(Published in September/October 2010 issue of Relevant Magazine)
If you make it to the end of this article, you are an impressive and rare breed of human—an intellectual Navy SEAL, an elite mind, trained with an ability most people just don’t have anymore—the ability to sustain mental concentration over long periods of time. The ability to endure a mental marathon and the unnatural act of decoding thousands of abstract meaningless squiggly shapes, which are somehow arranged to create meaning—also known as reading.
But not just any kind of reading, the kind of reading reserved only for an endangered species—a lengthy monologue of unbroken paragraphs. There are no pithy sayings, no bullet points, no status updates, no hyperlinks, no place for you to comment. How can anyone be expected endure such inhumane conditions?
If I were smart, this on-line version would embed hyperlinks as release valves so you can be freed from this relentless linear reasoning. This linear thinking is increasingly antiquated.
Out with lines. In with webs.
Out with hard, slow, laborious rationality. In with flexible, fast, intuition.
It is perhaps entirely too obvious to say that our culture is changing. What may not be obvious is exactly how and why it is changing. While the reasons for such shifts are legion, there is one cause most often overlooked. The fact that fewer and fewer people are able to finish this article is due to a major shift in the technologies we use to communicate. In the simplest terms, to quote Marshall McLuhan, we become what we behold. Our thinking patterns begin to mirror the things we use to think with.
Technology is the hidden shaper of people and cultures. It’s transformative effects hover just beneath conscious awareness. Consider the shift in our reading capacities. Although image culture has lead to a decline in literacy rates over the last forty years. We are not actually headed for illiteracy, we are witnessing the rise of a different kind of literacy. Our new text based media cause people to prefer short, simple, messages rather than lengthy, uninterrupted, essays like this one.
Our technologies are rewiring our mental processing without our permission. Not only this, technology is dramatically transforming our understanding of ourselves, our definition of community, and our experience of God. As with nearly everything new in life, it brings both gains and losses. For some reason we seem quite unaware of the bargain we make when we adopt a new technology into our lives.
For a person who writes about how technology shapes us, I’m embarrassed to admit I ended up on Facebook by accident. I received an email from an acquaintance requesting that we become “friends.” To be polite I said yes. I clicked a few buttons and agreed to a few things without paying much attention. For the next three days my inbox was flooded with email notifications from a large number of my real-life friends who were also apparently now my virtual friends. They were thrilled. They congratulated me on joining Facebook. An achievement I didn’t consider worthy of accolade. I was also a bit mortified. Not just at how invasive Facebook was, but how excited these people were. What was wrong with them?
I’ll admit I found some appeal. There is a certain thrill in looking at pictures of high school friends from long ago without them knowing. It’s like being a fly on the wall at your high school reunion. I was instantly connected to long lost friends. People I would never go searching for, but would love to know what they are doing. And all at once I was not only updated on their life. I was also introduced to their moment-by-moment mental fidgets in the form of status updates.
This was simply a remarkable technological connector. And all this without the hassle of long phone conversations complete with requisite, time consuming social pleasantries. What a simple joy.
There are times when I felt a bit like a voyeur must feel. However, this is not voyeurism. Voyeurism assumes that the people you are watching don’t want you to see them. Voyeurism is what happens when you steel glimpses into people’s lives they don’t intend for you to see. The people I’m looking at actually want me to see. They wanted me to know what they are eating, wearing, feeling, and thinking in each moment. They are actually exhibitionists. An exhibitionist is someone who wants you to see them. So while there is little voyeurism, there is a lot of exhibitionism on Facebook.
Such exhibitionism has an unusual affect on us. We not only want others to see us, we like to see us. We are able to inspect and tweak what others are seeing about us. We become fascinated by the image we project. It’s like having a mirror on your desk or in your pocket. And every so often you pull it out to gaze upon your own image. Perhaps you want to adjust your hair or find postures of the head to smooth out the double chin. This kind of regular self-inspection eventually gives rise to a subtle narcissism. A feature especially pronounced among young people.
Young people are generally full of themselves, but a new study suggests that today’s kids are far more self-centered than preceding generations. The Narcissistic Personality Inventory is a 40-question survey which was administered to 16,475 current and recent college students nationwide between 1982 and 2006. The test asked students to agree or disagree with statements like “I think I am a special person” and “If I ruled the world, it would be a better place.” The results indicate a steady rise in narcissism—a “positive and inflated view of the self.” Overall, almost two-thirds of the most recent sample display a higher level of narcissism than the 1982 average. Why the increase? No one actually knows.
But the researchers speculate that technology may have something to do with it. Narcissism is especially acute among students born after 1982, the cohort most likely to use “self-focused” web sites like MySpace, Facebook and Youtube.
