Getting over Facebook // Getting over Myself

delete fb

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.

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Infobesity in America

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”
– Mary Oliver

infobesity

Gavan J. Fitzsimons studies consumer psychology at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business.  Each year he invites students to dinner and dessert on the condition that they select their dessert a month in advance.  To do so, he provides them with a menu that has two options: a 1500 calorie Chocolate Sundae and a 500 calorie Lemon Sorbet.  The calorie count is printed on the menu. As you might imagine, nearly every student chooses the healthier sorbet.

On the day of the dinner, Fitzsimons tells his guests that he misplaced their selections and he requests that they choose again from the same menu.  What he notices each year is an interesting phenomenon:  nearly everyone reverses their original decision and goes for the high-calorie Sundae.  The dinner party is Fitzsimons’ way of showing students a disconnect in human decision making, where the choices we make at any given moment often appear to contradict the choices we know to be good for our future health and well-being.  The economist Thomas C. Schelling describes this phenomenon in his book “Choice and Consequence”:

“People behave sometimes as if they had two selves, one who wants clean lungs and long life and another who adores tobacco, or one who wants a lean body and another who wants dessert.  The two are in continual contest for control.”

One reason for this disconnect, according to Fitzsimons, is that the moment you are making a choice from a menu, the mere presence of a healthy option may be enough to convince you that your goal to eat ‘healthy’ has been fulfilled -even if vicariously- and that you are now free to order whatever you want.  He calls this “vicarious goal fulfillment.”  It explains not only why the students choose high calorie dessert, but in many of Fitzsimons’s studies, why the presence of healthy options on menus actually produces more unhealthy eating.

Fitzsimmons:

“What we find is that almost nobody picks the side-salad, but the presence of the salad on the menu, outside of people’s conscious awareness, fulfills peoples’ ‘eat healthy’ goal.  The presence of the healthy option ironically gets people to choose the option that is worst for them.”

Another reason for this disconnect in our decision making is the subconscious role of the environment in which we are making choices.  The majority of people going out to eat are not thinking about rationing their portions or watching their calories.  Fast food in particular is served in buildings that are as greasy as the food.  This environment encourages indulgence – the opposite of calorie-counting!  As one food consultant stated:

“What we’re learning from what’s happening in the industry is, consumers don’t see fast food as a place to eat healthy.  It’s indulgence that’s important.”

Basically, consumer behavior – the moment to moment decision making behavior – is shaped less by deliberative reasoning and more by non-conscious desire.  We do not eat unhealthy food because we are uninformed about the calorie count.  We do not eat unhealthy food because we lack healthy alternatives.  Rather, we eat unhealthy food because it tastes really good, even when we know it is not good for us.  Our desire trumps our reason in moment to moment life.  And, somewhat ironically, we in turn rationalize those desires in order to justify our actions to others and to ourselves.

These studies on human choice touch on the language of addiction.  Pascal Emmanuel Gobry, writing at The Week, elaborates on the manifestation of addiction through reason:

One of the ways that addiction manifests itself is by unleashing seemingly infinite powers of rationalization. In addition to the physical destruction addition may cause, this is another reason we should all fight addiction: It is ultimately a form of lying, to others and to oneself, and as such it enslaves us….

That’s the thing about addiction. You can say all you want, you can think whatever you want, but at the end of the day, you have to pick a winner: you, or the thing you’re addicted to.

Gobry believes addiction might provide the lens through which we examine some of the decisions we make in our digital world, particularly the obsessive compulsive checking of our devices.  He asks that we all turn the notifications off on our phones because:

Unless you are part of a very, very small percentage of the human population, none of the stuff that’s on your phone is actually important. You are simply the victim of a survival-of-the-fittest contest between gadget and app makers, who have become enormously skilled at making us addicted to their products.

He has a point.  No one (apart from surgeons, and maybe the President of the United States) needs to be checking their phones as often as they do.  I certainly do not need to look at my email every hour.  I teach fourth grade!   But I am sure I check it more than five times each hour.  I certainly do not need to check Facebook when I am in a group of friends.  But I do.  I am one of the people Gobry talks about, addicted to looking at my phone:

I see you, at bars, at parties, with your family, surreptitiously checking your phone. It’s just a few seconds, you rationalize. It’s not hurting anyone. But maybe it is.

