Ford, Kavanaugh, and Our Relentless Need to Be Entertained

In his work Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman argues that the advent and ultimate rise of television gave birth to a new epistemology in Western discourse (he wrote this in the 1980s). This claim is more than simply “the medium is the message,” as we have often heard. It is deeper than that — rather than television simply being our new mode of communication and forming the kinds of things that we discuss, television (that is, the combination of images and sound that makes up what we know as television) forms the very basis of what we can know and how we know as a society. Television (and, it could be argued, later iterations of it, including the internet, social media, YouTube, music streaming, etc.), with its focus on fantastic images that stimulate the brain bends our societal discourse towards entertainment.

In such a society, where television and its iterations are entirely inseparable from social fabric, every other sphere of human discourse will ultimately be viewed and understood through the lens of entertainment. Our news, our politics, our religion, our economic choices — all of them will eventually be filtered through the lens of visual and audible stimulation. As various programs and content compete with each other for attention, those which are most visually stimulating will naturally shape what we know and how we know, because our brains are essentially lazy, and impulsively value stimulation over difficult mental labor.

The even bigger challenges now are that our modes of discourse have shrunk in meaning and quality in the last decade. A YouTube video that is longer than five minutes is probably not worth our time. A blog post over 500 words is difficult to follow. Twitter, with its (now) 280 character limit, seems to set our natural attention span.

I wondered about this last week during the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings. For ten hours, our nation sat and watched — first Dr. Fords testimony of her experience, and then Kavanaugh’s attempted rebuttal. But what did our comments about that hearing focus on? Kavanaugh’s angry, partisan responses when questioned heavily. Dr. Ford’s harrowing recounting of her experience that night. Lindsey Graham’s outrage at the alleged mistreatment of an upstanding civil servant. What was not clear was that this trial was truly about discovering the truth about what happened that night. Sure, that was the veneer of the hearing, the “why” this hearing was happening. Just under the surface, however, our desire for a partisan battle over the soul of our country roiled. The entire hearing came across like a courtroom scene in a movie — the anticipation of seeing Dr. Ford walk in the room, the emotional buildup to her story, the recesses and breaks that functioned like commercial breaks to build anticipation for the next scene, the righteously angry Judge Kavanaugh, the side-room deals being made between Flake and other senators, and on and on and on.

Television and its iterations have made such hearings nothing more than another form of entertainment, no different than ancient gladiatorial fights, wherein we can, without fear of recrimination, satisfy our thirst for blood and battle and the thrill of the fight. And after this week is over, and Kavanaugh is or isn’t confirmed as the next SCOTUS nominee, we’ll be itching for another.

Two More Notes on Blogging

I’ll get off of this sort of meta-discourse on social media and blogging and better uses of the web eventually, but I came across another couple of posts worth mentioning that spurred some more thoughts for me. First, I came across this post via Manton Reece’s blog (the founder of Micro.Blog, a new social web service that is pretty intriguing to me). Brent Simmons writes:

But if you think of the years 1995-2005, you remember when the web wasour social network: blogs, comments on blogs, feed readers, and services such as Flickr, Technorati, and BlogBridge to glue things together. Those were great years — but then a few tragedies happened: Google Reader came out, and then, almost worse, it went away. Worse still was the rise of Twitter and Facebook, when we decided it would be okay to give up ownership and let just a couple companies own our communication.

I remember this distinctly — in fact, this was how I grew up in the web. My friends and I all started blogs, and it wasn’t just a method of internet-journaling. It was more than that. It helped us to form early social networks, but networks that we controlled.

Then, after following the trail of breadcrumbs a little more, I found this post by Om Malik, where he writes:

What people don’t realize about blogs is that they are never a complete story. They are incomplete and by nature more mysterious, more episodic, and thus more interesting. Blogs are meant not to leave you with everything. The whole idea is to think to deliberate, and to come back again and again, to finish what was started a long time ago. But there is no end, just a pause, for a voice to start, talking again.

Which made me think two things:

  1. It reminded me of my previous post about making connections — the art of the blog is almost never to give a complete picture, especially to readers. Instead, the blog’s job is to help me to make connections. I’ll be able to look back one day and see things that I didn’t see before.
  2. I wonder — is it possible that blogs will make a comeback in the same way that podcasts did a few years ago? Podcasts were around long before the boom of podcasting happened in… what, 2013? Everyone thought podcasting was essentially dead, or at least had outlived its novelty. The “blog” was pronounced dead not that long ago, but if Manton Reece and others like him can help us build stronger support systems to make the web itself more social, outside of the walled gardens of social media, then we might just witness a comeback in the next few years.

