Quotable: James K.A. Smith, the social imaginary of the iPhone

“The iPhone brings with it an invitation to inhabit the world differently–not just because it gives me access to global internet resources in a pocket-sized device, but precisely in how it invites me to interact with the device itself. The material rituals of simply handling and mastering an iPhone are leaded with an implicit social imaginary. To become habituated to an iPhone is to implicitly treat (sic) the world as ‘available’ to me and at my disposal–to constitute the world as ‘at-hand’ for me, to be selected, scaled, scanned, tapped, and enjoyed.”

James K.A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom, 143.

The numbing of the American mind: culture as anesthetic

This article from Harper’s is really good for understanding the relationship between technology and a lack of empathy. A few samples:

It was to have been the end of irony, remember? Superficial celebrity culture was over; a new age of seriousness was upon us. Of course, the way media celebrities focused on their own mood as the consequence of September 11 was in itself an irony so marvelous you knew immediately how wrong they were. And sure enough, the spotlight never wavered. It went on shining as it always had, on those it was meant for–on them. A guarantee of continuing superficiality right there, quite apart from unintended irony.

So we shared Dan Rather’s pain, marveled at intrepid Ashleigh Banfield, scrutinizing those ferocious tribal fighters through her designer specs, and Tom Brokaw, arbiter of greatness among generations, took us on a tour of the real West Wing. But these iconic moments swam into focus only momentarily, soon to be swept away in a deluge of references, references so numerous, so relentlessly repeated, that they came at last to constitute a solid field, a new backdrop for all our public performances. How often did you hear, how often did you say, “Since the events of 9/11”? A new idiom had been deposited in the language, approaching the same plane of habituality as “by the way” or “on the other hand.” And in the process we got past it after all. Six months or so was all it took. The holidays came and went, and–if you were not personally stricken by the terror of September–chances are you got over it. You moved on.

The moreness of everything ascends inevitably to a threshold in psychic life. A change of state takes place. The discrete display melts into a pudding, and the mind is forced to certain adaptations if it is to cohere at all.

When you find out about the moving cursor, or hear statistics about AIDS in Africa, or see your 947th picture of a weeping fireman, you can’t help but become fundamentally indifferent because you are exposed to things like this all the time, just as you are to the rest of your options. Over breakfast. In the waiting room. Driving to work. At the checkout counter. All the time. I know you know this already. I’m just reminding you.

Which is not to say you aren’t moved. On the contrary, you are moved, often deeply, very frequently–never more so, perhaps, than when you saw the footage of the towers coming down on 9/11. But you are so used to being moved by footage, by stories, by representations of all kinds–that’s the point. It’s not your fault that you are so used to being moved, you just are.

So it’s not surprising that you have learned to move on so readily to the next, sometimes moving, moment. It’s sink or surf. Spiritual numbness guarantees that your relations with the moving will pass. And the stuffed screen accommodates you with moving surfaces that assume you are numb enough to accommodate them. And so on, back and forth. The dialectic of postmodern life.

Under that agreement, stress is how reality feels. People addicted to busyness, people who don’t just use their cell phones in public but display in every nuance of cell-phone deportment their sense of throbbing connectedness to Something Important–these people would suffocate like fish on a dock if they were cut off from the Flow of Events they have conspired with their fellows to create. To these plugged-in players, the rest of us look like zombies, coasting on fumes. For them, the feeling of being busy is the feeling of being alive.

Partly, it’s a function of speed, like in those stress dramas that television provides to keep us virtually busy, even in our downtime. The bloody body wheeled into the ER, every personjack on the team yelling numbers from monitors, screaming for meds and equipment, especially for those heart-shocker pads–that’s the paradigm scene. All the others derive from it: hostage-negotiator scenes, staffers pulling all-nighters in the West Wing, detectives sweeping out of the precinct, donning jackets, adjusting holsters, snapping wisecracks. Sheer speed and Lives on the Line. That’s the recipe for feeling real.

