Virtually Together

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CATEGORY: Academics
TYPE: Articles
RELATED PROGRAMS: President

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Published in Macalester Today

By Brian Rosenberg

President Brian Rosenberg addressed the following remarks to the congregation of St. Paul’s House of Hope Presbyterian Church on “Macalester Sunday,” February 3, 2013.

Being here puts me in mind of the inexorable passage of time. When I last assumed the role of preacher in this place, my two sons were boys. Now they are young men. I had yet to congratulate my fourth class of Macalester graduates, and this May I will congratulate my tenth. The Colts were hours away from defeating the Bears 29 to 17 in the Super Bowl. Lehman Brothers and Borders existed and the iPhone and Twitter did not. And, in the unlikely event that you have forgotten, my topic that day was the meaning and importance of higher education.

This morning in 2013 my topic is different.
In recent months I have been prompted by occasions of loss and deep sadness to think more about the nature of community. These months have seen an unusually high number of those I care about grow ill or pass away or be felled to their knees by overwhelming grief. Some of this, I know, is a consequence of my own aging and the inevitable aging of close friends and acquaintances. But aging does not explain the loss at the start of the school year of a 19-yearold Macalester exchange student in an accident only a mile from where we sit, or more recently the almost inconceivable loss of the beautiful 20-year-old daughter of friends and colleagues in an accident on the other side of the world. To me, nothing explains such things.

For many of us, grief begets reflection about the most profound and elusive concepts: love and faith, fairness and chance, friendship and family. And I have indeed thought about each of these things. But I keep returning to the subject of community, perhaps because it is so frequently discussed in my own particular professional sphere and because I have become so distressed at signs of breakdowns in community that threaten many of the things in which I most passionately believe.

Turn on the television, if you must; watch the news, if you dare; and ask yourself if we appear to be creating the kinds of communities in which we want our children and grandchildren to live. Ask yourself if the fact that we can be exposed to more information more rapidly and make our thoughts public with the click of a mouse or the touch of a screen has made us behave with more wisdom and civility. Ask yourself if being able to so easily find groups of like-minded individuals has made it more likely that we will empathize with those whose perspectives are different from our own.

It is both easy and tempting to imagine a future in which technology will allow us to do away with many of the forms of direct personal contact that have long established the basis of community. We need no longer be on the same continent, let alone in the same room, to have face-to-face conversations. We no longer need even to have met someone to consider him or her a “friend” as that term has been redefined by social media. If we telecommute, we no longer need to be in a room with our coworkers, and if we take an online course we no longer need to be in the same room as our teacher. We can shop without seeing a salesperson. We can speak volumes, and all too often we can shout, while concealing our identities beneath avatars and user names and aliases. We can in fact move daily through an entire world without experiencing what would have been defined only 20 years ago as direct human contact. One could make a credible case that the nature of community has changed more fundamentally during the past two decades than during the previous two millennia. When I began my own academic career not so very long ago, there was no e in front of the word mail.

There is much to admire and embrace within this brave new world. I love the fact that I could see my older son from the comfort of my living room while he was studying in France. I love doing my Christmas shopping in my pajamas. I am in awe of the deep new forms of learning being created at Macalester through the imaginative use of technology. I am humbled by students’ ability to manage and manipulate information in ways I cannot even begin to comprehend. I recently returned from a trip to Silicon Valley, where I visited Macalester alumni at the headquarters of Facebook and Google and came away impressed not only by their brilliance but by their commitment to making the world a better place. There is both wonder and a sense of inevitability in what we see unfolding so rapidly around us.

But while there is much here to inspire excitement, there is also much to inspire caution. Technology has the power to expand and democratize knowledge and services and to make essentials like health care and education available to millions for whom they are now out of reach. In that sense it has the power to create a more just and prosperous global community. But it also has the power to reinforce current inequalities and to create new ones.

In this country, and especially and sadly in Minnesota, there are enormous and growing disparities that threaten our prosperity and our civic life: disparities that begin with educational opportunity and expand to include income, health, safety, freedom, and hope. I have gone so far as to describe the existence of two Minnesotas: the one most of us in this room get to experience and the one experienced daily by many who live only blocks away.

While technology has the power to weave together these two Minnesotas and eliminate many of the differences, it also has the power to pull them further apart. It is not difficult to imagine a future in which those with means attend colleges like Macalester, rich above all in human contact, and those without means are taught on-line; in which those with means visit doctors’ offices and those without receive medical advice via computer; perhaps even one in which those with means worship in beautiful sanctuaries like House of Hope and those without join virtual spiritual communities.