(Side note: I’ve noticed that since I’ve been focusing more on my personal digital space [i.e., the blog here], I’m not all that interested in Twitter anymore, which is the last vestige of any “owned” social media that I still participate in.)

Social Media is Meta-Commentary on Ourselves

It’s strange how you can fall down several different, seemingly disparate rabbit holes in a day, and they all sort of connect with each other somehow. After spending some time reading through a few of Alan Jacobs’s old pieces at the Atlantic, I later randomly stumbled across this piece on Bo Burnham and his recent film, “Eighth Grade.”

Jacobs’s posts at the Atlantic offered some interesting commentary (from back in 2012 and 2013!) on the open internet and the indie web that led me down a strange internet wormhole. In several of these pieces, Jacobs, true to form, writes on the importance of autonomous web pages — spaces which we have our own control over, and which are not at risk of deletion or loss because some company owns the material we post. While he doesn’t explicitly talk about Twitter or Facebook, he does mention in at least one piece how he manages his online reading (Twitter/RSS to Instapaper to Pinboard). These allow him to stay up to date without being held hostage by the Twitter hoard. I don’t know if that’s what he does now, but it’s what he describes in this post.

In the profile of Burnham, the author describes what Burnham has been working on the last couple of years while taking a break from stand-up comedy: a film (“Eighth Grade”) that seeks to pull back the curtain on what it feels like to be an adolescent in a world enveloped and overwhelmed by social media and building audiences and having a voice. Kayla is the film’s protagonist, and he says of her character: “In the movie, she’s meta-commenting on herself in a way she’s totally unaware of. She thinks she’s living one coherent life.” In other words, as Kayla is attempting to say something meaningful to her (non)audience via social media, she’s actually speaking (in)directly about her own fears and selfhood. The problem really ends up being that it’s a show meant for others, and by attempting to gain an audience, she doesn’t understand that she’s “meta-commenting.”

I wonder, if we followed Jacobs’s and others’ vision of what a better web looks like (owning our own space, using it as a personal archive, etc.), if we can avoid some of the pitfalls of performance that social media in its current forms propagates.

“Living in the Present” is Myopic

We live in a cultural moment wherein “living in the present” is the clarion call for leading a richer, fuller life. While the intention here is often good — living in the present frees us from worry about the future and guilt over the past — we live in the most extreme version of this vision of the good life. This is what Alan Jacobs calls “presentism” in a recent article in The Guardian on “temporal bandwidth.”

Right now, we are only capable of knowing and thinking about what is happening at the present moment. Everything we think, say, or do, must be in response to whatever crisis is happening at the given moment. As I type this, my Twitter timeline is filled with outrage at the Trump administration’s unjust treatment of families that illegally enter the southwest U.S. border. And rightly so! Politicians on the left and right recognize that separating parents from their children, regardless of the legality of their entrance into the country, is nothing less than immoral. This is a major problem that needs to be addressed (and, frankly, has needed to be addressed for a long time), but there will be something else next week, and the week after, and the week after that.

In other words, we no longer just “live in the present” — we are presentists. There is nothing but the present, and anything we say or do, for our words and actions to matter right now, must be related to extinguishing whatever dumpster fire is on people’s minds (ignoring the fact that there are one million other dumpster fires in the background). There is a solution to this problem, but it’s not an easy one. It will make us look uncaring and irrelevant, and will potentially send us to the margins of the public square, if we’re even included in it at all.

We must back away. We must expand our view of humanity, of time, of the world and its history and future. To do so means to read old books and simply sit and think about them, about the world that existed before we did, and the world that will exist after we are gone. It means, perhaps, not responding on Twitter to the latest outrage — not because we do not care, but because we are aware that the truly caring thing may be to continue to cultivate a life that is lived betwixt the past and the future, and that culminates in the present. As Jacobs says,

To read old books is to get an education in possibility for next to nothing. Watching the latest social media war break out, I often recall Grace Kelly’s character in High Noon, a Quaker pacifist, saying: “I don’t care who’s right or who’s wrong. There’s got to be some better way for people to live”… The suspicion that there’s got to be some better way has the welcome effect of suppressing the thoughtless, kneejerk reflexion that is a byproduct of our age.

