Every extension of mankind, especially technological extensions, has the effect of amputating or modifying some other extension.[Marshall McLuhan, “Understanding Media”]
For the vast majority of years since Gutenberg enabled mass produced written communication, those thoughts which become “published” existed in the mind of an author, forming, percolating, and growing in the synapses of their brain. These thoughts were the fruits of that author’s imagination and experience, and generally speaking, good quality writing was a craft which took a lifetime to perfect.
[FF]->With the advent of the internet, the global digital network has radically redefined the craft of writing and much more than that. This is especially true of the Web, where any digital information can be made available to a potential audience of billions, within seconds. And with the advent of the “read-write” web, and specifically blogging, many a writer (or painter, musician, filmmaker…) who before would have had to find a way through the gatekeepers of what was made public – Recording Labels, Publishing Houses, Galleries, Agents, Censors – can now self publish with ease.
This trend towards a zero-delay publication of our thoughts continues apace. A book might take author decades to write or publish. [FF]->And a well thought out blog post might take hours or even days to compose. [FF]-> Enter Twitter. No 2000 word treatises here. You only have 140 characters, and it now takes about 30 seconds to fill you allotted buffer. Of course, relay chat – typed digital conversations – are not new, and neither is SMS: yes that’s “short” for “Short Message Service”. Short, shorter, shortest.
And now shortesterist. Fans of this accelerated culture (to use James Gleick’s term) will no doubt praise the immediacy of global conversations. Many people now, it would appear, orient themselves around the Facebook model of social interaction. Connected to all, but present to how many? Interaction, but is there any sustained conversation?
True Conversation happens at the deepest level, an art learned over a lifetime, even beyond. It is the lifeblood of the Divine towards and through us. God is after all described as the Logos, or Word. What is this Word? A law to obey? A Script to be learned and regurgitated? A set of correct truth propositions? Or is it something infinitely more subtle, far more dependent upon continual birthing, something composed of our deepest substance: God within us, shared?
With microblogging, are we reaching the lowest granularity of human verbal interaction? (Probably not, there’s still direct cranial USB to come: ouch!). But let’s face it; our media are making our communications increasingly fragmented. How are we going to develop the depth required for true community, especially sacred community, when our tools are causing us to spread our attention so thinly, over so many channels, into smaller and smaller slices of presence?
Marshall McLuhan observed: “We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us”. We are responsible for what we become. Do we really aspire towards cyborg status; are we going to continue emulating this alien, lifeless machine model where performance is measured in “Operations per second”? Is the performance of our thinking organism not already at light speed, and beyond? Is life about quantity, time and money?
Let us expand McLuhan’s dictum of amplification and amputation, allowing it to speak to our present situation:
“Every extension of mankind, especially technological extensions, has the effect of amputating or modifying some other extension … The extension of a technology like the automobile ‘amputates’ the need for a highly developed walking culture … The telephone extends the voice, but also amputates the art of penmanship gained through regular correspondence … We have become people who regularly praise all extensions, and minimize all amputations.” [from Marshall McLuhan, “Understanding Media”]
To “praise all extensions, and minimize all amputations” – is this not an apt definition of modernity, where progress has ousted balance? Where we can no longer countenance the downturn, in our insatiable and utterly unrealistic drive for “material growth”. Where the darkness of the via negativa is eclipsed by an eternal daytime, and we become less and less able to countenance death in any form.
What if the immediacy of microblogging was in fact enhancing its opposite, increased mediacy: an experience thoroughly mediated by machines and machine methodology? What if our virtualised social network was becoming a barrier between us and a true incarnate community? What if our increased technical bandwidth was in fact throttling our very humanness? Is the matrix, that ubiquitous, virtualised reality, even visible to us any longer?
The filmmaker Godfrey Reggio warns us of “Technology as the new Terra Firma – (having) replaced the Earth as the comprehensive host of our life”. McLuhan would have concurred: “Technology is that which separates us from our environment.” This is a frightening prospect, for our environment is our Source … unless, of course, you hold to the dualistic belief in the innate fallenness and disposability of “the world”, and the transcendent perfection of its opposite.
While I am grateful many aspects of our civilisation, I ultimately believe that if we do not have a fundamental change of heart, thought and awareness, we will be comprehensively overrun by the tools of this civilisation. There is a war on, and it is a war for the soul of the human, and for the message of Incarnated Truth that is at the heart of God’s Story.