Links Post 18/02/17

Links from the last week.

 

‘The Great Shame of Our Profession’. Brilliantly scathing piece on an immensely important issue:

You have asked me to speak to you today about literary criticism, and so we might note that the conditions ravaging our profession are also ravaging our work. The privilege of tenure used to confer academic freedom through job security. By now, decades of adjunctification have made the professoriate fearful, insular, and conformist. According to the AAUP, adjunct faculty are about half as likely to undertake risky research projects, and the timidity moves up the ladder. “Professionalization” means retrofitting your research so that it accommodates the critical fads that will make you marginally more employable. It means cutting and adding chapters so that feathers remain unruffled. Junior faculty play it safe—conceptually, politically, and formally—because they write for job and tenure committees rather than for readers. Publications serve careers before they serve culture.

Akhilesh Pillalamarri: Must We Have a ‘Melting Pot’? A thought-provoking piece. However, I have a few reservations about his arguments. Perhaps the greatest of these is the failure to distinguish between the very different sorts of diversity that pertained in more traditional societies and the diversity of modern individualistic multiculturalism. For instance, traditional sorts of cultural diversity were seldom about diversity as such, but about the socially choreographed interactions between certain very specific cultures, each of which had to keep in its proper place relative to the others. There were typically clear regional, class, caste, professional, or other boundaries between cultural or religious communities, boundaries that would be enforced by the state and other parties. Different cultures would also have legal, cultural, political, and geographic spaces in which to retain their distinctions.

There would often also be an imperial hegemony of one particular group over all others. It is also noteworthy that societies that protect a very specific interplay of distinct cultures are often among the most sceptical of and resistant to diversity and multiculturalism as such, or to indiscriminate immigration. National ecosystems can be fragile things and the interactions between the distinct groups within them can be radically unsettled by the influx of other parties.

Via Scott Alexander, Why We Culturally Profile. A long post calling for scepticism towards Muslim immigration, especially in its European form. Even beyond the security state and stifling of public life that have been encouraged by large scale Muslim immigration and the terrorism that has tended to accompany it, this raises difficult questions. The fact that there is such a groundswell of opposition to Muslim immigration in Europe is not an accident. Cultural and religious differences are real and don’t seem to be vanishing. Many Europeans are justifiably troubled and cynically accusing them of being racist or Islamophobic for drawing attention to uncomfortable realities is not an answer. Until we can honestly and directly address the particular concerns that people have about Muslim immigration and Muslim immigrant populations in particular, forthrightly wrestling with the facts and the prudential challenges that exist in this area, parties on the further right in Europe will continue to rise. What we really seem to need is a more pragmatic form of liberalism that recognizes the particularity of our historic cultural identities, the importance of liberal values for our societies, recognizes the importance and particularity of the socio-cultural foundations for those values, recognizes the challenge Muslim immigration presents to those foundations, while also recognizing that Muslims are already a part of our societies and are our neighbours. The right, for its part, must recognize that, even if immigration stopped overnight, Europe has been demographically transformed and we must make the new reality work for everyone, rather than nostalgically yearning for the past. Whatever injustices and failures might have led to this point, there are millions of Muslims who belong in our countries as our compatriots. While this does not mean that our countries’ native and historic cultures should be denied or reduced to just one option in a multicultural society, it does mean that we should beware of speaking in ways that either invalidate the rights of our Muslim neighbours that have been legally obtained or which fundamentally compromise our duties of hospitality and neighbourliness to them. For their part, the progressive left must recognize the empirical challenge to its orthodoxies about diversity and universalism and start to appreciate its own cultural contingency and that of liberal values more generally. This requires something beyond what either the left or the right are generally currently offering.

Interview with the historian Robert Tombs, on, among other things, British identity post Brexit.

4chan: The Skeleton Key to the Rise of Trump. This piece gets certain important dimensions of the gender dynamics wrong, but it gets a lot more right and is well worth a read.

These Conservative Christians Are Opposed to Trump—and Suffering the Consequences. I have mixed feelings about this piece, especially reflecting on what it does and doesn’t mention. Someone like Russell Moore would seem to be an obvious person to mention here, but it focuses almost exclusively on much less prominent women, which makes me wonder whether there is an implicit—and perhaps rather tendentious—story behind the story.

John Milbank: The Problem of Populism and the Promise of a Christian Politics

‘Every Racist I Know Voted For Donald Trump’. Particularly worth reading for Daryl Davis’ advice for changing opponents’ minds.

Donaeld the Unready’s Twitter account is a hoot.

Ben Sixsmith: A.C.’s Failings. ‘Appeals for reason are paper darts on the walls of human behaviour.’

Womanhood Redefined. Interesting exploration of the collision of transgenderism and certain forms of feminist ideology.

Scott Alexander follows up his post on Cost Disease with a post with highlights from its comments, accompanied with a few of his own further reflections.

Spotted Toad: Hubel, Wiesel, and Sensitive Periods. Some interesting reflections on the process of learning.

How to raise a genius: lessons from a 45-year study of super-smart children

Emmett Rensin: You Don’t Know Hannah Arendt. Criticizing facile appeals to Arendt in the current political context.

Terrorism Denial on the Left

Young People and Free Speech

Reconstruction of a Train Wreck: How Priming Research Went Off the Rails. Make sure that you read Daniel Kahneman’s response in the comments too: it is a notable example of scientific virtue.

Watching Wikipedia’s extinction event from a distance. Wikipedia as a dying coral reef.

Maryland ponders dangerous ‘affirmative consent’ proposal. The modern concept of consent in relation to sex is an increasingly problematic one.

Record numbers of couples living in sexless marriages in Japan, says report

Stop Freaking Out About CRISPR! (Except For One Thing). Although organisms in the wild are developing resistance to gene drives.

How the Battle Lines Over CRISPR Were Drawn

Major report prepares ground for genetic modification of human embryos

Gene editing, clones and the science of making babies. The ethical myopia attending many of these new developments is concerning.

Could we one day make babies from only skin cells?

Anxious Chinese parents cause gene testing boom as they try to discover young children’s talents

Elon Musk: Humans must merge with machines or become irrelevant in AI age

Rolls-Royce plans to launch crewless ships by 2020

The Science That Could Make You Crave Broccoli More Than Chocolate

Via Scott Alexander: Scientists Have Confirmed a Brand New Phase of Matter: Time Crystals

Humans Killed the Aral Sea. Now It’s Come Back to Life.

Scientists discover ‘Zealandia’—a hidden continent off the coast of Australia

In one year, 12 trillion locusts devastated the Great Plains—and then they went extinct

Collapse of Aztec Society Linked to Catastrophic Salmonella Outbreak

Dear Warren: Bill and Melinda Gates’ 2017 Annual Letter.

Americans Express Increasingly Warm Feelings Toward Religious Groups

Guildford Cathedral faces ‘probable closure’

8 Ways to Read (a Lot) More Books This Year. If you are really serious about reading more books, what are you doing looking at this list of links?

Momentous Historical Firsts That Happened Way Before Most People Think They Did

Bad Map Projection: Time Zones

Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra: The Story Behind John Piper’s Most Famous Attack on the Prosperity Gospel

Douglas Wilson: When Envy Tells

Scot McKnight: The Soul of Evangelicalism: What Will Become of Us?

Ian Paul:
Church Teaching and LGB Mental Health
On Synod, Sexuality, and not ‘Taking Note’

Matt Smethurst posts the video of Sam Alberry addressing the Church of England General Synod earlier this week

Andrew Wilson:
Trinity and Akedah
10 Reason You Should Read Fleming Rutledge’s ‘The Crucifixion’
What Happened to the Absurd?

Matt Colvin: Focalization in Genesis 8

J. Budziszewski: Is Toleration a Virtue?

Jake Belder: On not calling people ‘nominal’ Christians

Derek Rishmawy: Perichoresis in Aquinas: Fruit, Not Foundation

Alan Jacobs has a stimulating series of posts on the building of the tabernacle and Temple, en route to a theology of technology. Lots of thought-provoking observations and arguments, although I disagree strongly with some of them. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Peter Leithart:
Science of Division
Time Out of Joint
Art, Divine and Human
Allotments
Passivity and Freedom
Descartes, Nihilist
Slackers
Living Sacrifices
Architecture of Fancy
Slow Grow
Anthropology of Deficiency
On Separating Church and State
The State After ’68

Keeping Up With the Kattarshians—Live Kittens! Here’s one of their camera views:

See also the work of Tiny Kittens and their live videos here.

Weta Workshop Sculptor’s Labyrinth Model

Will Arnett: LEGO Batman Toy Shop Prank (I’m seeing LEGO Batman tomorrow and am rather excited about it…)

Incredible LEGO Wall Installation

Primitive Technology: Forge Blower

Do you have any thoughts on any of the issues raised above?

The comments of this thread are also free for you to:

  • Discuss things that you have been reading/listening to/watching recently
  • Share interesting links
  • Share stimulating discussions in comment threads
  • Ask questions
  • Put forward a position for more general discussion
  • Tell us about yourself and your interests
  • Publicize your blog, book, conference, etc.
  • Draw our intention to worthy thinkers, charities, ministries, books, and events
  • Post reviews
  • Suggest topics for future posts
  • Use as a bulletin board

Over to you!

 

Posted in Links | 12 Comments

Podcast: Reviving the Worship Wars

Mere FidelityOn this week’s episode of Mere Fidelity, Derek, Matt, Andrew, and I discuss the place that music and song have within our worship as the Church. We explore the divisive character of music in the Church, its proper telos, and how we could improve our practice.

You can also follow the podcast on iTunes, or using this RSS feed. Listen to past episodes on Soundcloud and on this page on my blog.

Posted in Controversies, Liturgical Theology, Music, Podcasts, Theological, Worship | 7 Comments

Links Post 11/02/17

Links from the last week.

