That inflammatory news blurb in your Facebook feed that’s got your dander up? Or the one some acquaintances are circulating that’s got you thinking they’ve lost their minds? Hold up a bit. There’s this recent column in The Atlantic:
“We’ve since learned that Russian trolls organized anti-immigrant rallies in two states, and posed online as Black Lives Matter supporters in one instance and as members of a Muslim American organization in another. They hoped to spark discord among factions of our fellow citizens. So if you’ve ever felt at a loss to understand how some of your neighbors could possibly reach certain conclusions, consider that they could have been targeted by teens in a Macedonian village bent on duping them.” Source: Don’t Forget to Adjust for Russian Trolls
What is going on here is a good deal more sophisticated most of what is commonly thought of as activity by trolls. These are full-on disinformation campaigns by a hostile foreign power. The objective is destabilization, and as such, they don’t appear to be all that picky about the side of the dispute they happen to be stoking.[*] The content being disseminated is divisive propaganda intended to set Western Europe and the US on fire.
Garden-variety trolls, in contrast, are merely sadistic anti-social misfits who are still single (or ought to be), probably addicted to porn, and are 30+ and have been living with a parent since birth. They are like that tomato that’s been left on the vine in the greenhouse a bit too long. A bit squishy to the actual touch. In another context they might be tormenting a neighbor’s cat. Or shooting out streetlights. Or using a drone to peep in your bedroom window. There is not much difference between the online behavior of this type of troll and some idiot keying cars in a parking lot.
But the effect both types are rather similar. Fires are being set. Some with a malevolent, well-considered purpose. Others because the arsonists are addicted to the chaos they create. And we react rather to readily to the rumor and hoaxes being served up by both. And find ourselves at war with each other.
So step back from that incendiary comment thread and take a breath, particularly if you can’t independently verify what is being asserted.
It is best to just move along. Or better yet, just get off Facebook and go get coffee.
In Metamorphoses, the Roman poet Ovid tells an old story about Narcissus, a young man who rejected the advances of Echo, a nymph. The unhappy suitor then wastes away to nothing but her voice.
As it happens, Narcissus appears to have left quite a trail of broken hearts. The goddess Nemesis heard the complaint of another rejected lover and Narcissus finds his gaze drawn to the glassy water of a spring shaded by trees. Upon seeing his reflection in the pool he falls in love with it and is unable to leave. He subsequently wastes away and dies.
Our phones have become the modern version of that forest pool.
The entertainment and social content we find on them is customized and served up by algorithms that sift through what we view, post, comment on, and rate. The more the online services know about us, the more customized the content. It becomes our digital reflection, and is deliberately engineered to be addictive.
Except that the addiction appears to have been visited more on our children than on us, as Jean M. Twenge points out in the September 2017 issue of The Atlantic. Twenge is a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and does research on generational differences. In the article she sketches out a radical shift where current teens differ from millennials and prior generations in how they spend their time. Previously there was a drive toward independence from parents and to interaction with peers. Now activity appears heavily biased toward private interaction on social media via smartphones. She quotes one teen as saying, “‘I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.’”
Connection via social media is clearly not the same as direct interaction with live people. Twenge’s observation is that the resultant isolation has destructive effects on the mental health of teens who grow up that way. The article includes the following:
“One piece of data that indirectly but stunningly captures kids’ growing isolation, for good and for bad: Since 2007, the homicide rate among teens has declined, but the suicide rate has increased. As teens have started spending less time together, they have become less likely to kill one another, and more likely to kill themselves. In 2011, for the first time in 24 years, the teen suicide rate was higher than the teen homicide rate.” Source: Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?
During our years in a former church my wife and I heard repeated admonitions from the leadership to greet visitors. Then a couple years ago we found ourselves visiting churches looking for a new church community. Now we were the newcomers. In some of the communities I noticed obvious personal connections between congregants that were not readily visible in others.
The common thread appeared to be that the communities with this “connectedness” had a single service and were smaller congregations . I can’t claim to be able to tease these observations apart. The impact of multiple services could simply be a matter of a meeting location that doesn’t work particularly well, such as with crowd bottlenecks in congested building entrances. But group size, on the other hand, seems to have some inherent dynamics beyond the physical constraints of a meeting place.
I’ve spent most of my working career inside of large organizations and something fundamentally different is going on among people in small social groups vs large ones. In large groups the organizational structure, whatever that happens to be, seems to consistently take on a life of its own and define the function of the group, rather than any shared sense of mission or purpose.
