A Man Considers the Church as Medium

John Durham Peters writes on media and theology:

Any theology of revelation is necessarily also a theory of media. Theophany is a media problem. God needs to assume a sensory shape or work sensible effects to reach humans the classic theological issue of the Word made flesh. Any revelation is, in a way, a short-term incarnation. A burning bush, clouds of smoke and pillar of fire, thunder, voice, writing, and a highly selective glimpse of God as he departs are some of the various modes of theophany surrounding the revelation on Sinai. The mountain itself is a kind of medium, which is declared holy ground and off-limits to the footsteps of the children
of Israel.

I don’t have time to develop this at the moment, but I think we ought to consider the church as a kind of medium, communicating Christ to the world.

A Man Presents Some Quotes about TV

I believe television is going to be the test of the modern world, and that in this new opportunity to see beyond the range of our vision we shall discover either a new and unbearable disturbance of the general peace or a saving radiance in the sky. We shall stand or fall by television—of that I am quite sure.

~E. B. White, 1938

This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely lights and wires in a box.

~Edward R. Murrow, 1958

What the American people don’t know can kill them.

~Dorothy Greene Friendly, 1958

While it is true that this medium has always been in a constant state of transformation, the changes currently in process are among the most significant in its history. The very term may become less and less useful as a description, a name, for a set of interrelated communication phenomena now replacing what we have known as “television.” […] Short of massive disaster, there is no way to look at this medium and say “this is what it was; this is what it is.” “Television” has been and is always becoming.

~Horace Newcomb, 1996

A Man Had a Thought About Tech-Wise Families

I started an online book group with a couple of friends, David K. and Jon B. The second book we read (just finished last week) was The Tech-Wise Family, by Andy Crouch. It was pretty good, holding the football steady so we could kick off a lively discussion. I’m not going to summarize or review it here. I just want to talk about something Crouch says in the section called “Shaping Space.”

He says that his one key recommendation, his if-you-only-remember-one-thing-from-this-book recommendation, is this: “Find the room where your family spends the most time and ruthlessly eliminate the things that ask little of you and develop little in you.” Good advice. Push yourself to become skillful in things. Pursue wisdom and gain courage. When I started to think about how I would apply this is my family, however, I immediately had questions…

My wife and I are sitting on the sofa in our living room right now, she reading, I typing this sentence. The wall opposite the sofa is mostly covered with books. To the left of the bookshelves is an electric keyboard, piled with sheet music. Above that hang two guitars. Now, this seems to pass the tech-wise assessment test. Books and musical instruments ask a lot of you and develop a lot in you, right? That may be true, but that’s not why we have them in our living room. We have the books because we enjoy reading. We have the instruments because we enjoy playing them. We hope that our daughter will enjoy both activities, too, of course, and so far, she does.

But let’s imagine that we had on the wall of our living room, not books, but a giant TV (like we do in the bedroom, ahem…). And let’s imagine that, after reading Tech-Wise, my wife and I agreed to ruthlessly eliminate the TV and replace it with a complete set of Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World. Would we grow apt to pull a volume down and flip through it? I don’t think so. Far more needs to change than the furniture.

I still think Crouch’s advice is good. (And you should still read the book.) The architecture and layout of your home will affect how you spend your time there. But I think we need to spend more time thinking about the role enjoyment plays in all of this. I can all too easily imagine a father and mother who, determined to ask more of their family, make their home a place where nobody wants to be (including the two of them). If you are really trying to wean yourself off your TV or smartphone or Netflix subscription, start with something small and enjoyable. Instead of the Great Books, replace your TV with a bunch of Tintin and the Complete Calvin and Hobbes.

 

A Man Should Not Be Surprised

Apparently, H. G. Wells was somehow responsible for Japan’s current constitution.

The founding document of the most technologically saturated society in the world was based on the work of a science-fiction author. In retrospect, yeah, I really shouldn’t be surprised.

via Adam Roberts

A Man is Playing a Role

Ian Marcus Corbin writes in the Weekly Standard about the bizarre disjunction between how courteously his colleagues interact with those with different political or cultural views in real life and how nastily they attack them on social media. Some people are born with certain advantages, Corbin admits, and some people are unfairly treated based on how they look, dress or act. And yet…

It is possible to acknowledge all of this, however, and still be struck by the wild imbalance between our lived experience of one another and the verbal portrait of ourselves that we daily paint on social media. Perhaps I’m not treated like a ravening predator in my personal relationships because I’m “one of the good ones” in my identity category. Fine. Many chauvinistic group-ideologies are willing to make exceptions for exceptional individuals. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on here; I don’t think that I get a special pass and all of the other white men in my acquaintances’ path are treated like monsters. Rather, for many of us, our public, impersonal lives contain a much higher percentage of status-seeking performance than our day-to-day interactions. We’re playing roles.

Last semester, I taught a class on television and culture (and again this upcoming semester). The sentence I bolded at the end of that quote strikes me as particularly relevant to that topic. One consequence of living so much of your life in front of a TV screen is that you start to believe that TV is reality and that your life is a shoddy illusion. Its in TV’s best interests to keep you watching, and the way to do that is to beat into your skull the fact that television is where life’s meaning truly lies. In his essay on TV, “E Unibus Pluram,” David Foster Wallace describes it like this:

The modes of presentation that work best for TV—stuff like “action,” with shoot-outs and car wrecks, or the rapid-fire “collage” of commercials, news, and music videos, or the “hysteria” of prime-time soap and sitcom with broad gestures, high voices, too much laughter—are unsubtle in their whispers that, somewhere, life is quicker, denser, more interesting, more… well, lively than contemporary life as Joe Briefcase knows and moves through it. This might seem benign until we consider that what average Joe Briefcase does more than almost anything else in contemporary life is watch television, an activity which anyone with an average brain can see does not make for a very dense and lively life. Since television must seek to compel attention by offering a dreamy promise of escape from daily life, and since stats confirm that so grossly much of ordinary U.S. life is watching TV, TV’s whispered promises must somehow undercut television-watching in theory (“Joe, Joe, there’s a world where life is lively, where nobody spends six hours a day unwinding before a piece of furniture”) while reinforcing television-watching in practice (“Joe, Joe, your best and only access to this world is TV”).