The question of America’s identity has obviously been a live one over the last few months. David Brooks writes:

In that story, America is placed at the vanguard of the great human march of progress. America is the grateful inheritor of other people’s gifts. It has a spiritual connection to all people in all places, but also an exceptional role. America culminates history. It advances a way of life and a democratic model that will provide people everywhere with dignity. The things Americans do are not for themselves only, but for all mankind.

C.S. Lewis’ cautions would seem to be relevant here:

Patriotism has, then, many faces. Those who would reject it entirely do not seem to have considered what will certainly step—has already begun to step—into its place. For a long time yet, or perhaps forever, nations will live in danger. Rulers must somehow nerve their subjects to defend them or at least to prepare for their defence. Where the sentiment of patriotism has been destroyed this can be done only by presenting every international conflict in a purely ethical light. If people will spend neither sweat nor blood for “their country” they must be made to feel that they are spending them for justice, or civilisation, or humanity. This is a step down, not up. Patriotic sentiment did not of course need to disregard ethics. Good men needed to be convinced that their country’s cause was just; but it was still their country’s cause, not the cause of justice as such. The difference seems to me important.… If our country’s cause is the cause of God, wars must be wars of annihilation. A false transcendence is given to things which are very much of this world.

Ross Douthat has some helpful thoughts on the question of America’s identity crisis:

Given this story’s premises, saying that’s not who we are is a way of saying that all more particularist understandings of Americanism, all non-universalist forms of patriotic memory, need to be transcended. Thus our national religion isn’t anything specific, but we know it’s not-Protestant and not-Judeo-Christian. Our national culture is not-Anglo-Saxon, not-European; the prototypical American is not-white, not-male, not-heterosexual. We don’t know what the American future is, but we know it’s not-the-past.

But the real American past was particularist as well as universalist. Our founders built a new order atop specifically European intellectual traditions. Our immigrants joined a settler culture, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant, that demanded assimilation to its norms. Our crisis of the house divided was a Christian civil war. Our great national drama was a westward expansion that conquered a native population rather than coexisting with it.

See also Robert Merry: The Profound Question Behind the Immigration Debate.

Emily Deruy: The Myth of Immigrant’s Educational Attainment. No real surprises here. High achieving immigrant groups will tend to be products of more selective immigration policies. Children in such groups will have both significant genetic and familial culture advantages.

Matthew Loftus: Green Card Holders in the City of Man. Loftus tackles some of the issues surrounding immigration. I’ve written in response to him on the subject before (see the comments here). It is an important debate.

Now a piece on areas where the American preoccupation with the ‘who are we?’ question can become positively toxic. The Non-Racism of American Evil:

The pervasive idea that the amount of good and evil the US does in the world can be determined by the amount of racism exhibited by the people running the US government and military is totally unsupported by the last fifteen years, and the Nazi analogy is not helping us. Chuck Schumer weeping over refugees but voting for each of the military adventures that forced the refugees from their homes is not helping us. We are neither the bulwark against a rising tide of 1930s-style fascism nor can we “convince” Yemen to turn into Sweden by being nice to their distant cousins here. We have legal and moral obligations to Islamic American citizens, and we have obligations to try not to set the world on fire, as the world’s central military power. But putting everything through a lens of racism and “how much like Hitler is this guy?” doesn’t do anybody any favors, analytically or morally. America has done and will almost certainly continue to do a lot of evil—it’s a fallen world, how could we not?—but we seem to be able to do it without much racism just as well as with.

Spot on. As I argued in a recent post, the more that we are guided by a sort of narcissistic virtue ethics played out on the specious screen of the mass media and our social media, the more our preoccupation with our identities as they are projected there will eclipse the actual reality and shape of the moral tasks before us. Good and well-meaning people can be the cause of incalculable evils in the world.

Some fascinating new research on the genetic origins of people from various American regions. Scott Alexander, who reviewed David Fischer’s book Albion’s Seed last year, comments on its relation with this new research here. More thoughts from Jayman (who has written at length on human biodiversity in North America) here. This whole area of research is hugely important and exciting, but must be handled with caution.

In other fascinating recent work on human biodiversity: Irish travellers are as genetically different from settled Irish as Spanish.

Another significant post from Scott Alexander, this time on the troubling questions raised by ‘cost disease’. The Baumol effect would seem to explain part of it (and wages alone are only part of the picture, as employers provide many other things for their employees), as would the increasing number of staff relative to people using the services in question (my primary school had two teachers and a caretaker for a school with over fifty students spread out over eight years). Megan McArdle suggests that part of the problem might be our instinct to provide costlier forms of care (education, healthcare, etc.) to signal concern. One thing that is recommended in the comments (and also in this post) is the idea of making college degrees a protected characteristic, so that employers can no longer discriminate on that basis (as the modern degree is increasingly primarily a status good). This would almost certainly drive down the price of education markedly. Unfortunately this may not be possible, since, as the same commenter observes, anti-discrimination legislation prevents employers from filtering employees as they would like and colleges may be valued for performing this task for them.

A further piece from Spotted Toad, this time on the place of Harry Potter in the liberal imagination: Getting Your Owl. Although I am increasingly of the ‘Read a Different Book!’ camp, there are some things to be said in favour of Harry Potter (which I continue to appreciate, despite the annoying undeath of its author, its wide-eyed fans, and the irritating ubiquity of references to it). It is particularly striking to see the way that this fictional work, its world, and its characters provide a lens through which so many young people come to understand and articulate their identities and process events (I’ve been meaning to write something on the phenomenon of fan fiction at some point). It is a reminder of the potential power of even fictional stories in our lives. In an age where much of our traditional cultural canon has been neglected or rejected, or mummified by literary criticism in the grand academic mausoleums of our society, it is wonderful to see the unity of imagination that a widely loved work can forge from unguarded hearts. We need to learn to treat Scripture similarly.

Alan Jacobs on the replacement of institutions by platforms:

the majority will accommodate themselves to the faceless inflexibility of platforms, and will become less and less capable of seeing the virtues of institutions, on any scale. One consequence of that accommodation, I believe, will be an increasing impatience with representative democracy, and an accompanying desire to replace political institutions with platform-based decision-making: referendums and plebiscites, conducted at as high a level as possible (national, or in the case of the EU, transnational). Which will bring, among other things, the exploitation of communities and natural resources by people who will never see or know anything about what they are exploiting. The scope of local action will therefore be diminished, and will come under increasing threat of what we might call, borrowing a phrase from Einstein, spooky action at a distance.

More on the fragility of platforms.

Harry Pottash reflects upon ‘Identity Affirming Society’ (or SJWs to their critics) and its relationship to moral foundation theory, among other things: One Sacred Trick for Moral Regeneration.

New Dead Sea Scrolls Cave Discovered

R.R. Reno: A Dissolving Age

The Truth About Propaganda

Heterodox Academy: Campus Speaker Disinvitations: Recent Trends (Part 2 of 2)

The Real Message Behind Audi’s Super Bowl Ad Isn’t Exactly An Uplifting One. I did a double-take reading this one, as it was so reminiscent of The Last Psychiatrist blog.

Not ‘Lone Wolves’ After All: How ISIS Guides World’s Terror Plots From Afar

Robin Hanson on some neglected big problems

Utopia is Creepy. The Art of Manliness interview Nicholas Carr.

The Fool on the Hill. Alan Jacobs on the value of having people in our communities without Internet connections.

Microaggressions: Strong Claims, Inadequate Evidence. There are encouraging signs of people pushing back against key aspects of prevailing theory that are unsubstantiated by actual scientific research.

Deborah Soh asks whether gender feminists and transgender activists are undermining science.

Possibly the Most Exhaustive Study of ‘Manspreading’ Ever Conducted. On gendered body language. I’m unconvinced by those simply blaming ‘the patriarchy’ for this. Socialization is an important part of the picture. However, socialization doesn’t operate upon blank slates, but upon pre-existing sexed and physical tendencies, accenting or diminishing them. Our presence is bodily, bodies and their differences (especially sexual) are meaningful, and these meaningful differences can be particularly expressed through communicative acts of body ‘language’. Some such acts can be oppressive and inconsiderate (for instance, when someone pointedly uses their greater height to intimidate someone else), but many are fairly natural expressions of our bodies’ own meanings. ‘Manspreading’, depending on the context, could be either.

The Invisible Workload That Drags Women Down (more related links and, frequently angry, discussion here). This seems like one of the many, many areas where both men and women taking typical sex differences more seriously might help us out. Unfortunately, putting this all down to socialization, toxic masculinity, and the patriarchy just tends to produce excessive anger. On average, men and women relate to their homes and relationships in rather different ways from each other and this probably has something to do with sexed psychological factors. The fact that boys disproportionately like action figures and construction toys as kids and girls disproportionately like things such as dolls and dolls’ houses is probably not unrelated to this and has a lot less to do with cultural gender norms than most suppose. Our immediate surroundings can be extensions of ourselves, but men and women often tend to look for different things from their favoured surroundings. On account of their typically far more demanding standards—standards by which they find themselves judged by their peers and others—when it comes to the domestic context, women are at risk of ending up having to do the overwhelming majority of the work themselves, while men may be stifled by women’s standards that prevent them from enjoying the messier environment that a home ordered towards their favoured activities might create. Far more consideration and thought on both sides—but particularly on men’s side—to the possibility that the other sex typically experiences the world differently might make a difference here: both sexes could respect and be mindful of the other’s standards and concerns, without imposing their own standards and concerns as the absolute. There is good reason why many homes often have an implicit primarily ‘ownership’ of different rooms, with women setting the standards for the main rooms, while men might retreat to less public extremities of the house to enjoy their home activities in male reservations (sheds, ‘man caves’, basements, attics, personal offices, etc.).

Michael J. Lewis: What Jane Jacobs Saw

Book review: Dent’s Modern Tribes, by Susie Dent. Countdown has long been a favourite show of mine and Susie Dent is my favourite person on it.

Church ‘regret’ as trainees hold service in gay slang

Ian Paul: Were the Shared Conversations just a Con? In response to a post by Miranda Threlfall Holmes on the sexuality debates in the Church of England.

