Waiting for Socrates … So We Can Kill Him Again and Post the Video on Youtube

It will come as no surprise, I’m sure, if I tell you that the wells of online discourse are poisoned. It will come as no surprise because critics have complained about the tone of online discourse for as long as people have interacted with one another online. In fact, we more or less take the toxic, volatile nature of online discourse for granted. “Don’t read the comments” is about as routine a piece of advice as “look both ways before crossing the street.” And, of course, it is also true that complaints about the coarsening of public discourse in general have been around for a lot longer than the Internet and digital media.

That said, I’ve been intrigued, heartened actually, by a recent round of posts bemoaning the state of online rhetoric from some of the most thoughtful people whose work I follow. Here is Freddie deBoer lamenting the rhetoric of the left, and here is Matthew Anderson noting much of the same on the right. Here is Alan Jacobs on why he’s stepping away from Twitter. Follow any of those links and you’ll find another series of links to thoughtful, articulate writers all telling us, more or less, that they’ve had enough. This piece urges civility and it suggests, hopefully (naively?), that the “Internet” will learn soon enough to police itself, but the evidence it cites along the way seems rather to undermine such hopefulness. I won’t bother to point you to some of the worst of what I’ve regrettably encountered online in recent weeks.

Why is this the case? Why, as David Sessions recently put it, is the state of the Internet awful?

Like everyone else, I have scattered thoughts about this. For one thing, the nature of the medium seems to encourage rancor, incivility, misunderstanding, and worse. Anonymity has something to do with this, and so does the abstraction of the body from the context of communication.

Along the same media-ecological lines, Walter Ong noted that oral discourse tends to be agonistic and literate discourse tends to be irenic. Online discourse tends to be conducted in writing, which might seem to challenge Ong’s characterization. But just as television and radio constituted what Ong called secondary orality, so might we say that social media is a form of secondary literacy, blurring the distinctions between orality and literacy. It is text based, but, like oral discourse, it brings people into a context of relative communicative immediacy. That is to say that through social media people are responding to one another in public and in short order, more as they would in a face-to-face encounter, for example, than in private letters exchanged over the course of months.

In theory, writing affords us the temporal space to be more thoughtful and precise in expressing our ideas, but, in practice, the expectations of immediacy in digital contexts collapse that space. So we lose the strengths of each medium: we get none of the meaning-making cues of face-to-face communication nor any of the time for reflection that written communication ordinarily grants. The media context, then, ends up being rife with misunderstanding and agonistic; it encourages performative pugilism.

Also, as the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre pointed out some time ago, we no longer operate with a set of broadly shared assumptions about what is good and what shape a good life should take. Our ethical reasoning tends not to be built on the same foundation. Because we are reasoning from incompatible moral premises, the conclusions reached by two opposing parties tend to be interpreted as sheer stupidity or moral obtuseness. In other words, because our arguments, proceeding as they do from such disparate moral frameworks, fail to convince and persuade, we begin to assume that those who will not yield to our moral vision must thus be fools or worse. Moreover, we conclude, fools and miscreants cannot be argued with; they can only be shamed, shouted down, or otherwise silenced.

Digital dualism is also to blame. Some people seem to operate under the assumption that they are not really racists, misogynists, anti-Semites, etc.–they just play one on Twitter. It really is much too late in the game to play that tired card.

Perhaps, too, we’ve conflated truth and identity in such a way that we cannot conceive of a challenge to our views as anything other than a challenge to our humanity. Conversely, it seems that in some highly-charged contexts being wrong can cost you the basic respect one might be owed as a fellow human being.

Finally, the Internet is awful because, frankly, people are awful. We all are; at least we all can be under the right circumstances. As Solzhenitsyn put it, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

To that list, I want to offer just one more consideration: a little knowledge is a dangerous thing and there are few things the Internet does better than giving everyone a little knowledge. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing because it is just enough to give us the illusion of mastery and a sense of authority. This illusion, encouraged by the myth of having all the world’s information at our finger tips, has encouraged us to believe that by skimming an article here or reading the summary of a book there we thus become experts who may now liberally pontificate about the most complex and divisive issues with unbounded moral and intellectual authority. This is the worst kind of insufferable foolishness, that which mistakes itself for wisdom without a hint of irony.

