Media are not neutral. Marshall McLuhan reminded us all that the medium is itself the message, that while we think we’re getting content mediated to us somehow untouched by the media mediating it, the medium at issue is surreptitiously, silently selling itself. (I’m reminded too about Umberto Eco’s remark that all Broadway musicals are in the end about Broadway musicals.)
Even if we think McLuhan’s point put too strongly—say, if we happen to have the philosophical chops to understand how the metaphysics of Things might work, how universals relate to particulars, how people might perceive universals in particulars, how form and whatever content might relate—most would concede that at the very least various media shape the perception of that which they mediate. A weaker claim, and therefore perhaps stronger.
Some reasons people disdain, and sometimes leave, social media are obvious. Twitter and Facebook and the like become a time suck, as users lose hours scrolling through feeds, looking for something witty, interesting, shocking, to get some sort of stimulation. Users: like users of drugs who take hits to get high. (Post)modern man—whom Walker Percy says has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing, living in a deranged age—is lost in the cosmos, and our newest failed attempt at reentry du jour is the socially acceptable drug of social media feeds.
Social media’s speed, constraints, and brevity make it ripe for and rife with cynicism and misunderstanding, ever more supposed communication leading to miscommunication, suspicion, hurt, and injury. It’s easy to flame pixels, forgetting there’s a person behind them. It’s all too easy to overinterpret a retweet or share.
But these surface reasons are symptoms of deeper issues with so-called social media, rooted in the reality that their windows to the world shape our perception of the reality of the world.
Sometimes that shaping isn’t just the result of the nature of social media, or the result of impersonal algorithms, but deliberate policy. The technocrats running Facebook and Twitter put policies and practices in place that squash certain perspectives in deliberate favor of others. For instance, it seems Facebook was steering coverage of the Center for Medical Progress’ undercover video stings in a way painting Planned Parenthood in a positive light and blocking other coverage. Twitter has also taken to a policy of “safe spaces” which will block the free back-and-forth that has made it valuable.
Given the size of Facebook, it’s also possible it could swing an election. Outsize internet corporations like Facebook put too much power in too few hands, and as a small act of resistance, I withdraw. Insofar as possible, I refuse to participate in what Neil Postman identified as technopoly, the surrender of culture to technology, which empowers pneumatic technocrats who would rule us hylics. Insofar as possible.
Which may not be very far. But we do what we can to survive the technological maelstrom, even as I make this concession: It’s impossible to avoid the Internet, especially when one is involved in writing, and so I’ll keep using email, perhaps maintain my website, check my favorite sites for news, and keep my two online scrapbooks here (Contra Mvndvm, on Christianity and Culture) and here (Culmen et Fons, on liturgy). But as tools. We use tools; technologies use us. I wouldn’t be enslaved by my hammer, nor will I be enslaved by the Internet.
Pneumatics and hylics, spiritual elites and unwashed cattle: The technology of social media is fundamentally Gnostic. It assumes, and suggests to the users it uses, that the gritty reality we would encounter in ourselves, each other, and nature (if we could ever put down our iPhones) is an illusion, and constructs a new, pixelated reality for us. Social media takes us another major step down the modern path of estrangement from nature, and one cannot but think that that estrangement aids, abets, and accelerates the current confusion concerning the human person running amok in our culture and politics. Pixels can be constellated contrary to the realities which reason and nature give.
Unless we’re dealing with bots, there are people behind pixels, but all we see are the pixels. For me, it is time to strip away the pixels, and encounter ourselves, each other, nature, and God, to lose the atavaristic [sic] masks we make for ourselves for others to see and see instead of others. Paraphrasing C. S. Lewis’ psychic, embodied queen Orual, we might ask, How will we see God and each other face to face until we have faces?
Every now and then I find some true gem on social media: a post, a quote, some real information. But the price is too high given the dreck one scrapes through to find them, especially when those gems are usually taken from books one should be reading instead. If Nicholas Carr is right in his book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, the internet revolution is changing not just what we perceive but our very epistemic matter, and in a superficial direction.
In such an age, depth is needed. I need to cultivate prayer, worship, and thinking. I need to grow in the human and theological virtues. I need to become deeper, and to go deeper with God. Richard Foster, perhaps our age’s greatest living spiritual writer, identified the need for deep people in his contemporary classic Celebration of Discipline:
Superficiality is the curse of our age. The doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem. The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people.
Here I am. I find social media encourages superficiality in me. Your mileage may vary. Like Peter seeking the Lord on the shore, however, for my part I’m going swimming in the depths.
Actually, although most have missed it, McLuhan, a Catholic, claimed that in one instance, and in one instance alone, form and content were truly identical, that something (indeed, Someone) was indeed mediated truly: the Incarnation.
And so I will ever more endeavor to encounter that mystical place where God and created matter of nature meet humanity, the Incarnation, mediated not by social media but by the sacraments, the supreme reality for us. I may have had friends on Facebook and followers on Twitter, but I have a better friend in Jesus, who encounters me in prayer and gives himself to me in the Eucharist, where in the deepest way possible I’m united to my brothers and sisters as well. Finis, and farewell.