When you plug something into a wall, something is getting plugged into you

When you plug something into a wall, [something] is getting plugged into you.

-Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, p. 7

Postman was fond of saying, following McLuhan, that when you add new technology to an environment, you change the environment. Hence the big idea of media ecology. If you add an XBOX to your living room, you don’t just have your old living room plus an XBOX. You have a new living room – a new environment. Something fundamental in the environment has changed that will affect the total atmosphere/ecosystem.

The idea that when you plug something in, it gets plugged into you, is a helpful summary of this concept. When you plug your smartphone in – when you put it in your pocket – you don’t have you plus a smartphone in your pocket. You have new version of you.

This is not always bad (and Postman never claimed it was), but awareness is key. I often quote the GI Joe PSAs I grew up watching – Knowing is half the battle.

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Anxiety from Lack of Stimulation

We are wired to crave the temporary satisfaction from writing e-mails, crafting tweets, returning calls, downloading music, playing games, checking out websites, sending text messages, and taking photos of our food. They are the hooks that enrapture us. They are the casino slot machines that keep us moving from one machine to the next, ultimately resulting in our anxiety when we are left to face the world unstimulated.

– Matt Knisely, Framing Faith, p. 13

I relate to this line of thought, especially lately. It is odd that having nothing to do can cause anxiety, but it happens. Boredom should be the least stressful thing in the world, but when you’re bombarded with constant light, constant bells and whistles, it’s hard to decompress. Can you face the world when you’re not stimulated?

Relational Junk Food

But our society has begun to treat our relational needs much the same way we’ve come to treat our physical needs. When we’re hungry, rather than take the time to cook a well-balanced, filling meal, we rush to grab something out of the freezer that we can quickly nuke and then eat while watching TV or finishing up some work. And when we’re relationally hungry, so often rather than sitting down with our children or spouse to hear about their day or setting up a dinner date with a good friend, we open Facebook or Twitter and peruse through the recent posts of the day, stopping to click ‘like’ or shoot off some quick replies. Or we look to see if a picture we posted on Instagram earlier that day has been commented on much – and if it was, that temporarily fills us…until we close our computer and crawl into bed with the same dissatisfied, empty feeling that we went to bed with the day before…

-Matt Knisely, Framing Faith, p. 12

I like the analogy of social media as the relational equivalent of a frozen dinner thrown in the microwave.

Chesterton, Anatomy of the Joke

I picked up an out of print book of G.K. Chesternoon newspaper essays at the seminary library a while back and came across this gem. It was published in 1922 in Hearst’s International. You can find it online HERE.

Chesterton illustrates man as a supremely needy being – so needy that he alone must sleep in the skin of another, so needy that he alone must pass his food through fire before it can pass through his stomach, so needy that he alone must be propped up by crutches called furniture.

Joy Davidman once quipped that, “…perhaps our remote ancestors had no sooner invented the slingshot than they reared back on their hind legs and proclaimed that their technical progress had now enabled them to do without religion.” Chesterton’s observations remind us that even our technological progress shows our neediness.

The Anatomy of the Joke, by G.K. Chesterton

There is nothing comic about a falling tree. There is nothing really funny about a falling star. And there is very little amusement to be got out of a falling thunderbolt, unless it knocks over some carefully selected and suitable person; such as a sociologist proving that he can foresee all future eventualities or an astronomer disproving the existence of thunderbolts.

In short, a falling star is not fantastic, but a falling man is, or can be, fantastic. Why? I do not believe the question can be fully answered, for the same reason that I do believe the current answers are wrong; because it lies deep in the mysterious matter of what did really happen when man received or evolved the mind that sunders him from the beasts and birds. But I will throw out a few vague suggestions about the proper direction of inquiry.

Man himself is a joke in the sense of a paradox. That there is something very extraordinary about his position, and therefore presumably about his past, is the clearest sort of common sense. Alone of all creatures he is not self-sufficient, even while he is supreme.

He dare not sleep in his own skin; he cannot simply put his own food into his own stomach. He has to put the latter first into an oven and cover the former first with external and foreign hair; always sleeping in somebody else’s skin. In one sense he is a cripple amongst the creatures; he is at once imperfect and artificial like a monster with two glass eyes and two wooden legs. He is propped upon crutches that are called furniture; he is patched and protected with bandages that are called clothes.