Real knowledge on the other hand is constantly aware of all that it does not know. The more you learn, the more you realize how much you don’t know, and the more hesitant you’ll be to speak as if you’ve got everything figured out. Getting past that threshold of “a little knowledge” tends to breed humility and create the conditions that make genuine dialogue possible. But that threshold will never be crossed if all we ever do is skim the surface of reality, and this seems to be the mode of engagement encouraged by the information ecosystem sustained by digital media.

We’re in need of another Socrates who will teach us once again that the way of wisdom starts with a deep awareness of our own ignorance. Of course, we’d kill him too, after a good skewering on Twitter, and probably without the dignity of hemlock. A posthumous skewering would follow, naturally, after the video of his death got passed around on Reddit and Youtube.

I don’t want to leave things on that cheery note, but the fact is that I don’t have a grand scheme for making online discourse civil, informed, and thoughtful. I’m pretty sure, though, that things will not simply work themselves out for the better without deliberate and sustained effort. Consider how W.H. Auden framed the difference between traditional cultures and modernity:

“The old pre-industrial community and culture are gone and cannot be brought back. Nor is it desirable that they should be. They were too unjust, too squalid, and too custom-bound. Virtues which were once nursed unconsciously by the forces of nature must now be recovered and fostered by a deliberate effort of the will and the intelligence. In the future, societies will not grow of themselves. They will be either made consciously or decay.”

For better or worse, or more likely both, this is where we find ourselves–either we deploy deliberate effort of will and intelligence or face perpetual decay. Who knows, maybe the best we can do is to form and maintain enclaves of civility and thoughtfulness amid the rancor, communities of discourse where meaningful conversation can be cultivated. These would probably remain small communities, but their success would be no small thing.


Update: After publishing, I read Nick Carr’s post on the revival of blogs and the decline of Big Internet. “So, yeah, I’m down with this retro movement,” Carr writes, “Bring back personal blogs. Bring back RSS. Bring back the fun. Screw Big Internet.” I thought that was good news in light of my closing paragraph.

And, just in case you need more by way of diagnosis, there’s this: “A Second Look At The Giant Garbage Pile That Is Online Media, 2014.”

Our Little Apocalypses

An incoming link to my synopsis of Melvin Kranzberg’s Six Laws of Technology alerted me to a short post on Quartz about a new book by an author named Michael Harris. The book, The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection, explores the tradeoffs induced by the advent of the Internet. Having not read the book, I obviously can’t say much about it, but I was intrigued by one angle Harris takes that comes across in the Quartz piece.

Harris’s book is focused on the generation, a fuzzy category to be sure, that came of age just before the Internet exploded onto the scene in the early 90s. Here’s Harris:

“If you were born before 1985, then you know what life is like both with the internet and without. You are making the pilgrimage from Before to After.”

“If we’re the last people in history to know life before the internet, we are also the only ones who will ever speak, as it were, both languages. We are the only fluent translators of Before and After.”

It would be interesting to read what Harris does with this framing. In any case, it’s something I’ve thought about often. This is my fifteenth year teaching. Over the years I’ve noticed, with each new class, how the world that I knew as a child and as a young adult recedes further and further into the murky past. As you might guess, digital technology has been one of the most telling indicators.

Except for a brief flirtation with Prodigy on an MS-DOS machine with a monochrome screen, the Internet did not come into my life until I was a freshman in college. I’m one of those people Harris is writing about, one of the Last Generation to know life before the Internet. Putting it that way threatens to steer us into a rather unseemly romanticism, and, knowing that I’m temperamentally drawn to dying lights, I want to make sure I don’t give way to it. That said, it does seem to me that those who’ve known the Before and After, as Harris puts it, are in a unique position to evaluate the changes. Experience, after all, is irreducible and incommunicable.