Maybe Gobry and Fitzsimon are touching on the same truth in different ways.  Maybe the Internet is really just an endless menu presented before us each moment we are online.  There are any number of things we can be watching, reading or playing on the Internet.  These things can be healthy or unhealthy.  If it is a menu, we need to be aware of how our decisions are affected by vicarious goal fulfillment.  For instance, sometimes the good things I want to watch are put farther and farther down the Netflix queue so that I can watch mindless shows or movies.  Sometimes, I find myself scrolling over BBC news of ISIS  – goal of reading in-depth geo-political news fulfilled –  only to stop and spend five minutes looking at pictures of Justin Bieber crashing a high school prom in LA.

Or maybe the Internet is not the menu, but the entire fast food restaurant.  In this case, it is no longer a place you go to for nourishment.  Here your decisions are guided by the indulgence you associate with the environment.   Some call this “infobesity.”  I see this played out as well in my own decisions to binge entire series on Netflix or mindlessly peruse Facebook and Instagram feeds with no other purpose than seeing pictures with an appetite that cannot be satiated.

In both of these scenarios, we are no longer allowing ourselves to think reasonably outside of our moment-to-moment existence.  Perhaps we need to be like those students choosing a dessert a month in advance, and ask ourselves some questions more difficult than how many calories we hope to consume.   If I were to pose some hard questions to myself it might look something like this:

  • In a month from now how many minutes would I consider to be reasonable for checking mail or social media?
  • In a month from now how many hours of watching movies and shows on Netflix would I consider to be reasonable?
  • In a month from now how many minutes would I want to devote to learning a new skill or meeting a new person?

You can ask yourself more questions, but why not stop first and think of what answers you would give to these three using the previous month’s decisions.

Please do not think that I say these things to shame or embarrass you because like Paul, I would be the first to admit that “I am the chief of sinners” with poor decision making online.  Actually Paul understood this disconnect in his own actions, writing to the Romans:

For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.

For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. (excerpt from Romans 7, ESV)

The truth is we all struggle with doing reasonable things for our own betterment and we all rationalize why we cannot commit to doing those things.  It might not be difficult for you to eat healthy food.  The difficulty for you might be to focus and read those texts that are collecting dust on your bookshelf.  The difficulty for you might be to devote the time learning how to play that instrument you always wanted to.  Or that difficulty might be trying to establish a stronger relationship with a friend or co-worker.

The point that Fitzsimons and Gobry make clear is that we cannot reason ourselves out of these difficulties because it is our desire that takes the wheel in moments of difficulty.  When confronted with dessert in three minutes, desire overrides our reason and tells us that an extra 1000 calories won’t hurt.  In an awkward or new social setting desire overrides our reason and tells us that staring a phone is perfectly normal.  After a long day of work, desire overrides reason and tells us that binging on junk food and Netflix will have no negative consequences.  If we do not begin the work of re-shaping, or re-imagining, our desires so that they hunger for the true, good, and beautiful, those mis-guided desires will shape us, and enslave us.  They will define our “one wild, and precious life.”

 So tell me, what is it you plan to do?

Are you Raising the Next Truman?

Truman Burbank:  Was anything real?

Christof: You were real.  That’s what made you so good to watch.

from The Truman Show  (1998)

truman show

Do you remember The Truman Show?

If you are not familiar with this 90’s cinematic gem, here is a quick recap.  An insurance salesman named Truman Burbank (played by Jim Carrey), lives in a town called Seahaven where the gardens and homes are manicured as carefully as their owners.  Truman’s life is ordinary; it is marked by set routines.  He takes few risks (he is an insurance salesman, after all) and asks fewer questions. This all changes when he begins to notice some cracks in reality.  Literally.

One day, what appears to be a studio light, falls from the sky.  On the car radio he hears the DJ’s describing his route to work.  At work, an elevator door opens up to reveal a hidden room full of men drinking coffee and eating donuts.  Questions mount as he notices more of these irregularities in his perfect world.

