Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Rewarding? . . . Really? . . . .

Just like I wondered how my Dad ever survived a childhood without television, my kids wonder the same about my early years spent in the tech-free desert of the stone-age period known to them as the 60s and 70s. Technological advances have occasioned the notion - once more - that previous generations lived in relative existential squalor compared to the blessings, advantages, and rewards of being born when we were born.

Sure, the presence of the Internet, digital media, and social networking are things we only dreamed about or didn't even have the capacity to imagine. It's all some pretty remarkable stuff that we use to great advantage. But lately, I've been exploring the dark side of it all. There's the highly publicized dark side that includes things like pornography, Internet gambling, etc. But what I'm talking about here is the more hidden dark side that we typically miss. Ironically, when we miss it, we're usually right there in the midst of it.

Nicholas Carr offers a compelling and interesting analysis of some of these dark corners in his well-written book, The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains. He says that the Internet "provides a high-speed system for delivering responses and rewards - 'positive reinforcements,' in psychological terms - which encourage the repetition of both physical and mental actions. . . the Net's interactivity gives us powerful new tools for finding information, expressing ourselves, and conversing with others." True, very true. But then Carr writes this. . . and it really got me thinking: "It also turns us into lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment." Wow. Again. . . true. . . very true.

I wonder how nourishing many of those pellets really are? I think that much of what we obsessively press levers for is little more than pellets of crap. Seriously. This happens when our dark sides take us into the dark side and again, we don't even know it. . . . or at the very least we fool ourselves into thinking that it's really not all that bad.

Once again, it's helpful to heed lessons from Anthony Weiner, who I think we should see as the poster boy for where we're headed as a culture, as communities, and as ourselves if we don't think more seriously about these matters and how they relate to our faith. I'm also aware that Weiner might not be the poster boy for where we're headed, but the poster boy for where we already live.

This morning, the New York Times' Ross Douthat has an op-ed piece that's pretty doggone insightful and thought-provoking on these things. It's worth a few minutes of your time. Douthat says that yes, "technology really does affect character. Cultures do change from era to era, sometimes for the worse. Particular vices can be encouraged by particular innovations, and thrive in the new worlds they create." Douthat goes on to say that it isn't smut, lust or infidelity that's the Internet era's defining vice. Rather, "it's a desperate, adolescent narcissism." And so, many of the grown-ups we know (ourselves?) who should know better, are still acting like a bunch of self-absorbed kids.

I like how Douthat ends his piece: "Facebook and Twitter did not forge the culture of narcissism. But they serve as a hall of mirrors in which it flourishes as never before - a 'vast virtual gallery' . . . whose self-portaits mainly testify to 'the timeless human desire for attention.' And as Anthony Weiner just found out, it's very easy to get lost in there."

Maybe some of the things we've been lulled into thinking are rewards and blessings, are really only curses. That's all the more reason to think Christianly about technology and social media. Keep using it all. . . but let your faithful thinking guide and direct faithful living in the digital frontier.


MrRoberts said...

Great piece. I struggle finding a balance as I find the need to keep up with technology and social media just to be able to talk to students, knowing that it is a slippery slope that I am prone to fall down. I pray that all of us who lead can remain safe from the trappings of our narcissism while moving forward in, but not of, the world we reach out to.

Jim and Diane Ruehling said...

Copied from the blogsite "Hullabaloo"

Virtual Thought Crimes

This is Andrew Sullivan at his literary best (and I agree with what he's written too!) He's responding here to Ross Douthat's maidenly screed against virtual naughtiness:

His view is that cutting online sex out of one's life entirely is the only way to avoid its temptation. I tend, in contrast, to think that human nature is so flawed that a sane moral life cannot and should not insist on constant perfection/abstinence, but constant attention to morality, to conscience, and to what human beings can reasonably expect to achieve. If your standard is never to commit a venial sin, you will almost certainly fail. And you may set up a destructive pattern of perfection, failure, depression, more failure, more depression, a new commitment to perfection, failure ... and so on: rinse and repeat. I think that cycle is horribly destructive and believe that moderation and risk-minimization is a safer guide to avoiding sin than total abstinence. That's why diets fail; and why the Christianist South has higher rates of divorce and illegitimacy than, say, "barbaric" Massachusetts.

Yes, you can get lost in an online hall of mirrors and addiction and narcissism.

