This weekend at a youth event, I was asked to give a talk about protecting your spiritual life online.  Unsurprisingly, the first places that my mind went were to the Amsterdam-shaming back alleys of the web – the porn sites that we’ve all heard of and know of and some of us have become addicted to.  Granted, this does not qualify me as über-observant – it’s rampant, dangerous, and personal.

Naturally, I thought through this and into the world of objectification of people/women and how we often remove people’s humanity when it comes to things like pornography and lust.  It’s easy to treat people like inanimate things when we see them as things.  This has been at the center of these discussions for a long, long time.

As I got to thinking a little more about this, though, I realized that there are objects that I value and that have worth to me.  To say that we’re objectifying something doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re removing it’s value.  My computer, for example, is a very valuable object that is very important to me.  It let’s me work and make a living.  It provides entertainment and information.  My life is somehow richer because I have access to it.

Then, it’s not just the objectification of people that is at issue.

I remember playing a game on my phone called “Pocket God.”  It’s not so much a game really as a virtual world where you get to manipulate the environment of a bunch of crazy tropical islanders… and manipulate the islanders themselves.  You can throw them to the sharks, toss them in a volcano, or just poke them with the pointy finger of the god that you’re pretending to be.  When you kill enough of them off, the handy-dandy plus sign in the sky allows you to whimsically create more islanders to torture and/or love toughly.

These islanders are bits.  Simple, invaluable, plentiful bits.  Figures on a screen.

And they have no value.  They are virtual people that most people would say don’t exist or at least cease to exist when the screen is turned off.

It was this that struck me.

The danger to humanity in the internet age is not objectification but virtualization.  Of everything.  We have virtual relationships and virtual friendships.  We are far more willing to rip a virtual friend a new corn chute when we don’t have to look them square in the eyes.  We are far more willing to explore someone else’s body when it’s just a picture on a computer screen that could as easily have been drawn by a computer as photographed in real life.  Crime becomes inconsequential . . . maybe like a white lie, we commit white fraud or white defamation.

I have far more compassion for the friends I see every day (or the ones that I know are real even if I on see evidence of them online) then for the ones that flame my Facebook wall with disagreeing comments.

Sometimes, things matter. Before this gets passed over as overdramatic or an exaggeration, think about the fact that TV changed the way that families relate to each other and how we oriented our lives.  Every advance has had some effect.   Now we’re living in the reality where this generation will not know what it is like to live without the internet, and constant connections, and virtual friends.

So, the challenge is to find a face-to-face, heart-to-heart, relationship with another human being and to lose interest in how high the total of your friends list can go.  I believe that humans are most alive when they’re connected to the universe spiritually and to each other.  Some things weren’t meant to be reduced to bits and bytes.