This third Sunday of every month is “With the Grain day”, which means that I take the Senior High class to a local coffee shop called With the Grain during what is normally Sunday School time. This gives me the chance to teach important lessons about good coffee and fresh baking, leading by example, of course.
This past Sunday, we were discussing some of the things that I raised in a recent post on Energy, Equity, and Encounter, issues related to walking and the opportunity to encounter those who live around us. I added to this some of the ideas that Jacques Derrida formulates in Echographies of Television, about being at-home, raising the possibility that one of the reasons we do not walk through our neighbourhoods is precisely because we are afraid to encounter our neighbours. Perhaps, I suggested, it is more comfortable for us to have images of our international, national, and communal neighbours broadcast to us through the television and the internet than it is for us to meet them on the street. Perhaps we prefer to stay in our own, home, in our own cars, in our own workplaces, precisely because we fear what an encounter with the other might mean.
One of my students then interjected something that I had never considered in this context before, but that nevertheless bears profoundly on the problem. He pointed out that, even when we are pedestrians in our neighbourhoods, as highschool students often are, we still find ways to prevent us from having to encounter those we meet: the cell phone, the ipod, the blackberry, or whatever, and I agree with this absolutely. I have always been critical of the ways in which these technical devices remove us from others, but I had never interpreted their use as a defence mechanism against the possibility of encountering others as such.
I am not arguing, of course, that all these technical devices necessarily prevent us from encountering others, and I even affirm the ways that they allow us to remain connected to others, though I intentionally contrast the idea of encounter with connection here. I am arguing, however, that the increase of mobile technology allows us to export beyond the walls of the home and the office the ability to isolate ourselves from possible encounter with the other. It extends our ability to replace encounter with connectivity. The ethical implications of this concern me greatly.