Presence in the internet, aside from being virtual, is becoming more and more seamless and unified.
In the last John Paul II Youth Ministry and Catechetical Conference in Cebu, I was already talking about unified user accounts for web services that persist across platforms. Terms like single sign-on and projects like OpenID sprung up to consolidate user accounting in different web services from different sites and from different companies. In the evolution of the computer market from the desk to the mobile, office to the pocket, major IT companies have rolled out their solution to what could have been a digital version of schizophrenia, a mess of usernames and passwords for each subscription in the internet, a confusing stash of credentials bordering on identity crisis.
To ease out these perceived problems, companies like Google, Microsoft, Apple, and the like, have been strategizing to make user experience seamless, in the internet and across different devices. You can now sign-in to your Google Account and use Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Earth, and YouTube under one user account without having to sign in for each site. Your web preferences and settings are the same across them. Your bookmarks in Google Chrome or in Apple Safari synchronize between your PC, laptop, tablet, and phone. With OpenID you can now log-in to other services with your Facebook account or use your Google Account to avail of Microsoft Windows Live services.
It may appear altruistic for these competing capitalist companies but this brings economic benefits for them too. It means less maintenance for user accounting and richer information for them through usage statistics, user preferences, and social trends gleaned from tracking user activities and interactions. For each site you search for, visit, like, rate, recommend, or interact with corresponds to social weather datum these companies are hungry for.
What do they do with this much data? Companies backed by rich information on user habits has the competitive advantage to address adequately the market, build up image, and earn more profit in the not-so-long run. Facebook has been criticized for keeping to itself the rich social map and data in its servers. Google has long been analyzing contents in its mail servers, site click-throughs and search queries to make advertisement relevant for each individual.
This is the age of information. Abstract shaping what is concrete. Tangibles crossing the digital gateway to become intangible entities on LCD screens. Multinational companies now have IT teams to make sure their presence in the vast cyber world. Corporations and individuals have their own virtual presence in the net to extend their influence and presence far away from the physical world. Human consciousness has come to the age of abstraction and encapsulation, virtual interaction, and long distance but split-second communication.
What we don’t immediately realize is that these digital habits are also shaping the way we think. It was Marshall McLuhan who said that the tools shape the user. We all have heard of anecdotes about lives either fixed or broken by the web; real relationships melting down because of social networks or rediscovering friendships that had been buried under ages of dust. In the digital revolution, everyone is clamoring to be represented, nay, present in the virtual world. The fact of experience however sinks in. We can never be present in both the real and virtual world. Ultra-realists and technophobes have shunned the virtual to immerse in the real physical world. The newer generations favor virtual life for its impersonal and fluid nature sacrificing the joys of getting cuts playing in the fields or the sticky sweat of sports.
The human intellect, finite as it is, can never be present in one realm without being absent in the other. One cannot be present online without shying away from the real physical world. That’s the law of presence, choose one or be master of none. And it is in this crucial point of leveraging that personal values are put to the test. Educators may be too keen on jumping the online bandwagon to be present to their students even in the internet and finding out later that some aspects of education has been left behind. Parents who delve in too much into their children’s online activities have tasted the bitter backlash of being filtered out online and offline. The human being, in its unique nature of being both spirit and matter, is always in the question of finding the right balance between the abstract and concrete.
We religious have felt this tension in our communities ever since the cell phone has come into use in our ministries. Now that the internet is becoming ubiquitous, a wave that has permeated the monastery walls, as Fr. Chito Dimaranan has noted, boundaries dissolve and social dynamics are rethought. Even the ongoing digital revolution is shaping the Church.
Like any other technology that sprang from man’s ingenuity, the digital revolution improves upon or drags into oblivion many habits good and bad. The crucial question is what to keep and what to throw away. And so in the area of digital presence and its effect on your real presence in the physical plane, how much and how well did it further our good cause? I would like to hope that we are finding a level of consciousness that allows us to use our virtual presence to strengthen our real presence.
It is not enough to say hi and hello on social networks like Facebook. We also need to invest real quality time with the persons behind those virtual faces. Good thing our sense of touch reminds us of the tactile need to connect not just in thought but also by flesh. Even the God incarnate took pains to ensure that his presence is not just virtual but also a physical one. We can never substitute online presence for actual presence.
As the reach of the internet goes farther and farther into the fabric of human society, we may be drawn to the illusion of migrating the entire human consciousness online. It would be a better perspective to see it as complementing our real connections rather than entirely replacing it. The old saying rings true: keep your feet on the ground.