Properly visualized, he is grotesque, not when he sits on a hat, but when he allows a hat to sit on him. Properly understood, he is not so ridiculous when he sits on a hat as when he sits on a chair; for then he is acting like some monstrous sort of crippled quadruped and equipping himself with four wooden legs. Why the lord of creation is a cripple in this queer sense is an open question; but some maintain that it is because he once had a bad fall.

Now this humorous human quality can, as a matter of fact, be much more easily connected with this old idea of a fall of man than with the current and conventional ideas about the evolution of man. To begin with, the explanation, whatever it is, must be some thing more or less peculiar to man.

Those who have heard the hyena laugh will not admit that his laughter would add much to the mirth of a happy fireside. The fantastic shapes of the other animals are only fantastic as mirrored in the mind of man. In this sense we may say that the camel’s hump and the rhinoceros’ horn are human secrets and even human possessions; and that we know the pelican and the penguin better than they know themselves.

To all appearance the animal world is unconscious of the grotesque; and considered in the light of mere animal evolution, there is hardly anything grotesque about their innocence.

But let us entertain, merely as a hypothesis and without any reference to doctrinal details or applications, some such supposition as this. That at some time in the unknowable past the creature that has become man received some sort of shock or revelation, by the expansion of his own or the visitation of other psychical forces, whereby he gained a sense of a separate and more divine destiny; that he afterwards lost this direct vision and lived on a lower plane, so that he was haunted with a curious sensation that the accidents of this world are in a sense alien to him, while their very inappropriateness is mixed with some memories of happiness and some hope of recovery. To put it shortly, he is in a sense pleased to be the only creature who is in the wrong place, while all other creatures are in the right one.

It seems to me that the problem of humour presents one primary condition and difficulty which divides it from most others. It seems to me quite clear that the process which ends in a joke necessarily begins with a certain idea of dignity. The dignity is in some way implied beforehand. Beauty or knowledge might conceivably break on a person without previous implications. But incongruity cannot break on him without the pre-existence or pre-supposition of something with which it fails to be congruous. So far as one can see, that pre-supposition is of something erect and, as it were, respectable about the station or stature of humanity.

We think the projection of an elephant’s trunk grotesque because it is near enough to being a caricature of a man’s nose. We do not think the projection of a precipice grotesque because it is not near enough to imply any comparison with humanity at all.

The more this dark matter is independently considered, the more, I think, we shall find this human standard, as of an erect figure, dominating it like a statue. All depends on this dim or fantastic tracing everywhere of the image of man; and I believe the key is somewhere in that mysterious oracle which identified it with the image of God.

Recent Reading: Player Piano, by Kurt Vonnegut

I read Slaughterhouse Five a while back because it was highly recommended by Chuck Palahniuk, and because another of my favorites authors, Douglas Coupland, is a big fan of Vonnegut. So, when I saw this book on the for-sale rack (for a quarter) at my local library, I decided to pick it up. I’m in the lull between the end of classes and final exams at seminary, so it’s high time for some fiction for the sake of sanity.

Player Piano, by Kurt Vonnegut

This book will be added to my list of recommended reading on culture and technology. Last year, I accidentally stumbled upon Hard Times, by Charles Dickens, and discovered that it was a story that dealt with scientism; it turns out the same thing has happened again with Player Piano.

In the story, another dystopia by the way, Vonnegut depicts a future for America in which the scientists and engineers rule the day. Machines have been invented to do essentially all menial labor that there is to do, which has left no work for the working class. Everything about your life is essentially predetermined by your IQ score. If you are smart enough, you go to college and become something of value and significance; if you are not, you join the army or some belittling government corps. If you really want to make it, you must become an engineer. And as an engineer, you care for the machines that essentially rule the culture. Just be careful not to invent a machine that will take your place. If you do your job well, you might climb your way up the managerial bureaucracy.