For instance, how do complete strangers know him by name? And why does his wife seem to be looking into a camera when she offers him a drink, and state, through a forced smile:

Why don’t you let me fix you some of this new Mococoa drink?  All natural cocoa beans from the upper slopes of Mt. Nicaragua. No artificial sweeteners.

Truman snaps, responding to her as any of us would:

What the hell are you talkin’ about? Who are you talkin’ to?

Finally, he gets his answers.  And an existential crisis.

*Spoilers ahead*

It turns out that Truman’s wife is not really his wife.  She is an actress.  And she is looking into a camera because there are thousands of them hidden throughout Seahaven, which is not really a town.  It is a television set, built in an arcological dome, for an experimental “reality” show, The Truman Show.

The show is the brainchild of Christof (played by Ed Harris), a CEO whose corporation adopted Truman and recorded his every waking moment for a global audience.  The show has been on the air 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 30 years.  Since there are no pauses for commercial breaks, corporate sponsors place their products, like Mococoa, strategically into the show.

After Truman learns the truth, he evades the cameras, escapes Seahaven, and despite Christof’s best efforts to stop him, manages to arrive at the edge of his artificial world.  Before leaving this world, Truman looks up and asks Christof, “Was anything real?

Christof, realizing he has lost Truman, responds  “You were.  That’s what made you so good to watch.

When I first watched The Truman Show in the eighth grade, I became convinced that I, too, was the unwitting star in someone’s reality show.  I kept my eyes open for any abnormalities in the set world around me.  It took over a decade of observance, but I believe I noticed a glitch last year.  It was at my wife’s ten year high school reunion.  Hesitant even to go and be the outsider in a bar filled with inside-stories, I arrived only to be surprised at how many people approached me with familiarity.  “Hey Dave! So good to finally meet you in person!

It was as if these people had known me for years, greeting me by name, and jumping right into conversations about things I was reading or doing at work.   Before I had a chance to comb the room for hidden cameras, they explained how they had been tracking my wife and I on Facebook and Instagram for the last few years.  Her connections were, by extension, my connections.  Pictures, articles, videos and the private details of my life I chose to share publicly on Facebook were available to an audience larger than I imagined.

In some sense, this audience tunes into The Sikkema Show every time they open up my Facebook page or Instagram account.  Like The Truman Show, it is a channel that is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Come to think of it, it also involves irritating product placements.  The reality in which I exist on these particular channels is, in part, crafted by Mark Zuckerberg’s corporation.

I say “in part” because I am not as involuntary a star in Zuckerberg’s world, as Truman is in Christof’s.  It is my choice to share things about myself with others on the Internet.  Because I am conscious of the cameras on me, or because I am consciously putting the camera on myself, I am complicit in the show and retain the freedom to turn off the camera, exit the show, and delete my accounts, whenever I want.

But if Facebook and Instagram accounts can be re-imagined as a series of individual reality shows, perhaps we need to ask ourselves another question:  Are there channels where the cast members are unaware of the fact that their life is on display in an artificial environment to an unknown audience?

Over at Slate, Amy Webb argues that the answer to this question is a resounding yes.  Where you’ll find these inadvertent stars is on social media channels of adoring parents who inundate the Internet with baby photos and videos.  The real Truman Burbanks, in other words, are children.

Before I continue, I realize what I am about to say may be confrontational to readers. Most of my family and friends are parents who post pictures of their children on Facebook and Instagram.  A few years ago I joked with a friend that Facebook growth in the next decade will be less a phenomenon than it will a Phe-mom-enon, given the exponential growth of this demographic. While my wife and I do not have children, I am sure that when we do I will want to be right in the mix, sharing images of Dave Jr. dressed up like Tarzan, or whatever is trending at the moment.

And so I agree with Webb that such parents do not have evil intentions when they are documenting the lives of their children.  They are merely capturing everyday moments, “because early childhood is so ephemeral.”   The joy of these parents is real, and the lives of their children are real.  As Christof understood, “That’s what makes it so good to watch.”  But just because one’s intentions are not evil, does not mean they are immune from criticism.

