I read an article in our local newspaper recently that highlighted the friction between the social networking proselytizers and the social networking resistance. The reporter noted that social networking sites like MySpace, LinkedIn, and Facebook seemed to be the last frontier of cyberspace for most baby boomers, and now, finally, they were beginning to fully explore and set up camp. Even though their children and grandchildren had not only set up camp in this part of cyberspace, but had built lavish houses complete with green lawns and white picket fences, they found there was still plenty of room for them. There has been some resistance to social networking sites because of the fears such sites will replace real relationships, but a representative of one of these sites noted that most people don’t have time for face-to-face relationships anyway, and didn’t have them to begin with. Social networking sites have given very busy people the chance to connect with others who have similar interests and backgrounds around the world, crossing thousands of miles at the click of a button, giving them at least some semblance of social interaction where previously there was little to none. In other words, the pace of life we have established for ourselves has made face-to-face relationships obsolete, and virtual technology will become the only way to maintain relationships. It has created a new context for a new kind of relationship that makes space and place irrelevant, a kind of relationship that is inevitable if you want to fully live in the world and keep up with the pulse of progress.

It’s easy to understand why the resistance gets nervous if you take this line of thought to the next step. Hop on this train of social networking now – otherwise you’ll be left alone and friendless, because soon all your friends and family will be socializing on the computer, and if you’re not there, they won’t have the time to make a phone call or stop by to say hello. Do we really understand the implications of making geography irrelevant? Those schooled in ethics and religion (another archaic body of knowledge that isn’t terribly relevant anymore either) will recognize the tendency toward gnosticism – the belief that the physical is bad and only pure spirit is good. “Proselytizing” is indeed the appropriate word for those who promote social networking as inevitable or an uncomplicated good, because assuming virtual relationships are an adequate stand-in for physical relationships leads down the slippery slope of a clear belief system – our physical bodies are primarily  OBSTACLES to our being most efficient and most successful in the world. It is not a far fall from “obstacle” to “burden” to “evil.”

But on behalf of the proselytizers (most of whom have no ill intent at all – technology/progress has become their god, and they are merely its servant), this new world of virtual relationships surely isn’t detrimental in and of itself, and surely is a relief to those who truly have been too busy for friendship. In a larger context, new frontiers are irresistible to each new generation of Americans – even though each new generation is convinced that they are utterly different than their parents and see things completely differently, history has shown us that the new generation has always been propelled toward the new frontier, just in a different context. In the 17th and 18th century, it was the New World itself. Then it was westward expansion. Then it was space exploration. Simultaneously it was atomic exploration – a world that unfolded more and more with each new discovery. And now, it is cyber-exploration. People are creating new worlds in this new frontier, like Second Life and the myriad virtual gaming worlds out there, at least partially in pursuit of this impulse to explore and discover.

I would never disparage that impulse to discover. And I do believe this new frontier differs markedly from the others in that it is not tangible. But the real problem is that from the beginning, this impulse towards exploration, especially in its American expression, is entangled in the clearly UNHELPFUL impulse towards impatience. A fundamental impatience has characterized our impulse towards exploration, in that we are always trying to do things faster and “overcome” the limitations of the natural processes of nature, which simply take time. This is gnosticism – it didn’t arrive with the internet, although the internet certainly is a clear example. That impulse has been there all along. And all of us, right at this moment, are forced to make a value judgment, even if we believe social networking is benign and largely neutral – do we believe having a physical body and living in a precise time and place is primarily bad, or primarily good? Will we channel our energies towards overcoming this reality, or become comfortable in our own skin?

If technology is simply a tool, we can assess how it is helpful or unhelpful in certain contexts. But we must also assess the character of those who wield it. If we as technology-wielders are fundamentally impatient – with ourselves and with others – this inner characteristic wars directly with our reality as physical beings in a precise time and place. We live in a constant battle between needing to do things as quickly as possible and living in a body that takes eighteen years to mature, living in world where a seed takes months to bear fruit, and living in a universe where good work sometimes takes decades or generations to bear fruit or even be visible. I happen to believe that our physicalness was part of what was created good in us. But all of us will have to make our own decision about that, and soon. Someday soon there will be a crossroads where you will be forced to choose, if we haven’t reached that crossroads already.