Also from Ian Paul: Is Evangelical Theology Abusive?

Serial Killers Should Fear This Algorithm. Tackling unsolved crimes with software.

India doesn’t seem to have achieved a just response in its response to the serious problem of rape in the country.

Students in American colleges seem to be facing a similar challenge.

Antibiotic resistance: evolution without trade-offs

A surprising number of people can’t recognize faces—sometimes even their own

How Rachel Carson Cost Millions of People Their Lives

Chinese factory replaces 90% of human workers with robots. Production rises by 250%, defects drop by 80%

Climate change is political and there’s nothing wrong with that

Bumblebees are dying out because they are too fat to mate

Why the Planet Earth II Episode on Cities is so Startling

This Newly Discovered Gecko Can Literally Squirm Right Out of its Skin

What Cats Can Teach Us About How to Live

Doctor Mengele and All Creatures Great and Small

Can We Eradicate Bullying in Schools?

How Model Trains Transformed From Cutting-Edge to Quaint

Russians Engineer a Brilliant Slot Machine Cheat—And Casinos Have No Fix

Indian cricketer Mohit Ahlawat scores T20 triple hundred

What Do Europeans Think About Muslim Immigration? These figures surprised me.

Presenting options simultaneously helps people make more optimal decisions than presenting options sequentially

The 100 Jokes That Shaped Modern Comedy; 100 More Jokes That Shaped Modern Comedy. Informative, but a reminder of why I don’t find much modern comedy very entertaining.

Steve Hays reflects on the ‘apostasy’ in the film Silence.

Tony Reinke: Justin Taylor’s Tweet Rant. (Not that) Justin Taylor on how the current political climate may change people’s usage of social media.

Ben Blackwell: Christology between the NT and Nicaea: Justin Martyr

Josh Gillies:
A Life Most Divine: Karl Barth and Divine Simplicity
Two Brief but Powerful Arguments Against Everyone Going to Heaven

Andrew Wilson summarizes some of Fred Sanders’ cautions about claims of Christophanies in the Old Testament. Sed contra, the appearances of Christ in Old Testament ‘Christophanies’ are as different from incarnation as the appearance of the Spirit in the form of a dove is different from a mission of ‘columbination’. The body of Christ isn’t just a vehicle for the incarnation as an appearance, but the very object of Christ’s mission. Christ’s body is conceived by the Holy Spirit, the seed of David in Adamic flesh, born of the Virgin Mary, circumcised in the Temple, baptized in the Jordan, hungry in the wilderness, transfigured on the Mount, given in bread and wine, taken in the garden, scourged by the soldiers, crucified at Calvary, pierced in the side, its bones unbroken, gives up the ghost, is laid in the tomb, is raised on the third day, appears to many, ascends into heaven, and is opened into a site of communion through the gift of the Spirit. The story of our salvation is the story of Christ’s body.

Eric Hutchinson: The 10 Commandments are the Foundation for Protestant Ethics

Charlie Clark reviews Radicalism: When Reform Becomes Revolution

James Jordan: The Structure and Typology of the Bathsheba Incident

Jake Belder: You Don’t Need to Hear the Whole Sermon Each Week. Encouragement for parents of young children.

Peter Leithart:
Rival Tidinesses
Subversive Psalmody
Divine Double-Talk
God as Artist, Artist as God
God’s Wounds
Fair Nature’s Second Chance
Silence of Painting
Near Miss at Marburg
Horticultural Anthropology
Authoritarian Gardeners

Justin Taylor:
Frederick Douglass on the hypocrisy of antebellum churches
Why I would like to see a moratorium on using the word ‘literal’ when it comes to biblical interpretation

Dr Carl Trueman’s Lectures on the Reformation on Youtube

The latest ‘nightmare-inducing’ Boston robots

The most satisfying video in the world

Plants use an Internet made of fungus

I’m not a robot

Do you have any thoughts on any of the issues raised above?

The comments of this thread are also free for you to:

  • Discuss things that you have been reading/listening to/watching recently
  • Share interesting links
  • Share stimulating discussions in comment threads
  • Ask questions
  • Put forward a position for more general discussion
  • Tell us about yourself and your interests
  • Publicize your blog, book, conference, etc.
  • Draw our intention to worthy thinkers, charities, ministries, books, and events
  • Post reviews
  • Suggest topics for future posts
  • Use as a bulletin board
  • Etc.

Over to you!

Posted in Links, Open Mic | 26 Comments

Podcast: Silence, with Brett McCracken

Mere FidelityOn this week’s episode of Mere Fidelity, Matt and I are joined by Brett McCracken for a discussion of Martin Scorsese’s new film, Silence, which Brett reviewed for Christianity Today.  The film, an adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s famous novel of the same name, explores difficult and challenging themes and raises unsettling questions for the Christian viewer. Our conversation, which is packed with spoilers, seeks to excavate some of the film’s message and to grapple towards an assessment and response.

You can also follow the podcast on iTunes, or using this RSS feed. Listen to past episodes on Soundcloud and on this page on my blog.

Posted in Apologetics, Christian Experience, Church History, Culture, Ethics, In the News, Podcasts, Theological, What I'm Watching | Leave a comment

Matt Lee Anderson on Being Pro-Life

My friend and fellow Mere Fidelity cast member Matt Lee Anderson had a piece on the subject of the pro-life focus on abortion over on Vox. It is well worth your time. The following are a few selected quotations:

But for the pro-lifer, that “clump of cells” is as wondrous, as potent, as mysterious as, well, the cosmos. The recognition of the “baby” induces a hushed reverence. The universe once appeared out of nothing, a fact that reasonably seems to induce the strange vertigo of awe, but the formation of a new human being is not so different from this. The embryo contains a whole world of possibilities and adventures. The “newcomer,” Hannah Arendt once wrote, “possesses the capacity of beginning something anew.” For those weary and afraid, the opportunity for a new start that the embryo announces momentarily refreshes their spirits.


These natural reverences permeate the pro-life movement’s ethos. While many pro-lifers are at home speaking the language of rights and respect required for democratic political discourse, we are — if our own rhetoric is at all truthful — animated by something much nearer to love. We cannot shed ourselves of the sense that there is something too powerful, something too good about the human being, to make its life or its death a matter for our choice. It is better for the embryo to go on existing, for it and for us and for the cosmos whose beauty new human life adorns and deepens.


For the pro-lifer, there is no clearer instance of the marginalized, the voiceless, and the vulnerable than in the womb — and no more profound source of wonder at the limitless possibilities that human life is capable of achieving. The early embryo looks nothing like us, has none of our capabilities, drains the mother’s resources, and often requires the mother to sacrifice many of her interests. If in these conditions one can see something worthwhile, something that can be a benefit or a blessing to the world even when unwanted, then one can start to glimpse why pro-lifers are so animated and so patient in their efforts.

Read the whole piece here.

Posted in Ethics, Links, Sex and Sexuality, Theological | 4 Comments

Links Post 4/02/17

Links from the last week.

Fr Aidan Kimel quotes an interview with Oliver O’Donovan on subjects such as preaching politically:

It is less important that those who hear you should concur in your conclusions than that they should respond positively to the principles from which you reason. When I address political questions I almost always adopt an exegetical form of sermon-structure, follow my text and the argument that arises from it, until it points irresistibly to some theologico-political principle. Then, in the lightest way possible, I give concreteness to the principle by showing how it bears on the public issue in question. Usually I do not bother to indicate my own view; it will be evident enough from the argument. If anyone disagrees with me, I hope that person will have been helped to articulate a more authentically Christian response, one which will take seriously the issues of principle I have raised. Everyone needs to come out with a clearer sense of what is unnegotiable for Christian conscience, and what, by contrast, is merely a matter of differing emphasis or differing interpretation of a given situation.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb: The Most Intolerant Wins: The Dictatorship of the Small Minority

The main idea behind complex systems is that the ensemble behaves in way not predicted by the components. The interactions matter more than the nature of the units. Studying individual ants will never (one can safely say never for most such situations), never give us an idea on how the ant colony operates. For that, one needs to understand an ant colony as an ant colony, no less, no more, not a collection of ants. This is called an “emergent” property of the whole, by which parts and whole differ because what matters is the interactions between such parts. And interactions can obey very simple rules. The rule we discuss in this chapter is the minority rule.

The minority rule will show us how it all it takes is a small number of intolerant virtuous people with skin in the game, in the form of courage, for society to function properly.

An important insight, with application to the current sexuality debates, for instance.

J. Budziszewski: Interiority

Some pieces in response to the paper I linked last week on six-year-old girls and brilliance. Stereotypes can hold boys back in school, too. Some important stuff here, but stereotype threat is looking increasingly shaky as a concept, so we should beware of it. Was that new Science paper hyped and over-interpreted because of its liberal message? Quite probably, but we should beware of jumping to correlations ourselves. More generally, it can be good to be suspicious of stories that too closely fit the prevailing cultural narrative, and especially in cases where only one possible result could be published or certain ready explanations cannot even be explored. This is a principle with broad application in a media and social context as partisan as ours. There is a great deal of ‘research’ and ‘reporting’ to tickle the prejudices of whatever side you might be on.

Slate Star Codex blogger Scott Alexander defends his past posts on Donald Trump

Pope Francis and Donald Trump: the same man?

The Roots of a Counterproductive Immigration Policy

47% of Jobs Will Disappear in the next 25 Years, According to Oxford University

The jobs you will be doing in 10 years

What new technologies carry the biggest risks?

Blue Feed, Red Feed. Liberal and Conservative Facebook feeds side by side.

Race gaps in SAT scores highlight inequality and hinder upward mobility

The Rise and Fall of European Meritocracy

The ‘Weirding’ of Sex

Time Well Spent. Designing new technology around users and their values.

The opera-loving sisters who ‘stumbled’ into heroism

AI just won a poker tournament against professional players. I guess that’s the beginning of the end for online poker.