The irony is that after we have worked really hard on something urgent for a long time, we do escape numbness for a while–stepping out of the building, noticing the breeze, the cracks in the sidewalk, the stillness of things in the shop window. During those accidental and transitional moments, we actually get the feeling of the real we were so frantically pursuing when we were busy. But we soon get restless. We can’t take the input reduction. Our psychic metabolism craves more.

Actually, stress dramas are about the lives of the media people who make them. They purport to be about hospitals or law firms, but they are actually about what it is like to make TV shows, about high-stakes teamwork in the land of celebrity, where, by definition, everything matters more than it does anywhere else, a land that welcomes diversity and foibles as long as The Job Gets Done, a land where everything personal, unconditional, intimate–everything unbounded by the task–takes place on the side. That’s why, in these shows through which the celebrated teach the rest of us how to be like them, the moments of heartfelt encounter that make it all worthwhile are stolen in the corridors of power, while the verdict is awaited. If we get that real-folks-rushing-to-get-out-of-the-house-in-the-morning scene, it’s just to underscore the priority of the Flow of Events that protects the busy from being left alone in the stillness with what makes it all worthwhile. Lest direction be lost, motion must be maintained.

So life in a flood of surfaces means a life of perpetual motion, and TV provides the model in other modes as well. Take the transitions from story to story in newscasts, that finishing-with-a-topic moment. “Whether these supplies, still piling up after weeks of intense effort by these humanitarian workers, will actually reach the victims (pause) remains to be seen.” A hint of a sigh, a slight shake of the head, eyes down-turning; the note of seasoned resignation. Profound respect is conveyed for the abandoned topic even as a note of anticipation rises to greet the (also interesting, but less burdensome) next topic–and the new camera angle at the anchor desk makes it clear that stern and external necessity, rather than any human agency, governs the shift from two minutes on mass starvation to the next episode of The Fall of the House of Enron.

Judy Woodruff is especially good at this, her particular little head nod, or shake, as the case may be, and the way her lips tighten up a tad. “If it were up to me as a human being I would never leave this coverage of thousands of dying innocents, but, as a newscaster, of course, I have to.” And her speaking voice says, “All right, Jim, we have to go to a break now, but we will be following this story as it develops–and thanks again.” “Thank you, Judy,” says Jim, echoing her gesture, and we understand that he, too, as a human being, would never allow us to move on from so ghastly and demanding a reality, but it isn’t up to him as a human being either. It isn’t up to anybody, actually. That’s the one real reality. Moving on.

Read On

ht: Jesse Van Der Molen

Quotable: Tolkien, Sam

Frodo after a few mouthfuls of lembas settled deep into the brown fern and went to sleep. Sam looked at him . . . Frodo’s face was peaceful, the marks of fear and care had left it; but it looked old, old and beautiful, as if the chiselling of the shaping years was now revealed in many fine lines that had before been hidden, though the identity of the face was not changed. Not that Sam Gamgee put it that way himself. He shook his head, as if finding words useless, and murmured: ‘I love him. He’s like that, and sometimes it shines through, somehow. But I love him, whether or no.’

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994, 638.

I cannot help but rewrite this section in my mind to a more modern reading.

“As Frodo laid down to sleep, Sam took the opportunity to play Bejeweled.”

“Informing Ourselves to Death,” Neil Postman

“We may well ask ourselves, then, is there something that the masters of computer technology think they are doing for us which they and we may have reason to regret? I believe there is, and it is suggested by the title of my talk, “Informing Ourselves to Death.” In the time remaining, I will try to explain what is dangerous about the computer, and why. And I trust you will be open enough to consider what I have to say. Now, I think I can begin to get at this by telling you of a small experiment I have been conducting, on and off, for the past several years. There are some people who describe the experiment as an exercise in deceit and exploitation but I will rely on your sense of humor to pull me through.