The narcissism created by these technologies is unique. It encourages not just self-absorption, but more accurately self-consumption. We become creators and consumers of our own brand. We become enamored by a particular kind of self, a pseudo-self. A self-image controlled in much the same way corporate brands are controlled. Complete with pictures, videos, songs, and most of all metrics—the number of friends we have, the kinds of friends we have, and the kind of associations we have. We endlessly noodle, refine, create and consume a digital projection we want others to see. However, we are rarely what we project. This image approximates reality, but it is not reality.
This heavily edited and carefully controlled self easily hides certain parts of ourselves we don’t want others to see. This is hardly new of course. In any social situation we seek to control the impression we give. The problem is that in real social settings there are limits to what we can hide. At a certain point people intuitively see through us. Eventually they get a sense of who we really are. And in this way, real friendships can function as a healthy mirror. They become an honest mirror that loves but doesn’t flatter us. Facebook is more like a funhouse mirror. Feeling short and squatty, no problem, just bend the mirror and presto! You are who you wish you were.
Over enough time this subtle affect creates a minor split in us. A split between who we are, and who we think we are. This tiny fracture may seem insignificant, but if we remain unconscious, it leads us away from a life of wholeness and integration.
Narcissism is a rather exquisite vice. It is very difficult to detect in oneself. And when something is hard to identify it makes it hard to dissolve. The real buzz kill though is how it affects relationships. Studies indicate that narcissists have trouble forming meaningful relationships, tend to be materialistic, and are prone to higher levels of infidelity, substance abuse, and violence.
So while Facebook and other social media connect us to more digital relationships, at the same time they deteriorate our ability to maintain healthy relationships in real life. This affect is particularly acute among adolescents for developmental reasons.
I have a two-year old daughter who has yet to eat peanut butter. Because allergies run in the family, doctors advised us not expose her body until a more appropriate developmental stage. If introduced too early, peanut butter, which is benign could become an unnecessary and even lethal allergy. Once the body has gone through the appropriate developmental stages, peanut butter becomes a non-issue.
A similar phenomenon happens in developmental psychology. Ego development in young people is crucial for child development. A child must learn to establish firm ego structures and self-boundaries in order to differentiate from their parents and thrive independently in the world as an adult (that’s what the terrible twos, and even-more-terrible teen years are all about). At the same time, they must also learn to temper this with a growing awareness, sympathy, and empathy for others. To do one without the other or in the wrong order can lead to pathology of one kind or another. To give oneself to others without first developing a sense of self may lead to neurotic codependency. To focus only on oneself at the expense of others can lead to narcissism.
In a sense, the soul must develop in a particular sequence and through the entire sequence in order to develop stable healthy relationships in life. It is a precarious journey fraught with many pitfalls, turns, and obstacles along the way.
Our social technologies are increasingly serving as an obstacle to this development process in young people. If certain kinds of social media are introduced prematurely in the lives of teens, they may inadvertently short circuit basic developmental milestones crucial for establishing healthy relationships later in life.
Facebook is the perfect cocktail. A medium that focuses much of our attention on ourselves, while appearing to focus our attention on relationship with others. It is essentially a funhouse mirror that masquerades as a window.
It recreates the conditions of the myth of Narcissus on a mass cultural scale. You recall the story of the young, handsome Narcissus who stumbles upon a pool in the woods. Peering into the silvery water, he mistakes his own reflection for that of a beautiful water spirit. He falls in love instantly with her (or himself) and never leaves the pool. The image is so enchanting he shuns even food and drink in order to gaze upon it and eventually withers and dies. The clinical diagnosis of narcissism derives its name from this story.
Just because this developmental hiccup is acute in adolescents doesn’t mean adults are immune form the narcotic affects of social media. It’s true that most adults have stabilized basic ego structures, but the human psyche is anything but static; it remains profoundly plastic throughout life. As a result human development never really ends, and regression is always possible.
If we persist in consuming these or any technologies without conscious awareness we will be formed in ways we don’t intend. But I must be clear on this point. The problem is not using the technology. The problem is using it unconsciously. The sin of Narcissus was not that he looked at his own reflection in a pool; it was that he didn’t know he was looking at himself. The cost for this unconsciousness was steep. Had he understood the medium, he could have used it rather than be used by it.
How then do we become conscious? One of the most powerful ways is by practicing a technology fast from time to time. Simply don’t look at your Facebook account for one week and see what you notice about yourself. See what you miss. See what you gain. If nothing happened in a week, try two. The point is not the time it is the distance. Find ways to gain enough distance to perceive. You will reap the benefits.
