The Interrupted Self

In Letters From Lake Como: Explorations in Technology and the Human Race, written in the 1920’s, Romano Guardini, related the following experience: “I recall going down a staircase, and suddenly, when my foot was leaving one step and preparing to set itself down on another, I became aware of what I was doing. I then noted what self-evident certainty is displayed in the play of muscles. I felt that a question was thus raised concerning motion.”

“This was a triviality,” Guardini acknowledges, “and yet it tells us what the issue is here.” He goes on to explain the “issue” as follows:

Life needs the protection of nonawareness. We are told this already by the universal psychological law that we cannot perform an intellectual act and at the same time be aware of it. We can only look back on it when it is completed. If we try to achieve awareness of it when we are doing it, we can do so only be always interrupting it and thus hovering between the action and knowledge of it. Obviously the action will suffer greatly as a result. It seems to me that this typifies the life of the mind and spirit as a whole. Our action is constantly interrupted by reflection on it. Thus all our life bears the distinctive character of what is interrupted, broken. It does not have the great line that is sure of itself, the confident movement deriving from the self.

It seems to me that the tendency Guardini identifies here has only intensified during the nearly 100 years since he wrote down his observations.

As an aside, I find works like Guardini’s useful for at least two reasons. The first, perhaps more obvious, reason is that they offer genuine insights that remain applicable in a more or less straightforward way. The second, perhaps less obvious, reason is that they offer a small window into the personal and cultural experience of technological change. When we think about the difference technologies make in our life and for society more broadly, we often have only our experience by which to judge. But, of course, we don’t know what we don’t know, or we can’t remember what we have never known. And this is especially the case when we consider what me might call the existential or even affective aspects of technological change.

Returning to Guardini, has he notes in the letter on “Consciousness” from which that paragraph was taken, literature was only one sphere of culture where this heightened consciousness was making itself evident.

I can’t know what literary works Guardini had in mind, but there is one scene in Tolstoy’s short novel, The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886), that immediately sprung to mind. Early on in the story, which begins with Ilyich’s death, a co-worker, Peter Ivanovich, has come to Ilyich’s home to pay his respects. Upon entering the room where Ilyich’s body lay, Peter Ivanovich is uncertain as to how to proceed:

Peter Ivanovich, like everyone else on such occasions, entered feeling uncertain what he would have to do. All he knew was that at such times it is always safe to cross oneself. But he was not quite sure whether one should make obeisances while doing so. He therefore adopted a middle course. On entering the room he began crossing himself and made a slight movement resembling a bow.

I’ve come to read this scene as a microcosm of an extended, possibly recurring, cultural moment in the history of modernity, one that illustrates the emergence of self-consciousness.

Here is Peter Ivanovich, entering into a socially and psychologically fraught encounter with the presence of death. It is the sort of moment for which a robust cultural tradition might prepare us by supplying scripts that would relieve us of the burden of knowing just what to do while also conveying to us a meaning that renders the event intelligible. But Peter Ivanovich faces this encounter at a moment when the old traditions are only half-recalled and no new forms have arisen to take there place. He lives, that is, in a moment when, as Gramsci evocatively put it, the old is dying and the new cannot be born. In such a moment, he is thrown back upon himself: he must make choices, he must improvise, he must become aware of himself as one who must do such things.

His action, as Guardini puts it, “bears the distinctive character of what is interrupted.”

“Peter Ivanovich,” we go on to read, “continued to make the sign of the cross slightly inclining his head in an intermediate direction between the coffin, the Reader, and the icons on the table in a corner of the room. Afterwards, when it seemed to him that this movement of his arm in crossing himself had gone on too long, he stopped and began to look at the corpse.”

He is not inhabiting a ritual act, he is performing it and badly, as all such performances must be. “He felt a certain discomfort,” the narrator tells us, “and so he hurriedly crossed himself once more and turned and went out of the door — too hurriedly and too regardless of propriety, as he himself was aware.”

