Curtailing Facebook

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I recently went through my list of Facebook “friends” and changed about 900 of the 1000 or so into “acquaintances,” which — in theory — will keep all but the most important of their posts or activities from showing up in my news feed. I also went through and “unliked” nearly all of the hundreds of pages/causes that populate my feed with their updates (keeping but a small few that met criteria which I may discuss later).

This is the half-measure that I am going to try out in lieu of abandoning Facebook altogether. I’m not sure if it will work.

Here are some initial thoughts and reactions:

There’s Only So Much of Me to Go Around

The experience of the change immediately reinforced what I had begun to realize about Facebook specifically, as well as my life in general. Simply, I have a very finite amount mental/emotional/spiritual space, and it becomes cluttered more quickly than I ever expect.

Tools like Facebook give us the illusion, since we are able to make and manage more social connections, that our capacity to engage them (i.e., to care about them) has increased. It hasn’t.

Furthermore, we think that we can introduce, through use of tools like Facebook, thousands upon thousands of new connections, new bits of information, new stimuli and, yet, still selectively pay attention to, care about, respond to only those that are important — without any loss or negative impact. (It is not I, but those other fools that are affected by advertising.)

I have been noticing this in a variety of areas of my life, mostly in ways connected with technology. To use Covey’s classic imagery, we readily expand our sphere of concern far beyond our sphere of influence, which then contracts as a result. We are concerned about vastly more and, thus, concerned about each individual matter far less, and all the while, our ability and inclination to do much of anything about anything dwindles.

I tended to think that having a Facebook app on my phone, which is connected to 1000s of people and advertisers at all times, doesn’t affect me as long as I only open the app an appropriate amount of times throughout the day for an appropriate duration of time. I tended to think that having a streaming music service doesn’t negatively affect me or change how I think about or value music, as long as I don’t play it too much or play the wrong type of music.

I’m just not so sure about this any more. Inevitably, I find that Facebook and those thousands of connections have changed how I think, feel, react, and regard. Even when I close the browser or turn off the app, spiritually and emotionally the clutter remains.

I am more and more experiencing the truth of McLuhan’s insight: despite what we think, the medium is perhaps more potent than the message it mediates.

Nixing the Entertainment Fix

As said, I had played around with the idea of these and even more drastic measures regarding Facebook for a while. What I underestimated was how immediate and profound were the subjective effects of cutting a list of 1000 people down to 100 with whom I am making a conscious choice to engage.

Instantly, the news feed is no longer a news feed. It is no longer a diversion that I can turn to for an entertainment fix. Suddenly it represents actions, needs, responsibilities, things that I do or don’t but ought to care about.

It is not that those 100 people (close friends, family members, etc) weren’t there before. They were there, but they were diluted in a sea of irrelevance presenting itself as news/content/entertainment to be consumed.

Removing the Soap Opera Effect

Now, I realize the tendency of the newsfeed of this supposed “social network” to simply become, for one, a source of diversion, of a quick entertainment fix, and also leads one to begin seeing all the people represented therein as the same. It starts with those who really are obscure to one’s concern (the celebrity stories, the friends of friends from whom one can never remember accepting a friend request, etc.). Then, it moves inward to those one is acquainted with but has no ongoing involvement. Finally, it proceeds to even those close family and friends that one would/should (if one could) care about/love/pursue/engage with for their own sake.

They all become simply content for my newsfeed — the characters that populate the soap opera that is always playing in an open browser tab and in the app on my phone.

Frog in the Pot

We know this. All these things are cliche, passé. We know, and we resolve to not be affected. But we are, and we persist! Thus, we must question whether we really knew or understood the implications of the situation in the first place.

As my father is so fond of referencing, this is truly a “frog in the pot” scenario. We continually look around and observe the pot, the water, and the increasing temperature, but insist that the heat is manageable now, and we’ll certainly jump out if it becomes otherwise. But, the whole point is precisely that from within the pot one has the worst vantage point on both the current and future state of affairs.

Good Servant, Bad Master

Of course, even what I have recently done has been but a half-measure. I am still, for now, on Facebook.There is a case to be made for such measures in such cases though.

