Church, State, and the Internet

Weak human connections mean more reliance on formal ones. It seems, then, that Facebook and Twitter, which were going to empower communities, likely end by empowering bureaucrats and billionaires.

(Image: Joshua Sortino | Unsplash.com)

Methods of communication have huge social effects.

Before the written word people lived tribally. All communication was word-of-mouth, and social order was personal, local, and traditional. Religion was myth, custom, and folklore. Among the Old Testament patriarchs, it was family memory.

The development of writing made possible the state and organized religion, and ultimately extensive, elaborate, and law-governed entities that last for centuries, like the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church.

The printing press was another great leap forward. By promoting standardization and fast and cheap communication it led to the modern world, with its modern science, nationalism, and comprehensive bureaucratic administration. It also led to the Protestant and Catholic reformations.

Communication by wire and then the airwaves—telegraph, telephone, radio, film, TV—shrank social as well as physical distance. So it gave us mass democracy and pop culture. It also gave us Hitler and Stalin. Such men could never have done what they did without radio, film, and loudspeakers to propagandize the masses, and the telephone to make possible instant personal supervision and control of everyone everywhere.

In the Church, twentieth century communications empowered both ultramontanism and cafeteria Catholicism. They made the Pope a celebrity whose every word was spread around the world, while flooding the lives of Catholics with secular influences.

The Internet has continued and radicalized many of the same tendencies. By making everyone everywhere immediately present to everyone else it has abolished space and privacy. The vastly reduced cost of producing, gathering, arranging, and propagating text, audio, image, and video has multiplied the possibilities of popular participation, of teaching and learning, and of manipulation and propaganda.

Many of the effects have been bad. There is more information and less trust, more confusion and more fanaticism, more opportunism, less principle, and fewer common loyalties. The result is growing division and enmity as inconvenient truths get out, polite lies disintegrate, and impolite fables multiply and spread. Everyone feels besieged, opponents no longer recognize each other’s legitimacy, and people in Church and State worry that the end of the world is coming, whether through climate change, globalists, Nazis, or general apostasy.

But why do things seem to be turning out badly in so many ways, and what can be done about it?

The world operates through action and reaction. We expect greater power to help us attain our goals, and it often does, but it also liberates other people—including tyrants. Tyrants have more power, and they’re unscrupulous, so why wouldn’t they win in case of conflict?

When cheap instant communications promise to liberate popular discussion, organization, and action, you can expect some people to make use of them for deceit, distortion, and control. That happens in a variety of ways, some intentional and some automatic.

Better communications were expected to mean more and better knowledge. They can be used for that, but they have also meant a growing divide between personal experience and what we think we know. That makes knowledge fragile, and it is one reason for the “post-truth” society we hear about.

We now get information, advice, and models for living from far away, and we’re swamped in sounds and images supporting them. Tradition and local knowledge disappear in favor of what might be reliable reporting and expertise or might be be spin, propaganda, pretentious humbug, and outright lies. Under such conditions we can inform ourselves, if we are careful and lucky, but we can also lose ourselves in deceit and fantasy.

Those who know what they want and have money, social position, and the services of talented people have the advantage in such situations, so how they present things is likely to end up accepted as reality. Under such circumstances, how much can we trust what we are told? Should we take talking heads and images on screens more seriously than folk wisdom, classic texts, and the life experience of ordinary people?

Tweets were going to get the facts out, so fraud and abuse would be exposed. Instead they make facts vanish into white noise and spin, so fraud and abuse become what the powerful and well-placed say they are. Google was going to mean informed citizens. Instead it means a citizenry that mostly finds out what Google wants them to find out.

Social media ought to help people renew social connections and develop communities of common interest. To some extent they do, especially among those whose habits and connections were formed before the Internet. But they end by suppressing community and social connections by making them superficial and transient. It’s easy to connect to others, but even more easy to break off.

That has a cumulative effect that spreads to all human relations. “Cancel culture” and “ghosting” are real, and have become so much part of life that Internet advice columnists routinely tell readers to cut family members out of their lives for violating some point of expected opinion or protocol.

Weak human connections mean more reliance on formal ones. It seems, then, that Facebook and Twitter, which were going to empower communities, likely end by empowering bureaucrats and billionaires.