I’m not suggesting that Tolstoy intended this scene as a commentary on the heightened consciousness generated by liquid modernity, only that I have found in Peter Ivanovich’s awkwardness a memorable dramatic illustration of such.

Technology had a role to play in the generation of this state of affairs, particularly technologies of self-expression or technologies that represent the self to itself. It was one of Walter Ong’s key contentions, for example, that “writing heightened consciousness.” This was, in his view, a generally good thing. Of course, writing had been around long before Tolstoy was active in the late 19th century. He lived during an age when new technologies worked more indirectly to heighten self-consciousness by eroding the social structures that anchored the experience of the self.

In the early 20th century, Guardini pointed to, among other things, the rise of statistics and the bureaucracies that they empowered and to newspapers as the sources of a hypertrophied consciousness. We might substitute so-called Big Data and social media for statistics and newspapers. Rather, with regards to consciousness, we should understand the interlocking regimes of the quantified self* and social media as just a further development along the same trajectory. Fitbits and Facebook amplify our consciousness by what they claim to measure and by how they position the self vis-a-vis the self.

It seems to me that this heightened sense of self-consciousness is both a blessing and a curse and that it is the condition out of which much of our digital culture emerges. For those who experience it as a curse it can be, for example, a paralyzing and disintegrating reality. It may, under such circumstances further yield resentment, bitterness, and self-loathing (consider Raskolnikov or the Underground Man). Those who are thus afflicted may seek for renewed integrity through dramatic and/or violent acts, acts that they believe will galvanize their identity. Others may cope by adopting the role of happy nihilist or liberal ironist. Still others may double-down and launch out on the self-defeating quest for authenticity.

“Plants can grow only when their roots are in the dark,” Guardini wrote as he closed his letter on consciousness. “They emerge from the dark into the light. That is the direction of life. The plant and its direction die when the root is exposed. All life must be grounded in what is not conscious and from that root emerge into the brightness of consciousness. Yet I see consciousness becoming more and more deeply the root of our life.”

All of this leads him to ask in conclusion, “Can life sustain this? Can it become consciousness and at the same time remain alive?”


* For example: “Now the telescope is turned inward, on the human body in the urban environment. This terrestrial cosmos of data will merge investigations that have been siloed: neuroscience, psychology, sociology, biology, biochemistry, nutrition, epidemiology, economics, data science, urban science.”




Tip the Writer


Vows of Digital Poverty

Maybe deleting Facebook is something akin to taking monastic vows in medieval society.

Stay with me.

Here’s the background: In the aftermath of the latest spate of revelations confirming Facebook’s status as a blight on our society and plague upon our personal lives, many have finally concluded that it is time to #DeleteFacebook.

This seems like an obviously smart move, but some have pushed back against the impulse to abandon the platform.

[Self-disclosure: I have a Facebook account. I used to have a Facebook page for this blog. I’ve recently deleted the page for the blog because it struck me as being inconsistent with my work here. I have maintained my personal profile for some of the usual reasons: I thought I might do some good there and for the sake of maintaining a few relationships that would likely dissolve altogether were it not for the platform. The former now appears to be rather naive and the latter not quite worth the cost. I’ve begun to gradually delete what I’ve posted over the years. I may leave a skeleton profile in place for awhile for the sake of those weak ties, we’ll see.]

Here is how April Glaser presents the case against #DeleteFacebook:

I understand this reaction, but it’s also an unfair one: Deleting Facebook is a privilege. The company has become so good at the many things it does that for lots of people, leaving the service would be a self-harming act. And they deserve better from it, too. Which is why the initial answer to Facebook’s failings shouldn’t be to flee Facebook. We need to demand a better Facebook.