The Tricks of Blindfold Chess

The nuclear bunkers designed for luxury living

Greek teachers in epic battle to save classics: ‘Teachers in Greece have criticised plans by the left-wing government to scrap the mandatory study of Ancient Greek tragedy in high schools and introduce instead classes on gender and sex education, saying that this could bring about the end of classical studies.’

Microcephaly patient Ana Carolina Caceres: ‘I survived’

First Genetic Results From Scott Kelly’s Year In Space Reveal DNA Mysteries

Robots could help solve social care crisis, say academics

Streetview of Eastern State Penitentiary

Has the term ‘British’ lost all meaning? If and when the union breaks up, I will be fascinated to see how ‘English’ identity will develop and how immigrants will self-define, as ‘English’ is a far less open identity to non-native peoples.

Love in the Time of Capital. Stimulating interview with Eva Illouz [HT: Matt Petersen]

Rod Dreher: Hillbilly Energy

Noah Millman: You Don’t Kill the Scapegoat

Ben Myers: Tales of an Eccentric Theologian-Genius

Scott Alexander: Book Review: Eichmann in Jerusalem

Sarah Perry: After Temporality

C.S. Lewis on the relation between magic and technology

Amy Hall: Did Old Testament Men Treat Their Wives Like Property?

Peter Leithart: YHWH’s Sorrow
Priests, Levites, Bread
Games in the Streets
Aging and Ends
Anthropomorphism and Christian Humanism

Jake Belder: Meilaender on the Limits of Work

Matthew Lee Anderson: On the Executive Order Regarding Refugees

Brad Littlejohn: A Primer on the Meaning of Political Opposition

Derek Rishmawy: On Signalling Versus Displaying Virtue in a Trumpian Age

D.A. Carson: Subtle Ways to Abandon the Authority of Scripture in our Lives

Alan Jacobs: Judging Judges

The Rise of Populism and the Backlash Against the Elites: Jonathan Haidt and Nick Clegg in conversation

This Farm of the Future Uses No Soil and 95% Less Water:

Do you have any thoughts on any of the issues raised above?

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The Deformation of Online Media and Our Current Social and Political Crises (A Retrospective)

On numerous occasions in my writing on social and political issues, I have drawn attention away from the issues that lie in the largely ephemeral foreground of our awareness to remark upon the radical changes that the technology of the Internet—and, in particular, the rise of social media—has occasioned in our sociality and discourse. These radical changes have altered the dynamics of identity-formation, of the ways that we relate to each other, and the locations and the processes of our conversations. It is, I believe, increasingly impossible to understand the features of the foreground of our public life without some awareness of the revolutionary effects of recent changes in this deep background.

It is not in least bit accidental that our societies are increasingly polarized, our relations increasingly reactive, our discourse increasingly failing to exhibit moderation and balance, our focus increasingly fixated upon competing identity groups, our processes of moral deliberation ever weaker, our politics increasingly characterized by viciously antagonistic populisms, authority and leadership increasingly ineffective, our populations increasingly distrusting or capriciously selective of experts, our media increasingly partisan and unreliable, people increasingly paranoid, our ability to distinguish spectacle from substance increasingly lacking, or our sense of self increasingly entangled in our political viewpoints. Along with numerous other features of the contemporary situation, these issues arise from or are exacerbated by the ever more powerful role that the Internet and social media play in shaping our discourse and society. As I have written pieces related to this subject on so many occasions before, I thought I’d devote this post to compiling a list of some of these, for those who have not already read them.

More recently, I have commented on the ways that online culture has shaped our politics and social relations in the age of Trump. In the first point of yesterday’s post on the subject of Trump’s executive order, I observed the manner in which online social media are the media of contemporary politics and help to explain the character of Trump’s presidency and our reactions to it. In this reality, we are reactively fixated upon the online spectacle, within which reality is often refracted in the most incredibly distorted fashion.

For instance, although we can complain about ‘virtue-signalling’ online, it is crucial to recognize that virtue-signalling is often simply a matter of using online social media naturally—online social media is a place where we are encouraged to say things in order to be seen by others. The entangling of personal identity and speech that online social media encourage is almost inescapably inherent to their character. Avoiding a preoccupation with speech as the projection of our identity and belonging requires a fairly purposeful determination to swim against the current of online social media as they actually function.

Three days ago, I wrote upon the ways in which the Internet represents a radicalization of principles of liberalism in a manner that threatens the social foundation of society upon which liberal institutions and practices must rest. I explored in some detail how each of the supposed liberal freedoms that the Internet maximizes have brought corresponding forms of oppression, fear, or constraint.

Back in November, I wrote about the manner in which the Internet and online social media decrease social trust:

Some of the factors that have given rise to our current situation are related to the current form of our media. The unrelenting and over-dramatized urgency of the media cycle, especially as that has been accelerated on social media, heightens our anxiety and reactivity. It foregrounds political threats and changes and makes it difficult to keep a cool head. When our lives are dominated by exposure to and reaction to ‘news’ we can easily lose our grip upon those more stable and enduring realities that keep us grounded and level-headed. Both sides of the current American election have been engaging in extreme catastrophization and sensationalism for some time. This has made various sides increasingly less credible to those who do not share their prior political convictions and has made us all more fearful of and antagonistic towards each other. It has also created an appetite for radical, unmeasured, and partisan action.

The Internet has occasioned a dramatic diversification and expansion of our sources of information, while decreasing the power of traditional gatekeepers. We are surrounded by a bewildering excess of information of dubious quality, but the social processes by which we would formerly have dealt with such information, distilling meaning from it, have been weakened. Information is no longer largely pre-digested, pre-selected, and tested for us by the work of responsible gatekeepers, who help us to make sense of it. We are now deluged in senseless information and faced with armies of competing gatekeepers, producing a sense of disorientation and anxiety.

Where we are overwhelmed by senseless information, it is unsurprising that we will often retreat to the reassuring, yet highly partisan, echo chambers of social media, where we can find clear signals that pierce through the white noise of information that faces us online. Information is increasingly socially mediated in the current Internet: our social networks are the nets of trust with which we trawl the vast oceans of information online. As trust in traditional gatekeepers and authorities has weakened, we increasingly place our trust in less hierarchical social groups and filter our information through them.

Our news online is increasingly disaggregated. A traditional newspaper is a unified and edited body of news, but online we read from a multitude of competing sources, largely sourced by friendship groups. As our news no longer comes as a package, exists within a click-driven economy, and is largely sourced for purposes of social bonding, sensationalism, catastrophization, ideological reinforcement, outrage, and the like are incentivized. In a world of so much easily accessible information, news is a buyer’s market and pandering to the consumer by telling them what they want to hear becomes a greater temptation. Coupled with the growth of non-mainstream media sources that are often much less scrupulous about accuracy, the result is a much less truthful society. Even formerly respectable broadsheets are now not above publishing tabloid-style articles and hot takes and clickbait akin to popular websites.

Within that post, I discussed the problems that this can cause for churches and pastors:

Many people now privilege online bloggers, speakers, and writers over the pastors that have been given particular responsibility for the well-being of their souls. The result is growing competition among Christian gatekeepers, which increasingly positions the individual Christian, less as one fed by particular appointed and spiritually mature local fathers and mothers in the faith, and more as an independent religious consumer, free to pick and choose the voices that they find most agreeable. Sheep with a multitude of competing shepherds aren’t much better off than sheep with no shepherds whatsoever.

In another post written around the same time, I observed the way in which the changing environment of our discourse is shaping our political reality, and the ways in which it is entangled with unhealthy gender dynamics. The following are some lengthy quotations taken from that piece:

It is imperative that we take account of the cultural changes brought about by the rise of social media. I have written upon these at considerable length in the past. One of the central points that I have made is that social media bring us too close together. Traditional forms of public discourse are effective in large measure through differentiating their participants: through status, office, time, physicality, intermediation, ritual, place, position, etc., etc.

Public discourse traditionally occurred in highly aerated and differentiated discursive environments, such as courtrooms and debating or parliamentary chambers. Yet online we are all placed into a more immediate contact with each other, in a ‘saturated social environment.’ Within this realm we are all peers and contemporaries, without differences in rank or station. It is often a gender-neutralizing and egalitarian realm, where every voice is equally valid. Online we also all function on the crest of the latest breaking wave.

Millennials are often castigated as a generation for their narcissism, self-preoccupation, and other such traits. However, in our defence, it should be noted that we are the canaries in the coal mine of a new ecology of society discourse, especially younger millennials. Many of us have been using online social media since high school. The rise of social media is akin to the first introduction of a mirror to a society in which people had never properly seen their own faces. We are now existentially involved in an online spectacle on social media, where we must rigorously perform our identities, acutely aware of the fact that we are constantly exposed to judgment.

Existing in such a context elevates our social anxieties. It fractures or overwhelms former contexts of solitude and withdrawal from society. It creates a socially saturated order and limits the possibility of heterotopic discourse. When people complain about the need for a ‘safe space’, it is important to bear this new social reality in mind. Where there are few genuine sites of retreat from society and where challenging discourse no longer can be limited to a heterotopic arena, people will naturally feel much more threatened by people who strongly disagree with them. This is perhaps especially the case for young women, who are far more naturally attuned to and involved in the ‘social’ dimensions of social and connected media (for instance, generally sending considerably more texts than their male peers). Without a ‘safe space’, they are denied a realm of care and social conflict becomes total. Their concerns on this front should not merely be dismissed.

I proceed to observe:

The closer that Twitter and Facebook bring this internationalist progressive class to each other, the more that this class starts to function as a ‘dense society’, characterized by intense peer pressure and a fixation upon how one appears to others. It is a new ‘village’ where public shaming can nuke a person’s reputation and career, where the circulation of rumours and gossip holds immense destructive power, which can be strategically deployed as threat or sanction. It is also a site where the crowd itself serves as an agency that can be appealed to in order to intervene when someone feels threatened.

These dynamics will have the effect of turning the political classes in upon themselves in a profound self-absorption. The conversation will come to be dominated by those issues that are most serviceable for managing the political classes’ internal relations and self-expression and maintaining their standing, rather than by the issues that really are the most important and pressing in the wider society.