There is a good chance this is a byproduct our cognitive makeup. In the early 1990s British anthropologist Robin Dunbar observed a correlation between the average size of primate social groups and neocortex size . Dunbar extrapolated from that to calculate the number of stable social relationships that humans could comfortably have as somewhere between 150 and 200. He also made the following observation about human use of language, that it,
“…has two unusual properties that make it possible to form groups that are substantially larger than the 150-200 predicted by neocortex size: it allows us (1) to categorise individuals into types and (2) to instruct other individuals as to how they should behave towards specific types of individuals within society.”
In short, it allows us to organize, which suggests a fundamental insight about why organizational structures dominate how people interact when group size grows. Below the limit interaction is about social connection. Above the limit interaction is driven by categorization and instruction.
Since Dunbar first published there appears to be have been a fair bit of debate as to where this boundary actually is, as well as contrary voices pointing out that personal networks in the modern world can be far larger . I am not qualified to wander into the weeds here. All I am suggesting is that the boundary is real and has practical effects on the way social groups and organizing institutions work. And a good bit of political and economic theory seems to be blissfully unaware of it .
Why this matters to churches is that in the midst of theology and spiritual experience we seem to forget the limitations that characterize our physical existence. These just might include aspects of how our brains are wired. We are called into allegiance to the Body of Christ as part and parcel of our allegiance to the risen Lord. But it is possible that we can unnecessarily complicate the outworking of that when the structures we create don’t account for our material boundaries.
This problem seems to me to reach back into the ancient world. Group size was necessarily small when Christianity was a disfavored and sometimes persecuted minority. Faith can certainly come through preaching but in a hostile environment it would spread primarily via personal contact along social networks, such as families, work, and in the marketplace. Communities would be small and in periods of calm they could aggregate at the level of individual churches. But with numerical growth comes categorization and direction. And in learning how to do this the church absorbed the centralized authority practices of the surrounding culture.
And then Constantine’s official recognition of Christianity removed the limits to group size. At large scales centralized authority became a dominant feature of how the Church presented itself. It became an earthly kingdom that looked a whole lot like emperor, monarch, and baron. It is debatable how much this mirrored the kingdom Jesus describe to Pilate as “not of this world.”
We have the conceit in the modern world to believe we have put all this aside. But we also tend to uncritically absorb the authority and organizational structures from our own culture. And as our churches grow those structures come to dominate how they present to the world. Some of them have come to look a whole lot like corporations.
I am not trying to suggest that churches can’t ever be large, or that everything is inherently sweetness and light in small congregations. There are probably constructive ways that groups can grow in size and still foster stable community. There is nothing in Dunbar’s research to suggest that this is not possible.
But is is likely to require conscious thinking about limits as a church grows. Otherwise community is likely to be snuffed out by organization.
 By smaller I mean relative to what we were accustomed. We participated in the same community for nearly three decades. At the beginning attendance was a bit north of 300. At one point attendance peaked at roughly 1000. Relative to some mega-churches even this might be considered small.
 This is probably why some of our grand ideas do not scale well. Consider, for instance, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” That probably only can work when the “eachs” all know each other. Or have reliable knowledge of reputation, and can readily identify freeloaders, liars and the power-hungry. The moment organization is applied to scale up the idea it becomes all about the apparatus required to collect from those with ability and distribute to those with need. A weak apparatus will collapse under the weight of the freeloaders. A strong apparatus will be dominated by the likes of Stalin and Mao.
Technological advancement will bring artificial intelligence and cheap energy.
This will bring limitless wealth, and drive down the cost of producing pretty much everything and put pretty much everyone out of a job.
Therefore governments should provide stipends to everyone so they can do whatever they want.
All of which sounds wonderful. But there may be some fundamental dysfunction baked into this vision of technocratic utopia. This statement by Altman suggests rather a technocratic myopia:
“People pay a lot for a great education now, but you can become expert level on most things by looking at your phone.”
Exactly which fields of study could one reach expert level via a smart phone? Neuroscience? Biochemistry? Mathematics? Structural Engineering? Linguistics? Philosophy? Religion?
One of the bothersome aspects of some technocrats’ visions of the future is the apparent shallow appreciation for subjects beyond the range of their expertise. Perhaps this would not be a problem if learning was merely the collecting of oversimplified and trivial facts, unencumbered by connection to any real context. Or at least, whatever such info-bits content providers choose to serve up.