Whether or not I perfectly interpreted the work or its implications, one of my takeaways from Neil Postman’s eye-opening book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology was the value in a seemingly arbitrarily holding oneself back from the “cutting edge” when it came to technology. It is not that there is some ultimately “right” or “safe” level of technology for a human person to inhabit (computers, pen and pencil, stone tablets, the spoken word). But if the concern is whether or not I am able to evaluate and manage the influence of technology on myself and my family, there is something to be said for intentionally staying behind the curve.

One primary danger of technology — any technology — is simply its initial novelty and the fascination that it engenders in a subject. At its introduction, a technology is a slippery thing to grasp. The new user and, even more so, the technology’s creator are in precisely the worst vantage point for evaluating the net usefulness of a technology and its effects on our way of viewing the world and other people, one’s information and values.

Thus, there is good reason to consider holding back, enforcing a certain distance from the “cutting edge,” using technologies that are now boring, or intentionally limiting or truncating the functionality of novel ones, however arbitrary and counter-productive such limitations might seem.

It has been said that technology makes a good servant, but a bad master. What we underestimate is how easily the former can shift to become the latter and how subtle the change can be.

“I understand the technologies I am using and I would know if I am being unduly influenced or changed by them,” says the frog swimming in an already-quite-warm stew.

Gaining Perspective

So this is my experiment with Facebook for now. It may be temporary, it may be a half-measure, it may not work. But I am reaching for perspective and space to evaluate such things. If greater cuts must be made, then so be it.

On a separate but not entirely unrelated note, you should check out Marc Barnes’ essay on “Modesty and Act” which explores what it means to be a subject, and how one’s ability to act/choose is affected by the world. It is a fascinating piece that digs into this question of our perception vs. the reality of whether (and to what degree) we are influenced by fashions, technology, and the opinions of others.

“Read C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy”

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Our custom CS Lewis bumper sticker, urging all motorists to read his Space Trilogy.

Our custom CS Lewis bumper sticker, urging all motorists to read his Space Trilogy.

We actually had a custom bumper sticker made displaying the above exhortation and the names of the three books: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength.

My wife and I love the Space Trilogy — and Archbishop Chaput does, too! It makes the list in his article, “Ten ways to deepen our relationship with God.”

The archbishop says, “By the way, if you do nothing else in 2014, read Tolkien’s wonderful short story, Leaf by Niggle. It will take you less than an hour, but it will stay with you for a lifetime. And then read C.S. Lewis’ great religious science-fiction trilogy — Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength. You’ll never look at our world in quite the same way again.” — ARCHBISHOP CHARLES J. CHAPUT, O.F.M. CAP. http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/Interiorlife/il0142.htm

You Have Nothing Better To Do

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In my recent post “Discernment and the Hard, Long, Right Road Beneath Your Feet” I pointed out that as we discern what to do with our lives, since God never intends us to reach some good end via evil means, we can rule out options, however attractive, which seem to necessitate blameworthy shortcuts. Either we have been deceived (from within or without) about the actual goodness of the good we have in mind, or it is indeed a good, but not one we are being called to do, or perhaps we are and we just have to be patient. With this in mind, I concluded by talking a bit about this very challenging notion that, thus, in some sense, the road we are on is the road we are meant to be on. It doesn’t mean God doesn’t have something better in mind for us and it doesn’t mean that if we are in dire straits we are meant to stay there, but it does mean that the next step is most likely somewhere within 2-3 feet from where we are standing (give or take a bit, depending on the length of your legs).

With this in mind, here is an interesting question: Is the familiar colloquialism “I have better things to do” ever really true? When we say, merely mutter, or mentally muse “I have better things to do,” we assert that the present frustration or inanity is keeping us from something more important – something “better”. But is this really the case? What does “better” mean here?

Sure, in the general, abstract, objective sense there may be higher goods than are attainable in the long line at the grocery store, or when faced with the third poopy diaper in the span of 10 minutes, or when having to go help with breakfast whilst one’s magnum opus lies unfinished on the computer screen (alas!). However, the good/best (or evil/worst) actions are also contextual:

…the morality of every human act is determined by the object, the circumstances and the intention. If any one of the three is evil, then the human act in question is evil and should be avoided.  – What Makes Human Acts Good or Bad? by Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J.

As we can only ascertain the “better” in light of the “best,” and since the “best” actions (in a moral sense) must not only be good objectively but also good in relation to our circumstances and the state of our heart, I find the conclusion rather inescapable: There is never a moment in which I really have “better things to do” than those right in front of me, as frustrating, humbling, or inane as they may be.