Social media also serve as tools of domination in a far more direct way. When the formal operations of the law don’t serve dominant opinion as much as its supporters would like, social media mobbing can provide what’s missing. Sometimes online mobs are supplemented by real-world ones that the law may be unable or unwilling to control, because the law is also subject to the reign of dominant opinion.

And then, of course, there is the emerging threat of the Internet of Things. From Alexa to surveillance cameras, it was going to enable us to control our physical environment by warning us of risks and making everything around us subject to our commands. Instead, it means that Amazon and others can know everything about us. With such knowledge available, and given other trends, can a social credit system like that developing in China be far behind?

All these trends reflect a basic weakness of technology, which is that it multiplies power without regard to ultimate purpose. If there is nothing to supply the lack the future will belong to the powerful and cunning rather than the good. But what to do?

The developments we’ve been discussing are part of the process whereby universal formal organizations like global markets and transnational bureaucracies are gaining influence at the expense of more local, traditional, and value-laden institutions like family, religion, local community, and particular culture. That process leads to an utterly inhuman society, but the support it gains from advances in communications technology makes it daunting to fight. Worse, governments, big corporations, and major non-profits have lined up behind it. Why not, when it seems to open the way for them to run everything?

The only large institution that provides a grounded and independent perspective from which such tendencies can be seen whole and resisted is the Church. But she has become less inclined to do so as she has become more this-worldly. So even from a secular standpoint, the future of humanity depends on her ability to return to herself and abandon her subordination to modern secular trends. To that end we need a Church that speaks her own language, accepts her own traditions, and returns to her own sources. May her pastors and members take that need to heart, and find ways to respond to it in the Internet age.


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About James Kalb 100 Articles
James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism(ISI Books, 2008) and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

11 Comments

  1. The Church, with a communion ecclesiology, should be both universal and yet local in instantiation. Unfortunately the trend in many jurisdictions has been a tendency towards greater centralization than less.

  2. Dear writer,

    Thanks for your words. I mostly agree with them but I must make an objection.

    You suggest the Church that it is necessary to avoid the tentation of the “trends” (that´s correct an desirable). Nevertheless, how can you be “communicative” nowadays? Is it posible to mantain the tradition, at the same time we use the newnesses?

    • It’s possible to use them as long as we don’t get absorbed by them. Our life shouldn’t be mostly on line. I think we’ll have to develop disciplines to keep that from happening.

  3. LITERACY is the word. As the article reminds us that even though civilization was made possible by agriculture, it was the development of writing that made it develop and flourish into structures that still stand today, like Roman-inspired law and our Catholic Church. Then came the printing press, then came mass literacy which became the greatest enemy of tyranny. Tyranny decided then to control TRUE Literacy through propaganda, deceit, slander, violence and historical reconstructionism. When that showed signs of failing, TRUE literacy was and is now attacked by systematic and forceful promotion of static, frozen, blind immaturity, sentimentalism and emotionalism, which makes all Truth essential to True Literacy disappear.

    The Catholic Church in general has triumphed like no one else ever in the arena of True Literacy which is why they started schools and universities like no one else in history. The Catholic Church’s amazing, God-given True Literacy in the mind, soul and spirit is the biggest weapon against the Total Blind Illiteracy that Universal Sexualization, Politicization, De-humanization and De-Corporealization (ripping our souls out of our bodies as much as possible) have brought through the Internet and all other means. Real Catholics are the Supremely Literate and accused, of course, of being the Supremely Illiterate.

    We are to live more and more in the Supreme Literacy of Catholic Holiness ourselves first and, at the same time, fight against all Demonic Illiteracy, especially inside the Church. As Jordan Peterson says, “truthful speech brings order out of the dark, formless chaos”, and that’s the True Literacy so badly needed today, all over again, even if we have to fight against a willfully-spiritually-illiterate Pope that shows increasing, intentional, willful animosity to Christian-based Western Culture and Catholic Tradition. The enemies of True Literacy now see that destruction as essential but, like Eve in the Garden of Eden, it only happens if we yield to its ego-intoxicating, sensual charms. We need to proclaim and promote in every way possible (CWR, The Catholic Thing, Avila foundation, etc.) our huge legacy of Catholic Mental, Emotional and Spiritual Literacy and stop chasing after sentimental, illiterate, suicidal fairy tales. Let’s be literate in Jesus the Word, God’s Language written in human flesh, who cannot ever be defeated.