But as it happens, most of the really important stuff requires too much mental bandwidth and breadth of experience to fit on a three or four-inch screen.
I’ve watched a bit of TED and there’s been quite a lot of good stuff on it. As I’ve noted previously, the format of TED successfully makes use of the shrunken attention spans of modern culture. But the packaging that makes TED work also suggests its effectiveness has very little to do with the actual content.
With that in mind, here’s a bit of Canadian satire from Pat Kelly of This is That. It’s about how to inspire people and say nothing at all:
There is a very good chance that you could take any given TED talk, flip the content so it says the opposite of the original, and the audience engagement would be just as high.
In the course of our recent Netflix binging my wife and I started watching Peaky Blinders. This is a BBC television series set in post-WWI Birmingham, England, and is centered around the activities of a street gang for which the series is named. What the gang actually looked like is debated but the name is said to originate in the style of cap and a practice of sewing in razor blades to create an improvised weapon. It’s an intriguing story and the core conflict in the first season is between the leader of the gang and a police detective who intends to stamp the thing out, by any means necessary.
But as of the fifth episode we are done. The issue for us was the simulated sex. I wrote about this last year after reading about interviews with actresses Dakota Johnson (here) and Rosamund Pike (here), following the release of movies referenced in the interviews.
It is one thing to set up or imply an affair and it is possible to argue as a matter of taste about the specifics of how this is depicted. But the problem with physically simulating the sex itself is that calling it mere acting places the issue in a hair-splitting and artificial frame. This framing comes from what happens on a film set being a fairly mechanical process; a good bit is about tricks involving camera angles, pillows, and strategic cover-ups that are intended to protect the dignity of the participants*. Or so the argument goes and some of the production might be merely that. But two partially (or mostly) naked people making out in direct physical contact IS sex, and artificially isolating the process from actual arousal and coitus doesn’t make it anything else. We’ve just gotten so used to this over the last several decades that we can no longer see it for what it is.
At some point this contact places the performers inside of boundaries that ought to be crossed only in healthy relationships between consenting adults. And what I would like to suggest is that the relational wreckage strewn throughout the film business at least in part attests to the results of treating those boundaries like they don’t exist. At a cultural level we can quibble over what such healthy relationships might actually entail, and no, you can’t draw a straight line between cause and effect. But the functional context is an industry that simply ignores the matter to turn a profit. This seems like the textbook definition of exploitation and we’re just blind to that.
So let’s reset the production with appropriate strategic angles and coverings, and make it a stage play. Oh, and bring a phone with a decent camera.
On a recent foray into a used book store I stumbled over an excellent flyover of Roman history. During my reading I was intrigued by the settlement of a political conflict in the Roman republic of the fourth and fifth centuries BC. During that period a power struggle ensued between the hereditary aristocracy and the commoners. Compromises during the period ended the contest in the early third century with a relatively stable power-sharing arrangement. The aristocracy of birth was diluted with an aristocracy of political office and wealth, and the political offices were divvied up between the classes.
The author, Donald Dudley, highlights the results in Rome by contrasting them with the conflicts in Greek city-states:
“Roman sources stress that the entire contest over some five generations was carried out with no bloodshed and with the minimum of violence. It is common to pay tribute to the political good sense of a society in which this could be done. Credit where it is due must not be withheld. But once again the factor of enlightened self-interest can be invoked. Rome lived in a world of enemies, and each of the parties in this internal political dispute needed the other. The patricians needed the numbers and courage of the common people to defend the state in war, the plebs needed the leadership and experience of the patricians. It is true that, in the insensate fury of the class struggle, Greek city-states were only too apt to forget an enemy at the gates. But in the Roman Republic, as yet, there was a readiness for compromise and common sense. Furthermore, where the Greeks were fatally apt to conduct their political disputes in terms of principles (and in the spirit which later made martyrs and heresiarchs), at Rome political disputes arose over practical issues.**”
There might be something in this for the modern world.
The current polarization in US politics produces entertaining media theater. Unfortunately the stage show seems to favor shouted one-dimensional answers and celebrities with out-sized personalities. There appears to be little appreciation for the practical and difficult discussions of complex issues appear completely frozen out. If ideas cannot be reduced to sound bites and Twitter posts they are knocked flat in the gale of personal invective, cynical populist rhetoric, and simplistic expressions of principle. Demagogues and ideologues. The whole thing seems very Greek.