Whatever situation I am currently in is the one which I am (now) called to embrace with heroic virtue. No matter where we are going, to whatever more exciting or glamorous goods we are impatient to get started on, our next step is right in front of us and it is that step, first (temporally) and foremost (eternally) that we must seek to live out as perfectly as we can.

So, wait patiently in that grocery store line and be sure to give the cashier a smile. Change that poopy diaper whilst singing “Bingo,” and be prepared for a fourth barrage. And go ahead and hit save on that magnum opus because…

*yells* “I’m coming down, sweetheart!”

… you really have nothing better to do.

(Click here to read more of my musings on holiness in the now: One Day Holy)

Saint Gilbert Keith Chesterton?

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The big news from this year’s Chesterton Conference (which I lament not having been able to attend) is that the cause for sainthood may soon be opened for our good man G.K..

Chesterton.org has the press release:

WORCESTER, Massachusetts (August 1, 2013) – In his opening address at the 32nd Annual Chesterton Conference held at Assumption College, Dale Ahlquist, President of the American Chesterton Society, announced that Bishop Peter Doyle of Northampton, England, has given permission to state that he “is sympathetic to our wishes and is seeking a suitable cleric to begin an investigation into the potential for opening a cause for [G.K.] Chesterton.” The announcement was met with loud cheers and great emotion as members of the American Chesterton Society have long awaited an official step toward G.K. Chesterton’s Cause for Canonization.

Click here to read the full statement.

That the apostle of common sense may soon be declared the patron saint of common sense is wonderful news!

Thoughts on Technology

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I’ll be chatting with Jon Leonetti on the morning show on Iowa Catholic Radio today about technology – specifically: how to keep from being mastered by technology.

It will be a very quick little chat and so I don’t know how far we will get but I wanted to post a few thoughts and links here as an accompaniment.

My personal favorite author on this topic is Neil Postman, whose book “Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology” was one of the few assigned reading at my state university which I really enjoyed and found useful.

I would highly recommend picking up a copy of that book but to get a taste first, read this address he gave to Catholic Bishops in the lat 1990’s:

Neil Postman: Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change

One of the general characteristics I admire in Postman’s work was that it is neither “technophilic” nor “technophobic” but rather merely realistic. A piece of technology cannot carry any inherent moral good or evil (this much we know and are frequently reminded) and yet all technology does carry with it certain ideas, values, and prejudices about our world:

In a culture without writing, human memory is of the greatest importance, as are the proverbs, sayings and songs which contain the accumulated oral wisdom of centuries. That is why Solomon was thought to be the wisest of men. In Kings I we are told he knew 3,000 proverbs. But in a culture with writing, such feats of memory are considered a waste of time, and proverbs are merely irrelevant fancies. The writing person favors logical organization and systematic analysis, not proverbs. The telegraphic person values speed, not introspection. The television person values immediacy, not history. And computer people, what shall we say of them? Perhaps we can say that the computer person values information, not knowledge, certainly not wisdom. Indeed, in the computer age, the concept of wisdom may vanish altogether.

The third idea, then, is that every technology has a philosophy which is given expression in how the technology makes people use their minds, in what it makes us do with our bodies, in how it codifies the world, in which of our senses it amplifies, in which of our emotional and intellectual tendencies it disregards. This idea is the sum and substance of what the great Catholic prophet, Marshall McLuhan meant when he coined the famous sentence, “The medium is the message.” – Neil Postman: Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change

This, again, appears to me to be quite realistic. A piece of technology is a finite invention with a rather static potential for utility. As such, it cannot help but carry with it certain ideas about our information, our work, our relationships, and our world.

It is up to us to, again, not be automatically techno “philic” or “phobic” but simply to approach technology with eyes wide open, aware that all technology/media carry a message and actively seeking what that is. Then of course we have to have the self-knowledge and discipline to see how a technology is or could be affecting us negatively and then to do something about it, whether this means trying to limit the damage or just passing up on a given piece of tech entirely.

In addition to discipline and the ability to just say “no” if necessary, I think we need to be creative. We need to avoid merely taking new technologies at face value and using or embracing them as their inventors expect us to. The creators of our communications technologies – computers, smart phones, email, etc – tell us that we should be connected 24/7, but we don’t have to be. But my little family limits tv watching (Netflix, in our case) to weekends only and I personally restrict my email checking to twice a day. After college I got rid of my video games entirely just because there was/is no more space in my life for them (and if there were, there are better things to be added).

