Getting over Facebook // Getting over Myself

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After 10+ years, I decided to get off of Facebook.   I’ve walked right up to the edge of quitting on a number of occasions, but always ran back, rationalizing any number of reasons for staying.  (i.e. It is a great way for my family in Canada to keep up with my life in Austin.  It is a great way for me to keep up with my families’ lives in Canada.  It is a great way to network and build up an audience for writing.  It is a great way to streamline my news and keep up to date with current events…etc…etc…)

These are legitimate reasons to remain using Facebook.  But still, I decided to jump.  Actually, I felt encouraged to jump by a number of people.  One of these people is Andy Crouch.  (I’ll look at other people in different posts)

Andy Crouch is a public speaker, editor, and insightful cultural critic. During Lent, he cut back on his screen time and wrote a beautiful reflection on this season in an article entitled Small Screens, Big World.    In this reflection Crouch showed me that getting over Facebook requires getting over myself and attaining “a sense of my own smallness.”

Having reduced digital distractions from his life, Crouch took up hobbies with renewed attention.  He read, wrote, and played piano more often.  He developed “an ability to calm the noise enough to read and cry over a story, or to listen with a friend to one short passage of Scripture read over and over, four times with long silences in between.”  In these moments of sustained attention, Crouch noticed that the non-digital or unmediated world did not pay attention to him in the way that his devices did.  “Flattery,” concludes Crouch, is what our devices promise us when we give them our attention, and this is the “deeper danger of our screens.”

Our screens, increasingly, pay a great deal of attention to us. They assure us that someone, or at least something, cares. The mediated world constantly falls over itself to tell us, often in entirely automated ways, that we matter every bit as much as we secretly hope we do. They tell us we are liked, retweeted, favorited—that we are significant, useful, and urgently needed. Every generation of devices gets better at this, becomes less a persnickety, recalcitrant technician (does anyone remember the exacting syntax of command-line interfaces?) and more and more an utterly dedicated, ingratiating concierge for our preferred future.

When we pour attention into our family, career, colleagues, or fitness regimen, we cannot expect a flattering return. Often we are more aware of our shortcomings.  We are reminded of our smallness, and brought to our knees in humility.  It is this smallness that Crouch believes is a necessary prerequisite to true attentiveness.

We all long to be loved, and more often than not we look for love/approval/identity in the wrong places.  We look for them in places where we are flattered, and where our ego is stroked.  It may not be the case for you, but Facebook is one of these places in my life.   It offers the quickest way to get a fix of the approval I know I crave.   Too much of my time is spent flattering myself over who is paying attention to the things I am doing, and honestly, too little of my time is spent humbly thinking of how I can focus my attention on things of greater importance.  My hope is that a greater absence of others’ attention proves to be a similar gift in my life as it was to Crouch during this season, when he concludes that…

…nothing was paying attention to me.

And in the absence of that constant digital flattery, feeling much smaller and less significant, I was more free to pay attention to the world I am called to love.

Please take time to read the entire article.  It is worth your attention.

My Response

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Last week I posted a response to my column from a reader who hoped that I would spend more time providing practical tech-regulations for parents.  Here were my answers to some of the questions raised.

Dear Reader,

Thank you for a thought-provoking response to Tech Lines.  Determining practical regulations that promote the responsible use of our digital technology is undoubtedly a challenge we face as online worlds, social networks, and “smart” gadgets proliferate faster than our ability to calculate their cost.  In this column I have argued that when we cultivate habits around such gadgets, we unconsciously develop a posture (figurative and literal) toward life.  This is not necessarily (or inevitably) a “bad” posture, but it recognizes that our tools do shape us as much as we shape them.

If we need more than an examination of our high-tech hearts, and require regulations to circumscribe our behavior, how or where do I start?  Should I tell  you how much time behind the computer or on the Internet is wise for you?  Will I know if cell phones are a necessity for your children?  If they are, should I tell you what age they will need one?  Or if they should plug into Facebook or Twitter?  You argue that broad principles rather than universal strictures are necessary.  I would agree, and follow up by adding that in order to articulate these broad principles, we must equip ourselves with rhetorical tools that allow us to properly diagnose the culture-shaping technologies of our historical (and digital) moment in time.  

For this task, I want to point you to a book that I highly recommend reading: Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling by Andy Crouch.  In this work, the author offers five questions that allow us to diagnose the impact of technology on culture.  Asking these questions of our digital technologies will allow us to determine where and how practical boundaries might be drawn.

What questions should we ask of our Technology?

culture_makingIn order to diagnose the cultural impact of technology we must first define our terms.  Crouch argues that culture consists, more or less, of “making” things:  Culture is, first of all, the name for our relentless, restless human effort to take the world as it’s given to us and make something else (Crouch, 22).  When we make things, we set in motion a re-negotiation and re-definition of the boundaries of possibility and impossibility:  [Culture] defines the horizons of the possible and the impossible in very concrete, tangible ways.” (Crouch, 34).