A primary concern we should have of placing photos of children online is that we are willfully handing over their privacy to corporate entities.  Truman, at least, was adopted by big business.  This data is fun for friends and family to view, but know that it is being retained in servers and aggregated to turn a profit.  Facial recognition software allows companies to keep a permanent record of your children, and their habits of consumption.

Webb points out that Facebook’s privacy policy indicates their interest in “merging the digital and real worlds” of your children, with each uploaded photo.  The policy states, in part,

“We are able to suggest that your friend tag you in a picture by scanning and comparing your friend’s pictures to information we’ve put together from your profile pictures and the other photos in which you’ve been tagged.”

The point?

Algorithms will analyze the people around [the children], the references made to  them in posts, and overtime will determine [their] inner circle.

Children are unaware that their identity is being formed in their early years.  But there will be a moment in the maturation process where they become, like Truman, fully aware that there were other entities at work in the crafting of their world.  Consider your future-daughter, Webb writes, who will one day discover the trove of “embarrassing, searchable photos freely available to her prospective homecoming dates.”  Or, Webb wonders, will “negative parenting experiences” shared online “affect her ability to get into a good college?

Webb’s answer to this is to stop posting.

The easiest way to opt-out is to not create that digital content in the first place, especially for kids. [A child’s] parents haven’t just uploaded one or two photos of her: They’ve created a trove of data that will enable algorithms to learn about her over time. Any hopes [this child] may have had for true anonymity ended with that ballet class YouTube channel.

Truman is the only one in his world unaware that his life is on display. His entire reality has been fabricated by a corporation.  This is not the only scandal of the film.  There is the added fact that thousands of actors and millions of viewers are complicit in the lie that is Truman’s life.  When I sift through the countless baby photos online I feel complicit in a similar spectacle.  I wonder what their reaction is going to be when they learn how many people have been watching them?

Will they be like Truman, who hides from the cameras and tries to escape?  Perhaps the popularity of apps like Snapchat that promise to erase their digital identity, or apps like Unseen that promise anonymity, speaks to the fact that they are already attempting escape.

Snapchat Society

*This is an article I wrote a while ago for Christian Renewal.

SnapChat-App-1024x416

SnapChat is a relatively new software application (app) for smartphones that allows people to send and receive photos and text messages.  Unlike other applications with a similar function, Snapchat erases the communication between two people after ten seconds or less.

While many pictures and texts are innocent, there are a large number of obscene pictures being shared between individuals with a newfound confidence that their digital fingerprints are being wiped clean by Snapchat and for this reason, it has been dubbed the “sexting app.”   This will undoubtedly be an area of concern for parents wishing to keep tabs on their children’s online habits.   It is important to situate Snapchat within the context of an app-crazy culture, before fully weighing in on its place in our culture.

Shiny “App-y” People

app_2There was a time, not too long ago, when buying apps meant ordering over-priced finger foods before the entrée.  Today, however, app is understood as a software “application” downloaded to a mobile device that performs various functions.  For example, there are apps for productivity, navigation, entertainment, sports, news, or shopping.  The market is certainly booming  flooded with over 800, 000 apps available in Apple and Google’s online stores alone.

app_1

Yet, the appeal of most apps is fleeting.  For every game you download, there is a new, more entertaining alternative released weeks later.  A recent study indicates that over 80 percent of apps are deleted within three days of being downloaded.  This revolving door of popularity indicates that we should pause to consider any app that manages to sustain the attention of millions for an extended period of time, and ask ourselves, why?

Why Snapchat?  Facebook < Instagram < Snapchat

So why Snapchat?  Are there not already photo-sharing and texting apps available?  Certainly.  Snapchat is not emerging out of a vacuum, but is, arguably, the next step in the evolution of similar apps that are all competing for our attention.