If anything has changed since Wallace wrote that essay, we’ve become more involved in these “modes of presentation.” Now, we don’t join in only in our minds, but in our actual lives. We are all living “presented” lives. We’re all playing roles.

More Data is Bad for a Man

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, on data:

In business and economic decision making, reliance on data causes severe side effects—data is now plentiful thanks to connectivity, and the proportion of spuriousness in the data increases as one gets more immersed in it. A very rarely discussed property of data: it is toxic in large quantities—even in moderate quantities. (Antifragile, p. 126)

Taleb defends this in terms of signal versus noise. Signal is information that makes sense. It is useful. You can use it to act. Noise is everything else. The more data you collect, the more chance you have of capturing some sort of signal, right? Actually, the opposite is true, thanks to the limits of man.

It all has to do with time. If you check data rarely, you see a larger slice of time, which lets you filter out anything redundant or irrelevant. You only see value over time. The more frequently you look at data, Taleb says, the more likely it is that most of what you see is noise. Take the example of the newspaper: if you glance at the news once a year, you have a much easier time drawing out the important stories than if you glance once a day. And if you glance multiple times in an hour, as so many with “smart” phones do, you’re filling your mind with noise without a chance for a signal to break through. (Part of the responsibility rests with newspapers, surely. “Newspapers,” says Taleb, “should be of two-line length on some days, two hundred pages on others—in proportion with the intensity of the signal. But of course they want to make money…”)

In other words, the deluge of information robs you of your ability to see things in their proper context. It is not ambivalent, it is actively harmful. A word of wisdom for those who make decisions, such as, say, voting someone into office: the less information you ingest, the clearer your thoughts will be.

Ideas are Embedded in a Man’s Tools

…In every tool we create, an idea is embedded that goes beyond the function of the thing itself. It has been pointed out, for example, that the invention of eyeglasses in the twelfth century not only made it possible to improve defective vision but suggested the idea that human beings need not accept as final either the endowments of nature or the ravages of time. Eyeglasses refuted the belief that anatomy is destiny by putting forward the idea that our bodies as well as our minds are improvable. I do not think it goes too far to say that there is a link between the invention of eyeglasses in the twelfth century and gene-splitting research in the twentieth.

~ Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (p. 14)

A Man is a Confused Citizen of the Ever-Changing Web

Every time the Google updates Gmail, I spend about a week like a sleepless traveler in an unfamiliar airport. Blinking lights and new shapes, all the wrong colors.

My dad recently passed an observation on to me that he got from some smart person: the airport is the quintessential 21st-century place. The airport combines consumerism, boredom, loneliness, distraction, entertainment, convenience, surveillance, and a sense of dislocated time and space. An airport is full of strangers, often miles from home, mindlessly shopping for disposable entertainment and gadgets they don’t need. They have the freedom to travel almost anywhere in the world, but at the same time, they are under constant surveillance. In an airport, be ready to part with your privacy at a moment’s notice. In most airports, every gate looks the same, so traveling to Omaha is an almost identical experience as traveling to Tahiti. You lose your sense of place. (Pilot Mark Vanhoenecker calls this “place lag.” Get his book if you like flying.) In an airport, you’re usually tired, harried, and confused, but all of your needs can be taken care of in a bland, generic, Band-aid sort of way. In an airport, the world is at your fingertips – and you just want to go home.

Sounds exactly like spending time on the internet.

A Man is Skeptical of the Innovation Gospel

Peter Thiel on startup culture:

There’s a pessimistic read on the startup culture where you could say that people, it’s not really a typical thing to start something new. That, the large institutions should have far more resources, longer time horizons and so you only need to start something new when none of the existing institutions work. Maybe the fact there’s so much stress on starting new things is the positive tip of the iceberg but the much larger, negative part of the iceberg is that the large, existing institutions are incredibly broken.

To me, this attitude (which Thiel doesn’t necessarily hold) speaks of the belief that tomorrow will be better, must be better. (I wrote about this a few months ago.) Part of what’s going on in this kind of thinking is a denial of history. You have to contort yourself into some really wild intellectual knots to believe that the past was just a bulldozer of scientific, social, and political progress. Rather than face facts, people invent new things.

Josh Gibbs says something similar in his book How to be Unlucky:

The modern man wants every ancient proverb qualified with words like “usually,” “typically,” “generally,” “often,” and “sometimes.” He does not believe there is a way things are. He does not even believe there is a way things tend to be. Rather, he views the world as a series of accidents and arbitrary events. Every thing and every person in the world is atomized, isolated in its being, sequestered off from the habits of existence. Reality has no contours; being has no grooves. The modern man does not believe women are a certain way. He does not believe men are a certain way. He does believe children or kings, farmers or prostitutes are a certain way. He believes that every human being alive is at war with the past, at war with tradition, and thus the modern man believes every farmer is reinventing farming, every kind reinventing dominion, every woman reinventing femininity. Because every farmer is reinventing farming and every woman is reinventing femininity, the terms “woman” and “farmer” are empty. We should not expect the zeitgeist to be content until every weighty word in the dictionary has been gutted. (p. 91)