Wow, I have a lot more I want to say on this topic but for now, 1) be aware, critical, and realistic about technology, 2) know and be realistic (and honest!) about thyself, and 3) be disciplined, be able to say “no”, but also be creative when figuring how to continue living “in but not of the world” ad majorem Dei gloriam.

 

My first post about Distributism

Self-portrait of G. K. Chesterton based on the distributist slogan "Three acres and a cow". Via Wikipedia
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Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists.

G. K. Chesterton

There is less difference than many suppose between the ideal Socialist system, in which the big businesses are run by the State, and the present Capitalist system, in which the State is run by the big businesses.

G. K. Chesterton

The only difference between a Socialist state and a Capitalist state is whether power is concentrated in a few private or a few bureaucratic hands.

The Distributist Review

Self-portrait of G. K. Chesterton based on the distributist slogan “Three acres and a cow”. Via Wikipedia

You are probably, like me, frustrated at the ways in which our political, social, and economic discourse has been forced into a series of false dichotomies: socialism or capitalism, ultra-liberality or ultra-conservatism, ever growing government bureaucracy or ever growing big businesses, social justice or orthodox religion/traditional morality, and so forth. We do our best to navigate the polarizing dialogue of modern society, but the limited options we are presented with always force us to choose a mixed bag, considered to be the lesser of two evils. But even if in practice we must sometimes settle for such tough choices among limited options in the short term, we shouldn’t let these circumstances limit the ideal we work towards.

Many who lean liberal/socialist/big-government/etc simply do so out of a sincere concern for social justice and in reaction to the very real ills (whether inherent or circumstantial) of a laissez-faire capitalism as we know it. On the other hand many, like myself, have leaned conservative/capitalist/libertarian/etc out of a concern for freedom and in reaction to the very real ills of socialism/communism. Both are afraid of the other side, yet neither I suspect, were they truly honest and made to face the facts, is perhaps perfectly comfortable with their own.

If you want to breathe some fresh air outside today’s stale political conversation, consider taking a look at Distributism, particularly the wise writings of the great generalist G.K. Chesterton.

Distributism is a rich and yet practical economic philosophy based firmly on Catholic social teaching and the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity. Most famously popularized by G.K. Chesterton in the late 19th and early 20th century, Distributist thought emphasizes the importance of widespread ownership – “three acres and a cow”, as the slogan goes -, strong local economies, small family and worker-owned businesses, and the Catholic social principles of Subsidiarity – things should be handled on the lowest level possible (individual, family, village, state, etc) – and Solidarity – concern for the common good (Click here for a longer explanation).

Stratford Caldecott offers this great summary in an article over at The Distributist Review:

“I take Distributism to be the view that private property should be widely distributed in society, rather than concentrated in a few hands, in order to enable more or even most people to be able to take responsibility for their own families by means of productive and dignified work. This can be seen as a practical expression or implication of the Catholic social doctrines of subsidiarity in solidarity, of the common good, and of the family as the best foundation of a healthy civil society.

Distributism is not socialism. It does not suppose that property should be stolen from the rich and given to the poor, or appropriated by the state or by a party representing the people, but rather that legislation should make it easier for the small property-owner, landowner, tradesman, and shopkeeper to survive, and harder for the tycoon to accumulate so much wealth and power that the former is forced to become a mere employee of the latter, or effectively a wage-slave.” – A Distributist Education

As I have begun to poke around amongst Distributist thinking and thinkers, I am finding  many natural connections with other topics I am already excited about – sustainable agriculture, homesteading, small business, real/traditional food and production, a rightly ordered concern for the environment, the important of addressing poverty on the local level, and the attempt to more authentically live out the Gospel calls to poverty, simplicity, and detachment.

As I continue to learn, I hope to write much more about Distributism and the ways in which my house and I are doing our best to serve God and neighbor. For now though, a few quotes, a bit of my own musing, one long citation, a couple appeals to authority, and finally a list of further reading (below) will have to do.

Thanks for reading and I hope the resources below inspire and challenge you further.

Here are the two books I am currently reading on the subject:

Here is a nice FAQ: http://distributistreview.com/mag/test-2/

Here are 102 great action steps: http://www.justpeace.org/encourdistributism.htm

Rerum Novarum: Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII on Capital and Labor

Here is a neat flyer on Distributism: