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When you plug something into a wall, something is getting plugged into you

When you plug something into a wall, [something] is getting plugged into you.

-Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, p. 7

Postman was fond of saying, following McLuhan, that when you add new technology to an environment, you change the environment. Hence the big idea of media ecology. If you add an XBOX to your living room, you don’t just have your old living room plus an XBOX. You have a new living room – a new environment. Something fundamental in the environment has changed that will affect the total atmosphere/ecosystem.

The idea that when you plug something in, it gets plugged into you, is a helpful summary of this concept. When you plug your smartphone in – when you put it in your pocket – you don’t have you plus a smartphone in your pocket. You have new version of you.

This is not always bad (and Postman never claimed it was), but awareness is key. I often quote the GI Joe PSAs I grew up watching – Knowing is half the battle.

Anxiety from Lack of Stimulation

We are wired to crave the temporary satisfaction from writing e-mails, crafting tweets, returning calls, downloading music, playing games, checking out websites, sending text messages, and taking photos of our food. They are the hooks that enrapture us. They are the casino slot machines that keep us moving from one machine to the next, ultimately resulting in our anxiety when we are left to face the world unstimulated.

– Matt Knisely, Framing Faith, p. 13

I relate to this line of thought, especially lately. It is odd that having nothing to do can cause anxiety, but it happens. Boredom should be the least stressful thing in the world, but when you’re bombarded with constant light, constant bells and whistles, it’s hard to decompress. Can you face the world when you’re not stimulated?

Relational Junk Food

But our society has begun to treat our relational needs much the same way we’ve come to treat our physical needs. When we’re hungry, rather than take the time to cook a well-balanced, filling meal, we rush to grab something out of the freezer that we can quickly nuke and then eat while watching TV or finishing up some work. And when we’re relationally hungry, so often rather than sitting down with our children or spouse to hear about their day or setting up a dinner date with a good friend, we open Facebook or Twitter and peruse through the recent posts of the day, stopping to click ‘like’ or shoot off some quick replies. Or we look to see if a picture we posted on Instagram earlier that day has been commented on much – and if it was, that temporarily fills us…until we close our computer and crawl into bed with the same dissatisfied, empty feeling that we went to bed with the day before…

-Matt Knisely, Framing Faith, p. 12

I like the analogy of social media as the relational equivalent of a frozen dinner thrown in the microwave.

Sanctification in the Technopolis

Since I’m not writing much these days, here’s a link to a talk I gave recently on the subjection of technology in relation to Christian sanctification. If you’ve been around the blog for a while you’ve seen me write on this a good bit. This is the first time I’ve condensed much of this information down into a talk.

You can listen HERE or watch below:

Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”

The Sovereignty of Technology

The United States is the most radical society in the world. It is in the process of conducting a vast, uncontrolled experiment which poses the question, Can a society preserve any of its traditional virtues by submitting all of its institutions to the sovereignty of technology?

Neil Postman, The Conservative Outlook, from Conscientious Objections, p. 107

I don’t think Postman phrases his question perfectly. The question should probably more along the lines of ‘Can a society preserve any of its traditional virtues as it submits all of its institutions to the sovereignty of technology?’

When posed that way, the question becomes a little more tricky. First, we have to ask the question of whether or not technology has truly become sovereign in our culture. Does technology have supreme and ultimate power? I answer yes and no.

Technology has become sovereign in the sense that we elevate its worth and often declare it to be infallible. Technology has not become sovereign in the sense that they are generally, as McLuhan said, ‘extensions of man.’ They are means through which we express our own self-conceived sovereignty, extend our reach, increase our comfortability, and impose our will and desires on others. In other words, to paraphrase 1 Corinthians 13, they allow us to inflate ourselves and impose ourselves on others. In this sense, man is sovereign and technology is his scepter and herald.

But, again, Postman has a point. As has often been said, by Henry David Thoreau, McLuhan, and Postman himself, the danger is that we tend to become tools of our tools. And, as we do, to quote C.S. Lewis, when we turn something into a god, it will become a demon. When we make idols out of man-made things, God will give us over to our plunderers, and they will do what plunderers do: plunder (see Judges 2).

So the ultimate answer is, No, we can’t hold to traditional values as we submit our institutions to the sovereignty of technology. This has been demonstrated clearly in recent decades. But the problem is just as much with individuals as with institutions. And the problem isn’t really technology itself. Five hundred years ago all of the West’s institutions submitted to the sovereignty of the printed word on account of the newly invented technology of the printing press. Was that a bad thing? Did that ruin the culture? I guess it depends on who you ask. Haters of Martin Luther and Protestantism might think it ruined the culture. I do not count myself among them.

The problem is with our idolatrous desire to exalt gods that are no gods. Turn something into a god and it will become a demon. Technology under the lordship of Christ is technology kept in its place. But in order to keep technology under his lordship, we must be under it first.

I would also add that being a ‘conservative,’ in Postman’s thinking, means fighting to conserve tradition. That doesn’t equate to a lot of things modern ‘conservatives’ fight for. Anyhow, we must be careful that we don’t exalt ‘traditional values’ too highly either. Our culture’s traditional values are no god. They may be good or bad, and some are definitely good, but they are no god. Hence the need to constantly go back to the Word of God, which is always timely.

The Commercial as Sermon within a Cultural Liturgy

Television commercials are a form of religious literature. To comment on them in a serious vein is to practice hermeneutics (p. 66).

…The majority of important television commercials take the form of religious parables organized around a coherent theology. Like all religious parables, they put forward a concept of sin, intimations of the way to redemption, and a vision of Heaven. They also suggest what are the roots of evil and what are the obligations of the holy (p. 67).

The sudden striking power of technological innocence is a particularly important feature of television-commercial theology, for it is a constant reminder of the congregation’s vulnerability. One must never be complacent or, worse, self-congratulatory. To attempt to live without technological sophistication is at all times dangerous, since the evidence of one’s naivete will always be painfully visible to the vigilant (p. 69).

-Neil Postman, The Parable of the Ring Around the Collar, from Conscientious Objections

Postman probably wrote this essay some time in the 80s; mass digital media wasn’t in view. Yet I think the principle he espouses still stands and could be helpful.

A while back, I read James K.A. Smith’s book, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. I didn’t blog about it at the time, because I fundamentally disagreed with one of the major premises of the book (not going there since it’s not the purpose of this blog). There were, however, things about the book that I found helpful; for instance, his parable of the shopping mall as liturgy. He premises that from an alien eye, without knowledge of American shopping rituals, the journey through the mall would appear as a religious, temple-like, experience. Much the same is the case for sporting events. I bring up this point of ‘cultural liturgies’ because it ties directly to what Postman was saying about television.

I think the idea of a commercial, whatever form it may take, as a sermon (a portion of our cultural liturgy), makes sense. Advertisements are meant to show a need, to evoke longing, and to point to where that need/longing can be met. It’s felt-need preaching. And if you don’t feel the need, you will by the end.

With that in mind, I think Postman’s paradigm is helpful. It would be an interesting study, I think, and an even better habit, to ask of commercials/advertisements the questions,

  • What concept of sin is being put forward (what am I lacking)?
  • What is the way to redemption being put forward (how can this product fill that lack)?
  • What is the vision of heaven (or the good life) being put forward (how will my life change by buying this product)?

In addition to that, Postman hints at the doctrine of sanctification – What are the obligations of the holy? How may you this product help you live a ‘set apart’ life? What does this consecrated life entail?