Siva Vaidhyanathan, no friend of Facebook, makes a similarly compelling case in the New York Times:

So go ahead and quit Facebook if it makes you feel calmer or more productive. Please realize, though, that you might be offloading problems onto those who may have less opportunity to protect privacy and dignity and are more vulnerable to threats to democracy. If the people who care the most about privacy, accountability and civil discourse evacuate Facebook in disgust, the entire platform becomes even less informed and diverse. Deactivation is the opposite of activism.

From a slightly different but overlapping perspective, a post at Librarian Shipwreck likewise complicates the impulse to delete Facebook. The post draws on Lewis Mumford to frame our use of Facebook as the acceptance of a technological bribe: “Deleting Facebook is an excellent way of refusing a bribe. Yet it must be remembered that the bribe has been successful because it has offered people things which seemed enticing, and the bribe sustains itself because people have now become reliant on it.” The post also cites Neil Postman, a vociferous critic of television, to the effect that suggesting Americans do away with television—as Jerry Mander, for example, argued—amounts to making “no suggestion at all.”

I confess that much of the foregoing analysis seems more or less right to me, yet something does not quite sit well.

None of these writers argue that there is a moral duty to remain on the platform, Vaidhyanathan comes closest to this position, but they all imply that the best path may be to remain and fight for a better Facebook, if not for yourself then for the sake of those, in the United States and abroad, who do not, for a variety of reasons, have the luxury of abandoning Facebook.

But what exactly is the relevant temporal horizon of moral action? If deleting Facebook has some unfortunate short term consequences, is it not still the better option in the long run? Can’t I find other ways to support the class of people, who might be hurt in the short run by a mass exodus of people from Facebook? If I don’t think that any good or even better version of Facebook is possible, isn’t it best to abandon the platform and encourage others to do so as well?

For my part, I find it increasingly useful, if disturbingly so, to refer to Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” as a way of framing our situation and the choices that confront us. Sometimes the only right response to the moral compromises that are foisted on us is to walk away, regardless of what it might cost us. However … it is also true that when we consider walking away, by deleting Facebook in this case, we should also consider who we leave behind.

So here is a suggestion. What if we imagine the decision to delete Facebook, or to abandon social media altogether, as something like a vocation, a calling not unlike the calling to the monastic life.

The monastic life was not for everyone. For one thing, executed faithfully it required a great deal of sacrifice. For another, society could not function if everyone decided to take vows and join a religious order. Rather, those who took vows lived a life of self-denial for their own sake and for the sake of the social order. Because the ordinary man and woman, the ruler, the solider, the artisan, etc. could not take vows and so devote themselves to the religious ideal, those who could take vows prayed on their behalf. They also, for a time, nurtured the intellectual life and preserved the materials upon which it depended. And they embodied an ideal in their communities knowing that this ideal could not be realized or pursued by most people. But their embodiment of the ideal benefited the whole. They withdrew from society in order to do their part for society.

We can usefully frame the choice to delete Facebook or abstain from social media or any other act of tech refusal by (admittedly loose) analogy to the monastic life. It is not for everyone. The choice can be costly. It will require self-denial and discipline. Not everyone is in a position to make such a choice even if they desired it. And maybe, under present circumstances, it would not even be altogether desirable for most people to make that choice. But it is good for all of us that some people do make that choice.

In this way we can create a legitimate space for refusal, while acknowledging that such a choice is only one way of fighting the good fight.

Those who choose to walk away will, if nothing else, be a sign to us, they will embody an ideal that many may desire but few will be able to pursue. They will preserve an alternative way of being in the world with its attendant memories and practices. And by doing so they will play their part in working for the good of society.

Of course, as it was with medieval monasticism, not all who pursue such a choice will do so in good faith, but those who do will be marked chiefly by humility.

Tip the Writer


Facebook Doesn’t Care About Your Children

Facebook is coming for your children.

Is that framing too stark? Maybe it’s not stark enough.