One of the recurring rhetorical tropes that I’ve listed as a Borg Complex symptom is that of noting that every new technology elicits criticism and evokes fear, society always survives the so-called moral panic or techno-panic, and thus concluding, QED, that those critiques and fears, including those being presently expressed, are always misguided and overblown. It’s a pattern of thought I’ve complained about more than once. In fact, it features as the tenth of my unsolicited points of advice to tech writers.

Now while it is true, as Adam Thierer has noted here, that we should try to understand how societies and individuals have come to cope with or otherwise integrate new technologies, it is not the case that such negotiated settlements are always unalloyed goods for society or for individuals. But this line of argument is compelling to the degree that living memory of what has been displaced has been lost. I may know at an intellectual level what has been lost, because I read about it in a book for example, but it is another thing altogether to have felt that loss. We move on, in other words, because we forget the losses, or, more to the point, because we never knew or experienced the losses for ourselves–they were always someone else’s problem.

To be very clear and to avoid the pedantic, sanctimonious reply–although, in all honesty, I’ve gotten so little of that on this blog that I’ve come to think that a magical filter of civility vets all those who come by–let me affirm that yes, of course, I certainly would’ve made many trade-offs along the way, too. To recognize costs and losses does not mean that you always refuse to incur them, it simply means that you might incur them in something other than a naive, triumphalist spirit.

Around this time last year, an excerpt from Jonathan Franzen’s then-forthcoming edited work on Karl Krauss was published in the Guardian; it was panned, frequently and forcefully, and deservedly so in some respects. But the conclusion of the essay struck me then as being on to something.

“Maybe … apocalypse is, paradoxically, always individual, always personal,” Franzen wrote,

“I have a brief tenure on earth, bracketed by infinities of nothingness, and during the first part of this tenure I form an attachment to a particular set of human values that are shaped inevitably by my social circumstances. If I’d been born in 1159, when the world was steadier, I might well have felt, at fifty-three, that the next generation would share my values and appreciate the same things I appreciated; no apocalypse pending.”

But, of course, he wasn’t. He was born in the modern world, like all of us, and this has meant change, unrelenting change. Here is where the Austrian writer Karl Kraus, whose life straddled the turn of the twentieth century, comes in: “Kraus was the first great instance of a writer fully experiencing how modernity, whose essence is the accelerating rate of change, in itself creates the conditions for personal apocalypse.” Perhaps. I’m tempted to quibble with this claim. The words of John Donne, “Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone,” come to mind. Yet, even if Franzen is not quite right about the historical details, I think he’s given honest voice to a common experience of modernity:

“The experience of each succeeding generation is so different from that of the previous one that there will always be people to whom it seems that the key values have been lost and there can be no more posterity. As long as modernity lasts, all days will feel to someone like the last days of humanity. Kraus’s rage and his sense of doom and apocalypse may be the anti-thesis of the upbeat rhetoric of Progress, but like that rhetoric, they remain an unchanging modality of modernity.”

This is, perhaps, a bit melodramatic, and it is certainly not all that could be said on the matter, or all that should be said. But Franzen is telling us something about what it feels like to be alive these days. It’s true, Franzen is not the best public face for those who are marginalized and swept aside by the tides of technological change, tides which do not lift all boats, tides which may, in fact, sink a great many. But there are such people, and we do well to temper our enthusiasm long enough to enter, so far as it is possible, into their experience. In fact, precisely because we do not have a common culture to fall back on, we must work extraordinarily hard to understand one another.