On the other hand the founding document for the US political environment seems very Roman. The US Constitution appears to be a very practical exercise in spreading power. It encodes a recognition of what happens when too much of it is concentrated in one place and requires broad consensus to get anything significant done.
Unfortunately the framers appear to have not recognized the limits of their practical problem solving. The three-fifths compromise in Article One was morally bankrupt and baked in the mechanisms of its own dissolution. This attempt to reconcile political power arrangements with the treatment of people as property was eventually paid for with 600,000 casualties in the American Civil War.
There is a balance to be found somewhere in between the practical thinking of the US founding fathers and the very loud chaos of the current media circus. But at the moment the balance could a bit more Roman and a little less Greek.
**Donald R Dudley. The Romans: 850 B.C.-A.D. 337. Barnes & Noble Books, New York, 1993. ISBN 1-56619-456-3. P40
A comment highlighting this appeared in an April segment on TED Talks, broadcast on CBS news magazine 60 Minutes. During the segment interviewer Charlie Rose queried TED curator Chris Anderson about the eighteen-minute time limit imposed on the talks. Anderson responded that, “..it’s a coffee break…you can listen to something serious that long without getting bored or exhausted.”
It seems like we used to be better able to attend to complex information. I’ve spent most of the last 30 years working inside of large organizations. Written office communication once consisted of memoranda containing fully developed paragraphs often in documents running to multiple pages. Formal reports were a big deal — they were complex written analytic documents and seldom contained much in the way of graphics. Now communications seem to be predominately short and often bulleted emails. Reports are heavy on graphics which are used to communicate what used to be contained in paragraphs. In extreme cases the graphics take over altogether, such as in PowerPoint slites, where the images sometimes overwhelm the content and convey nothing substantive.
Lengthy or complex documents without graphics require more effort to digest. They require deeper thought of more duration.
Once upon a time our attention spans were much, much longer than eighteen minutes. 19th century Americans were accustomed to hours of oratory from speakers at county and state fairs, and from speakers “taking the stump” at a felled tree or other suitable open space.
This bit of our history is long gone, along with the literary mindset that supported it. And the communications environments spawned by the literary mindset have become casualties. Philip Yancey commented last July on the changes in the publishing industry brought by reading on portable/mobile devices. Traditional Christian publishing (along with the broader industry) is collapsing as the ability of the industry to make money erodes, along with the ability of authors to make a living from what they write.
For anyone looking to communicate in modern culture it is past time to think about how to adapt. TED is one example of an adaptive strategy. TED successfully spreads significant and serious ideas by establishing personal connections with audiences. Rose set up the segment with the observation that “…what sets TED apart is that the big ideas are wrapped up in personal stories…and it is those stories that have captured the imaginations of tens of millions of viewers around the world.”
In addition, high value is placed on the attraction that the speaker and topic might have. During the interview Rose asked Anderson how TED speakers are selected. Anderson replied, “There’s no formula or algorithm that says what is right, it’s basically, it’s a judgment call as to what is interesting, what is interesting now.”
TED also has extremely high production values. Rose noted this, commenting that “Anderson and his team spend much of their time auditioning and looking for the next great story. A great TED talk demands careful planning. Most speakers get months of preparation and coaching.”
Very few of us have the resources to hit these kind of targets. Nor should “what is interesting now” be the major criteria driving what we communicate about. And not everything significant can be cooked down into tidy packages — there is a very real risk of simplifying an idea to the point where it means nothing.
But TED’s approach does provides a way to think about the problem, and to try to make the most of the limited attention of the audience. In whatever medium you use, make the most of that eighteen minutes.
Exploring the world in comfort. That’s the theme of a recent commercial for the European travel company, Viking River Cruises. Scenes of Europe flow by to violin strains and a poetic cadence:
“Sailing through the heart of cities and landscapes with Viking, you’ll see things differently. You’ll get closer to iconic landmarks, to local life and cultural treasures. It’s a feeling that only a river can give you, that only Viking can give you.”
The commercial told me next to nothing about the company but the imagery they presented was intriguing. There might be something to be said for touring Europe that way. These seems like a far better use of a trip than some cruise with an inane cartoon theme. But hold on a minute. Let’s wind the Earth back around the Sun to Paris in 845 AD.
Sailing through the heart of cities and landscapes as a Viking, you’ll see things differently. You’ll sack more iconic landmarks, and loot more cultural treasures. It’s a feeling that only a river can give you, that only being a marauding, pillaging, burning, murdering, and thieving barbarian can give you.
Context is everything.
