Writing on faith, technology, and being in 20xx

Part 1 of the "A New Day For The Neighbourhood" series

Introducing “A New Day for the Neighbourhood”
It’s been a strange and instructive year to be a neighbour; let’s heed its lessons.

Swiping & Scrolling towards (dis)Satisfaction

It feels good, until it doesn't. That's my take on most social media, even most digital media. It's the ironclad law of Instagram as much as Netflix. Novelty is displaced by a vague dissatisfaction but by then the cycle is well-established, and alternatives seem implausible. The followers expect a post, probably of the not-a-brand brand, and you've come to expect the frictionless if fleeting affirmation.

Who works for whom in these digital spaces (and it is work) is difficult to parse, as followers flick, numb with boredom, and influencers parlay their personalities into side-gigs for free samples. Why do we do it, why do so many to turn to these virtual pipes to quench their thirst? Because the pipes promise water.

Digital media promises nothing less than all our desires, right now, with as little friction as possible. Apart from unlimited entertainment and access to services, digital media promises to fulfill an essential human need: to know and be known. You don’t have to understand the world through Christian theology to see this desire at work in much of the swiping and scrolling that characterizes more and more of life in 20xx. Celebrities, minor influencers, and friends—they all become objects of our knowing on the screen. But to make ourselves known, we craft carefully constructed works of text and image, video and voice, shattering the illusion genuine disclosure. The timelines fail to account for full-bodied human experience. Instead of knowing and being known, we see and are being seen, and shrug our shoulders (or quote-tweet a fool we disagree with).

It’s easy, quick. Knowing is slow and threatening; seeing is safe and convenient. This is also pornography’s pitch, and it’s why all simulations fail to satisfy.

The pipes promise water, but satisfaction comes only in drips, rivulets of good things incidental to the shit the system is designed to deliver. I remain convinced that it doesn’t have to be this way. And not because everyone would be better off cancelling their data plans and planting a garden instead, although that’s an argument I’m sympathetic to. It doesn’t have to be this way because our use of technological tools doesn’t have to surrender to the inner logic of Technopoly. Instead of the logic of production and scale, which aim to extract value than they create, we might look to the garden for alternatives.

In the garden, there is a bias against the overgrown. Whereas production works by exercising complete control over its processes, Ursula M. Franklin, in her CBC Massey Lectures, contrasts this with the growth-model’s holistic attention to context. Growing things need pruning, weeding, and thinning out. Without these practices of attention, growth becomes self-defeating. In the garden, we must adjust to realities of soil and rain. On the production line, reality is made to conform to the needs of the machine: cars will have freeways, after all, and digital media will have attention. Franklin suggests our marginalization of the growth-model, and its “notion that size and scale are given relative to any particular growing organism,” has allowed modern technological projects to grow beyond a useful scale. Driven by production imperatives, our once useful tools are overgrown. Scale has ceased to merely denote size and has become a badge of honour.

“The value-laden phrase ‘bigger is better’ — without ever stating for whom it is better — comes solely out of a production-centred context.”

This may seem like the rule of the world, but the reason I return again and again to criticizing technology — and its logic of production and control — is because of its success at making the abnormal appear so normal. Imagine for a moment a community-run version of Uber without the need to operate at enormous scale and profit. Small, municipal ride-sharing companies could offer discounts to transit pass holders Next, imagine an online forum that’s moderated by humans and populated by your neighbours, where you can post about a lost cat and actually get help, or easily offer surplus tomatoes from your garden and deepen a relationship in the process. This second example already exists in Vermont’s Front Porch Forum, and the primary obstacle to the first is our uncritical embrace of ease as an ultimate good, and probably an army Uber lobbyists.

In his book Three Pieces of Glass: Why We Feel Lonely In a World Mediated By Screens, Eric O. Jacobsen argues that “we’ve been making deliberate society-wide choices to disengage from face-to-face interaction with one another,” for quite some time. The titular three pieces of glass in his analysis are the car windshield, the TV, and the bright portals our smartphones, each of which contributes to and exacerbates a crisis of belonging. As technological phenomena, each of the three pieces of glass have worked out their logic. Isolated in suburbs, comforted by fictional friends on TV, and perpetually connected to a contextless void, “our experience of relationships, place, and story” have been slowly but utterly transformed.