The story centers around one such engineer named Paul Proteous (a great name by the way) who happens to be the son of one of the most successful engineers in the history of the country – the engineer given primary credit for the current machine-driven system. Paul begins to consort with folks from ‘across the river’ and learns how miserable common people are in this system, a fact that he has been oblivious to all of his life heretofore. He, along with an engineer-friend that has given up on the system, meet a Protestant minister who tells them of his belief that the lower class are primed for the arrival of a messiah that will deliver them from their low estate of, basically, having nothing of any significance to do.

From this point on, Paul is caught on the threshold of two worlds and must decide what he truly thinks of the cultural system as it is. Should he continue to live his successful life without experiencing any sense of significance or purpose, or could he perhaps rebel against it.

As his name is Proteous, the name given to him by his father, the most famous name in the land, he is ultimately recruited to serve as a nominal messiah to lead to lower class in a rebellion against the bureaucracy. Still, he is torn between two worlds and must decide to which side he will pledge his ultimate allegiance, realizing that this coup may cost him everything. I won’t give away the ending, so I’ll stop there.

Vonnegut wrote this story in the 1950s, and his prescience is astounding to some degree. I am always amazed by the people that can see things coming. Personally, I find that I am good at diagnosing problems, but not so good at seeing where those problems will lead to down the road. This book belongs with Animal Farm, Brave New World, and 1984 in relation to dystopian visions of the future. It hits upon the basic question of what man is meant to do, and what man will do when that meaning and purpose is taken away – in this case by gadgets.

Sanctification in the Technopolis

Since I’m not writing much these days, here’s a link to a talk I gave recently on the subjection of technology in relation to Christian sanctification. If you’ve been around the blog for a while you’ve seen me write on this a good bit. This is the first time I’ve condensed much of this information down into a talk.

You can listen HERE or watch below:

Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”

The Sovereignty of Technology

The United States is the most radical society in the world. It is in the process of conducting a vast, uncontrolled experiment which poses the question, Can a society preserve any of its traditional virtues by submitting all of its institutions to the sovereignty of technology?

Neil Postman, The Conservative Outlook, from Conscientious Objections, p. 107

I don’t think Postman phrases his question perfectly. The question should probably more along the lines of ‘Can a society preserve any of its traditional virtues as it submits all of its institutions to the sovereignty of technology?’

When posed that way, the question becomes a little more tricky. First, we have to ask the question of whether or not technology has truly become sovereign in our culture. Does technology have supreme and ultimate power? I answer yes and no.

Technology has become sovereign in the sense that we elevate its worth and often declare it to be infallible. Technology has not become sovereign in the sense that they are generally, as McLuhan said, ‘extensions of man.’ They are means through which we express our own self-conceived sovereignty, extend our reach, increase our comfortability, and impose our will and desires on others. In other words, to paraphrase 1 Corinthians 13, they allow us to inflate ourselves and impose ourselves on others. In this sense, man is sovereign and technology is his scepter and herald.

But, again, Postman has a point. As has often been said, by Henry David Thoreau, McLuhan, and Postman himself, the danger is that we tend to become tools of our tools. And, as we do, to quote C.S. Lewis, when we turn something into a god, it will become a demon. When we make idols out of man-made things, God will give us over to our plunderers, and they will do what plunderers do: plunder (see Judges 2).

So the ultimate answer is, No, we can’t hold to traditional values as we submit our institutions to the sovereignty of technology. This has been demonstrated clearly in recent decades. But the problem is just as much with individuals as with institutions. And the problem isn’t really technology itself. Five hundred years ago all of the West’s institutions submitted to the sovereignty of the printed word on account of the newly invented technology of the printing press. Was that a bad thing? Did that ruin the culture? I guess it depends on who you ask. Haters of Martin Luther and Protestantism might think it ruined the culture. I do not count myself among them.

The problem is with our idolatrous desire to exalt gods that are no gods. Turn something into a god and it will become a demon. Technology under the lordship of Christ is technology kept in its place. But in order to keep technology under his lordship, we must be under it first.

I would also add that being a ‘conservative,’ in Postman’s thinking, means fighting to conserve tradition. That doesn’t equate to a lot of things modern ‘conservatives’ fight for. Anyhow, we must be careful that we don’t exalt ‘traditional values’ too highly either. Our culture’s traditional values are no god. They may be good or bad, and some are definitely good, but they are no god. Hence the need to constantly go back to the Word of God, which is always timely.