The same tools, in other words, that have the power to reduce inequities also have the power to increase them. The difference between these two outcomes lies not in the tools themselves but in the determination and goals of those who wield them. We will decide whether technology shrinks or expands the yawning gulf between the most and least fortunate in our state, our country, and our world. We will decide whether technology strengthens or dissipates community. We will decide whether reality becomes a luxury good.

I referred earlier to moments of grief and deep sadness. Such moments, experienced alone, are nearly unendurable. So in healthy communities we gather together to experience them with others, to provide comfort and begin the process of healing, knowing that healing may never be complete. Why do we do this? We do it because the touch of a hand, the look of caring in an eye, are what define us as human. “Stable communities,” according to Kurt Vonnegut, are places in which “the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.”1 Both those experiencing grief and those providing comfort are vulnerable to that disease, and both draw strength from the curative power of gathering together. And such power is not confined to times of sadness but is equally necessary in times of great joy. Thus we gather, too, to celebrate births and marriages and graduations: to sing, to dance, to cry out with pleasure. There are few forms of loneliness more profound than experiencing joy alone.

Wendell Berry has written: “I believe that the community—in the fullest sense: a place and all its creatures—is the smallest unit of health and that to speak of the health of an isolated individual is a contradiction in terms.”2 The question, then, is whether the new virtual communities we’re creating are indeed units of health. My honest answer is, I don’t know.

We know that such communities are larger and faster and cheaper. To build an online college or an online church costs a fraction of what it costs to build a campus or a cathedral. This does matter. But at what price do we purchase these savings? Nate Silver, our first celebrity statistician, has found evidence that when people hold strongly partisan beliefs, more information actually leads to less agreement.3 Information, which technology provides in abundance, is not enough in itself to create community. Creating community requires interacting in ways that break down the barriers our beliefs incline us to construct and the information we choose reinforces.

I am the president of the kind of college whose time, some believe, is soon to pass: a place of physical classrooms, green spaces, an actual library, rooms where people gather to eat and talk and play. That access to such a place has become so expensive is a problem; that so few young people experience such a place is unfair.

But is the answer to this unfairness eliminating some of the most enriching and inspiring settings we can create? It seems appropriate on Macalester Sunday to say this: The fundamental value of our college lies in how it brings together people from all over the country and the world to create a community with strong and lasting bonds. In such a community we learn better, live better, and undergo a more profound transformation than we would alone.

Perhaps this will one day be supplanted by a world of massive open online courses, each of us gazing in solitude at screens. Our teachers, classmates, and friends will be measurable in pixels. If so, something of great value will have passed away. I hope instead that we can create a future in which places like Macalester are preserved but made more affordable and accessible through the technological tools the human mind continues to provide us.

Allow me to offer you one last quotation, from Henry David Thoreau. “I have heard,” Thoreau wrote, “of a man lost in the woods and dying of famine and exhaustion at the foot of a tree, whose loneliness was relieved by the grotesque visions with which, owing to bodily weakness, his diseased imagination surrounded him, and which he believed to be real. So also, owing to bodily and mental health and strength, we may be continually cheered by a like but more normal and natural society, and come to know that we are never alone.”4

Now, I do not believe that the virtual community is either grotesque or diseased, though at times one might think so after reading some of the anonymous comments posted. But I do believe that such communities are to real human contact as visions are to reality: a simulacrum, a likeness. Like visions, they can be beautiful or frightening, instructive or distracting. Like visions they come at nothing like the cost of actual experience. But also like visions they are in the end bodiless, and the fulfillment they provide is fleeting. Like the visions of the man in Thoreau’s tale, they can sustain us when no actual human contact is possible, but they should never be seen as an adequate substitute for that contact.

The eyes I want to gaze into are moist; the hand I want to touch is warm; the crowd I want surrounding me at times of sadness and joy is comprised of people whose names— whose actual names—I know. There is a place for the virtual, without question, and I admire those who are expanding and exploring it. But if we are to remain rooted in community, if we are to combat together that “terrible disease of loneliness,” that place must to be supplement and not to supplant that which is real.

Brian Rosenberg is the president of Macalester College. He can be reached at

1 Kurt Vonnegut, Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage (New York: Ramjac, 1981), 235. Originally spoken in a commencement address at Hobart and William Smith Colleges on May 26, 1974.
2 Wendell Berry, “Health is Membership,” in The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays (New York: J. H. Richards, 2002), 146.
3 See Nate Silver, The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail—but Some Don’t (New York: Penguin, 2012), 13.
4 Henry David Thoreau, Walden; or Life in the Woods (1854; New York: Sterling, 2010), 151-52.

PUBLISHED: 04/25/2013