(Face)Book Challenge

There is a chain-letter-esque “book challenge” going around on Facebook, and since I haven’t posted in a long while, I thought I would register my protest of chain letters here. Ten books that have “stayed with you in some way,” complete with brief commentary.

  1. Book of Sorrows – Walter Wangerin, Jr. Incredibly emotional, potent, allegorical, moving; a work of art. The sequel to the almost equally powerful Book of the Dun Cow.
  2. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley. Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 were thisclose to bumping Huxley out, but I went with Huxley since he was the most accurate, prophetically speaking (see: Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death).
  3. Brothers Karamazov – Fyodor Dostoevsky. You haven’t lived until you’ve read Russian fiction. Or something like that. Dostoevsky’s insights into human nature are beyond profound.
  4. Great Divorce – C.S. Lewis. Short parable on the afterlife; very influential for me.
  5. Heidelberg Catechism – Ursinus, et al. Beautiful, concise, and intimately personal, especially compared with the precise and verbose Westminster catechisms.
  6. Love in the Ruins – Walker Percy. What does it say about me that my favorite author is a Southern Catholic existentialist? This was my first, and is still my favorite, Percy work.
  7. Reforming Marriage – Doug Wilson. Great insights on a biblical view on marriage. Concepts and ideas, if not specifics, have shaped and continue to inform our marriage.
  8. Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection – Robert Farrar Capon. I’d love to be able to think and write like Capon. His artistic writings on hospitality, food, and life are invaluable.
  9. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology – Neil Postman. Postman has had a profound influence on my life and thought, though probably not as much lately. Time to read more Postman!
  10. Through New Eyes: Developing a Biblical View of the World – James Jordan. I don’t remember too many specifics about this one, but the biblical typologies were mind blowing and definitely changed the way I read scripture.

Fiddling and Laughing

I don’t have a strong opinion on gun control, and won’t give one in the spirit of Neil Postman. But I do have a strong opinion on abortion. Some random thoughts I’ve had lately:

  • Christians on both sides of the political aisle are fired up about gun control. Some don’t want our guns taken from us. Others want to make it harder to obtain a gun. If we, as believers in the image of God, are concerned about life, shouldn’t we be able to come to an agreement?
  • Thanks to living in Lancaster County, I’ve learned that “assault rifle” isn’t actually as James Bond-ish of a weapon as it sounds.
  • Isn’t a founding principle of the Republican Party to protect life? Isn’t a founding principle of the Democratic Party to look after the least of these?
  • While both parties fiddle, we’re approaching the 56,000,000 (56 million) mark in children “legally” slaughtered in this country.
  • In the time it took someone to enter a school and kill 20 children in Connecticut, 90 children in utero were murdered. And gun control is the issue conservatives are viewing as the last straw? It’s like they are saying, “You can take our children, but don’t take our guns.”
  • Well, the last straw also includes a media-driven, alarmist, artificial, political chess match “crisis” called the fiscal cliff.
  • Until we turn off the news and stop supporting their bloodthirsty, alarmist “coverage,” we and the media will continue to give school shooters the outlet they lust after: recognition and vilification. In other words, school shooters won’t stop because of increased gun regulations. 
  • Just like in the wildly successful and efficient disaster naively called the War on Drugs, evil people will still find ways to get their hands on guns no matter how illegal they are. This, tragically, probably also applies to abortions, too.
  • Does anyone else see the inconsistent, self-serving “logic” used by the Vice President? In between laughs, during the vice presidential debate Biden waxed long about how he agrees with the Catholic Church on their stance on abortion, but that he doesn’t want to push his beliefs on others. But recently he jumped at the chance to head a gun control committee to push his beliefs on others through executive order? Come on, Joe.
“They were laughing instead of thinking, but they did not know what they were laughing about.”
-Aldous Huxley in Brave New World
“He was trying to tell us that what afflicted the people in Brave New World was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking.”
-Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death


Sunday Citation

“When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.” – Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death

“No people can be both ignorant and free.” – Thomas Jefferson

-Quotations from Morris Berman’s The Twilight of American Culture (2000)

Informing Ourselves to Death

This sporadically-regular feature is renamed in honor of Neil Postman’s speech by the same name delivered on October 11, 1990 in Stuttgart, Germany. You can read the text of this excellent speech here. Without further ado, here are some headlines from the Internets that aren’t worth your time (listed headlines are from the homepages; actual headlines on story pages might differ).

Bad news for Palin in poll (CNN)
Boys who took on pit bull called heroes (CNN)
Crash director splits with scientology (MSNBC)
Colorado workers to take more furloughs (MSNBC)
Off the curb and into the gutter? (Lead story on Fox News)
Report: Pirates threaten to burn bones of couple (Fox; also in bold-face; does including “Report:” make it more legitimate?)
Cats take over house (Drudge)

Is Google Making Us Stoopid?