Jacobsen pays closer attention to sidewalks and dinner-table texts than most of us, because it’s not because he hates cars and smartphones. Jacobsen, a longtime pastor, is concerned with belonging as an essential element of God’s mission to redeem humanity. He sees the church as a “sign, instrument, and foretaste,” of genuine belonging, the kind only possible when creatures live in harmony with their creator and with each other.

The logic of production might tempt believers to propose a new Christendom project, conjuring the Kingdom of God here on earth via sweeping acts of policy and political power. But the bible suggests a growth-model instead, a humble rehearsal of virtue in our personal and civic spaces. This approach values neighbourhoods over nations and conversations around the table over the debate stage. It’s profoundly unsexy, just like sidewalks, local food banks, and cooking with toddlers and new friends, but God works in the common and the ordinary. “To feel as if we belong somewhere,” writes Jacobsen, “we have to have network of relationships at the intimate, private, social, and public scales.” Tools like Front Porch Forum enable and encourage this, and even discourage the totalizing tendencies of digital communications by adding friction to the process. Facebook, in contrast, is structured in the hopes that you spend more and more of your time in its mediated production space, to replace a full experience of human belonging with its atrophied substitute.

Shalom is unlikely to come via algorithmic services that see people, at best, as willing data points, and, at worse, problems in need of technological solutions.

Overall, I’m hopeful about the potential of digital tools to improve the world, but it will require careful attention to the stated means and ends of our tools. A tool like Front Porch Forum cannot compete with the value of social media giants as diversions. Yet, the humble neighbourhood message board is better suited to accomplishing Facebook’s mission “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected” than Facebook itself. That Facebook choose “world” rather than “the small corner of the world an individual can love and care for” betrays its captivity to the logic of production and scale. Front Porch Forum can only get as big as Vermont, and even then its internal logic — a logic of human-scale interactivity — resists the seductions of scale. For Front Porch Forum, bigger is not better. The hyper-locality of the platform makes it more difficult to be an asshole because, upon reflection, no one really wants to troll their neighbours. After all, where we haven’t already given ourselves to distributed digital ease, neighbours are the people who run, recommend or patronize our local businesses. Neighbours might show up to unclog a pipe or share a church pew. Neighbours, where we have nurtured the roots of relationship, eclipse the value of Facebook, Instacart, and other billion-dollar attempts to profit from the collapse of common life.

The pipes of our current digital infrastructure promise water, the local wells of relationship haven’t run dry. These local sources can be uncovered and updated for a more digital age, but it’ll require the right tools, and it starts with the analogue practice of talking to neighbours.

In the next issue of Good Words I'll explore neighbourhoods as particular places whose character both works on, and is formed by, the people who inhabit it. Bounded as neighbourhoods are, we're forced to ask: Are limits good?

The Faith Angle

We just don’t need Christians who can only echo what the Democratic Party is saying or only echo what the Republican Party is saying. We’re useless if that’s all we can do. There has to be a distinctively, recognizably Christian challenge to the principalities and powers that rule this world. Otherwise what are we good for? I’m hoping that people will take these recent works of mine not as counsels of despair but rather as challenges with the awareness that it’s not going to be an easy challenge to meet.

That's from the Fare Forward interview with Alan Jacobs and it's a very good word. The same applies to questions of our praise, use, and criticism of technology that steers our engagement in the realm of politics.

Further Reading

The Insurrection Will Be Live Streamed: Notes Toward a Theory of Digitization - L.M. Sacasas, The Convivial Society

From the Blog

I recently shared a list of quarterly journals and magazines that have helped me learn and grow over the years. Check it out if you're a fan of paper things or if you're just looking for something to read – lots of starter links therein!

A Quarterly Education: Print Journals for Lifelong Learning
The opposite of the everything-now incoherence of digital media, print journals offer correspondence courses for the curious and the questioning.

Hi, I'm Matt – Thanks for reading Good Words! I run this newsletter on a patronage model, which means the best stuff goes out for free to everyone. If you'd like to support my work and get some perks, you can subscribe here.

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