Print technology created the public. Electric technology created the mass.
In another place, he puts it this way:
The new feeling that people have about guilt is not something that can be privately assigned to some individual, but is, rather, something shared by everybody, in some mysterious way….This feeling is an aspect of the new mass culture we are moving into – a world of total involvement in which everybody is so profoundly involved with everybody else and in which nobody can really imagine what private guilt can be anymore…
The result of this is,
We have begun again to structure the primordial feeling, the tribal emotions from which a few centuries of literacy divorced us. We have had to shift our stress of attention from action to reaction.
-Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage
McLuhan’s idea of the ‘global village’ is in view here. And to think that he saw all this coming half a century ago. We’ve certainly a come a long way.
One of the great problems with mass culture, or the global village, is that it has entirely changed the shape of the question, ‘Who is my neighbor?’ This has implications at a number of levels. For one thing, mass culture has actually allowed us to suppose that we know people that we do not know; hence the rise of (on the extreme level) cults of personality and celebrity stalkers, and (on a more ‘mundane’ level) feeling that we actually know bloggers, faces on the television screen, politicians, and the like. Since we’re all apart of this mass culture, wherein self-revelation is given primarily on screens rather than in person, we feel that we’re in the know, when in truth, we are not at all.
Second, this has led to mass-requests for donations. You cannot go anywhere, including home, without being asked for money. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the neighbor was the Samaritan who found the man along the way and showed him kindness. Now we are expected to help the man, indeed all men, from halfway across the world through the means of a non-profit or a ‘simple’ payment via PayPal. In our mass-culture-age, someone doesn’t even have to show up at your door to ask for money; nor do you have to stumble across them; they can just ask you on Facebook (it’s happened to me) or Twitter, even if you haven’t seen the person in years, or never at all. Am I really obliged to help everyone I come across on the internet?
Third, McLuhan nails the fact of blanket guilt. So goes mass-culture. You can read about it in the news today in particular, as all sorts of groups will be blamed for the evil actions of two wicked people. It happens all the time. The good news of this, I suppose, is that it gives our culture a framework for understanding the imputation of sin. After all, it was God who first instituted a ‘mass-culture’ in which the sin of one (Adam) in the Covenant of Works was credited to an entire group (Humanity); and how the righteousness of One (Jesus) in the Covenant of Grace is credited to the many (His people) through faith.
I heard someone say the other day that you have to ‘go out’ to ‘be alone.’ We are at the point where we simply cannot be alone with our thoughts. Mass-culture won’t allow it. Our best hope is to find a place where we can blend in. That’s a shame. Even Jesus needed time to be alone:
And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone (Matt. 14:23).
How can we navigate this position that we find ourselves in? One thing I know is this: the church is in the unique place of being able to offer God’s people the opportunity to be one and many. I’ve often enjoyed corporate worship, surrounded by hundreds of people, feeling as though I was having a very personal encounter with the triune God. (You can read my poem, Known Obscurity, for more on the idea). It also affords us a place where we can actually be neighbors to people in the physical sense. So much for internet church.
In addition to this, God, through the Lord Jesus Christ, and by the Spirit, assures us that there is One who knows us deeply in the midst of the mass. I tell a story to my children that goes like this:
When my second child was about to be born, I worried that I would have to divide my love between the two children. I felt that love was like liquid in a glass. If I give more to another, then some must be taken away from the first. But it is not like that at all. I actually found that I was able to love both, without love for either diminishing. Love can be taken away, but it cannot be divided. The good news is that it can grow and be shared. So it is with God’s love. His love is for the masses, but it also for each of us as individuals. That’s good news in the midst of a global village.