My home town used to be heavily Scandinavian and Nordic motifs decorate some of the businesses. There is a strip mall named “Viking Village” where the anchor store has a replica of a longship’s dragon prow on the peak of the roof. It’s truly amazing what a millennium does to the meaning of the names and symbols.
As Christians, we are not immune to losing the context of our symbols. There are artistic crucifixes in various places in my house. It is a valid symbol of remembrance. Crucifixion only became a widespread object of art after Constantine outlawed it as a method of execution in the Roman empire and its image of brutality faded. As a symbol of commemoration an artistic cross can be a good thing.
But in the Middle Ages it was used to adorn crusader shields. Now it graces everything from napkins to photo frames. It might be fair to say we’ve lost our sense of what the symbol is about. We do not think of the context of the cross.
It used to take hundreds of years to completely lose a sense of the context of an event. The meaning of symbols related to an event is shaped by the surrounding culture. This changes over time but that process used to be much slower. It’s easy to forget that before mechanization few people traveled very far from where they were born. There always have been small subsets of a community that traveled, such as merchants and soldiers, and occasionally entire groups would migrate to escape something bad in hopes of finding something better. For good or for ill, context was created and reinforced by where you lived and whom you lived with.
This is no longer the case. We move. We routinely travel distances that used to take days and lifetimes. Very few of us live with the people we grew up knowing. We are disconnected from what used to surround our sense of what a symbol meant, and vulnerable to the reframing of symbols by the technology that pervades the modern world.
In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman described the effect of 20th century media in the decontextualization of information and serious discourse, and their repackaging as primarily visual entertainment. It is a dated polemic, having been written three decades ago during the dominance of broadcast television. We have vastly greater access to information than when the book was written. But the notion of decontextualization appears dead-on, making the book a must-read*. Our access to information is now mediated by portable devices that bounce us from one bit of disjointed content to the next.
Is it even possible to communicate context on a 5-inch electronic screen?
*I recommend reading this in tandem with The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr. Carr’s emphasis is different — specifically how the Internet is changing the way we think. But the book provides a necessary update for the idea of decontextualization.
Once upon a time a ring from the wall telephone signified a crisis of some sort if it occurred outside of certain times. We just never thought to call anyone early in the morning, during dinner, or late at night. We stayed outside the boundaries of each other’s private spaces until such time as it was polite to knock. Not that stuff didn’t spill over from time to time – that couple fighting in the courtyard of the apartment complex was hard to ignore. But the boundaries were clear and the spillage said things about the emotional health of the couple that went beyond the obscenities they were shouting at each other.
Something has happened to the boundaries. We’re in each other’s private spaces in a way most of us would have found intolerable a couple of decades ago. Cell phones were involved somehow but it is difficult to say whether they are a cause or a marker.
My first cell phone stayed in my car. It was a foot-long “bag phone” that needed frequent charging from the cigarette lighter plug. I acquired it second-hand but it was expensive to operate and was used only for work. Even the original hand-held phones didn’t intrude much into our personal spaces. That obnoxious businessman at the next table with the original Motorola brick was an aberration.
This changed when the device shrank to it fit in my pocket. Now cell phones showed up everywhere, like the movie theater, the car in front of you in the traffic jam, and pretty much every public space you can think of, as well as a fair number of formerly private spaces. Messaging was added and then email. Then we graduated to having the Internet in the palm of our hands and the relative cost has fallen so much that keeping the old residential telephone is a waste of money. In a post at Rough Type , Nicholas Carr observes that the smartphone is cooking all of our media down into a “singularity.” It is dissolving the boundaries between our music, books, news, and pretty much everything else and condensing it all into one space that fixates our attention in the palm of our hand.
The smartphone seems to be dissolving more than just differentiations between media. Somewhere in its development this little device acquired a very high social pH. Corrosive substances can be extremely useful in the proper place, such as the sulfuric acid in your car battery. But they are a problem on your clothes and hands.
We have spilled the smartphone on our bare skin. It is an extremely useful device, but one which we seem to have no sense of how to use. It seems to be obliterating the separations between our personal, work, and social spaces. Couples are messaging other people when out at dinner together. Employers and employees are emailing during non-work hours and days. Acquaintances are messaging each other at times we used to consider phone calls rude. And a failure to respond causes anxiety in the recipient and sometimes consequences from the sender.
We are losing our sense of what is appropriate to say to whom, and when it is appropriate to say it. And we have lost some ready reference points for where you end and I begin.
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