For example, the making of a canoe made river transportation and inland trade routes possible.  When we make highways, we do so because we are able to navigate the world through alternative modes of vehicular transportation.  In other words, the highway was possible because motored vehicles were now possibilities.  Additionally, the highway reduced our use of rivers for transport, while opening up new horizons for making an interstate culture that includes fast food restaurants.

Crouch uses these simple stories to show us that the impact of culture-shaping technologies is really a series of ripples moving gradually through society.  To understand this ripple effect, he challenges us to take any technology (call it “X”) and ask it five simple questions.

  1. What does “X” assume about the way the world is?
  2. What does “X” assume about the way the world should be?
  3. What does “X” make possible?
  4. What does “X” make impossible, or at least much more difficult?
  5. What new culture is created in response to “X”?

The beauty of these questions is that they force us to examine the things we “make” as well as the things that “make us” without pigeonholing them into simplistic categories of “good” and “bad.”  You can ask them of a flyswatter or an Xbox 360.

Now, to return to your original question.  If you are hoping to lay down some household regulations for a particular technology that dominates you or your children’s time and attention, why not try to plug it in for “X”?  Remember, these questions apply to anything that we make, or that makes us, including social networking sites such as Facebook.  If you are not sure that your children should be on Facebook?  Let’s see if these questions offer any insights.  (Keep in mind your answers can go much deeper than these)culture_making_globe

1. What does Facebook assume (or say) about the way the world is? 

Possible Answer: Facebook assumes the world is both social and a vast network.  The world is capable of networking through computers or other devices.  The existence of Facebook says the world is a place where constant communication and connection to others is valued.  Perhaps, it assumes that the world is a place where individuals live apart from their traditional communities, and so time can and should be spent uploading and sharing images and videos with one another.  The world is also a place where people want to, and can, share all their experiences, even while they are happening.

2. What does Facebook assume about the way the world should be?

Possible Answer:  Similarly, Facebook assumes the world should be interconnected.  It also assumes that the world should not be concerned with publicly shared privacy.  The world should value the freedom of information.  The world should want to express themselves through images, videos, and status updates.  The world should show affirmation for one another by hitting a “like” button.   It assumes the world should be in constant communication and online during most of their waking hours.

3.  What does Facebook make possible?

Possible Answer:  Facebook makes possible the sharing of images and video with distant family and friends.  Facebook allows me to see pictures of my nephews birthday party in Canada. Facebook makes discussions possible through its many forums.  It also makes it possible to stalk people you met in class.  It makes it possible to gang up with others and destroy a classmate with damaging words.  It makes it possible to spend hours upon hours crafting an online identity.  It is possible to cut, ban, or block friends from your network.

4:  What does Facebook make impossible, or at least much more difficult?

Possible Answer: While you can comment, “poke,” and share supporting words with friends over Facebook, I have never seen someone give or receive a hug through Facebook.  Facebook makes it much more difficult to truly know another human being because it reduces human identity to images and status updates.  Also, guitar is impossible.  I realized that I picked up my guitar and learned quite a bit in one straight hour.  But I haven’t picked it up for a while, even when I know many hours were spent on Facebook.  So extended periods of time on Facebook certainly make it much more difficult to learn instruments, to read books at length, or develop some other hobby.

5:  What new culture is created in response to Facebook?

Possible Answer:  This answer could go on for pages since there are countless cultural artifacts created because of, or in response to, Facebook. The Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California was created.  Facebook helped create a culture where a professional social media coordinator is a job.  It also created a culture where institutions for Facebook addiction are necessary.

Where do we go from here?

Can answering these questions really shape practical regulations, guidelines, and boundaries that promote the responsible use of our digital technology?  I believe they can, particularly when you start to articulate the things you are making “impossible.” When I consider that an hour on Facebook makes an hour of guitar practice, or an hour spent developing an intimate friendship, less likely, it seems a wise course of action to regulate my time, or to set appropriate boundaries for my (future) children, accordingly.

When I began this column with a refusal to present a laundry list of digital “do’s and don’ts,” I did not mean to imply that regulations are not a necessary component of a Christian’s life.  The late professor of philosophy at Calvin College, Dr. Evan Runner, once asked his students to consider if a fish was free to escape the confines of its bowl.  After agreeing the fish was free to do so, they concluded that exercising this freedom would only lead to the fish’s death.  Runner pointed out to his students that just as fish are created to flourish in the confines of water, so too are we created to flourish in the confines of Gods laws.fish-bowls-jumping-from-one-to-another

Such flourishing is evident when we flee fornication, avoid drunkenness, and do not steal (to use your examples).  It is important to remember that we are all capable of these vices on- as well as off-line, so while I maintain that our hearts need careful examination if we wish to be responsible with our digital tools and toys, our freedom to use these devices must be circumscribed by proper boundaries that promote flourishing.