Symbolism will tend to replace substance. Given the choice between talking about the compounding crises of automation in the Rust Belt or transgender bathrooms, they will choose the latter. Given the political classes’ turning in upon themselves, it shouldn’t surprise us in the least that the last few years have been dominated by precisely the sort of primarily symbolic social issues that are most useful for virtue signalling within the elite class (same-sex marriage, fights over transgender bathrooms, getting the first female president, Black Lives Matter protests, etc.). Online we also have short attention spans, which can produce series of polarizing outrages and emotionally gratifying causes, few of which require any grasp of the larger picture.

Finally, I remark upon the ways in which online social media can lead to a collapse of the agonistic and male-weighted realm of politics into the female-weighted sociality of polite society:

Places like Twitter are becoming our Versailles, establishing progressivism’s hegemony by creating a new stifling centralized polite society under its oversight, with everyone jockeying for position by cosying up to its values, yet alienating and disempowering the rest of the population in the process. Instead of disparate regional interests entering a heterotopic realm of agonistic contestation, many parties are gathered together in a shared socially saturated environment where they conform to powerful cultural norms for the sake of their social and political survival. They are gradually being detached from their locations of origin and the disparate interests for which they once advocated. In the process, the population at large is gradually cut adrift from the political classes. The feminization of the realm of political discourse will naturally risk the tendency of closing the political class in upon itself.

As this is a theme to which I have returned so often, I thought that I would take the time to assemble a collection of relevant links to other pieces of mine, from which a sense of the broader issues can be gleaned. The following pieces don’t provide a detailed and unified picture, although that is something which I’d love to produce at some point. However, they do represent some of the dots which you should be able to connect together. Perhaps they may encourage you, as they have me, to be far more cautious and discriminating in your use of the Internet and social media in the future.

 

Smartphones and How They Change Us

An interview with Tony Reinke, in which I discuss some of the ways in which smartphones and modern connected media have contributed to the rise of new forms of social relations and approaches to identity formation. The following are some quotations:

The Internet is chiefly ordered around the eye and its mode of perception. The Internet renders the world as a unifying spectacle and its users as spectators and image projectors (a reality that Guy Debord presciently predicted in his 1967 book, La societié du spectacle). This ‘spectacle’ increasingly mediates and intermediates our relationships with ourselves, our world, and each other, and detaches us from the immediacy of human experience, relationship, and our natural lifeworlds. The contemporary person, for instance, may not feel that they have truly had their foreign holiday before that holiday has been rendered in the form of Instagram pictures, tweets, and Facebook status updates. The Internet becomes a sort of mirror within which we incessantly regard ourselves, establishing a cosmetically enhanced presentation of our selves and our personal realities. While not dismissing the possibility entirely, I would highly caution anyone who trusts too heavily in a reality encountered through the mediation of the ‘specious’ realm of the spectacle. While the Internet can be of great service to real world communities, it is a poor substitute for them.

***

The advent of social media and mobile connected devices is, in certain respects, a development akin to the movement from a world without any clear mirrors to one where highly reflective surfaces are ubiquitous. Just as the physical mirror image powerfully mediates my sense of my bodily self, the virtual mirror of social media now powerfully mediates my sense of who I am as a relational and social being. If the physical mirror feeds many anxieties and obsessions with our bodily appearance, the mirror of social media has a similar effect for our sense of our selves within our communities and society more broadly.

Of course, although they can have a similar relation to our increasingly reflexive senses of self, our self-projections on social media are not perfect mirror images, but representations involving an element of control, as you observe. Our careful curation of our virtual representations is not unlike the application of cosmetics to conceal unattractive blemishes. Online we also have the advantage of highly selective self-representation, choosing to present only our most attractive angles and exclude much else from view.

In speaking about ‘control’, however, it is important that we recognize the degree to which our self-projections in the shared spectacle of social media are experienced as disempowering, alienating, and anxiety-producing by many. Our practice of ‘control’ may feel less like an act of taking charge than one of mitigating a new threat. Just as the mirror can torment people with the awareness of themselves as objects to the gaze of a judging other, the mirror of social media can come with a terrifying sense of exposure to social judgment (or a disorienting sense of alienation from the representations of ourselves that we see there). Also, while the mirror merely allows us to see what others could already see, social media pressures us to share with others something altogether more intimate, and not previously publicly visible: our self-representations.

***

I have found the insights of both Edwin Friedman and René Girard very helpful in understanding the dysfunctional dynamics of Internet argument. In their different ways, both Friedman and Girard appreciated the danger of and the potential for violence in communities that are related too closely together. Such dangers are not usually recognized or taken seriously: people presume that community and forces such as empathy are inherently and uniformly good things and that we just need more of them. However, Friedman and Girard both draw attention to the fact that undifferentiated communities — communities whose members are too closely related to and identified with each other — tend to produce violent and reactive herd-dynamics. Such communities act through collective instinct rather than through considered response. They stampede like startled herds of cattle and emotions whip through them like firestorms. The way that we speak of the movement of ideas, emotions, advertising, cultural products, and pieces of information online using the language of ‘memes’ and ‘virality’ is very telling. Our agency is diminished as we merely react to and become the bearers of mass movements of emotion and interest that have taken on a life of their own.

The dangerously undifferentiated character of social media is part of the appeal for many. It is this undifferentiation that enables people to feel such an intimate connection with other people online, to experience such a high level of emotional resonance. Being caught up in shared feeling, a common sense of outrage, or being collectively drawn to a shared focus of interest produces a pronounced and addictive feeling of togetherness and belonging. Yet becoming creatures driven by the reactive instincts of the herd is dangerous. The herd doesn’t deliberate. The herd doesn’t reflect and then respond. The herd runs according to the immediacy of impressions, rather than through the responsible act of interpretation. The herd can’t negotiate difference with maturity.

Social media breaks down many of the means by which we are capable of developing a self distinct from the herd and by which we are enabled to respond rather than react. Social media moves exceedingly fast, breaking down the differentiating factor of time. Online the natural differentiation established by physical distance no longer exists. With more delay in time comes more of an interval for reflection and less of a drive to arrive at conclusions and responses prematurely. The density of relations in social media often denies us the emotional and personal space in which we can act and think for ourselves without experiencing crippling peer pressure. Social media obscures the differences between social and personal location. On social media people are typically anonymous and interchangeable account users: their backgrounds and histories, families, neighborhoods, places in society, and psychologies are invisible to us, often leaving us unmindful of these realities. Social media also dulls our awareness of differences in social status, placing the voices of elders, leaders, authority figures, experts, and professionals on much the same level as that of the opinionated man on the street. Social media breaks down the distinctions between public and private spaces, bringing the disagreements of public spaces into those realms to which we would retreat and where we are more likely to feel threatened. Disagreements on Facebook feel more threatening to people for whom Facebook is their realm of connection and close relation and they are more likely to react instinctively rather than respond thoughtfully as a result. Social media collapses contexts, forcing different groups of persons who would otherwise be able to enjoy friendly relations at a healthy distance into close contact with each other’s threatening and stifling differences, rather than giving us all the space and the places within which to be distinct. Social media disguises the differentiation of bodies, diminishing our sense of other people in their ‘full-bodied’ personhood and difference from us.

***

I wonder whether, in the intensity of the audio-visual world of the Internet, with its clamor and its spectacle, we dull our awareness of a depth beyond its surfaces or of a reality beyond the immediate and the visible. As we enjoy a rich wealth of background music on tap, the unsettling reality of an open horizon of silence, with its intimations of the silent and invisible presences it may possibly contain, is far less commonly encountered. When this is coupled with the hypnotic dazzle of a visually diverting online realm, our preoccupied senses can leave our attention inured to any reality that might exceed the immediate and visible. I fear that our hyperkinetic, cacophonous, and riotous audio-visual environments erode the art of silent and attentive listening and with it our sense of the presence of the invisible.

***

A desire to feel connected to the immediacy of current events and the conversations that surround them is a trap that many of us — myself most definitely included — have often fallen into. As O’Donovan recognizes, our obsession with the new, with the ‘roar’ of the ‘breaking wave’ privileges first impressions over considered reflections, the immediacy of the present moment over the broad sweep of historical context. His remark upon our peculiar obsession with the news is worthy of reflection:

Every culture concerns itself with news-bringing in one form or another; most other cultures have been more relaxed about it. Perhaps simply because we have the power to communicate news quickly and widely, we are on edge about it, afraid that the world will change behind our backs if we are not au fait with a thousand dissociated facts that do not concern us directly. It is a measure of our metaphysical insecurity, which is the constant driver in the modern urge for mastery. (2014: 234)

In an age where news can travel around the world in a matter of seconds, it is easy to forget how peculiarly novel the urgency our swift moving news instills in us actually is (the news of the fall of the Alamo didn’t reach London for over two months). In the age where news travelled exceedingly slowly, time given to deliberation and reflection would feel considerably more natural. With an addiction to the news cycle we are in danger, not only of losing the natural ‘tempo of practical reason’ O’Donovan identifies, but of disengaging the process of practical reason more generally. For how many of us is the news cycle really material for practical deliberation, rather than an addiction to feeling ‘informed’ and engaged in the national conversations?

Read the whole piece here.

 

Twitter is Like Elizabeth Bennet’s Meryton

An article for Mere Orthodoxy in which, using the work of William Deresiewicz on Pride and Prejudice as a foil for my discussion, I explore the relationship between the form of our sociality and our capacity for sound judgment, careful deliberation, and healthy social relations. The following are a few quotations:

What the Internet and the mobile phone make possible is the establishment of a new ‘saturated social environment’, which shares a number of common features with the society of Meryton as Deresiewicz described it. Modernity has rendered us more detached from each other and more disembedded from particular contexts, yet our communications technology offers us a way seemingly to overcome this social alienation, providing us with media with which to ‘connect’ to each other. Our lives are caught between this profound condition of alienation and a sort of ersatz state of hyper-connection that substitutes for what we lack in our offline existence. While some might have expected the Internet and mobile phones chiefly to be used for the communication of information, their primary significance in most people’s lives is their provision for the communication of presence. The Internet often feels a lot less like an ‘information superhighway’ and much more like a virtual village, where, through countless intertwined lines of relationship, everyone is minding everyone else’s business.

