Networked Loneliness: the Paradox of Smartphones and What it Means for the Church

Smartphones are not just about the device and the user, and yet, what happens when civic spaces become saturated with this very logic?

The website on place, The Atlantic Cities, published an article last year about the shift from traditional mobile phones to smartphones. In an interview Tel Aviv University's Tali Hatuka, the article drew particular attention to the effect that smartphones had in privatising space. Our shared spaces, once seen as opportunities to engage one another (governed by certain publically negotiated rules of engagement) have now become broken up into private bubbles where the smartphone's main functions, chats, social networking and the like - essentially private functions - reign supreme. Under such conditions, suggests Hatuka, the private and the atomised have torn through the fabric of the public and shared. People can now bypass each in a public square whilst staring at their own facebook page.

The reasons why social networking is simultaneously making us less social is explained incredibly concisely in a video by Shimi Cohen entitled The Innovation of Loneliness. The paradox the video points out is simple, the more social networking saturates the social space, the more atomised the social body becomes. As "connections" become substitutes for "conversations", the video suggests, the more the social retreats into a series of electronic padded rooms known as "status updates", "tweets" and "comboxes".

If it is true that space is being eviscerated by the saturation of the market by smartphone, then this will be of significant not just of civic but ecclesial bodies as well. As thinkers as ancient as Augustine and as recent as the French social theorist Michel de Certeau suggest, the Church will always occupy spaces that are owned by some other social body. 

Furthermore, as Pope Francis' first encylical Lumen Fidei reminds us, the light of faith comes also in our traversing through space, a space that is essentially shared with believer and non-believer alike. For faith is not just enclosed within concepts, but embodied within practices, and practices occupy space. The enclosure of shared spaces - whether by smartphones, privacy laws or other measures - will present a serious challenge to the faith at the level of praxis.

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