What is Real by James Wood

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Thanks to James Wood for writing this for Kingdom Living after some discussion that came in the comments of a recent post. I have known James for 8 years or so and appreciate his perspective.

Morpheus looks to Neo in response to his question: “This isn’t real?” He fires back questions of his own: “What is real? How do you define real?”

The Matrix came out in 1999, just 13 years ago (or a whole 13 years ago, depending on your perspective). They were grappling then with, what is now, a full-blown cultural issue. Where does the line between reality and imagination exist? Or does it exist?

If you send someone a message on Facebook, you might suggest a meeting IRL – in real life – to differentiate between what’s happening online and offline. Or, you might have a conversation and say about an acquaintance, “We’re Facebook-friends,” as a way of differentiating between real friendship and what happens on the internet.

This isn’t a new issue. Sure, the internet has amplified it, but it’s not new to our generation or us. The addition of technology to communication has always blurred the lines between what is and isn’t real. Our brains are forced to adjust and accept the new input.

When writing was invented, words could suddenly be transmitted through space and time, divorced from any human relationship. That was an unthinkable departure from the communication that went before, where everything was face-to-face. But we adapted. We learned to incorporate writing, and then printing, into our cultural lexicon as a way to connect with people.

And a written letter is just as real as a printed book which is just as real as a face-to-face conversation.

Morpheus’ response to Neo: “If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.”

The internet is real, with real interactions with real people with real consequences. Just because it’s fast and faceless, doesn’t make it less real. But, just as a letter is no substitute for a conversation and a book is no substitute for a professor’s lecture, the internet is no substitute for face-to-face interaction.

We learned to use writing when we couldn’t be face-to-face. It filled a gap, gave us more range for our communication. But it didn’t then, nor does it now, provide more depth. I can write a Facebook message to a friend who’s going through a divorce, offering support and sympathy. But all that is far less than a hug could communicate.

I’m not comfortable saying that the internet is “less real” than any other form of communication, but it does lack something. It might be better to talk about engagement levels or levels of connection rather than reality. I am far more engaged and connected with a person when I’m face-to-face versus online. And it’s that high level of engagement and connection that builds friendships and gives us the chance to speak good news into the lives of people.

Essentially I see it as a signal-to-noise ratio. Online there’s a lot of noise, so the signal of relationship is very low by comparison. I can connect with people, speak good news to people and develop friendships through technology. But it will take much, much longer due to all the noise that’s competing with my signal.

Offline we have a much better signal-to-noise ratio and that’s preferable. But if I only have one option, I’m going to choose some signal versus no signal. If I can’t be face-to-face with my friend, I’ll send them a message on Facebook. It’s not the same as being there, but it’s far better than silence.

Every new piece of technology that we add to our communication forces us to change the way we communicate. The addition of the telephone to our cultural arsenal gave us myriad new ways to connect, but it also created its own culture. For example, how long are you supposed to wait to call a girl after you get her phone number? Or, when is it alright to call someone? After 6pm? After 9pm? Before 8am?

The internet is forcing changes on us again. It’s creating its own culture. The internet is filled with noise, sometimes we need to be the voice shouting a different message in the noisy crowd. Other times we need to take the message away from the noise so we can be heard.

But it’s all real.

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