In the mobile phone, technology has assumed an especially intimate form. It is a device that can be carried on our persons at almost all times. People have become so attached to and dependent upon their phones that they often struggle to cope for any extended period of time without them. With the mobile phone, we are never unconnected. Even when we are seemingly alone, we can enjoy access to the presence of thousands of other people. A single tweet or updated Facebook status can communicate our presence to the many people who follow or are friends with us. A short text can share a private moment with a close friend. Such communications are often without any significant informational content, but are rather ways in which we stay connected with each other.

***

Austen’s characterization of Wickham and Elizabeth’s conversation as one of ‘mutual satisfaction’ could no less appropriately be applied to the sorts of conversational dynamics that typify many contexts online. The ‘density’ of these environments and the closeness of the bonding within them produce a cosiness that is welcome for many, but which is generally quite resistant to contradiction, conflict, criticism, and genuine difference. Such characteristics and behaviours as likeability, empathetic connection, mutual vulnerability and mutual affirmation, personal resonance, relatability, and inoffensiveness are essential to the operation of such environments, but these characteristics and behaviours largely preclude openness to criticism and challenge of the group and its conforming members. Those who make firm criticisms will readily be classed as ‘haters’ or enemies of the group and driven out with hostility, while the group reaffirms itself and its members of their rightness and the vicious character of all opponents, reinforcing all of their prejudices and steadily inuring all members to criticism. Such communities will also often engage in rigorous ‘policing’ of deviant viewpoints and, like the stereotypical mediaeval villagers, will frequently enact swift and merciless mob justice upon those who do not conform as they ought. Alan Jacobs’ recent remarks about our rapid movement to a society that cannot tolerate difference are relevant here.

Austen insightfully recognized the manner in which our delight in tight-knit, pleasant, and agreeable communities—and in conversations marked by ‘mutual satisfaction’—renders us susceptible to deep distortions of communal discourse, knowledge, and judgment. When we are all so relationally cosy with each other, we will shrink back from criticizing people in the way that we ought, voluntarily muting disagreement, and will shut out external criticism, reassuring and reaffirming anyone exposed to it. In such contexts, a cloying closeness stifles the expression of difference and conversations take on a character akin to the ‘positive feedback loop’ that existed in Wickham and Elizabeth’s conversation, where affirmation and assent merely reinforced existing prejudices. In such contexts, communities become insular (a tendency that can be exacerbated by algorithms), echo chambers of accepted opinion, closed to opposing voices.

***

A crucial dimension of the online ‘village’ environment is the saturation of the social space of many persons to the point where they never are truly alone for a sustained period of time, precluding searching introspection, self-presence, and self-definition. Without such non-social spaces and times, the self will not easily be able to sustain any clear identity of its own over against the group, but will be caught up in the collective opinion and self. When groups and relationships so extend their intimacies that they leave members without a genuine reserve of non-social space, time, and identity—typically a sine qua non for persons holding positions of their own, rather than merely assumed from the group—groups forfeit the power of difference and contradiction to power growth and insight. In the socially saturated communities created by mobile phones and the Internet, all opinion has to be observant of group consensus and resist expressing any difference that might rise to the level of conflict.

***

The preceding remarks might leave some readers with the impression that the burden of healthy thought overwhelmingly devolves upon individuals, considered apart from their communities, that community is principally to be considered as an obstacle to thought. This is certainly not the case. Healthy thinking—not merely dysfunctional thinking—is communal in character and not a task it is wise to assume alone. Austen’s challenge to us is not that we all become a particular type of person—a potentially disagreeable agent of contradiction such as Darcy, for instance—but that we all play our part in shaping our shared spaces to be ones that are receptive and appropriately responsive to the necessary contributions of a Darcy, without adopting a new form of homogeneity in the process. Healthy processes of communal thought are naturally differentiating and allow for—indeed, they typically require!—considerable variation in gifting and preferred modes of interaction and continual individual and communal processes of making space for genuine difference—not just for the Darcys of the world, but also for the non-Darcys. Elizabeth’s example here is useful: even when she was not directly engaged in contradiction herself, she spoke and acted in a way that would afford Darcy ‘the rhetorical and emotional space’ that he would require were he to disagree with her. We are integral to the stifling power of online communities and each one of us can do much to counteract this, by giving everyone else the space within which to disagree with us without rancor, by welcoming open divergence of thought in friendly communities. We are also driving the hyper-sociality that the Internet and the mobile phone make possible, as we expect our friends and acquaintances always to be at our disposal. If we developed a habitual protectiveness and respectfulness of each other’s solitude, privacy, and right to disconnect we would be better servants of each other.

Read the whole piece here.

 

How the Internet Has Brought Us Too Close Together (and the Wisdom of Trolls)

I explore some of the themes of the Internet as a site of undifferentiation, also mentioned in the articles above. I discuss the way that the Internet has evolved from its earlier form into something rather different, especially with the rise of social media. I argue that trolls, while often dismissed as mere bullies and flamers, may occasionally have something to teach us. The following are some quotations:

The early Internet was a wilder and less known place, with a lot of obscure corners. The obscureness of much of the Internet meant that things seldom came to us: we had to invest time in looking for like-minded people and interesting conversations—or creating contexts where they didn’t previously exist—much like explorers venturing into previously uncharted territory. The obscureness of many corners of the Internet meant like-minded people would often find each other and interact largely undisturbed by people who were mere troublemakers, with no genuine investment in the conversation. It also meant that conversations were less likely to be flooded by the uninformed and unqualified and that such persons could be much more easily recognized and removed.

The early Internet did not lend itself to publicizing in the same way. Information spread less rapidly and it didn’t provide the opportunities for the firestorms of outrage and the viral movements of emotional charged reactions that we encounter in the dense human forests of the contemporary Internet and its social media. Together with the previous factor, this meant that distinct conversations were less likely to bump into each other. The early Internet didn’t have the ‘mass’ culture that the Internet has today.

 

The early Internet was much less intimate and was more socially differentiating. It was much less emotionally charged as a result. As differences occurred within more neutral space, things were less likely to become personal (the proximity of so much of our online discourse to the personal profile isn’t always a good thing). Some of my favourite interlocutors over the years have been pseudonymous and anonymous, because such persons often seek to retain such a separation between private identity and ideas. On the other hand, the early Internet was more social in some respects. In the early Internet, we were more likely to function as mindful and intentional ‘community-builders’ than as passive consumers experiencing community. Our blogs weren’t generally set up as private means for self-publication—or even in order to form or host communities in our private space—but in order to participate in, contribute to, and collaborate in the formation of a wider conversation. My most worthwhile interactions online typically occur in contexts that date from this period of the Internet, or that share its characteristics—private e-mail discussion lists, obscure interactions in less known quarters of the Internet, e-mail correspondence, etc. Sites like Facebook encourage a collapse of differentiated social interactions into a much less differentiated social space. Another of the strengths of the older Internet is the way that it encouraged more differentiated social interactions. For instance, I have created over a dozen blogs or websites in my time, devoted to a variety of different matters of interest, speaking to specialized communities, enabling far richer interactions as a result.

***

Trolling is also often a guerrilla tactic used by those with a natural affinity to something closer to the more anarchic culture of the earlier Internet against the groupthink that often arises in the mass corporate culture of the contemporary Internet. These sorts of trolls are often intelligent, self-aware, independent, long-term Internet users, intensely well-versed in Internet culture, who dislike the way that online culture is being reshaped to make it a friendly and ‘safe’ place for entitled and hyper-sensitive passive online consumers, curated and controlled by corporations, squeezing out the diversity, unpredictability, confrontation, vigorousness, independence, creativity, and agency that they highly value in the Internet culture that was once more accommodating to, because it was largely formed by, people not unlike themselves. As this post observes, the troll represents a threat to and disruption of the corporate vision of the Internet, where everyone is clearly and neatly defined, where all keep in line, and interact in a predictable fashion.

Trolls can take many different forms and some trolls are decidedly unpleasant personalities. However, at their best, trolls can greatly enrich our online world, ensuring that the Internet never fully succumbs to the state of the sleepy settlement or to corporate colonization, but always retains something of the strangeness and unpredictability of the frontier, where people need to keep their wits about them, where they must develop thicker skins and take responsibility for themselves, and where startling and illuminating discovery can still occur. At their very best, trolls, like Socratic gadflies or biblical prophets, can serve to unsettle societies’ and individuals’ groupthink and their complacent relation to the truth. Such irritants can be some of the most important members of society.

Read the whole piece here.

 

Too Long; Didn’t Read

Within this piece, I argue that the Internet shapes our reading practices in unhelpful ways. The following are some quotations:

Reading a long post isn’t easy to do and I admire and appreciate every one of my readers who do this. The Internet is a great enemy of sustained and undivided attention. Online, the mind easily flits like a butterfly from one thing to another, seeking diversion. The moment one thing ceases to absorb our interest, there are always a dozen more things clamouring for it. Whenever we experience a lull in our focus upon the activity we are currently engaged in, we can feel the temptation to check our e-mail, Facebook, or Twitter. The Internet frees us from the unpleasantness of boredom, it constantly stimulates us while sparing us the effort of deep engagement. The Internet is a realm of immediate accessibility, where patience and hard work are seldom required to get what we want. This can encourage a state of distractedness in us as users. While channel-surfing is typically something that people do only in order to find a show to watch for a half hour or so, ‘surfing’ the Internet—rapidly hopping from one thing to another—is more integral to our online experience and we don’t have to break from such a habit for long before we start to feel fidgety. Reading a long article online requires not only the devotion of time and energy, but, perhaps more significantly, a radical break of state.