Franzen is still working on the assumption that these little personal apocalypses are a generational phenomenon. I’d argue that he’s underestimated the situation. The rate of change may be such that the apocalypses are now intra-generational. It is not simply that my world is not my parents’ world; it is that my world now is not what my world was a decade ago. We are all exiles now, displaced from a world we cannot reach because it fades away just as its contours begin to materialize. This explains why, as I wrote earlier this year, nostalgia is not so much a desire for a place or a time as it is a desire for some lost version of ourselves. We are like Margaret, who in Hopkins’ poem, laments the passing of the seasons, Margaret to whom the poet’s voice says kindly, “It is Margaret you mourn for.”

Although I do believe that certain kinds of change ought to be resisted–I’d be a fool not to–none of what I’ve been trying to get at in this post is about resisting change in itself. Rather, I think all I’ve been trying to say is this: we must learn to take account of how differently we experience the changing world so that we might best help one another as we live through the change that must come. That is all.

Innovation, Technology, and the Church (Part Two)

What has Silicon Valley to do with Jerusalem?

More than you might think, but that question, of course, is a riff on Tertullian’s famous query, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” It was a rhetorical question. By it, Tertullian implied that Christian theology, represented by Jerusalem, should steer clear of Greek philosophy, represented by Athens. I offer my question, in which Silicon Valley represents technological “innovation,” more straightforwardly and as a way of introducing this second post in conversation with Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry’s essay, “Peter Thiel and the Cathedral.”

In the first post, I raised some questions about terminology and the force of Gobry’s analogy: “The monastics were nothing if not innovators, and the [monastic] orders were the great startups of the day.” I was glad to get some feedback from Gobry, and you can read it here; you can also read my response below Gobry’s comment. Of course, Internet reading being what it is, it’s probably better if I just give you the gist of it. Gobry thought I made a bit too much of the definitional nuances while also making clear that he was well aware of the distinctions between a twenty-first century start up and a thirteenth century monastery.

For the record, I never doubted Gobry’s awareness of the fine points at issue. But when the fine points are relevant to the conversation, I think it best to bring them to the surface. It matters, though, what point is being made, and this may be where my response to Gobry’s essay missed the mark, or where Gobry and I might be in danger of talking past one another. The essay reads a bit like a manifesto, it is a call to action. Indeed, it explicitly ends as such. Given that rhetorical context, my approach may not have been entirely fair. In fact, it may be better to frame most of what I plan to write as being “inspired” by Gobry’s post, rather than as a response to it.

It would depend, I think, on the function of the historical analogies, and I’ll let Gobry clarify that for me. As I mentioned in my reply to his comment, it matters what function the historical analogies–e.g., monasteries as start-ups–are intended to play. Are they merely inspirational illustrations, or are they intended as morally compelling arguments. My initial response assumed the latter, thus my concern to clarify terminology and surface the nuance before moving on to a more formal evaluation of the claim.

The closing paragraphs of Gobry’s response to my post, however, suggested to me that I’d misread the import of the analogies. Twice Gobry clarified his interest in the comparisons:

“What interests me in the analogy between a startup and a monastic foundation is the element of risk and folly in pursuit of a specific goal,”


“What interests me in the analogy between monastic orders and startups is the distinct sense of mission, a mission which is accomplished through the daring, proficiency and determination of a small band of people, and through concrete ends.”

That sounds a bit more like an inspirational historical illustration than it does an argument by analogy based on the assumed moral force of historical precedent. Of course, that’s not a criticism. (Although, I’m not sure it’s such a great illustration for the same reasons I didn’t think it made a convincing argument.) It just means that I needed to recalibrate my own approach and that it might be best to untether these considerations a bit from Gobry’s post. Before doing so, I would just add this. If the crux of the analogy is the element of risk and folly in pursuit of a goal and a sense of mission executed by a devoted community, then the monastic tradition is just one of many possible religious and non-religious illustrations.

Fundamentally, though, even while Gobry and I approach it from different angles, I still do think we are both interested in the same issue: the religious/cultural matrix of technological innovation.