    • Agree: people need to be more literate in Jesus and His Word
      Disagree: “‘mass literacy’ is the newest form of tyranny.” Uh, what the hell.

      Why do the online worshipers of Jordan “Lobster” Peterson always end up being so spiteful and disdainful towards ‘the masses’? I feel this really undermines their message and limits their appeal.

      • Joe K., your obvious disdain and hatred for Jordan Peterson has not only severely clouded your judgment but even erased your capacity to read what is actually written. This is what I wrote and I’ll copy-and-paste it here, plus you can verify it in my original comment as it is NOT edited: “Then came the printing press, then came mass literacy which became the greatest enemy of tyranny”. How in 60 trillion gazillion years is it even possible that you twist that to mean somehow, as you did say: “mass literacy’ is the newest form of tyranny.” Uh, what the hell”.

        Those of us that appreciate the amazing and powerful work that God is indeed doing through Mr. Jordan Peterson and others, even outide the confines of strict Catholicism, do NOT “always end up being so spiteful and disdainful towards ‘the masses'”, as you say. I actually can see a lot of that spite and disdain in yourself by your very own words. Without those two huge beams in your eyes, you may one day help get the speck that someone needs help removing from their own eyes, but not before that removal happens in you, in real humility, repentance and God’s Grace.

        I do actually love people, whether as individuals or in large groups, which I’m very comfortable being with. It is for love of God and people that I do what I do every day. I also greatly admire and pray for proto-Catholics of all races, nationalities, professions, etc. like Jordan Peterson, who never ever misrepresents or distorts anyone to make a point. God bless you, Joe K.!

        • Phil,

          Joe K. is merely an example of the insanity we see from the progressive left today. They take someone’s words, then twist (if not completely invert) them and re-broadcast them as if the originator said them and transmit them around the world in milli-seconds to “useful idiots” who have lost the ability to think logically and critically. I’m reminded of George Orwell’s book “1984” and its Ministry of Truth were War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, and Ignorance is Strength. I think we’ve arrived.

  4. James Kalb’s ending paragraph thesis is that only the Church can provide a grounded and independent perspective from which such tendencies can be seen whole and resisted. Grounded and independent implying ethical sanity. She must return to herself [Apostolic Tradition] instead gravitates toward secularism. Marshall McLuhan’s the Media is the Message remains the gold standard for understanding communication of ideas, and of course truth. Communication has advanced dramatically since McLuhan’s day constant cell phone, Internet communication enhanced the principle that freedom of instant universal communication makes one able to become producer, philosopher, theologian, tribalist, revolutionary, terrorist by minimal wording as on Twitter, Facebook, and remain anonymous. Power is achieved if not in reality at least envisioned. Cyber space invites us into a New World of virtual reality and as McLuhan observed the brain is massaged [example many men find pornography more exciting that reality]. Nonetheless not simply the President but the Pontiff twitters. While thoughts can be conveyed at once to all the provision of flash knowledge lacking intellectual assessment and depth cultivates a sensual/emotive response. Sentiment rather than intelligence. The brain is massaged into moral numbness handing personal power to the media employed. Kalb points out that the powerful, billionaires are those most likely to employ the media to their advantage – people by nature gravitate toward power and notoriety. Leadership the capacity to inspire following is both blessing and curse within this communications milieu. Catholicism has the answers what it lacks is a Leader. Not a man of sentiment rather one of the intellectual brilliance of the Fathers.

  5. For my money. The best and most important discussion I’ve read in some time, some very long time.

    Wish we could all get together over coffee or beers and develop the ideas.

    But alas…it was only virtual, never to be real. We will never reinforce or sharpen one another with genuine human interaction, will we, because we’re not really interacting now. You might say, it’s all in our minds, some mutually shared fantasy.

    At best, we will share a link to this discussion with a few email addresses. One or two will glance at it. Fewer will actually partake of it. A reply will come: “Interesting,” maybe along with an observation or two.

    And there it will end.

  6. “But why do things seem to be turning out badly in so many ways, and what can be done about it?”

    Censorship by or under the auspices of the Church.

    As one of my professors mentioned, in Catholic Europe the policy was that if you have the truth you don’t tolerate error.

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