It seems like only yesterday we were lauding the role technology played in unleashing the Arab Spring and now we lament its role in a deadly Arab winter of violence and mass hysteria. An obscure amateurish 14-minute movie trailer, dubbed into Arabic and uploaded to YouTube goes global, sparking flash mobs, the destruction of foreign consulates and the deaths of our Libyan ambassador and members of his staff.
Afterward, al-Qaeda leaders in Yemen issued a statement that went viral throughout the Arab world, exhorting Muslims to kill ambassadors and burn embassies. Protest, rioting, and violence follow in over 20 other countries. Revolution can sound positive and even romantic if it supports our side, but it often feels like a mob when we are then attacked. Facebook Revolution, meet YouTube Mob. Twitter, camera phone, text, email and viral video technology make us faster, but not necessarily less foolish.
For many years, we have hoped and even assumed that as the world became better educated and informed our shared understanding would enhance relationships. Implicitly, it seemed the powerful technology revolution that distributes instantaneous communication around the world would somehow heal and unify us.
Yet the reality is that a world with access to more, quicker information is a very dangerous place. Information technology is not a substitute for constructive relationships. In fact, in elevating the role of information and technology, in many ways, we have demoted traditional relationship- building. We meet less face-to-face and we talk less by phone as we are seduced into the efficiency and immediacy of more tweets, texts, email. As essayist Nassim Taleb has reminded us, beyond a certain point, more information does little to improve the quality of our judgments but much to increase our confidence -- and too often our arrogance.
While it is easy to condemn what is going on in Libya or Egypt, we are missing the larger picture if we ignore how American culture is also devolving into an uncivil relationship divide. In the financial world, some worry we are on the road to insolvency like Greece. In the relational world it is legitimate to worry we are on the road to the social tumult of the Middle East.
If technology were such an unmistakable force for connection and understanding, why during the most rapid technology advances ever are we witnessing the costly destruction of relationships at home, work, in politics and faith?
The fraying of relationships is not just taking place on the diplomatic front, or between new governments and their people, or between peace-loving democratic peoples. It is taking place all over America -- in our homes, at work, in politics and religion. In many cases, our relational dysfunction is being accelerated by misuse of technology. Not because technology is evil, but because we are outsourcing the hard work of relationship-building to the convenient default of technology.
Children have TVs, laptops and smart phones, but no fathers; 50 percent of children born to those under 30 in 2012 will be to unwed mothers, with poverty rates five times those born to married couples. Consumers have incredible product choices but buy from corporations that 86 percent trust less than five years ago and from whom they are defecting at a 30 percent higher rate than just a few years ago.
Voters dial-up talk-radio, cable news and blogs invested in, profiting from, and dedicated to the fight that offers just the one-sided facts, opinions and shouting matches that reinforce their lust for feeling affirmed and superior. These voters then turn around and lament the downgrading of the country’s credit rating due to partisan gridlock. No wonder defections from the two political parties have doubled over the past 50 years. Fight, meet flight.
In the meantime, organized religion, filled with expressed intent for relational healing, finds itself repeatedly in giant food fights (think Chick-fil-a) while defections from their ranks double over the past two decades. As writer Anne Lamott said, “You can safely assume you have created God in your own image, when it turns out he hates all the same people you do.”
Technology is not the savior of the Arab Spring and it is not the culprit in the Arab winter. The solution begins with taking on the heavy lifting of investing in productive relationships as our highest end and subordinating technology to its place as a powerful means. At the height of sectarian violence in the Iraq War, General Peter Pace, USMC retired, then head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said: “If the Iraqi people as a whole decided today that, in my words now, they love their children more than they hate their neighbor … this could come to a quick conclusion.”
We must decide to love what unites us more than we hate what divides us, lest we become the relationship dysfunction in this country that we abhor elsewhere. It necessitates getting faster at building relationships and slower at acting like fools.
Robert Hall is a noted author, consultant, and speaker on relationships. He is the author of This Land of Strangers: The Relationship Crisis That Imperils Home, Work, Politics and Faith. www.RobertEHall.com.