Facebook recently introduced Messenger Kids, a version of their Messenger app designed for six to twelve year olds. Antigone Davis, Facebook’s Public Policy Director and Global Head of Safety, wrote a blog post introducing Messenger Kids and assuring parents the app is safe for kids.

“We created an advisory board of experts,” Davis informs us. “With them, we are considering important questions like: Is there a ‘right age’ to introduce kids to the digital world? Is technology good for kids, or is it having adverse affects on their social skills and health? And perhaps most pressing of all: do we know the long-term effects of screen time?”

The very next line of Davis’s post reads, “Today we’re rolling out our US preview of Messenger Kids.”

Translation: We hired a bunch of people to ask important questions. We have no idea what the answers may be, but we built this app anyway.

Davis doesn’t even attempt to fudge an answer to those questions. She raises them and never comes back to them again. In fact, she explicitly acknowledges “we know there are still a lot of unanswered questions about the impact of specific technologies on children’s development.” But you know, whatever.

Naturally, we’re presented with statistics about the rates at which children under 13 use the Internet, Internet-enabled devices, and social media. It’s a case from presumed inevitability. Kids are going to be online whether you like it or not, so they might as well use our product. More about this in a moment.

We’re also told that parents are anxious about their kid’s safety online. Chiefly, this amounts to concerns about privacy or online predators. Valid concerns, of course, and Facebook promises to give parents control over their kids online activity. However, safety, in this sense, is not the only concern we should have. A perfectly safe technology may nonetheless have detrimental consequences for our intellectual, moral, and emotional well-being and for the well-being of society when the technology’s effects are widely dispersed.

Finally, we’re given five principles Facebook and its advisory board developed in order to guide the development of their suite of products for children. These are largely meaningless sentences composed of platitudes and buzzwords.

Let’s not forget that this is the same company that “offered advertisers the opportunity to target 6.4 million younger users, some only 14 years old, during moments of psychological vulnerability, such as when they felt ‘worthless,’ ‘insecure,’ ‘stressed,’ ‘defeated,’ ‘anxious,’ and like a ‘failure.'”

Facebook doesn’t care about your children. Facebook cares about your children’s data. As Wired reported, “The company will collect the content of children’s messages, photos they send, what features they use on the app, and information about the device they use.”

There are no ads on Messenger Kids the company is quick to point out. “For now,” I’m tempted to add. Barriers of this sort tend to erode over time. Moreover, even if the barrier holds, an end game remains.

“If they are weaned on Google and Facebook,” Jeffrey Chester, executive director for the Center of Digital Democracy, warns, “you have socialized them to use your service when they become an adult. On the one hand it’s diabolical and on the other hand it’s how corporations work.”

Facebook’s interest in producing an app for children appears to be a part of a larger trend. “Tech companies have made a much more aggressive push into targeting younger users,” the same Wired article noted, “a strategy that began in earnest in 2015 when Google launched YouTube Kids, which includes advertising.”

In truth, I think this is about more than just Facebook. It’s about thinking more carefully about how technology shapes our children and their experience. It is about refusing the rhetoric of inevitability and assuming responsibility.

Look, what if there is no safe way for seven-year-olds to use social media or even the Internet and Internet-enabled devices? I realize this may sound like head-in-the-ground overreaction, and maybe it is, but perhaps it’s worth contemplating the question.

I also realize I’m treading on sensitive ground here, and I want to proceed with care. The last thing over-worked, under-supported parents need is something more to feel guilty about. Let’s forget the guilt. We’re all trying to do our best. Let’s just think together about this stuff.

As adults, we’ve barely got a handle on the digital world. We know devices and apps and platforms are designed to capture and hold attention in a manner that is intellectually and emotionally unhealthy. We know that these design choices are not made with the user’s best interest in mind. We are only now beginning to recognize the personal and social costs of our uncritical embrace of constant connectivity and social media. How eager should we be to usher our children in to this reality?