For instance, the most popular app in photo sharing and editing is Instagram.  This free application allows users to digitally enhance smartphone photos before sharing them with others in their social network.  In three years it amassed 90 million monthly active users, who share 40 million photos every day.  Facebook bought the service in 2012, presumably to ensure that these photos would be shared on its social networking platform, and no doubt, contribute data to its expanding digital repository.

facebook-buys-instagram-for-1-billion-94e65c23fb

Interestingly, this buy out was met with a backlash from Instagram users.  First, many were concerned that their photos, now the property of Facebook, could be subject to Facebook’s ever-changing privacy settings.  (Remember in a past column I mentioned that Facebook, in order to be profitable, must share user generated data with corporations.)  Second, Instagram users loved that their photos were not a part of this corporate mainstream.  Essentially, Facebook, which once “wanted revolution,” is “now the institution” (to steal the lyrics from a great Ben Folds song).

And teenagers, no different in any generation, are resisting the Digital Establishment.  In a report to investors in February, a Facebook representative stated: “We believe that some of our users, particularly our younger users, are aware of and actively engaging with other products and services similar to, or as a substitute for, Facebook.”  Perhaps they are resisting Facebook because it is an establishment that uses our digital fingerprints to generate a large profit.

But more likely, they are resisting Facebook because it is a space where existence requires a lot of work.  For teens (and others), creating and managing an online identity is time consuming, but a necessary component of participation with the social network, given the reality that pictures on the Internet are permanently in circulation.  Teens do not enjoy the surveillance of their parents, and with their parents increasingly on Facebook, connected to their stream of Instagram photos, they are starting to put two and two together.  Enter Snapchat.

Pros of a Snapchat Society

Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy started Snapchat as Standford University students.  Despite reservations from friends about a service that offered to erase photographs and text messages within 10 seconds of posting, the two launched the app in September of 2011.  Now over 150 million photos are taken, shared, and erased on a daily basis.  The majority of Snapchat users are individuals between 13 and 25 years of age.  According to their website, there are a few rules to Snapchat.

  1. Snapchat is not for children under 13.  Children under 13 are prohibited from using Snapchat, but parents should know that Snapchat does not ask for age during signup.  Rather, the onus is on parents and others to report on underage users.
  2. To send a message to someone on Snapchat you need to know their user name and add them to a “My Friends” list.
  3. If someone knows your username or phone number they can send a Snapchat to you, but you can adjust your privacy settings to ensure that messages come only from the “My Friends” list.
  4. You are able to block users in the “My Friends” list.
  5. You can determine if your message will be erased anywhere from 1 to 10 seconds after being opened by the recipient.

Additionally, Spiegel and Murphy encourage parents to talk to their children about Snapchat and explain how they offer an alternative experience to Facebook:

On traditional social networks, users tend to feel pressure to curate the perfect representation of their lives for their friends, coworkers, and relatives.  It’s normal to worry about what people in your network might think about the things that you post.  Sometimes this means that we say things that we think people will like, rather than expressing who we really are.  Snapchat creates a place to be funny, honest or however else you might feel when you take and share a snap with family and friends.  It’s sharing that lives in the moment, and stays in the moment.

I appreciate the truth in this statement.  In an age obsessed with the documentation of every passing moment, perhaps this is a breath of fresh air, returning us back to the ephemeral nature of communication.  However, there are a few caveats to consider when talking to your children about Snapchat.

Snapchat Caveat

First, parents should take note that “Nothing ever goes away on the Internet.”   The founders of Snapchat admit this truth and admit that there are loopholes in the software itself.  Although their company cannot store or see user-generated content (i.e. photos), they cannot stop recipients from taking a “screen shot” of any image on their smartphone.  There can be no guarantee a Snapchat image has been erased before being stored on another phone, and subsequently shared elsewhere.

Second, parents will probably understand that the lure of erasing digital fingerprints may embolden children to act in a manner that assumes ramifications will be either non-existent or minimal.  In fact, many do use Snapchat to share sexually explicit images with one another, which has led some critics to dub it the “sexting” app.  Of course, Snapchat does not create “sexters” but it certainly offers a platform of secrecy where our fallen nature can gratify its appetite.

So parents, knowing what Snapchat is and where it is coming from, I encourage you to have an honest discussion with your child about the pros and cons of using such a service, keeping in mind the words of Paul to the Romans.

Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. 14 Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.

Romans 13:13-14

Related Reading:

Why you should delete Snapchat” – Adam McLane

Social Shifting: Why are Students Leaving Facebook” – Christopher Hutton

My Response

answer

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.