A related technology is found in the emergence of twitter. As with any new technology it takes time for a culture to know exactly what it is best used for, and what it is not. Twitter’s calling in the world is still not entirely clear. Certainly it proved to be a powerful source of information during the recent protests in Iran. While much of the information was not verifiable, it clearly affected how protestors organized themselves in the face of the government crackdown. It helped them get a particular message out to the watching world.
To truly understand the purpose and power of a technology we must identify it’s innate bias. All technologies come with biases that cause users to naturally prefer certain things. The basic bias of Twitter is that it encourages everyone to share whatever is on their mind in real time, it begs for your thoughts at all times. It is a constant reminder to externalize our thoughts. These thoughts may be profound, but more often they are mostly a twitch of the brain– a mental fidget adding to the static of the universe.
This inadvertently reinforces the narcissism of the digital age. Twitter helps me believe that even my most mundane thoughts are now somehow important and need to be shared. It begs me to step out of the stream experience long enough record it. The affect is that we are no longer present in any of our experiences. We are living as unpaid journalists who chronicle life as it passes by.
This may seem insignificant. But our presence matters. Our brief but increasingly frequent moments of absence add up. Imagine a father who flickers in and out of presence in a child’s life every time he checks his iPhone. You may be here physically but you may as well be at the office or on some business trip. People can feel our absence. And it is usually a loss. We become digital nomads glancing around the globe never fully present here or there. It is a ghost-like condition. It diminishes one of God’s greatest gifts to us—a body. There is a reason God made us with bodies. There is a reason God became a body in Jesus. The incarnation is about becoming a body to bless the world through physical presence in the lives of others. To hold the hand of those who grieve, to feed and clothe those who are poor, to love those who are alone by being “with” them. Many of these technologies create a condition of absence in a world desperate for our presence.
Beyond our ability to stay with and experience the present moment, Twitter is also shaping our thought patterns. The combination of real-time speed and an enforced character limit encourage a kind of simplistic and impulsive thinking. This contributes to its bias for creating an echo chamber of platitudes and clichés. In a way it functions to sedate the imagination rather than actually open it. It limits our capacity to uncover and articulate that which is profound.
Simplicity is not the main problem. In fact most profound insights are incredibly simple. But there are two kinds of simplicity. One is the simplicity of a teenager who says “Jesus loves you.” The other is the simplicity of a 90 year old woman having lived through the great depression, lost her husband, and is witnessing her body deteriorate who says “Jesus loves you.” Both are simple, but one is informed by time, wisdom, experience, suffering, and complexity. This is how something can be both profound and simple.
The reason twitter precludes profound insights is not due to its brevity. It is due to speed. In other words, it is about time not space. Wisdom is born of suffering, waiting, experience, wrestling, grieving, and complexity and these things take time.
Twitter has no patience for time. Twitter bypasses these things so it can express. And in so doing contributes simple white noise and occasionally interesting fragments of information. This does not make twitter bad, invalid or useless. It simply means that Twitter is medium that will more likely convey cliché’s rather than deep aphorisms of profound insight. It will more likely introduce more information that is less and less usable.
My point is not simply to advocate a rejection of Twitter. My interest is to help us understand what Twitter is doing and undoing in our lives. The answer to this question gets more clear when we find ways to get distance from the technology. Once again, a simple fast may be appropriate. Ignore your Twitter feed for a week and see what happens. What do you miss? What do you gain? Pay attention when you feel an impulse to check Twitter and ask yourself, what is this about? Am I bored? Restless? Lonely? Curious? Feeling disconnected? Needing a break form the monotony of existence? Then sit with the feeling. Let it arise fully without resisting it or retaining it. See what it might have to teach you. And check to see if there is something else beneath or behind it. Often there is wisdom waiting to be born. But it means being patient.
Now, if you made it to the end of this article, you are to be congratulated. That is an amazing feat of astounding intellectual fortitude. You are a rare individual. Perhaps one day there will be a prize for such an accomplishment. Until then, my verbal pat on the back must suffice.
Now it will be tempting to conclude after all this ranting that I am simply a Luddite, a technophobe bent on the dismantling of all digital technologies. This is not the case. Admittedly, I was hardly even-handed in my observations. However, to herald the virtues of our technology is mostly redundant, it would be like trying to argue the importance of breathing. It’s already here and the value it adds is self-evident. This is why the technologies are so prevalent, we intuit their benefits otherwise we wouldn’t use them. My concern is that our culture seems only capable of seeing the benefit, and utterly blind to the liabilities, the inevitable losses of certain technologies. I have no interest in trying to end or stop such technological innovations; to do so is like trying to resist the wind or the tides. Instead I want us to understand them with depth. Not with naïve embrace, or fearful rejection.
If we learn to wake up and understand, perhaps we will be able to use them rather than be used by them.