The reality is upon them whether we like it or not, someone might counter. Maybe, but I don’t quite buy it. Even if it is, the degree to which this is the case will certainly vary based in large part upon the choices parents make and their resolve.

Part of our problem is that we think too narrowly about technology, almost always in terms of functionality and safety. With regards to children, this amounts to safeguarding against offensive content, against exploitation, and against would-be predators. Again, these are valid concerns, but they do not exhaust the range of questions we should be asking about how children relate to digital media and devices.

To be clear, this is not only about preventing “bad things” from happening. It is also a question of the good we want to pursue.

Our disordered relationship with technology is often a product of treating technology as an end rather than a means. Our default setting is to uncritically adopt and ask questions later if at all. We need, instead, to clearly discern the ends we want to pursue and evaluate technology accordingly, especially when it comes to our children because in this, as in so much else, they depend on us.

Some time ago, I put together a list of 41 questions to guide our thinking about the ethical dimensions of technology. These questions are a useful way of examining not only the technology we use but also the technology to which we introduce our children.

What ideals inform the choices we make when we raise children? What sort of person do we hope they will become? What habits do we desire for them cultivate? How do we want them to experience time and place? How do we hope they will perceive themselves? These are just a few of the questions we should be asking.

Your answers to these questions may not be mine or your neighbor’s, of course. The point is not that we should share these ideals, but that we recognize that the realization of these ideals, whatever they may be for you and for me, will depend, in greater measure than most of us realize, on the tools we put in our children’s hands. All that I’m advocating is that we think hard about this and proceed with great care and great courage. Great care because the stakes are high; great courage because merely by our determination to think critically about these matters we will be setting ourselves against powerful and pervasive forces.

Tip the Writer


The Technological Origins of Protestantism, or the Martin Luther Tech Myth

[Caveat lector: the first part of the title is a bit too grandiose for what follows. Also, this post addresses the relationship between technology and religion, more specifically, the relationship between technology and Protestant Christianity. This may narrow the audience, but I suspect there is something of interest here for most readers. Finally, big generalizations ahead. Carry on.]

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. The traditional date marking the beginning of the Reformation is October 31, 1517. It was on that day, All Hallow’s (or Saints) Eve, that Martin Luther posted his famous Ninety-five Theses on a church door in Wittenberg. It is fair to say that no one then present, including Luther, had any idea the magnitude of what was to follow.

Owing to the anniversary, you might encounter a slew of new books about Luther, the Reformation(s), and its consequences. You might stumble across a commemorative Martin Luther Playmobil set. You might even learn about a church in Wittenberg which has deployed a robot named … wait for it … BlessU-2 to dispense blessings and Bible verses to visitors (free of charge, Luther would have been glad to know).

Then, of course, there are the essays and articles in popular journals and websites, and, inevitably, the clever takes that link Luther to contemporary events. Take, for example, this piece in Foreign Policy arguing that Luther was the Donald Trump of 1517. The subtitle goes on to claim that “if the leader of the reformation could have tweeted the 95 theses, he would have.” I’ll get back to the subtitle in just a moment, but, let’s be clear, the comparison is ultimately absurd. Sure, there are some very superficial parallels one might draw, but even the author of the article understands their superficiality. Throughout the essay, he walks back and qualifies his claims. “But in the end Luther was a man of conscience,” he concedes, and that pretty much undermines the whole case.

But back to that line about tweeting the 95 theses. It is perhaps the most plausible claim in the whole piece, but, oddly, the author never elaborates further. I say that it is plausible not only because the theses are relatively short statements – roughly half of them or so could actually be tweeted (in their English translation, anyway) – and one might say that in their day they went viral, but also because it trades on an influential myth that continues to inform how many Protestants view technology.

The myth, briefly stated in intentionally anachronistic terms, runs something like this. Marin Luther’s success was owed to his visionary embrace of a cutting edge media technology, the printing press. While the Catholic church reacted with a moral panic about the religious and social consequences of easily accessible information and their inability to control it, Luther and his followers understood that information wanted to be free and institutions needed to be disrupted. And history testifies to the rightness of Luther’s attitude toward new technology.