In Gobry’s view, we need to recover the innovative spirit illustrated within the monastic tradition and also by the building of the great medieval cathedrals. In a subsequent post, I’ll argue that a closer look at both helps us to see how the relationship between technology and culture has evolved in such a way that the strength of cultural institutions that ought to drive “innovation” has been sapped. In this light, Gobry’s plea for the church to take the up the mantle of innovation might be understood as a symptom of what has gone wrong with respect to technology’s relationship to religion, and culture more broadly. In short, the problem is that technological innovation is no longer a means directed by the church or some other cultural institution to some noble end, it is too frequently pursued as an end in itself. For the record, I don’t think this is what Gobry himself is advocating.

Gobry is right to raise questions about the relationship between technological innovation and, to borrow Lynne White’s phrasing, cultural climates. White himself argued that there was something about the cultural climate of medieval Europe that proved hospitable to technological innovation. But looking over the evolution of technology and culture over the subsequent centuries, it becomes apparent that the relationship between technology and culture has become disordered. In the next post, I’ll start with the medieval cathedrals to fill out that claim.

Innovation, Technology, and the Church (Part One)

Last week I read a spirited essay by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry titled “Peter Thiel and the Cathedral.” Gobry’s post was itself inspired by a discussion of technology, politics, and theology between Thiel, the founder of PayPal, and theologian N.T. Wright, formerly bishop of Durham. That discussion was moderated by NY Times columnist Ross Douthat. As for Gobry, he is a French entrepreneur and writer currently working for Forbes. Additionally, Gobry and Douthat are both Roman Catholics. Wright is a minister in the Church of England. Thiel’s religious views are less clear; he identifies as a Christian with “somewhat heterodox” beliefs.

So, needless to say, I found this mix of themes and personalities more than a little interesting. In fact, I’ve been thinking of Gobry’s post for several days. The issues it raised, in their broadest form, include the relationship between technology and culture as well as the relationship between Christianity and technology. Of course, these issues can hardly be addressed adequately in a blog post, or even a series of blog posts. While I thought about Gobry’s post and read related materials, relevant considerations cascaded. Nothing short of a book-length treatment could do this subject justice. That said, beginning with this post, I’m going to offer a few of considerations, briefly noted, that I think are worth further discussion.

In this post, I’ll start with a quick sketch of Gobry’s argument, and I’ll follow that with some questions about the key terms at play in this discussion. My goal is to read Gobry charitably and critically precisely because I share his sense that these are consequential matters, and not only for Christians.

Reduced to its essence, Gobry’s essay is a call for the Church to reclaim it’s role as a driving force of technological innovation for the good of civilization. The logic of his argument rests on the implications of the word reclaim. In his view, the Church, especially the medieval church, was a key player in the emergence of Western science and technology. Somewhere along the way, the Church lost its way and now finds itself an outsider to the technological project, more often than not a wary and critical outsider. Following Thiel, Gobry is worried the absence of a utopian vision animating technological innovation will result in technological stagnation with dire civilizational consequences.

With that sketch in place, and I trust it is a fair summary, let’s move on to some of the particulars, and we’ll need to start by clarifying terminology.

Church, Technology, Innovation—we could easily spend a lot of time specifying the sense of each of these key terms. Part of my unease with Gobry’s argument arises from the equivocal nature of these terms and how Gobry deploys them to analogize from the present to the past. I would assume that Gobry, as a Roman Catholic, primarily has the Roman Church in view when he talks about “the Church” or even Christianity. On one level this is fine, it’s the tradition out of which Gobry speaks, and, moreover, his blog is addressed primarily to a Catholic audience. My concern is that the generalization obscures non-trivial nuances. So, for instance, even the seemingly cohesive and monolithic world of medieval Catholicism was hardly so uniform on closer examination. Consequently, it would be hard to speak about a consistent and uniform attitude or posture toward “technology” that characterized “the Church” even in the thirteenth century. Things get even thornier when we realize that technology as it exists today was, like so much of modernity, funneled through the intellectual, economic, political, and religious revolution that was the Reformation.