Here’s how it works: It is best done in the morning when I see a colleague who appears not to be in possession of a copy of The New York Times. “Did you read The Times this morning?,” I ask. If the colleague says yes, there is no experiment that day. But if the answer is no, the experiment can proceed. “You ought to look at Page 23,” I say. “There’s a fascinating article about a study done at Harvard University.” “Really? What’s it about?” is the usual reply. My choices at this point are limited only by my imagination. But I might say something like this: “Well, they did this study to find out what foods are best to eat for losing weight, and it turns out that a normal diet supplemented by chocolate eclairs, eaten six times a day, is the best approach. It seems that there’s some special nutrient in the eclairs — encomial dioxin — that actually uses up calories at an incredible rate.”

Another possibility, which I like to use with colleagues who are known to be health conscious is this one: “I think you’ll want to know about this,” I say. “The neuro-physiologists at the University of Stuttgart have uncovered a connection between jogging and reduced intelligence. They tested more than 1200 people over a period of five years, and found that as the number of hours people jogged increased, there was a corresponding decrease in their intelligence. They don’t know exactly why but there it is.”

I’m sure, by now, you understand what my role is in the experiment: to report something that is quite ridiculous — one might say, beyond belief. Let me tell you, then, some of my results: Unless this is the second or third time I’ve tried this on the same person, most people will believe or at least not disbelieve what I have told them. Sometimes they say: “Really? Is that possible?” Sometimes they do a double-take, and reply, “Where’d you say that study was done?” And sometimes they say, “You know, I’ve heard something like that.”

Now, there are several conclusions that might be drawn from these results, one of which was expressed by H. L. Mencken fifty years ago when he said, there is no idea so stupid that you can’t find a professor who will believe it. This is more of an accusation than an explanation but in any case I have tried this experiment on non-professors and get roughly the same results. Another possible conclusion is one expressed by George Orwell — also about 50 years ago — when he remarked that the average person today is about as naive as was the average person in the Middle Ages. In the Middle Ages people believed in the authority of their religion, no matter what. Today, we believe in the authority of our science, no matter what.

But I think there is still another and more important conclusion to be drawn, related to Orwell’s point but rather off at a right angle to it. I am referring to the fact that the world in which we live is very nearly incomprehensible to most of us. There is almost no fact — whether actual or imagined — that will surprise us for very long, since we have no comprehensive and consistent picture of the world which would make the fact appear as an unacceptable contradiction. We believe because there is no reason not to believe. No social, political, historical, metaphysical, logical or spiritual reason. We live in a world that, for the most part, makes no sense to us. Not even technical sense. No social, political, historical, metaphysical, logical or spiritual reason. We live in a world that, for the most part, makes no sense to us. Not even technical sense. I don’t mean to try my experiment on this audience, especially after having told you about it, but if I informed you that the seats you are presently occupying were actually made by a special process which uses the skin of a Bismark herring, on what grounds would you dispute me? For all you know — indeed, for all I know — the skin of a Bismark herring could have made the seats on which you sit. And if I could get an industrial chemist to confirm this fact by describing some incomprehensible process by which it was done, you would probably tell someone tomorrow that you spent the evening sitting on a Bismark herring.

Perhaps I can get a bit closer to the point I wish to make with an analogy: If you opened a brand-new deck of cards, and started turning the cards over, one by one, you would have a pretty good idea of what their order is. After you had gone from the ace of spades through the nine of spades, you would expect a ten of spades to come up next. And if a three of diamonds showed up instead, you would be surprised and wonder what kind of deck of cards this is. But if I gave you a deck that had been shuffled twenty times, and then asked you to turn the cards over, you would not expect any card in particular — a three of diamonds would be just as likely as a ten of spades. Having no basis for assuming a given order, you would have no reason to react with disbelief or even surprise to whatever card turns up.

The point is that, in a world without spiritual or intellectual order, nothing is unbelievable; nothing is predictable, and therefore, nothing comes as a particular surprise.

