Beliefnet: You have some strong opinions about the Internet and its impact on relationships and the practice of religion.
Sam Keen: The whole idea of the information revolution--the Internet and the availability of instantaneous communication and endless information everywhere in the world--is a great Trojan horse mainly because we do not examine the assumption, "information is good."
There is no such thing as "plain data," and that's the great mistake. Every medium carries with it an intrinsic message; every medium carries a mythology with it. So the danger is to say, "Oh it's just a tool, it's just a medium, we can control it." It gets out of control.
Go back to one of the oldest myths in the Western culture, Plato's Cave. In that myth you have prisoners chained in such a way that all they can see are shadows on the walls. Plato's idea is that most of the time what we see are shadows of real things, which we take for real things.
So it doesn't matter what's on the [computer] screen, there are a lot of other things that you are not doing when you are looking at the screen. I think we've all seen the results of the studies that show that there is a direct relationship between the amount of time that people spend on the Internet and increasing social isolation and loneliness. All of the hype about Internet communities has to be balanced against what is not happening.
What doesn't come through the screen? Smell, taste, touch. In other words, none of the senses are stimulated by Internet access, except the sense of sight. So the great danger is that the Internet disincarnates us, takes us away from our bodies, away from our communities, away from our sensuality.
Beliefnet: Why do you suppose we're so easily seduced? Why don't we resist the disembodiment?
Keen: Seeing is a safe way of encountering something. That is why we prefer Walt Disney to nature itself. There is famous feminist, who will remain unnamed, who wrote a book about how marvelous nature is. Well she is terrified of spiders and you are not going to get her out of the city.
Beliefnet: Can't the Internet help to convey important stories and myth?
Keen: Not much.
Beliefnet: Why not?
Keen: Because the stories that influence people the most are told person to person. You have to see a story lived out. Here's where religious values come in. You don't get religious values by someone telling you a story. You get them because you feel the compassion of someone whose is a compassionate person. They're caught, not taught. Paul Tillich used to say, "Only a person can heal a person." Only a person can communicate fundamental religious values to another person There is a certain kind of religion that you can promote to a mass audience and that's fundamentalism because they are selling dogma, but essential religious values are transmitted in a congregation where people care for each other. On the Internet, how are you going to get the feeling of somebody caring for you?
Beliefnet: So you're saying in terms of religion and relationships that the Internet doesn't provide the personal connection that conveys values and beliefs.Keen: The work I did with personal mythology made me realize that we are our stories. The dilemma is that I really don't know my story until I tell it to you. I come into possession of my story in the telling of it. I'm only going to be able to tell you who I am in the context of intimacy because the things that are important about me I'm not going to reveal to a stranger. So a friend is somebody to whom you tell a lot. You tell even more to a lover and in that way get further and further away from the anonymous information of the Internet.
The internet is a marvelous resource, like a library but we're really overhyping its religious and humane possibilities. For example, Venezuela just had enormous floods. We know about the situation but I don't know how much that information made us more compassionate. It's not that there are no possibilities for the Internet, it's just that we have to realize what essential religious communication is about. It is about developing real empathy and compassion not just passing along information.
Beliefnet: So it sounds as if you might be open to the possibility that the medium might be able to be shaped in order to serve as a communication tool.
Keen: "Communication tool" is a dangerous phrase.
Beliefnet: How so?
Keen: I work a lot with people who are therapists and they always want to know what the tool is, what the technique is. There ain't a tool, there ain't a technique, you just learn to be as compassionate and as wise as you can; there's no trick.
Beliefnet: But don't you think that the operator of the technology has a great impact on how that technology is used? Don't you think that personal values can be communicated through the screen.
Keen: I think that's a very interesting question. I don't think that the answer is, "yes it can." Let's go back to a previous technology--the automobile. The automobile just snuck up on us and we said, we can go from one place to another and sure enough we can. It's true you can use an automobile to go visit friends but we forget that the automobile has become almost an impediment. People are always going somewhere and they aren't anywhere. We're not living with our actual neighbors, we're creating more and more virtual communities. There is a certain value in that I go see my friends but I see how our mania to be elsewhere destroys our ability to be here and to live in an actual place and to cherish that place.
Beliefnet: Naturalist and writer Terry Tempest Williams said one of the most radical things we can do is stay at home.
Keen: One of the most radical things a person could ever do is sit in a room by himself and think. If you give me the choice between people sitting by themselves and thinking, or getting on the Internet, I would say most people need to think a lot more.
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