To piggyback on my introductions to media ecology, a stimulating question to me is how the dominance the Internet (especially Google) has affected us. Media ecologists have been discussing this issue for several years, and the conversation may be taking on a renewed sense of urgency as Google has started to grow in several other areas (browsers, email, etc.). Besides the fact that they will eventually take over the world, how does the medium of the Internet, and Google, shape us?

Though Neil Postman advised strongly that we need to divest ourselves in our belief in the magical power of numbers and statistics, media ecologists do at times grudgingly do empirical research. Many have argued that the Internet (and Google) are making us dumber. Mark Bauerlein, in The Dumbest Generation, writes that in the four minutes it will take you to read this blog post, you will have been reading for half the time that the average 15- to 24-year-old spends reading each day. But you may not even read this whole post – after all, who has time? You probably have better things to check, like your friends’ Facebook statuses or Tweets.

Why, you may be asking, is something like the Internet, with its vast amounts of knowledge (Wikipedia!) making us dumber? Well, for one thing, younger people – and increasingly the older generations as well – primarily use the Internet to check up on one another and follow pop culture. Facebook is by far the most popular site on the Internet, and Twitter is the fastest-growing site.

Digital socializing is taking over lives, making people live more fragmented, less meaningful and less intentional, and more ignorant lives. The Internet, and specifically Google, promotes a type of fast-food “learning” that is fast, free, and convenient. “People seek out what they already hope to find, and they want it fast and free, with a minimum of effort,” Bauerlein writes. With the Internet, people do not have to continue to read/watch/listen to something that bores or challenges them, which “habituates them to juvenile mental habits.”

This leads to poor spelling and grammar, stunningly increased narcissism, civic illiteracy, lessened attention spans, huge amounts of wasted time, and a confusing of the trivial with the meaningful – not to mention the transcendent. A sort of addiction to technology is also the result, with our insatiable appetite for newer, faster, smaller, more powerful technology. As this year’s must-have technologies age, in a few years we have to have the latest and greatest gadget. Facebook’s day will end. So too will the iPhone’s. The only question is when, and what will replace them.

The source of the problem isn’t completely with the medium of the Internet. Used well, Google and the Internet can be a valuable source of research, learning, and connecting. People must be taught to use it to their best advantage. Much of the problem lies with the Internet’s users, their parents, educational systems, political leaders, and religious organizations.

Introduction to Media Ecology, Part III

In the first part of this series, I discussed what media ecology is, and in the second part, I covered major media shifts and what effects they had on humanity. In this part, I hope to examine some ways media shape us.

There are five senses with which we interact with the world around us: tasting, touching, smelling, hearing, and seeing. There are also the properties of the mind that help us to interact with our environments: rationality and imagination. The mind, together with the five senses make up the “sensoria,” and are the seven ways by which we experience and process the world. The word “sensibility” then refers to the cultivation of the sensoria, which can be a deliberate cultivation or unintentional cultivation. Since sensoria adjust to whatever they are exposed to, “each exposure makes the sensoria more apt at experiencing that reality” (Gordon lecture, 2007). It is also important to stress that exposures to the sensoria are not neutral. Gordon explains that “every perceptive act cultivates the sensoria one way or another.”

An example of this is how a child comes to learn the language of their home. Children are not born speaking a language, nor are children in different countries born with differing ears, tongues, and eyes. But a child who grows up in a French speaking home will learn to speak French merely by being exposed to the French language while an American child will learn to speak English by being exposed to English. The more the child is exposed to the one language, the more their minds can understand the language.

To use another analogy, Gordon likes to explain that our sensoria are like a baseball glove fresh from the store. The glove does not function well automatically and must be broken in. The more one pounds a baseball into the glove (and conditions it, sticks it under one’s bed while sleeping, bakes it in the oven, etc.), the more it conforms to the baseball and becomes good at catching the baseball. A glove conditioned to catch a baseball will not catch a softball very well, and vice versa. So with our sensoria and what we are exposed to.

The more we are exposed to the trivialities of electronic media, for example, the more we will be receptive to them and not receptive towards other media. The more TV news we watch with their mile-a-minute ads and contextless reporting, the smaller our attention spans will get and the harder it is to interact meaningfully with a book, for one. The less we use physical Bibles in corporate worship, the more biblically illiterate we will become. The more we are exposed to certain things, the more we notice and perceive them, and conversely, the less we are exposed to other sensory acts, the less our minds can perceive and understand them. Therefore, “what we perceive in the future is based upon what we have perceived in the past.”

Living in the electronic age, then, we are behind the proverbial eight ball in developing our sensoria. Because we are immersed in a world dominated by electronic media (which I explained in the second part as ephemeral, space-biased, trivial, and will I add here increasingly narcissistic), we must be even more self-conscious of exposing and developing our sensoria to meaningful media. Otherwise, man as made in the image of God would be lost in the triviality. By conforming to electronic media culture is one way we have eyes but do not see and ears but do not hear (Psalm 115, Matthew 13, etc.).

