Are We Losing Our Souls to the Internet?

Nov. 14, 2005
My friends, I want to ask you a serious question. Where are the pews in the First Universal Church of the Internet? How is it possible for us to worship at the altar of the First Universal Church of the Internet without an actual, physical place or any of the normal accoutrements of a human endeavor? Have we become so enamored with sitting at a keyboard, all by our lonesome and staring at a monitor that the Internet has begun to eat away at the heart and soul of our society?

My friends, I want to ask you a serious question. Where are the pews in the First Universal Church of the Internet? How is it possible for us to worship at the altar of the First Universal Church of the Internet without an actual, physical place or any of the normal accoutrements of a human endeavor? Have we become so enamored with sitting at a keyboard, all by our lonesome and staring at a monitor that the Internet has begun to eat away at the heart and soul of our society?

A recent experience on the Internet has given me pause to wonder about the strong negative impact of the Internet on the rich human tapestry of our world. Because of incidents like this one I have just undergone, I have begun to fear for the very existence of our world my friends. I fear that we are moving away from the rich texture of an interactive society to a world populated by individuals who hide in fear of ever having to interact with anyone.

As you might imagine, people are now hired by firms over the Internet without the barest touch of human contact. People are fired over the Internet in the same impersonal way. All of this goes on without the dirty and inconvenient necessity for human interaction which is caused by the need to talk to another individual and actually having to listen to them.

Have we gone too far down a wrong path? I am really beginning to worry that the convenience of the Internet is being used as an excuse for humans to totally isolate themselves from the rest of civilization. No muss, no fuss, and no need to soil your soul by speaking with another person. You have no requirement to care for others, therefore there is no need for a follow-up commitment to listen or pay attention to them.

Some of you may recall a commentary I wrote a couple of years ago about an individual in a volunteer fire company who was fired from his position as a Captain via an email message from his chief. I now know how this person felt. I was apparently fired the other day from a job without ever even being given the courtesy of an email message telling me that my services were no longer necessary. Heck that Captain did better than I did. He got something in writing.

Without going into details on the names or places involved, I was recently hired to do a job for a particular firm. I was retained to facilitate an on-line educational offering. It looked like a good deal. The tasks required of me were things with which I am intimately familiar. It seemed like a good way for me to share the knowledge I have gained over the past 41 years in the emergency service world.

I should have had my antennae up. The words of a dear friend are now ringing loudly and clearly within my mind. He has often cautioned me that if something seems too good and too easy to be true, then some is surely amiss. He was right. Once again these age-old words of advice have come home to roost like chickens in the henhouse of my life.

You kind folks out there have come to know me as a man who does not mince words. If something is wrong, I call it like I see it. In this case to which I now make reference, I found several things to be amiss and commented to the powers that be as the situation demanded. I guess these folks are not used to getting emails from a plainspoken person.

Apparently I was dealing with people who have skins and egos made of tissue paper. They also apparently have a deep and abiding fear of having to speak to another human. Once again let me state that I shall not tell you who they are or where they live. This commentary is not about pointing fingers. It is about my chosen mission of sharing the experiences of my life with you. I then leave it to you to draw your own conclusions.

Can you imagine beginning to teach a class and discovering that the syllabus and modules provided were from an old section of the course? It was disconcerting to say the least to see a minimum of congruence between the syllabus and the modules. I cannot tell you how much of my time was spent correcting problems and fielding questions from the students about these issues. Heck the reading assignments were from a previous edition of the same text.

My advice to the students in my section was to remain flexible, just like I wrote about in this very same area of a short while ago. I advised my students that I would grade their work on the quality of their product, understanding that there would be some minor difficulties. I also assured them that I was pitching a bitch to the school to get their act together.

I filed complaint after complaint. I asked for someone to please call me on the phone to discuss this serious issue. Not only did they fail to have the courtesy to call me on the phone, they informed me in a most clipped and impersonal email manner that they did not do that because everyone was working at remote locations. All I craved my friends was the simple courtesy of a human voice on the other end of the phone to whom I might pitch my bitch to in most personal way.

