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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.

Tension and Attention in Turning Pages

You’re reading a book – or at least you call yourself reading it. You zone out. You’ve turned two pages and come to the realization that your eyes have covered the words on those pages but hardly any of them has moved from the eyes to the mind.

I was reading a book while my kids were taking a bath. They came into my room and started talking. I was half reading the book and half listening to them. After turning a page I realized that by half reading and half listening I wasn’t actually listening or reading at all. Not a word on the pages registered and not a word my kids said registered. Perhaps this is a metaphor for life?

It goes back to an idea I’ve discussed on the blog before: ignore-ance (not ignorance). Ignore-ance is the conscious decision to ignore something. I needed to decide in that moment which object was a) more worthy of my attention and b) more worthy of ignoring. I found both to be worthy of attention and neither worthy of ignoring. The net result was the opposite of what I intended: they both got ignored.

We flip through pages without the words penetrating our souls. We flip through life without people penetrating our souls. And we are surprised to find that we are shallow in our intellects, emotion, and experience.

Ignoring What You Notice, Noticing What You Ignore

The challenge is a tricky one: We must create an anti-environment so that we can ignore what we notice and notice what we ignore.

-Mark Federman, The Cultural Paradox of the Global Village

So, yesterday I mentioned the idea of purposeful ignore-ance: cultivating a life that intentionally ignores some things so that it can focus its attention on others. This is where the idea leads. We do not want to ignore things to the point that we become completely oblivious to them. Rather, we want to notice what we ignore while being able to ignore what we notice.

Federman makes the point that this demands the creation of an ‘anti-environment.’ If you are submerged in an environment, you will either not ignore what you notice or not notice what you are ignoring. That entails complete assimilation on the one hand or blind acceptance on the other. The one means that you buy in completely to the environment. The other means that the environment smuggles in its trappings right under your nose.


…Everyone is vying for the most precious and valuable commodity to be sought – our attention. Think about it: Every advertiser, every potential vendor and company desperately wants your attention, and will go to great, and sometimes outrageous, lengths to obtain it. If attention is the most valuable commodity, our most valued asset, it may be said that the most valuable personal skill to be effective these days is ignorance, literally ignore-ance – the ability to selectively and appropriately ignore that which is irrelevant or merely distracting.

Mark Federman, The Cultural Paradox of the Global Village

Is your attention like a tax automatically deducted? Is it something you spend without thinking? Or do you consciously choose where and how you will spend it?

Are you able to ignore? That’s a great question, and it is certainly a discipline to be cultivated. I’ve never seen ignorance on a list of spiritual disciplines, but…

Does this mean that we will ignore everything? Of course not. But it means that we will be selective in how we distribute it. Everyone is selective with their attention in some ways to be sure. The issue is making a conscious decision about where we will focus it.

More to come in the next post…

Four Questions to Ask of Technologies

Building on the work of Marshall McLuhan, Mark Federman gives us four questions we should ask of any new technology:

The first probe is asked like this: What does the thing – the artefact, the medium – extend, enhance, intensify, accelerate or enable?…

A second probe: When pushed or extended beyond the limits of its potential, the new thing will tend to reverse what had been its original characteristics. Into what does the new medium reverse?…

The third Law of Media Probe: If some aspect of a situation or a thing is enhanced or enlarge, simultaneously, something else is displaced. What is pushed aside or obsolesced…?

And the final Law of Media probe: What does the new medium retrieve from the past that had been formerly obsolesced? This reflects the aphorism that, ‘there’s nothing new under the sun,’ and essentially asks, ‘How did we react as a society the last time we saw a medium with analogous effects?’

-Mark Federman, The Cultural Paradox of the Global Village

So, if you want to ask good questions and really think about a new technology or trend, you ask, What does it extend? What is the opposite it might reverse to? What does it displace? What does it revive from the past?

You can probably remember that with the acronym RODE: Revive, Opposite, Displace, Extend

Of course, McLuhan would probably tell me I know nothing of his work… (If you’ve never seen Annie Hall, please watch the video at this LINK to humor me).

Looking for the Obvious Things that aren’t so Obvious: Smuggling Wheelbarrows

In The Cultural Paradox of the Global Village, Mark Federman tells an interesting little parable. Allow me to paraphrase At some obscure bordertown, for years, a man crosses the border almost daily with a wheelbarrow full of dirt. Each day border security digs through the dirt looking for contraband; and each day it’s the same story – it’s just dirt. He’s filling up a hole. Years later, a retired border patrolman runs into the wheelbarrow man in a social setting. He’s just got to know the real story behind the dirt. “There’s no way you were just bringing dirt across the border; what were you really doing?”

The reply: “I was smuggling wheelbarrows, of course.” ______________________________________

The point of the story is that the obvious isn’t always so obvious. I’ve heard someone say that the Father Brown stories of G.K. Chesterton point out much the same thing. Father Brown is always asking the most basic question that no one else seems to be asking. This is how he solves crimes when others can’t. A Christian critique of our culture, whether it regards social-moral issues or media ecology, is going to have to come to grips with the fact that we are often missing the obvious. We need to train ourselves to look for the obvious things that aren’t so obvious. Often we’re so busy rifling through the dirt that we miss the wheelbarrow. Federman’s solution, based on the work of Marshall McLuhan, is as follows:

The challenge in achieving the awareness to notice the formerly unnoticed – what we call achieving ‘integral awareness’ of our total environment – is to create an appropriate ‘anti-environment.’

The fish in the water doesn’t notice the water. He has to get out of the water. The church should provide the greatest of all anti-environments. Yet, as we engulf ourselves in worldliness, and manage simply to mirror the world, what we are really doing is crippling our ability see the obvious all around us. We cannot critique the music of the world because we are too busy humming along.