I’m quite grateful for the opportunity to learn from each of these thoughtful responses to my opening essay. Usually when I publish an essay online, I can expect a few Tweets or maybe some brief comments. If I’m lucky, I’ll get some helpful personal emails. But the format of these Theopolis conversations models the kind of deliberate, charitable dialogue that the Internet has the potential to host and yet rarely does in practice.
I suppose, however, that this topic does not provide a particularly difficult test for the Theopolis conversation format. For the most part, all five of us agree that the digital media ecosystem is not generally conducive to hosting constructive conversations and forming healthy communities. This situation, of course, raises particular questions for Christians who are called to love our neighbors and to belong to one another as fellow members of Christ’s body.
Some Christians will rightly look to address this problem on a systemic level. Alastair Roberts helpfully notes that “when thinking about responses to social dysfunctions, we can focus upon the ‘organism’ or upon the ‘environment’ (a distinction drawn from Edwin Friedman).” He recommends giving “more attention to reforming or redesigning our media technologies themselves” rather than only focusing on how we as individuals might better inhabit the broken system or environment within which we find ourselves. This is certainly necessary work, and the essay I referenced by Jon Askonas and Ari Schulman offers one example of such an approach. Another piece with some policy suggestions worth considering is “Democratic Knowledge and the Problem of Faction,” by Danielle Allen and Justin Pottle. Most of us, however, will not have opportunities to significantly improve the broader information ecosystem we inhabit. Nonetheless, we have good and necessary work to do. As Scott Hawley reminds us, drawing on Jacques Ellul, “it’s not our job to fix the world, but to make it tolerable for the communication of the Gospel.”
For those of us who aren’t politicians or software designers, the question seems to be this: how might we redemptively navigate the broken system within which we find ourselves? I’d suggest two necessary features of such efforts: first, we need to recognize the reality of the situation, and second, we need to make do with hope and creativity. This is, in effect, the approach Wendell Berry takes with regard to our broken food system (as I’ve argued at length here and in brief here), and it can be applied to our broken media ecosystem as well.
All five of these essays, in one way or another, seek to articulate particular problems with the digital media ecosystem so that we might better recognize its shortcomings. One of the points I sought to make is that most of these problems are not unprecedented or entirely new. The public sphere has tended to frame our conversations in secular, meta-topical, and market-based terms for centuries now, and social media has amplified problems that have been brewing for quite some time. Even if someone could wave a wand and make Instawitterbook disappear, we wouldn’t have a perfect recipe for healthy communities and robust, productive public conversations.
Nevertheless, there are some new or newly-pressing challenges brought on by the Internet. Michael Sacasas, for instance, recommends Ivan Illich’s efforts to “explore how digital media has already shaped our perception, our experience of place and time, and our understanding of community.” Along these lines, I’m reminded of Ursula Franklin’s incisive observations regarding how the tools we use shape our approach to the task at hand:
We have to remember that every tool shapes the task. When you get a new tool, it affects your task. It might be a trivial tool in the kitchen; if someone gives you one of those machines that slice and dice, you suddenly find yourself slicing and dicing instead of using your old recipes. Does anyone here know what an electronic microscope does to a research group? Suddenly everything has to be observed at two thousand magnifications because you now have this expensive beast.
Be mindful of how tools shape your tasks. You will only find out when you learn about the tool. Learn about the Internet, but keep your head clear and refer back to your goals. What, in the best of all worlds, do you want to do? Do any of the applications of your new electronic microscope bring you closer to your goal? When do you need to go back to traditional tools: talking to people face to face, meeting with groups, organizing a potluck? Can you recognize the moment when the intangibles of the potluck far outweigh the elegance of an electronic message? Because in the end, what we are all concerned about is people.
Franklin’s advice reminds us that we need to keep our goal or telos in mind as we decide which tools we will use and how we will use them. There are no neutral tools. If, in the end, our goal is to love God and love our neighbors, we may have to do much of the work of this love with different tools than those that currently dominate the Internet. And when we do pick up these tools, we may have to try to use them against their affordances. If it does nothing else, this Theopolis conversation should prompt us to reflect on the ways that the digital tools we rely on for staying informed, carrying on a public conversation, and forming discourse communities inevitably shape these tasks.
Such reflection can also enable us to use some of these tools against the grain of their affordances. Michel de Certeau writes about the “diversionary practice[s]” or “tactics” by which individuals caught in inhumane systems can “make do” in their pursuit of more humane ends. In this context, we can imagine ways of repurposing digital tools to form more healthy communities along the margins of the commodified and noisy public sphere. In thinking about how even Twitter might be used in this way, I’ve been inspired by the tagline of the early blog the New Pantegruel: “singing hymns in the whorehouse.”
This is of course a rather risky endeavor. It will require, among other things, that we take ourselves lightly and cultivate a sense of humor. As Steve Jeffery acknowledges, “The irony of the present situation is of course pretty clear, since anything published on the Theopolis blog will likely be shared on social media within minutes. In a paradoxical twist, then, one implication of my argument is that the following paragraphs should never have been written. In my defense, I tried to resist, but the flesh is weak, and Dr Leithart twisted my arm.” Irony and good humor form the disposition necessary to navigate the inhumane system with which we are saddled. As Chesterton quips, “if you do not have mirth you will certainly have madness.” In recollecting the early days of the Front Porch Republic website, my friend Jason Peters describes the requisite posture when entering the world of online discourse: “They knew they were supping with the devil; they knew to take up long spoons. To fend off the charge of hypocrisy they put on the armor of irony.”
This sense of irony can inspire us to find creative uses for even inhospitable tools. In general, we can seek out the tools that might help us think together rather than merely publish or broadcast our individual thoughts and feelings. Alan Jacobs cites a lecture given by Mike Caulfield in which he distinguishes between tools “to think with” and tools “to publish with.” While tools for publishing are more easily monatized and have come to dominate the digital public sphere, there are other options. An email correspondence with a friend, a private Facebook group, a discussion board thread, or even an edited exchange published on a website like Theopolis are all more conducive to thinking with and learning from others than are open platforms like Twitter or Facebook that prioritize frictionless publishing. Steve Jeffery recommends some of these forms as well and also points to longform podcasts as another example of a technology that can model and invite thoughtful conversation.
The state of our digital public sphere is indeed cause for concern. But that does not mean our situation is hopeless. As long as we can clearly see its dangers and imagine ways to make do—with humor and creativity—there remain grounds for hope.
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