Nah! We don't need no stinking human beings to solve your problems. We have forms, computers, and procedures. We have no need for humans to speak to other humans. Well I guess they told me, didn't they. Heck, when I initially told them that there was a problem, their response was to change the modules without even telling me. Given all of my complaining, they only changed one module out of the whole group.

Well my friends, apparently the people running that program got really upset with good, old Harry Carter the other day. My students were continually pointing problems out to me and rather than guiding discussions, I was fielding gripes, like it was my fault. I was then passing them along to the institution.

It was at this point that I had had enough. I sent yet another bitch to the institution, via yet another nameless, faceless form. I think they took umbrage with one or two of my comments. It may well have been the paragraph, which included the following words. I really do not appreciate your "dumb-ass system" where humans are forbidden to speak to other humans. I further stated that I was concerned that my reputation might be tarnished by such shenanigans.

Apparently I struck a nerve somewhere in a nameless, faceless office. The first indication I received that something was wrong came when, as I was sitting down to do some work in my course-room, I noted an email from one of my students. Since it was from one of my learners, I took the time to read the message. Here is part of that message.

"Dr. C,

What happened? We now have a new instructor? What the heck is going on here? Please give me a call. Take care, my friend..."

As you might imagine, this interrogatory had an instantaneous impact. I immediately checked into the system, and guess what my friends? No more course to teach. Wow. I guess those folks are not masters of subtlety, any more than they are masters of courtesy, civility, or human communication. I steadfastly refuse to name the players in question. However, I learned my lesson. I shall do a heck of a lot more checking before I sign on to do anything more in the on-line world.

What disturbs me most is that this interaction is so different from the excellent experiences I had at Capella University in Minneapolis. I guess I was spoiled by the manner in which they took care of business. They had a telephone system to die for. Now I know that not all institutions are alike, but my experiences with these two institutions are so divergent as to make oil and water look like close friends by comparison.

Whenever I had a problem, I dialed 1-888-CAPELLA and help was only a couple of telephone keystrokes away. Best of all, the response was made by a real, live human being. More importantly, my mentor Dr. Bill Reed was always only a phone call away. Rare was the time when my phone calls did not solve the problem. It was a really great experience. I hope Capella does not lose sight of the vision which created it.

Trust me when I tell you that I see the benefit of an on-line learning environment. Many people do not have the availability of a residential program near them. Others cannot devote the time to traveling to class, so the need for these programs is obvious. I remember the ten years I spent attending class and working full-time. It was a real tough period of my life.

However, let me issue a warning to the business world that is creating these new learning opportunities. It all has to be about more than merely taking money and creating numbers of graduates. Unless the element of human interaction is injected somewhere along the line, I see the value of the on-line educational experience declining. I say this based upon the high quality of my on-line and human interaction experiences at Capella.

During my three residence periods at Capella, I came to meet some really great faculty members, as well as some neat fellow learners. We built an on-line community based upon a combination of Internet communications, personal interactions, and telephonic conversations. It was a valuable learning experience for each of us.

One of the great dangers of the Internet is its impersonal nature. Perhaps that is also why I am starting to question the negative direction that our society is taking. The fellow who sent me the message to tell me I was no longer his instructor shared a story during a follow-up phone call which seems to be symptomatic of what can go wrong in the Internet world.

He happened to pass one of his supervisors in the hallway of their fire station. That supervisor asked him if he had read the email which he had just sent to him. When my associate said that he had not seen the message that supervisor then asked my buddy to get back to him when he did.

Not once did the supervisor allude to the import of that message. He merely told the other man to read it and send him an email with his response. He then walked off leaving my buddy to wonder what that was all about. Was that supervisor so scared of telling a subordinate something that he raced away from a human interaction fearful of what might happen?

In a farewell email from one of my students, the sender covered a critical point that affirms my message to you about human interaction. He noted that he coordinated a program for his state. Here is part of his message to me. "In my program, the state gave me a cell phone so students can reach me. (It is) my personal feeling (that) access

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