Yes, there is a lack of dignity in what has happened to Weiner - but only because what was meant to be private became public. If videos of all of us taking our Morganscheisse were streamed live, a few of us would lose some dignity as well.

But if a married man masturbates to porn, I don't think we should consider him an adulterer, let alone on a route to what Ross calls "barbarism". (And if it is considered adultery, what percentage of American marriages would be intact?) Ditto if someone "kills" real-people-acting-as-avatars on World of Warcraft. That does not convict someone of murder. And if a married man chats online with a paid sex worker, and masturbates on his laptop, is that adultery too? What if he is just playing at wooing or preening with online strangers or fans but with no real intent to, you know, have sexual relations with any of them? In the grand scheme of social ills, these do not rank high on my list. The real-virtual distinction is a meaningful one.

Yes, this is a santorumy slope in many ways, but the element that Ross (and the Vatican) dismisses is that sex need not always be deadly serious. There is a vital part of the human experience that we call "play". Fighting the need for play gets sex and work out of proportion and can distort our moral lives in ways far worse than the occasional victimless online flirt. And that's what this technology has really opened up: not the potential for sin, which is always with us, but the potential for play. From Angry Birds to anonymous chat rooms to World of Warcraft to Chatroulette or Grindr or OKCupid, this is a safe zone for unsafe things by virtual people. That's why we call it play. It is often a balance to work or lack of work. It is not the end of civilization. It is, in fact, the mark of one.

And, by the way, no matter how much you try to eliminate pornography or online "play", until you manage to lobotomize the entire species, the human imagination will always provide the necessary images for someone to commit "virtual adultery." If that's a crime, I think everyone over the age of 14 has committed it.


Matt Hauger said...

Thanks for the thoughts and the helpful links, Walt.

When you say that "the Internet, digital media, and social networking" are "pretty remarkable stuff that we use to great advantage," what do you mean? Can you say more about what you see as the benefits? Do you think the drawbacks listed above outweigh the benefits?

Or, as I ask here, "if social media amplifies a particular vice [i.e., narcissism], might it also amplify a particular virtue?" What would that be?

Walt Mueller said...

Matt - good questions. These are the kinds of questions we should be asking as we navigate this new and confusing new frontier. Sadly, I think our tendency is to embrace it all immediately without giving any thought to how it might affect us and how we might best use it all responsibly. This is where I, personally, am always thinking about issues of structure and direction as expanded on by Albert Wolters in his wonderful little book, "Creation Regained." Have you read it? In this case, I need to think about the direction I use these things in along with the direction I allow them to take me. Is it towards the Kingdom of God and things that are good, true, right and honorable? Or is it towards the things of the world, the flesh, and the devil. Have you read Tim Challies book on this, "The Next Story"? If not, you should. Now a confession. . . as one who is always trying to be a life-long learner, I am finding myself questioning my understanding of structure and direction, wondering if it has been too simplistic on these matters related to technology. I've been having lots of conversations on how the medium is the message and that the medium influences and shapes us. It's not just content. There are some thoughtful discussions going on about this in regards to contemporary worship, the seeker movement, and consumerism. This has made me want to revisit Marshall McCluhan's stuff on media and the "media is the message" stuff that he prophetically talked about so many years ago. I've bought a couple of McCluhan's books and will be getting to them soon. Regarding your question about virtues that social media can amplify. . . I'd like to believe that it could amplify the opposite of self-love (narcissism). Could we use it to become other-centered? If so, we'd have to put loads of parameters on the way we're using it now. Do you have any ideas on how to use it all redemptively?

Matt Hauger said...

Walt, I'm adding 'The Next Story' to my (already lengthy!) reading list.

Re. parameters for social media... Perhaps we should help young people ask questions like these:
- Does my use of social media substitute for in-the-flesh interaction? Or does it deepen and extend my real-world relationships?
- Does social media make my world smaller (e.g. collapsing into consumerism), or does it send me rushing into the world?

gloria said...

In the video, Nicholas G. Carr (aka Nick), the author of The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, From Edison to Google, talks about a radical change in CIOs' perception for Cloud Computing and its impact on the IT landscape. Further in the conversation, HCL Technologies' VP - Marketing Anubhav Saxena seeks Nick's guidance for IT employees who always bear the brunt due to automation in IT.