In fact, George Orwell was more than a little unfair to the average person in the Middle Ages. The belief system of the Middle Ages was rather like my brand-new deck of cards. There existed an ordered, comprehensible world-view, beginning with the idea that all knowledge and goodness come from God. What the priests had to say about the world was derived from the logic of their theology. There was nothing arbitrary about the things people were asked to believe, including the fact that the world itself was created at 9 AM on October 23 in the year 4004 B.C. That could be explained, and was, quite lucidly, to the satisfaction of anyone. So could the fact that 10,000 angels could dance on the head of a pin. It made quite good sense, if you believed that the Bible is the revealed word of God and that the universe is populated with angels. The medieval world was, to be sure, mysterious and filled with wonder, but it was not without a sense of order. Ordinary men and women might not clearly grasp how the harsh realities of their lives fit into the grand and benevolent design, but they had no doubt that there was such a design, and their priests were well able, by deduction from a handful of principles, to make it, if not rational, at least coherent.”

Did Iraq invade Kuwait because of a lack of information? If a hideous war should ensue between Iraq and the U.S., will it happen because of a lack of information? If children die of starvation in Ethiopia, does it occur because of a lack of information? Does racism in South Africa exist because of a lack of information? If criminals roam the streets of New York City, do they do so because of a lack of information?

Or, let us come down to a more personal level: If you and your spouse are unhappy together, and end your marriage in divorce, will it happen because of a lack of information? If your children misbehave and bring shame to your family, does it happen because of a lack of information? If someone in your family has a mental breakdown, will it happen because of a lack of information?

I believe you will have to concede that what ails us, what causes us the most misery and pain — at both cultural and personal levels — has nothing to do with the sort of information made accessible by computers. The computer and its information cannot answer any of the fundamental questions we need to address to make our lives more meaningful and humane. The computer cannot provide an organizing moral framework. It cannot tell us what questions are worth asking.

Here is what Henry David Thoreau told us: “All our inventions are but improved means to an unimproved end.” Here is what Goethe told us: “One should, each day, try to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it is possible, speak a few reasonable words.” And here is what Socrates told us: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” And here is what the prophet Micah told us: “What does the Lord require of thee but to do justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God?” And I can tell you — if I had the time (although you all know it well enough) — what Confucius, Isaiah, Jesus, Mohammed, the Buddha, Spinoza and Shakespeare told us. It is all the same: There is no escaping from ourselves. The human dilemma is as it has always been, and we solve nothing fundamental by cloaking ourselves in technological glory.

Even the humblest cartoon character knows this, and I shall close by quoting the wise old possum named Pogo, created by the cartoonist, Walt Kelley. I commend his words to all the technological utopians and messiahs present. “We have met the enemy,” Pogo said, “and he is us.”

Neil Postman, “Informing Ourselves to Death”

"Not Many of You Should Presume to Be Bloggers", John Dyer

Can one blog about this article?

At Christianity Today, “Not Many of You Should Presume to Be Bloggers,” by John Dyer

Theology Before Facebook, Theology After Facebook
Throughout the history of public theological debate, there was one constant—those debates only took place between a few select people—Moses, Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, and so on—who gained respect through a lifetime of scholarship.

But the invention of social media, like blogs, Twitter, and Facebook, created a radical departure in communication. In pre-2004 Christianity (that is, Christianity before Facebook was invented), only a small group of Christian leaders and teachers had access to the printing press—but today everyone has WordPress. In pre-2004 Christianity it was difficult to become a published author, but today everyone is surrounded by dozens of “Publish” buttons.

Every time we log into Facebook it asks us, “What’s on your mind?” Twitter wants to know, “What’s happening?” When controversies large and small erupt, there are devices in every direction begging us to not just take a side, but to declare our position on the largest publishing platform ever constructed by humanity.

Not Many of You Should Presume to Be Bloggers
What few of us realize is that when we press those “Publish,” “Post,” “Comment,” and “Send” buttons, we are making the shift away from merely “believing” truth and stepping into the arena of publishing that belief. In doing so we are effectively assuming a position of leadership and teaching that prior to 2004 was not available to us.

James warned us, “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1, NIV1984). James goes on to graphically portray the incredible power that our tongues have both to praise and to curse especially in the context of teaching. He then says, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life.” (James 3:13). Solomon echoes similar wisdom, “Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent” (Prov. 17:28).