Our natural state of mind on the Internet is impatient, hurried, distracted, lazy, reactive, and restive. In this state of mind we ‘browse’ and ‘skim’ for the things that we are looking for—the emotional kick, the objectionable statement, or the retweetable line—rather than reading and closely attending to things that may surprise us. Casual, rapid, unfocused, inattentive, fickle, and impatient engagement becomes the norm. We look at things for just long enough to get an ‘impression’ from which we can derive a snap judgment (‘like!’). In such a state of mind we are seeking for momentary diversion, emotional stimulation, and immediate usefulness. Our minds drift like flotsam and jetsam on the Internet’s waves. It should not require much reflection to recognize that this state of mind is utterly inappropriate for deep learning. Unfortunately, this is increasingly a state of mind that is haemorrhaging into our offline mindsets too. As soon as things become dull or we sense the slightest whisper of boredom’s approach we instinctively reach for our mobiles.

***

Online, people often expect that the things that they read should be ‘engaging’ and that being ‘engaging’ is necessary for good writing. Yet many of the most worthwhile pieces aren’t very ‘engaging’ at all. Rather, they require exertion and effort, a constant battle with tedium and an onerous commitment to a high degree of attention. Few people pick up Hegel for diverting evening reading, yet the disciplined reader will be immensely rewarded for the effort that they devote to reading such a thinker. The same applies to many long reads online—which are a breeze to read compared to Hegel. I must read at least a dozen brief ‘hot takes’ every morning, but while such pieces often make an immediate impression, the effort—and, unlike the hot takes, reading here does require the discomfort of effort—that I devote to reading ‘long-reads’ is considerably more rewarding in the long term. Looking back over the last decade, it turns out that the vast majority of the plethora of hot takes and brief ‘engaging’ reads were soon forgotten, while many online long-reads remain with me even after a decade has passed. Many people appreciate that a long-read, although it may demand much more from the reader, can be far more rewarding over time—in no small measure on account of the demands that it makes.

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Without the natural barriers or costs to access, it is easy to develop a different mental posture in relation to the material that we read. We have not had to earn access to the material through effort and knowledge. As we normalize immediate and effort-free accessibility we can come to resent any demands such material makes upon us. Like programmes on the channels on our televisions, we resist their presuming any more than the minimum prerequisite knowledge of us. Rather than our earning access to material, we can come to think that it is our reading material that must earn access to our attention by being entertaining or engaging. As we expect material to come to us, we normalize both the more ‘passive’ modes of reading and the frothy and insubstantial yet emotionally engaging modes of writing that prevail online. The fact that Joyce’s Ulysses is easily available on the shelves of the ‘public’ library doesn’t mean that it is for everyone. We don’t judge Joyce for presuming such a daunting level of familiarity with the English literary canon and language of the average user of the public library because the manner in which the physical copy of Ulysses is materially accessible to readers is much less likely to produce confused notions about the degree to which it ought to be otherwise accessible to them. It is, I suspect, the fact that people are accustomed to reading material coming to them online that encourages a different attitude, one more similar to that which we bring to our TVs. Indiscriminate and frictionless accessibility of material encourages the notion that reading material online should be palatable to and make few demands of the reader. The reader envisioned by the writer should always be the generic online reader, as being more discriminating about one’s designed readership contravenes the natural modes of the Internet’s dissemination of material.

***

Just because our writing is, on account of the Internet, potentially materially accessible to a degree that was unimaginable thirty years ago doesn’t mean that it should be equally accessible in other respects. I believe there are great benefits to maintaining certain restrictions of access that force readers to earn access through effort, a prior level of understanding, and commitment to a time- and attention-costly process of reflection. Even though our media do not determine our discourses, an attitude that treats the potentials and tendencies of our technology as imperatives to be realized can produce its own form of technological determinism, as all other aspects of our discourse succumb to a false technological imperative. The Internet affords immense potential for increasing the speed, the sociality, the accessibility, the immediacy, etc. of our discourses and often our duty is to use the Internet in ways that actively resist these frequently discourse-stifling potentials. We don’t have to walk through every door that the Internet opens for us and often we must go to the effort of purposefully closing them. Sometimes we need to introduce a little friction to this frictionless world.

***

Readers, if they want to be part of the conversation, owe writers a lot and we should not hesitate to make demands of them. Readers owe writers a careful reading and interpretation. They are not just passive consumers towards whom we have a duty of sensitivity to ensure my words make a positive ‘impression’. Such a strong reliance upon impressions is for the lazy and the passive, who cannot cope with the effort and responsibility demanded by the act of interpretation. The reader is not king. However, when we start treating him as one, our discourse will easily decay into emotionally-baiting pablum directed at readers who merely focus upon how the words felt to them or what particular subjective impressions they were left with and constant quibbles about whatever objectionable ‘tone’ was occultly detected in the voice of the author.

***

While the reader may not be king, the writer isn’t either. The writer bears responsibilities to the reader who is prepared for them, to guide the reader’s understanding through their subject matter. Contrary to many people’s expectations, however, this doesn’t mean the writer must make this process easy for the reader. The writer’s priority is the effectiveness of the learning process for their intended readers, not its ease. In resisting the false ease that readers supposedly demand of us as online writers we will be better equipped to act as their servants. In resisting any sense of entitlement and making appropriately high demands of them, we will strengthen their capacities of reason and interpretation. Together we can work towards forms of discourse online where no one is merely excluded, yet all are, in ways appropriate to their capacity, furnished with the challenging path through which they can access true knowledge and participate fully in discourses to the degree their commitment and preparation suits them and their desire leads them.

Read the whole piece here.

 

A Lament for Google Reader/Why It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Google Reader

Two pieces in which I reflect upon the death of the RSS feed aggregator Google Reader, and the fate of reading on the Internet. The following are some quotations:

In short, services like Google Reader increasingly belong to a past age of the Internet. The social web is the future and the place where we now ‘consume’ our information. While the gap that Google Reader leaves may well be plugged by other services, the departure of Google Reader from this area is a sign of a steady shift in Internet culture away the sort of relationship with information that such a web feed aggregator represents.

And what is this particular relationship with information? A non-social, private, and individual one. My lament for the slow passing of this relationship with information arises from my conviction that this is often a much healthier relationship with information than the typical alternatives. The larger quantity of material that Google Reader enables me to read may be its primary purpose, but it is only one of its benefits and perhaps not even its greatest. It is the way that Google Reader allows me to read that I most appreciate.

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On Google Reader, my reading is not primarily determined by whatever is making an emotional impression in the social web right now (although that will come through in certain of the feeds that I follow). Rather, I have the more difficult task of discovering and committing myself to certain reliable and thoughtful sources, sources that I will read consistently over the course of a number of years, whether they are posting material that produces a strong emotional reaction or not. Such a form of reading forces you to choose your interlocutors and sources carefully, to invest over a long period of time in the most worthy and rewarding of conversations, to get to know certain voices very well, and not to be too distracted by the latest wildfire of controversy. It encourages you to read the sort of thoughtful and challenging material that forms deep understanding, even though it may provoke little in the way of an emotional reaction.

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Occasionally something awakens us to the scale of the changes that we are living through. For me, a recent article by Julian Baggini, in which he describes burning an old set of the Encyclopædia Britannica, provided one such moment. Its ponderous volumes, once familiar symbols of the body of human knowledge, have been rendered obsolete, practically replaced by online sources such as Wikipedia. An authoritative physical and published source, representing a consensus of an academic elite, has given way to the virtual and protean network of Wikipedia entries, where the once-sharp contours of human knowledge disappear and entries on the subject of Hegelian philosophy rub shoulders with those on Nyan Cat.

Both the passing of the hard-bound Encyclopædia Britannica and of Google Reader represent milestones in the digital age. They remind us that reading and our engagement with texts aren’t static realities, but quite changeable. New technologies make possible new ways of reading, but also call for discernment. While new contexts, media, and gadgets can powerfully serve both reader and text, there are many occasions when our reading can benefit from limits.

Today’s web pushes us to read more, click more, share more, and comment more, but there’s something comforting about less. As readers, we may also seek out a form that’s slower, quieter, simpler, and less distracting. Neither nostalgic resistance to new technologies nor wholesale and uncritical adoption of them is the answer, but rather a prudent and discerning understanding of the nature of our particular texts, our appropriate relationships to them, and the tools that facilitate those relationships.

Read the whole pieces here and here.

 

Very Rough and Rambling Jottings on the Church and Social Media

An assortment of thoughts upon social media, the body, the Church, and the sacraments. The following are a few quotations:

The body is a site of obstinacy and resistance. While it provides us with means of communication, it also renders us the object of the communication of others.

The body resists our desire to autonomy and pure self-determination. While an avatar could in theory be entirely customized to the desires of its owner, our physical bodies are largely unchosen. Even as the site of our speaking, our physical bodies are themselves spoken – spoken by culture, nature, and tradition. Our bodies are the site where subject and object, self and other, internal and external, identity and difference, humanity and world are bound together. The body renders pure self-possession impossible, ensuring that even in our speaking, we are spoken.

A preference for online over offline communication may spring from a desire to be liberated from our bodies as sites of the other’s determination. The body is the primary site of unchosen, given identities. The marginalization of the objectivity of the body in online interactions could in many ways be regarded as a resistance to the role of the other, most particularly the social third party, in the determination of our identities. The online self is primarily a self-created persona, rather than the individuating response to the prior summons of others who first name us. The online self can be a resistance to the determination of being spoken.

***

Many of the buzz words of the online world are words that refer to the overcoming of the resistance of the body. The world of online interactions is immediate, fluid, frictionless, overcoming all distance or separation.

The body intermediates between us and others. While it facilitates connection, by virtue of its objective character, its resistance to autonomous self-determination, and its rootedness, it also can be felt to obstruct communication, to stand between us and others, preventing us from relating to people immediately and on our own terms. The online persona can be an attempt to dispense with intermediation through the erasure of the body.