In calling this story a myth, I don’t mean to suggest that it is altogether untrue. While the full account is more complicated, it is nonetheless true that Luther did embrace printing and appears to have understood its power. Indeed, under Luther’s auspices Wittenberg, an otherwise unremarkable university town, became one of the leading centers of printing in Europe. A good account of these matters can be found in Andrew Pettegree’s Brand Luther. “After Luther, print and public communication would never be the same again,” Pettegree rightly concludes. And it is probably safe to also conclude that apart from printing the Reformation does not happen.

Instead, I use the word myth to mean a story, particularly of a story of origins, which takes on a powerful explanatory and normative role in the life of a tradition or community. It is in this sense that we might speak of the Luther Tech Myth.

The problem with this myth is simple: it sanctions, indeed it encourages uncritical and unreflective adoption of technology. I might add that it also heightens the plausibility of Borg Complex claims: “churches* that do not adapt and adopt to new media will not survive,” etc.

For those who subscribe to the myth, intentionally or tacitly, this is not really a problem because the myth sustains and is sustained by certain unspoken premises regarding the nature of technology, particularly media technology: chiefly, that it is fundamentally neutral. They imagine that new media merely propagate the same message only more effectively. It rarely occurs to them that new media may transform the message in a subtle but not inconsequential manner and that new media may smuggle another sort of message (or, effect) with it, and that these may reconfigure the nature of the community, the practices of piety, and the content of the faith in ways they did not anticipate.

Let’s get back to Luther for a moment and take a closer look at the relationship between printing and Protestantism.

In The Reformation: A History, Oxford historian Diarmaid MacCulloch makes some instructive observations about printing. What is most notable about MacCulloch’s discussion is that it deals with the preparatory effect of printing in the years leading up to 1517. For example, citing historian Bernard Cottret, MacCulloch speaks of “the increase in Bibles [in the half century prior to 1517] created the Reformation rather than being created by it.” A thesis that will certainly surprise many Protestants today, if there are any left. (More on that last, seemingly absurd clause shortly.)

A little further on, MacCulloch correctly observes that the “effect of printing was more profound than simply making more books available more quickly.” For one thing, it “affected western Europe’s assumptions about knowledge and originality of thought.” Manuscript culture is “conscious of the fragility knowledge, and the need to preserve it,” fostering “an attitude that guards rather than spreads knowledge.” Manuscript culture is thus cautious, conservative, and pessimistic. On the other hand, the propensity toward decay is “much less obvious in the print medium: Optimism may be the mood rather than pessimism.” (A point on which MacCulloch cites the pioneering work of Elizabeth Eisenstein.) In other words, printing fostered a more daring cultural spirit that was conducive to the outbreak of a revolutionary movement of reform.

Finally, printing had already made it possible for reading to become “a more prominent part of religion for the laity.” Again, MacCulloch is not talking about the consequences of the Reformation; he is talking about the half century or so leading up to Luther’s break with Rome. Where reading became a more prominent feature of personal piety, “a more inward-looking, personalized devotion,” which is to say, anachronistically, a more characteristically Protestant devotion, emerged. “For someone who really delighted in reading,” MacCulloch adds, “religion might retreat out of the sphere of public ritual into the world of the mind and the imagination.”

“So,” MacCulloch concludes, “without any hint of doctrinal deviation, a new style of piety arose in that increasingly large section of society that valued book learning for both profit and pleasure.” This increasingly large section of the population “would form a ready audience for the Protestant message, with its contempt for so much of the old ritual of worship and devotion.”

All of this, then, is to say that Protestantism is as much an effect of the technology of printing as it is a movement that seized upon the new technology to spread its message. (I suspect, as an aside, that this story, which is obviously more complicated than the sketch I’m providing here would be an important element in Alan Jacobs’ project of uncovering the technological history of modernity.)

