(us.fotolia.com | Pavel Ignatov)
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 stronglysay, 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 relatemost would
concede that at the very least various media shape the perception of
that which they mediate. A weaker claim, and therefore perhaps stronger.
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 manwhom Walker Percy says has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing, living in a deranged ageis lost in the cosmos, and our newest failed attempt at reentry du jour is the socially acceptable drug of social media feeds.
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
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
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.