The body distinguishes and separates us from others: it sustains distance and alterity. This is most clearly apparent in the case of rootedness and physical separation. The body roots us in a certain location, in one particular place and set of family relationships, rather than any others. The body ruthlessly particularizes our identities and largely in terms of unchosen givens. The online persona is not limited by or bound to locality, but is free to pursue an identity that transcends this.

***

One of the things that I have noticed about online media over the years is that they tend to be better at facilitating certain forms of interactions over others. In particular, the Internet can be very good at enabling direct and immediate relationships, bringing two parties into an interaction uninterrupted, troubled by, or directed by any third party. What the Internet tends to be less effective at is the establishment of strongly mediated relationships, within which two parties relate to each other through the visible mediation of a third party or pole. At this point it should be stated that there is always a third party or pole of some sort. However, the Internet tends to weaken this third pole, rendering it invisible, exchangeable, or marginal. Even our access to the Internet tends to create a direct relationship with ourselves and the contents of our screens in a manner that places offline third parties firmly in the background.

Let me clarify what I mean by a ‘third pole’. A third pole can be an individual, a community, a subject of conversation, an institution, a context, an activity, an identity, a relationship, an attachment, an object of desire or worship, a cause, a symbolic or legal order, a narrative, or anything else of such a kind that mediates the relationship between two parties. On the Internet, the third pole of relationships is minimized, the first and second poles being placed in far more direct connection. The third pole is changeable, seldom if ever dominating in the interaction, and completely subject to choice.

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In a fascinating article, Venkatesh Rao reflects upon the manner in which profound technological change renders itself invisible to us through a ‘manufactured normalcy field’. New technology is related to in terms of elastic metaphors and the extension of existing modes of interaction. Facebook extends the metaphor of the school yearbook. The Internet has extended and developed the metaphor of the text or document. Through these extended metaphors a sense of familiarity, which covers over the fundamental strangeness of the new technologies and their modes of interaction, is maintained. On occasions, such a normalcy field cannot be created or maintained and we have a sense of the profound and threatening strangeness of the new technology.

On account of the mythic character of technology and this manufactured normalcy field, we fail to perceive the scale of the profound changes that are occurring beneath our feet. In assessing the place of online media in our lives as Christians and as the Church, we must learn to step outside of the normalcy field in which we live and appreciate the future in which we live unknowingly in all of its existentially disorienting strangeness, as a place profoundly disturbing and unfamiliar to us.

Rather than assessing new technology in terms of its conformability to a manufactured normalcy field, we must rather assess it in terms of its more objective reconfiguration of our interface with our world and each other, and the modes and contents of our relations. I submit that such an approach will encourage a far less sanguine approach to new technologies and a greater measure of suspicion, even though we might find much within them that is of merit and worthy of use.

Read the whole piece here.

 

Online Discourse, Leadership, Progressive Evangelicalism, and the Value of Critics

I reflect upon the changing character of blogging, participation in social media, and their part in online discourse. The following are some quotations:

The strength of such old blogging communities was that they allowed for an engaged but aerated conversation. While the distinctness of various voices was maintained, they never stood on their own. Although there was plenty of pretension going around (all of the Latin blog names come to mind), there was less of a need to justify one’s blogging by having Something to Say. Most of us knew that we didn’t have a whole lot to say that wasn’t a recycling of the thoughts of much smarter people, but blogged as a means of engagement with a small community of online friends and peers.

Over my years of blogging, however, this dynamic seems to have changed. Christian blogging exploded, but those original communities I was part of soon thinned out and blogs became more isolated islands. Fewer people had active theology blogs and those who still did were less framed by a community of diverse peers. A number of us were uneasy as we felt that the sort of conversation that we were engaged in was being radically redefined. Rather than seeing our blogs as speaking into a particular community of people with deeper connections with each other, connections that didn’t exist only online, they were being regarded by readers as platforms for the general publicization of the bloggers’ viewpoints, which was not how most of us set out to write in the first place.

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Perhaps one of the greatest factors in producing healthy, non-reactive communities, who feel a confident and secure sense of self-identity, is strong leadership. We so often focus upon Christian leaders as mere communicators of information that we seldom reflect upon the way that Christian leaders communicate emotional dynamics to their communities.

A leader sets the tone for a community. If they are highly reactive themselves, they will be the figure that sets the herd stampeding. However, if they can keep a cool head and respond rather than react (whether aggressively or defensively), their entire community will begin to share in their leader’s own non-reactive self-definition. This is one of the reasons why being intelligent and engaging isn’t sufficient for healthy online leadership.

Many bloggers exercise a sort of leadership online, setting the tone for large numbers of people’s responses. One of the biggest problems in such situations is not so much the content of teaching (although that is definitely an issue), but the way that the immaturity of persons who have been thrust into positions of great influence and limited accountability before they had learned to develop the self-control required to complement their considerable gifts can lead to the creation of deeply unhealthy dynamics in the communities that form around them. Great damage can result, much of which could be avoided if their scale of influence was restricted until greater maturity had been developed under the guidance of wise older mentors.

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As bloggers we create contexts of communal thought and emotional (once again, in a broader sense of the word) engagement, and we must bear responsibility for what we encourage. We have more of an influence upon the tone of the conversations in our comments than we might like to admit. If we often can’t control our reactions, our comment threads and readers will start to be dominated by that dynamic. The blogger can be the spiritual immune system of a community, maintaining a non-reactive presence that encourages balanced and healthy thought and engagement. However, the reactive blogger can create great bitterness, hostility, fear, and anxiety, producing poisonous dynamics that damage lives and churches.

Reactivity can be intoxicating and is also very easy to create and encourage. It comes naturally to us. It feels great to be a member of the stampeding herd and it is hard to resist joining when everyone around you seems to be. Fostering non-reactivity in our communities is a much more challenging task and requires people who have first mastered themselves.

Read the whole thing here.

 

Information Addiction and the Church

Within this post I reflect upon the notion of information overload and our relationship with information. The following are a few quotations:

Just as food is seriously misunderstood if it is reduced to biological fuel, so communication ‘content’ is seriously misunderstood if it is reduced to ‘information’. Food is a mediator of relationships with our bodies, cultures, communities, families, world, nature, our core values, and our faith. Much of the food that we eat and most of the expectations that we have of it go far beyond what would be expected of something that was no more than biological fuel.

In like manner, ‘information’ is a mediator of relationships with our world, ideas, values, other persons, communities, identities, etc. The real issue is not quantity of information (suggested by terms such as overload or overconsumption), but the shifting way in which our relationships are being mediated in the modern world. For instance, our new forms of communication can lead to a sort of ‘malnutrition’ in our relationships, as touch is depreciated, and sight is overvalued.

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The person who is addicted to information can’t get the big picture and discern meaning, as they are always frantically caught up in gathering fragmented, contradictory, and uncommunicative information, which leads to a failure of understanding and action. The person who is addicted to information is always second-guessing themselves, doubting their course of action, and losing the power to be decisive. The person who is addicted to information in the form of stimulation (or bombarded with advertising) is likely to become unable to fix their desire wholeheartedly on one thing and pursue it with an undivided mind.

The Internet enables and encourages this addiction in several respects. The Internet can be a crack house for information addicts, where we are surrounded by the substance, the habits, the addicts, and the pushers. On the Internet, information consumption and proliferation is the primary means of connection: if you limit your consumption and pushing of information in order to act, people think that you are dropping out and moving away from them. It is hard to opt out of the habits of the Internet while remaining in it and to set our own limits on our use, as people are constantly using the communication of information to us as a means of connection to us: if we resist we are not appreciated and can become isolated, as other offline means of social communication are less consistently employed (how many personal letters have you handwritten so far this year?).

***

The ends of information and its communication must be paramount in our minds all of the time. When the gathering of information becomes an end in itself, supplanting its communicative and formative purposes we may need radically to reassess our practice. ‘Information’ exists to mediate relationship and connectedness with the world, ourselves, each other, our visions, thoughts, ideas, passions, and feelings. Like a thickening lens, an accumulation of superfluous information can blur beyond recognition what it once brought into focus. It can dull and confuse the action that it once directed and sap the will that it once spurred.

Information must, therefore, be handled with care, moderation, and balance. This is the only way that we can be people who are both communicative and responsive. We need to identify the areas where an unhealthy relationship with information has enervated our action, engagement, and connection, whether by lack of communication, or by an excess of information leading to its breakdown. We also need to assess the ways in which our involvements online have shifted these relationships for good and ill. We need to think more rigorously about how to resist the dangers and temptations of the superfluous information on the Internet, while fully availing ourselves of the online information that is most valuable.

Read the whole thing here.

 

Concluding Notes

In my diagnosis of some of the problems of the Internet and online social media, something of my proposed solution should be apparent. Here I believe that Edwin Friedman’s book A Failure of Nerve, of which I have written an extensive summary with attendant notes here, has a lot to teach us. Friedman’s key insight—incredibly basic, yet profoundly illuminating, and widely applicable—is the importance of being self-differentiated in our relation to others. Self-differentiation involves our ability to maintain the distance and the difference from others that enables us to respond rather than react, to be engaged without being engulfed.

Perhaps the very core of all of my concerns about the Internet is that the medium undermines such self-differentiation, by breaking down the forms of natural differentiation that naturally exist in our daily lives. The result has been that of rendering us ever more vulnerable to the dominion of instinct, reaction, appetite, and passion over virtues forged through limitation, constraint, delayed gratification, submission to formation and discipline, and the struggle of deep communal belonging. While it doesn’t force us to be undifferentiated and reactive, it undermines a great many of the conditions that both make it possible for us not to be and which develop self-differentiated character within us.

Recognizing that the character of our current social and political crises is powerfully shaped by this lack of self-differentiation (on both individual and broader social levels) helps us to perceive that the solution necessarily requires a renegotiation of our relationship with our media. This renegotiation must aspire beyond mere individual and communal discipline to structural reformation of our online social media, to the formation of media that enable us to recover some of the healthy differentiation that we have lost, the ‘friction’ and the limits that can create healthy and enriching bounds for our lives and identities.

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