A few more thoughts before we wrap up, bear with me. Let’s consider the idea of “a new style of piety,” which preceded and sustained momentous doctrinal and ecclesial developments. This phrase is useful in so much as it is pairs nicely with the old maxim: Lex orandi, lex credendi (the law of prayer is the law belief). The idea is that as the church worships so it believes, or that in some sense worship precedes and constitutes belief. To put it another way, we might say that the worship of the church constitutes the plausibility structures of its faith. To speak of a “new style of piety,” then, is to speak of a set practices for worship, both in its communal forms and in its private forms. These new practices are, accordingly, a new form of worship that may potentially re-configure the church’s faith. This is important to our discussion insofar as practices of worship have a critical material/technological dimension. Bottom line: shifts in the material/technological artifacts and conditions of worship potentially restructure the form and practices of worship, which in turn may potentially reconfigure what is believed.

Of course, it is not only a matter of how print prepares the ground for Protestantism, it is also a matter of how Protestantism evolves in tandem with print. Protestantism is a religion of the book. Its piety is centered on the book; the sacred text, of course, but also the tide of books that become aides to spirituality, displacing icons, crucifixes, statues, relics, and the panoply of ritual gestures that enlisted the body in the service of spiritual formation. The pastor-scholar becomes the model minister. Faith becomes both a more individual affair and a more private matter. On the whole, it takes on a more intellectualist cast. Its devotion is centered more on correct belief rather than veneration. Its instruction is traditionally catechetical. Etc.

This brings us back to the Luther Tech Myth and whether or not there are any Protestants left. The myth is misleading because it oversimplifies a more complicated history, and the oversimplification obscures the degree to which new media technology is not neutral but rather formative.

Henry Jenkins has made an observation that I come back to frequently: “I often tell students that the history of new media has been shaped again and again by four key innovative groups — evangelists, pornographers, advertisers, and politicians, each of whom is constantly looking for new ways to interface with their public.”

The evangelists Jenkins refers to are evangelical Christians in the United States, who are descended from Luther and his fellow reformers. Jenkins is right. Evangelicals have been, as a rule, quick to adopt and adapt new media technologies to spread their message. In doing so, however, they have also been transformed by the tools they have implemented and deployed, from radio to television to the Internet. The reason for this is simple: new styles of piety that arise from new media generate new assumptions about community and authority and charisma (in the theological and sociological sense), and they alter the status and content of belief.

And for this reason traditional Protestantism is an endangered species. Even within theologically conservative branches of American Protestantism, it is rare to find the practice of traditional forms of Protestant piety. Naturally, this should not necessarily be read as a lament. It is, rather, an argument about the consequences of technological change and an encouragement to think more carefully about the adoption and implementation of new technology.



*  I hesitate to add mosques and synagogues only because I do not believe myself to be sufficiently informed to do so and also because they are obviously not within the traditions shaped by the life and work of Martin Luther. Jewish and Muslim readers, please feel free to add your perspectives about attitudes to technology in your communities in the comments below.

If you’ve appreciated what you’ve read, consider supporting the writer.

The Deforming Gaze We Encounter On Social Media

Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a short story, “The Birthmark,” in which a young “man of science” named Aylmer marries a beautiful young woman named Georgiana. Georgiana was nearly perfect in Aylmer’s eyes, nearly perfect save for a small hand-shaped birthmark on her cheek. As the story unfolds, Aylmer conceives of a scheme whereby he might remove the birthmark. As you might guess, this being Hawthorne and what not, this scheme does not go well. In fact, it proves fatal to Georgiana.

The story is, on one level, a cautionary tale about hubris and how the quest for perfection can be the enemy of the good. But there is another interesting dimension to the story. It is also a study of human psychology, exemplifying how our desires come to be shaped by others from whose gaze we derive and internalize a particular understanding of who we are and who we ought to be.