The Commercial as Sermon within a Cultural Liturgy

Television commercials are a form of religious literature. To comment on them in a serious vein is to practice hermeneutics (p. 66).

…The majority of important television commercials take the form of religious parables organized around a coherent theology. Like all religious parables, they put forward a concept of sin, intimations of the way to redemption, and a vision of Heaven. They also suggest what are the roots of evil and what are the obligations of the holy (p. 67).

The sudden striking power of technological innocence is a particularly important feature of television-commercial theology, for it is a constant reminder of the congregation’s vulnerability. One must never be complacent or, worse, self-congratulatory. To attempt to live without technological sophistication is at all times dangerous, since the evidence of one’s naivete will always be painfully visible to the vigilant (p. 69).

-Neil Postman, The Parable of the Ring Around the Collar, from Conscientious Objections

Postman probably wrote this essay some time in the 80s; mass digital media wasn’t in view. Yet I think the principle he espouses still stands and could be helpful.

A while back, I read James K.A. Smith’s book, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. I didn’t blog about it at the time, because I fundamentally disagreed with one of the major premises of the book (not going there since it’s not the purpose of this blog). There were, however, things about the book that I found helpful; for instance, his parable of the shopping mall as liturgy. He premises that from an alien eye, without knowledge of American shopping rituals, the journey through the mall would appear as a religious, temple-like, experience. Much the same is the case for sporting events. I bring up this point of ‘cultural liturgies’ because it ties directly to what Postman was saying about television.

I think the idea of a commercial, whatever form it may take, as a sermon (a portion of our cultural liturgy), makes sense. Advertisements are meant to show a need, to evoke longing, and to point to where that need/longing can be met. It’s felt-need preaching. And if you don’t feel the need, you will by the end.

With that in mind, I think Postman’s paradigm is helpful. It would be an interesting study, I think, and an even better habit, to ask of commercials/advertisements the questions,

  • What concept of sin is being put forward (what am I lacking)?
  • What is the way to redemption being put forward (how can this product fill that lack)?
  • What is the vision of heaven (or the good life) being put forward (how will my life change by buying this product)?

In addition to that, Postman hints at the doctrine of sanctification – What are the obligations of the holy? How may you this product help you live a ‘set apart’ life? What does this consecrated life entail?

Two Kinds of Reading that May Keep You from Reading

Steiner believes we have now passed through the oasis and reentered the desert, with the result that we shall be left with three kinds of reading. The first is reading for distraction – which is what makes the airport book so popular. The second is reading for information…The third kind of reading is a residue of the great age of literacy, now receding rapidly under the compulsions of the Age of Information. It requires silence, patience, a ready capacity for reflection, the training to be challenged by complexity and, above all, a willingness to suspend the distractions of the world so that reader and text may become a unity of time, space, and imagination…

Against Zuckerman’s Hope, there is Steiner’s Prophecy, which he expressed with an ominous briskness: ‘What about reading in the old, archaic, private, silent sense? This may become as specialized a skill and avocation as it was in the scriptoria and libraries of the monasteries during the so-called Dark ages.’

-Neil Postman, A Muted Celebration, from Conscientious Objection, pp. 54-55

Postman’s line of thought here ties in nicely with C.S. Lewis’ conception of (what I call) literacy vs. aliteracy. The issue in our day, in modern America, is not literacy vs. illiteracy, but literacy vs. aliteracy.

Those who read for distraction and information are not necessarily fully literate. Ironically, it is those very sorts of reading (for distraction and information) that may keep us from really reading at all.

Were the Luddites Right?

We’ve had a couple of Luddite conversations here on the blog. Who knew Ludd never existed?

Anyhow, I happened to catch an interesting (and very short) take on the Luddites on NPR yesterday. It gives a more balanced perspective than one generally hears, painting them as the original ‘Rage Against the Machine.’

Were they right? Economically speaking, perhaps they were. Perhaps they weren’t as much anti-machinery as they were pro-human-economic-flourishing. Give it a listen.

Listen to When ‘Luddites’ Attack: Destroying Machines To Save Their Jobs HERE.