But that is not all. As I’ve discussed numerous times before, defining “technology” is itself also a remarkably challenging task; the term ends up being a fiendishly expansive concept with fuzzy boundaries all around. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that in the medieval era there was no word that did the same semantic work as our word “technology.” It is not until the ninth century that the Carolingian theologian, John Scotus Erigena, first employed the term artes mechanicae, or the “mechanical arts,” which would function as the nearest equivalent for some time.

Finally, “innovation” is also, in my view, a problematic term. At the very least, I do not think we can use it univocally in both medieval and contemporary contexts. In our public discourse, innovation implies not only development in the “nuts and bolts” of technical apparatus; it also implies the conditions of the market economy and the culture of Silicon Valley. Whatever one makes of those two realities, it seems clear they render it difficult, if not impossible, to make historical generalizations about “innovation.”

So, my first major concern, is that speaking about the Church, technology, and innovation involves us in highly problematic generalizations. Generalizations are necessary, I understand this, especially within the constraints of short-form writing. I’m not pedantically opposed to generalizations in principle. However, every generalization, every concept, obscures particularities and nuances. Consequently, there is a tipping point at which a generalization not only simplifies, but also falsifies. My sense is that in Gobry’s post, we are very close to generalizations that falsify in such as way that they undermine the thrust of the argument. This is especially important because the historical analogies in this case are meant to carry a normative, or at least persuasive force.

Because the generalizations are problematic, the analogies are too. Consider the following lines from Gobry: “The monastics were nothing if not innovators, and the [monastic] orders were the great startups of the day. The technological and other accomplishments of the great monastic orders are simply staggering.”

As a matter of fact, the second sentence is absolutely correct. The analogies in the first sentence, however, are, in my view, misleading. The first clause is misleading because it suggests, as I read it, that “innovation” was of the essence of the monastic life. As Gobry knows, “monastic life” is already a generalization that obscures great variety on the question at issue, especially when eastern forms of monastic life are taken into consideration. But even if we concentrate on the more relevant strand of western and Benedictine monasticism, we run into trouble.

As George Ovitt found in his excellent work, The Restoration Of Perfection: Labor and Technology in Medieval Culture, technical considerations were consistently subordinated to spiritual ends. The monastics, were, in fact, much else even if they were at times innovators. This is evident in the Benedictine’s willingness to lay aside labor when it became possible to commission a lesser order of lay brothers or even paid laborers to perform the work necessitated by the community.

The second clause—“the [monastic] orders were the great start-ups of the day”—is misleading because it imports the economic conditions and motivations of the early twenty-first century to the medieval monasteries. Whatever we might say about the monasteries and their conflicted relationship to wealth—most monastic reform movements centered on this question—it seems unhelpful, if not irresponsible to characterize them as “start-ups.” The accumulation of wealth was incidental to the life of the monastery, and, historically, threatened its core mission. By contrast, the accumulation of wealth is a start-up’s raison d’être and shapes its life and work.

I hope these considerations do not come across as merely “academic” quibbles. I’ve no interest in being pedantic. In writing about technology and Christianity, Gobry has addressed a set of issues that I too consider important and consequential. Getting the relevant history right will help us better understand our present moment. In follow-up posts, I’ll take up some of the more substantive issues raised by Gobry’s essay, and I’ll follow his lead by using the construction of the cathedral’s as a useful case study.


To Think, or Not to Think

From my present vantage point, if and when my dissertation gets written, these two passages will very likely serve as epigraphs.

Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition:

“What I propose in the following is a reconsideration of the human condition from the vantage point of our newest experiences and our most recent fears. This, obviously, is a matter of thought, and thoughtlessness–the heedless recklessness of hopeless confusion or complacent repetition of ‘truths’ which have become trivial and empty–seems to me among the outstanding characteristics of our time. What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing.”

Alfred North Whitehead in An Introduction to Mathematics:

“It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle — they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments.”

Discuss, particularly in light of our tendency to outsource or offload our intellectual, moral, and emotional labor to our devices.