Rejecting presentism, even if it looks uncaring to the outside world, can be a more nuanced, thoughtful way of caring for those around us, those experiencing oppression, those who are lonely and anxious. It can also help us to rightfully situate our present moment in the ongoing history of the world.

Healthy Social Media Habits

I don’t really know how to have a healthy relationship with social media. Well, not all social media. Facebook and Instagram hold little appeal for me. In fact, the only reason I even have a Facebook account is because I’m going to be doing some social media work for Life in Deep Ellum during my practicum. That work will end in May, so my plan is to completely be rid of Facebook by the end of May (and by that I mean, actually delete the account). That’s really only because of my concerns about privacy and social manipulation that a platform like FB is capable of).

Instagram — I don’t know. I don’t really use it very much, and it’s like that happy-clappy part of the internet that seems to do little harm. It’s at least a little bit nice to look back at my own account and see something I thought was worth capturing on a specific day.

Twitter is a whole other problem for me. I don’t really know what it is about the platform that draws me. Perhaps it’s my ability to connect with people outside of my own circles, or at least see what people in the field of theology/philosophy that I respect are writing and thinking. Maybe it’s the ability to quickly write off a thought without thinking about it. The problem is, I don’t even have the Twitter app on my phone, and yet I still find myself with an open Twitter tab in Safari all the time. I also sit in front of a computer most of the day, so it’s really easy to keep a Twitter tab open and hop on it.

The problem is obvious: it’s distracting, and easy to open and scroll through when my mind hits the “boredom wall” or the “lack of focus wall.” If I hit a point where I need to sit and think — about a project or an email or whatever else — my natural tendency is to avoid that intense focus if there is an easy-to-find distraction. Further, I can’t deny that I really like being up to date on the goings-on of the day.

I think I know what the answer is. I’m just not quite ready to admit it yet.

Responding to the Latest Twitter Outrage is Not My Job

From Alan Jacobs (way back in January 2016!):

  • I don’t have to say something just because everyone around me is.
  • I don’t have to speak about things I know little or nothing about.
  • I don’t have to speak about issues that will be totally forgotten in a few weeks or months by the people who at this moment are most strenuously demanding a response.
  • I don’t have to spend my time in environments that press me to speak without knowledge.
  • If I can bring to an issue heat, but no light, it is probably best that I remain silent.
  • Private communication can be more valuable than public.
  • Delayed communication, made when people have had time to think and to calm their emotions, is almost always more valuable than immediate reaction.
  • Some conversations are be more meaningful and effective in living rooms, or at dinner tables, than in the middle of Main Street.

Repeat after me: It is not my job to respond to every outrageous news story. It is not my job to respond to every outrageous news story. It is not my job to respond to every outrageous news story.

Jacobs’s last three points, for me, are the most freeing (and perhaps slightly condemning). We need to find more value in in-person, private, delayed, thoughtful conversation over online, immediate communication. Those conversations are not only less likely to be heated and fruitless — they are more likely to be meaningful, beneficial to our smaller communities, and more likely to effect change.

A Thousand Voices

Twitter has a much stronger draw for me than Facebook does. I’m not sure what it is. Perhaps it’s the constant flow of information or the thought that I have access to a world of thought completely outside of my own normal circles (my Twitter feed is generally much less conservative than my Facebook feed).

I actually quit Twitter for a little while. I used it for a few years very regularly and then got tired of how much my attention was being grabbed by it right around the end of the 2016 election. I also remember being disappointed in myself for constantly thinking in “tweetable” thoughts. I.e., anytime I attempted to chase down a line of thinking, I couldn’t help myself but find ways to tweet about it, which inevitably stunted my ability to flesh out my thinking on pretty much anything in a meaningful way. So, I archived my entire Twitter account and deleted it completely.

That was fine for a little while until I felt the need to return. My hope was that, having had some time off, I could better manage my attention and my thoughts and who I followed. Some of that has been true. I’m much more careful now about what I say and how much time I spend on it look at that feed daily. Something is still not quite right though. I see a lot on Twitter about how it has changed — that the way we interact with one another is far too insular, that we are especially reactionary on it as opposed to other platforms, and so on. But I’m not convinced that Twitter is changed (besides bumping us up to 280, curse the name of Twitter forever) so much as American culture and thought life has changed. Twitter is reactionary because we are reactionary. Our experience within Twitter is stunted and insular because we are stunted and insular.