If this is the case, a main question that proceeds from this is, What can we do about it? What can we do to cultivate our sensoria to honor God better? Since electronic media promote the transitory, the fleeting, and the trivial, one way we can cultivate our sensoria away from such things is to limit our exposure to them and turn to God’s Word, which will stand forever (Isaiah 40:8). We should challenge ourselves to grow in areas like knowledge of God and His Word, appreciation for beauty in art and music, and more effective and intentional human interaction.

Neil Postman, in his conclusion to Technopoly, suggests that we should become “loving freedom fighters.” We need to reclaim a sense of the significant in every area of our lives, including entertainment, the arts, our churches, politics, and education. It must be taught that not all worthwhile things are instantly accessible or easily understandable but that there are levels of sensibility that must be explored.

One way this educational growth can take place is by asking questions. Remember that media and sensory experiences are not neutral, but sway us in one way or another. Ask yourself what negative things will happen to your mind and senses if all you are exposed to are television sitcoms, video/computer games, gangster rap lyrics, or inane Christian radio. Also, ask yourself what positive things will happen to your mind and senses if you are exposed to reading original texts of seminal authors, singing the Psalms in corporate worship, or learning how to appreciate a good wine. The lists can go on and on. Discernment and conscientiousness are key. Gratitude and glory to God for His good gifts and graces along with personal growth are the goals.

[many thanks to Dr. Gordon’s media ecology course and some of his other lectures for help with this series]

Introduction to Media Ecology, Part I

Media Ecology is a relatively new field in academia, with Neil Postman establishing the first Media Ecology department at New York University in 1971. I wanted to give a brief introduction to the field of media ecology here. Who knows, I may teach an intro course in media ecology sometime in the future.

Media ecology fraternizes with media theory, linguistics, rhetoric, communication studies, philosophy, sociology, psychology, cultural anthropology, orality/literacy studies, history, semiotics, (post)modernity, humanities, English, globalization, religion, and many other fields. Because media ecology overlaps with so many other fields, some definitions are needed.

First, what is a medium (singular for media, for those of you scoring at home)? I’m not using it here like the popular meaning of the word which refers to the news media. Marshal McLuhan defined a medium as “an extension of man” (in Understanding Media). A medium, then is something that mediates between two things. We observe and interact with the world around us largely through media. Media can be thought of also as technologies, or tools. A pen, a laptop, the spoken voice, stone tablets, or a car can all be thought of as media.

Next, ecology refers to environment. In this context, the main question at hand is how media shifts affect human environments or cultures. Environmental changes are never merely additive. When you introduce something into an environment, it is not the same environment plus the new addition – it is a different environment altogether. When the printing press was invented, it changed the world forever. An example of this, which I examined in a graduate paper, is how the printing press helped to bring about the Protestant Reformation. Other cursory examples include how the introduction of papyrus changed oral cultures or how the use of PowerPoint brings about ecological change in a church.

You may have heard the phrase “the medium is the message,” a phrase invented by McLuhan. What it means is that a medium transcends the content being transmitted and transforms our understanding of our environment and ourselves. More specifically, a medium is a powerful stimulant for change on individual and cultural levels: “The total effect of the introduction of a new technology is greater than any specific content, and is therefore the true message of that technological innovation” (McLuhan). As an aside, this is why the argument for relevance at church is silly. Some say that the gospel message stays the same, but it has to be mediated differently. But when the God-ordained medium of preaching is substituted for other media like a video presentation, inspirational chat, or emergent-esque conversation, the message is affected. *Aside complete.*

Postman, in Technopoly, expands on McLuhan by claiming that every technology, medium, or tool has embedded in it an “ideological bias, a predisposition to construct the world as one thing rather than another, to value one thing over another, to amplify one sense or skill or attitude more loudly than another.” Media are not neutral. We may shape our media, but our media in turn shapes us. To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.To paraphrase Postman: To a man with a pencil, everything looks like a list. To a man with a camera, everything looks like an image. To a man with a computer, everything looks like data. To a man with a grade sheet, everything looks like a number. To a man with a blog, everything looks like a blog post.

Media ecology, then, examines what roles media force us to play, how they structure what we process through our senses, and why media provoke certain feelings and actions. Media ecology is the study of media as environments. In Part II, I’ll discuss the main technological eras that media ecology recognizes as well as how media shape us and our senses.

For further study, check out some prominent media ecology scholars (regardless of whether they studied before or after the discipline was founded) like Postman, McLuhan, Walter Ong, Harold Innis, Jacques Ellul, and others. There is also a Media Ecology Association, which provides a recommended reading list.