Needless to say, Aylmer is awful. Not long after they marry, he brings up the matter of the birthmark, suggesting that something might be done about it. Georgiana innocently confesses that her birthmark “has been so often called a charm that I was simple enough to imagine it might be so.” This self-understanding Aylmer, with monstrous indifference, undoes. “Ah, upon another face perhaps it might,” he tells her, “but never on yours. No, dearest Georgiana, you came so nearly perfect from the hand of Nature that this slightest possible defect, which we hesitate whether to term a defect or a beauty, shocks me, as being the visible mark of earthly imperfection.”

The narrator reveals to us that “Aylmer’s sombre imagination was not long in rendering the birthmark a frightful object, causing him more trouble and horror than ever Georgiana’s beauty, whether of soul or sense, had given him delight.” Not surprisingly, then, “Georgiana soon learned to shudder at his gaze.”

And she was also transformed by this same gaze. Finally, she herself approaches Aylmer about the possibility of removing the birthmark and wonders about the risks entailed. He assures her that he can successfully remove the birthmark with minimal risk, and she concedes. Indeed, she was prepared to concede even if he had said that grave risks would attend his work: ‘”If there be the remotest possibility of it,’ continued Georgiana, ‘let the attempt be made at whatever risk. Danger is nothing to me; for life, while this hateful mark makes me the object of your horror and disgust.'”

I bring this story to your attention because it illuminates an important dimension of our online experience, especially on social media. Put in rather neutral terms we might simply say that the story illustrates the intersubjective origins of our desires, including, and perhaps most acutely, our desires about our selves, and that this intersubjectivity is amplified and refracted by our use of social media (massively intersubjective identity, or MII, if you like).

Put more pejoratively, we are all subject to the deforming influence of the Internet’s gaze, from which we discern the image of who we ought to be. We internalize this image and it becomes the tacit template for our online interactions.

This raises a few questions we might consider. For example: For whom do I perform when I perform online? or What is the nature of the audience whose approval or notice I seek? or Who am I becoming as I modulate my actions and self-representations to elicit the emotional consolations I seek from the reward mechanisms of social media? or To what degree is my project of self-realization co-opted by the structural dynamics of social media?

Another way to approach the matter is to ask why snark is the default dialect of social media. Snark is the style of the all-too-self-aware; it is the easiest voice to assume when earnest straightforwardness is ruled out by the nature of the mediated rhetorical situation.

The nature of social media is such that we cannot forget the artificiality of our situation. The added layer of mediation materializes immaterial internal and social dynamics making them subject to analysis and manipulation. That is to say that social media, like the technology of writing in Walter Ong’s words, “heightens consciousness.” I would suggest that it hypertrophies consciousness. To take another pass at the same idea, we might say that social media grants access to the social unconscious as Walter Benjamin proposed that photography did for the optical unconscious.

Social media platforms inevitably present themselves as a stage before an audience. We cannot but be actors playing the role we believe the audience desires us to play.

There is another wrinkle as well. We are surrounded by other actors on this stage who are likewise playing their parts. We are, however, tempted to forget our co-performers are also acting their part, and we take their performances to be authentic representations of their condition, while we ourselves are haunted by our own seeming inauthenticity. This means that that we are co-ordinating our own performances on the basis of misread and misunderstood signals. The online intersubjective web thus suspends and entraps us. It generates self-defeating efforts to achieve authenticity, and these efforts only manage to spin more of the web that ensnares us.

It is true, of course, that it is not only on social media that we become who we imagine others or Another wants us to be. I would only suggest that the conditions that accompany the online variations of this dynamic are primed for unhealthy outcomes. These condition include the abstract and indeterminate nature of the gaze we encounter, the peculiar psycho-social reward mechanisms social media platforms deploy, the disembodied character of our interactions, etc.

If you’ve appreciated what you’ve read, consider supporting the writer.