In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King addressed fellow clergy on the evil of segregation. “All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality…. Segregation, to use the terminology of the philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I-it” relationship for an “I-thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things…. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong…. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement?” (King, 1963)
We are approaching a similar predicament today. We increasingly mediate our lives though personal technological devices, estranging ourselves from human contact and relations. As King warned, we no longer need external laws to separate and segregate, we have internalized and consumed their purpose, separating and segregating ourselves. We carry out what once were face to face relationships through third party devices. We remove ourselves from our elders, from their story telling, their home baked recipes, from fixing what is broken instead of buying new, from their language and culture. We remove ourselves from our children, too busy checking our own Facebooks and texting other people to talk to them.
King advised that unity, cohesion, and the integration of our moral character and social relations is never given to us by the forces that keep us divided. We must struggle against such separation and segregation ourselves. While we measure our “friends” based on the arbitrary number on our Facebook pages, our consumption of technological intermediaries actually limits our true friends to one…. the device itself.
For example, at an early age children need to hear adults’ constant stream of voice and language to develop their own. As they grow, they need a constant stream of interaction and discussion with us to develop and align their conduct and their values. Even when our texts and Facebook streams are “with them”, we have mounted an unsurpassable barrier in the relationship, a third party device.
Furthermore, the devices we estrange ourselves with are corporate. We are purchasing our own separation. And we are purchasing it from a small number of corporate elite who own the monopolies of Apple, Google, and Facebook. Our daily use of these devices prompts further purchases, with tactics including automatically generating advertisements tailored to our “needs” and desires, to the devices short lifetime of one to three years, and the constant pressure to “upgrade” to the newest model. To reinvigorate our relationships, and our communities, we must take the bull by the horns and develop these relationships “live time”, face to face. It might seem old school, but we must refuse to relegate our relations to the status of things. And start to develop practices of community, unity and integration with our children, our neighbors, our students, teachers, and elders.