My concerns with Twitter abound, and after experimenting with it for a second time, I don’t know that I’m any better off than I was the first time around. I might personally handle it better than I did a year ago. But as I told my wife recently, I can’t help but feel like when I log in to Twitter, I am greeted with a thousand voices that are demanding that I care about the political issue that just occurred, or the new sexual harassment revelation in Hollywood or D.C., or today’s theological controversy. The fact is, for the most part, those things are not my job to care about. There is literally nothing I can do about them, despite the fact that those thousand voices lay an infinite demand on me each day that I can and should. The better, more effective work that I can do is right here in my own tight-knit community.

Other Minds and Generous Commentary

I’m sure there are a lot of reasons I’m starting blogging again. One particular reason I can point back to is this post by Alan Jacobs, whose blog I follow semi-regularly. I think all the time about Twitter and attention and how the internet and social media have affected our lives. Re: all of this, Jacobs writes:

If you’re trying to address complex issues on Twitter, you are serving as your own Handicapper General. Please stop. Get a blog. You’re damaging your brain and the quality of public discourse. We all deserve better.

Anyway, that was actually an aside to my point here. My real point is the following. I was perusing Jacobs’s blog this morning, just because I like the simplicity of his site and way in which he seems to be apathetic to how others may think of him. He allows no comments, for example, and the whole site seems to be geared more toward his keeping track of his own thought life. I’d like to do the same. Sorry – that was another rabbit trail.

I came across another blog of his, called Text Patterns through his normal blog, and one of his more recent posts about Ephraim Radner’s A Time to Keep. Two things struck me:

  1. The comment section in this post was incredibly charitable. Radner himself jumped into the comments and he and Jacobs had a back and forth about Jacobs’s inability to understand some of Radner’s writing. Not something you see often. I have generally trained myself not to read comments because they either do not add to the discourse or cause me to lose my faith in humanity. This was a delight to see.
  2. Within the comment section, Jacobs wrote the following in a reply to Radner:

It is also possible, and I have been thinking about this a good deal lately, that the ways some minds work are simply incompatible with the ways that other minds work, such that genuine mutual understanding is just not achievable — at least in this vale of tears. That is a sobering thought for me, given that I have devoted my career to the interpretation of texts and to the charitable reading of them. But it may be the conclusion that I am forced to here.

This touches a bit on something I’m planning to write about in the very near future: essentially that we are (at least sometimes) incapable of “genuine mutual understanding” between minds. My work is leading me to the realm of knowledge and faith and how those two things interact with one another. My suspicion is that our desires and emotions and cultural/social contexts form a complex web that we can neither see nor transcend. Further, it is this foundation of desire/emotion/social context that forms our (pre-reflexive) response to propositional claims to truth. In other words, we are incapable of evaluating fact claims – empirical or purely rational –  via objective reason. Our responses to and evaluations of those things are always pre-formed by a more foundational part of our being – desire/emotion/social context. Perhaps it is the same when we try to gain “genuine mutual understanding,” in Jacobs’s words, between two minds.

Blogging Was a Thing

Do you remember when blogging was a thing? It wasn’t even that long ago. It was only 2011 or 2012 that I paid a lot of attention to what could be categorized as the “Christian Blogosphere.” I had my own blog that I posted on regularly, linked to other blogs, and had a large RSS feed where I watched all of this content come in every day.

And then, all of a sudden, it just wasn’t a thing anymore.

I don’t know why that is. I know Twitter became much more popular than it was previously, and video content soared for news sites. Another big shift in the last few years has been the resurrection of podcasts. This one in particular is interesting to me — that podcasts somehow made a comeback. It’s such a slow form of information intake. It makes me wonder if blogging will have its own sort of comeback. Perhaps not in the same way that it existed previously. I just know that Twitter, even with 280 characters, is incapable of allowing us to expand and extend our thoughts, mulling over the words, savoring a single line of thinking for a few minutes.

Or I could just be stuck in my own head and in my own world. It’s very possible that I have only “noticed” these changes because I’m the one who has changed — that blogging and podcasting and Twitter are as popular as they ever were, and my arrogance leads me to believe that because the way I interacted with them changed, so did everyone else.