledge about the world was that which we had learned personally or from those living around us; all the places we knew of (flat earth, anyone?) were those we had personally travelled to.

Technology changes all that, by extending our reach beyond that which we can do ourselves; it’s why I like to think of technology as a “tool”, rather than a “profession”, “savior”, or “trend”. It is merely something available for us to use. The printed page preserved thoughts and archived events; the automobile and airplane brought us further than we could ever walk; television and the internet show us images of things we may never see in the flesh.

The problem with that is that our senses only know how to deal with things as they have for the rest of history. If we see something, we assume it is located within the distance our eyes can perceive–even if it is actually located in a television studio thousands of miles away. Reading about someone else’s experience makes our mind imagine it and believe we’ve had that experience too. This process confuses our simple systems, which despite all their conditioning, are not ready for such conflicting messages.

Robert Wright calls this “culture lag”–the way that human culture struggles to keep pace with the dynamic improvement of technological tools. We simply can’t wrap our minds around all the new things to do and learn. No wonder we’re more stressed out than ever, and feel stretched thin at work and in school. Our bodies weren’t built to deal with this.

Ok, so we’re confused and stressed. If that’s the end of it, we’ve gotten off pretty easily. Take one chill pill, call me in the morning.

Problems arise when emotions that are meant to deal with a small number of local friends are tugged at simultaneously by images from around the world. Those “Sponsor a child” advertisements on tv are prime examples, showing us children that we’d never have known about before the age of television. Yet we feel about them the same way we would feel about a child who showed up on our doorstep with nowhere else to go. McLuhan and his “cold” medium of television be damned–we still can’t tell the difference between virtual and real.

Of course, this is also an opportunity to influence more people’s lives than ever before. Many of my friends cite this as their work mandate: such opportunity cannot be wasted, they argue; we have been put in this situation to use it fully, the argument goes. And certainly they find success and fulfillment in these tasks, for a while at least. By acting on situations half a world away, they are touching people’s lives in new ways.

However, just as often as they find success, their efforts result in at least some confusion, loss of purpose, and demotivation. I believe it is due to the culture lag and its clash with our natural tendencies. Eventually, these friends realize that the pictures of those they are helping are just pictures; that their voice on the telephone is just plastic and metal resonating; that the human, loving bond that is the basis of all other friendships is missing in this case. These relationships, wonderful and beneficial as they are, do not have the same characteristics that we enjoy with in-person relationships.

I believe that we often shut off our minds to things too far away for us to comprehend: Nicholas Kristof’s article in the NYTimes this week asks how we could allow another genocide to take place, after vowing “never again” with Hitler.

Right now, the government of Sudan is engaging in genocide against three large African tribes in its Darfur region here. Some 1,000 people are being killed a week, tribeswomen are being systematically raped, 700,000 people have been driven from their homes, and Sudan’s Army is even bombing the survivors…And the world yawns…

In the same way, we eventually lose interest in things that fail to give us the personal thrill of a relationship. Without that, we cannot truly be effective.

Which is why the future of foreign aid–like the future of politics and the future of most societal change–is grassroots. It lies with the man on the street, who through his interactions with his neighbor creates more joy and love in the world, and who by doing that which he is most gifted at contributes to the world’s progress the best he can. It cannot be the Peace Corps, leaving everything they know to work in a land foreign to them. It cannot be mission workers, country-hopping on jets while their hosts struggle to integrate them into an alien culture. It is each person, doing his part to bring more happiness to the world.

The strongest argument I’ve heard about mission work in the church was “Go in order to have a spiritual experience yourself. Stay here and work if you want to make a difference.” The important choice is not to radically change your life–it’s to make the right next decision, be it eating vegetarian at lunch or cleaning the company break room.

Those who need to make foreign policy decisions will naturally make them as their next move, having already made thousands of smaller moves to bring them to this place. Choosing to leave long-term decisions out of your control is choosing to accept your position in the world, trusting in your talents and skills, and putting faith in your Creator.

As long as we have increasing technology in the world–something I don’t want to lose–we will have to deal with its consequences. But like most things, knowing thy enemy goes a long way toward making rational and intelligent decisions, decisions to effect the world we encounter directly, that are not swayed disproportionately by emotion-tugging images best left to someone better positioned to act on them.