In the past year, I’ve found myself speaking often at conferences about social media and the online world. I’m not sure how this has happened since I don’t consider myself to be a social media expert. There are plenty of people who do this much better than I do. I regularly communicate to people that I simply try to use the internet as a tool for engaging people and implementing the various passions in my heart.
I’m writing this post because of a common kind of question that arises in most places I speak. The question goes something like the following:
- Can we really be “present” with people online like we are in person?
- Doesn’t online presence diminish “real” human interaction?
Whether these kinds of questions are birthed out of curiosity, concern, or even skepticism, one must engage metaphysics (a philosophical discipline that studies such things as the nature of existence and reality) to navigate through possible answers. I will do my best to keep it as simple as possible, especially for those who may not have a background in philosophy.
My Presuppositions and Frame of Reference Entering This Conversation:
- I hold to substance dualism. This means that I believe that human beings have both physical (i.e., body) and immaterial (i.e., soul) properties.
- My immaterial soul is who I am. My physical body is the medium through which I interact with the physical world. Although my body is continually changing [ask my wife :)], my soul is what allows me to have a constant identity. My physically body is less essential than my soul when it comes to issues of identity. For example, say that John, who recently got in an accident, had to amputate his legs. Would he be less John than before? I doubt that any of us would ever dare to make that claim. John’s primary identity is not the accumulation of his physical parts. His souls gives him identity.
- I also recognize that people may define “presence” differently and carry various criteria for what constitutes presence. For the sake and context of this conversation, I’m referring to a common understanding of presence where people sense that you are with them to varying degrees of intimacy. Whether it’s intimate love or deep friendship, it’s the sense that the person you are being “present” with understands to some depth of who you are and what you’re going through.
My Hopes for This Conversation:
- I would like to make the case that our physical bodies are not necessary to be “present” with another human being in a “real” way. In fact, in some cases, separation by physical space can actually heighten our presence with one another.
- I am NOT making the case here that one kind of presence, whether in person or through a medium like the internet, is necessarily better than the other. My point here is that people can be “present” with another in a real kind of way without having to be spatially or temporarily (i.e., in real-time) there.
- I hope to at least rebut this notion that it is not possible to have “real presence” online as in person.
Presence and Space
In approaching this conversation, I think it’s important to consider the relationship of presence to space, time, and extension.
First of all, I believe that presence does not require us to be spatially present. I’m sure most of us have experienced a genuine sense of being “with” someone without physically being with them. Whether it was a phone call, video chat, voicemail, tweet, text message, status update, prayer, or letter, we have experienced a deep sense of connecting with another human being who may not have been physically present with us. In fact, has distance away from a loved one ever caused you to become even more endeared or present with those you love?
In addition, for those who hold to a theistic worldview, consider God’s presence. God the Father, who is by nature Spirit, does not have any physical properties. Therefore, is God able to be fully present in our lives? I would venture to say that most of us believe that he is in fact fully present. Therefore, presence is not limited to space.
(I am not arguing here about whether or not we are just like God. Although I do believe we were created in his image, which includes our ability to connect at an immaterial level, I’m simply pointing out the fact that presence does not necessitate space.)
The Apostle Paul in his letter to the Colossians wrote, “For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit and delight to see how orderly you are and how firm your faith in Christ is.” (Phil 2:5). In this case, Paul emphasizes how shares how he is present with the churches at Colossae even though he is not physically with them. I’m sure many of us have experienced a similar kind of present endearment with our loved ones, even if they were half-way around the world.
If you so desire, you can flip the scenario and give examples of times when we have been physically present with someone yet and fully there. Anyone?
Presence and Time
The beauty of presence is that it can be experienced after the fact. In other words, it doesn’t have to be real-time.
I was speaking to a friend of mine today reflecting on God’s goodness and presence in his life during his years of military service. He shared how he didn’t realize at the time of how God had protected and guided him several years ago. He came to realize later on, in a real way, the depth of God’s presence in his life.
Quite honestly, I don’t think most of us realize until after the fact of how present God or any other loved one was in our lives. Consider those who reflect on loved ones that have passed away. In many ways, the significant presence of a person is rarely recognized in its appropriate magnitude while the individual being honored is alive.
At a much smaller scale, consider all of the day to day points of information or news about people that reach us after the fact. And yet, it’s commonplace to be moved by people’s thoughts, events, and images as if they were physically near us. I would say that these could be (not always) genuine points of presence.
I’m sure that many who read the letters of the early Apostles felt their presence and connection. The technology of letters allowed them to connect in a real way.
Presence and Extension
I believe that a soul’s presence can be extended through physical objects. Here’s what I mean…
Our souls use our bodies as vehicles through which we extend our presence. For example, my voice is an extension of my presence as a soul to the external world. My voice, a physical sound wave, allows me to connect with those outside of my body. Do I need a voice to connect? Not necessarily. Nevertheless, the physical body can definitely impact the soul’s experience with the outside world.
In a similar way, the internet can function as extenders of our presence in a real way. The tools we see online can function as healthy or unhealthy extenders of our being.
(I’m not advocating for anything like pantheism here. I’m simply making the point that physical objects can function as vehicles for the soul’s expressive extension.)
Closing Thoughts: What are the Implications for the Online World?
The following is an abbreviated list of some of the implications I see for engaging the online world if indeed my perspective is true:
- The conversation must move beyond whether or not we should engage people online. The better question is “How will we engage others in a real way online?” and not “if we can engage…”
- If real presence is possible in an online setting, we must consider the weight of responsibility that comes along with presence. Online activity can and will have real ramifications for reality.
- The online conversation can no longer just be a side conversation or addendum to culture or even ministry. For example, those who brush off online presence as a secondary kind of presence will miss out on the numerous true/real opportunities and genuine friendships that await them.
I am not, in any way, saying that we should get rid of physical presence. I’m just hoping that this blog post will allow some to see that real presence can take place online, whether independently or as a compliment to physical presence.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts.