Experience, then Ambience

The story of Western society’s relationship to the Internet so far is this: experience, and then ambience. For a couple of decades the internet was an experience a person had to seek out through physical parameters. You needed to be at a computer. That computer needed a connection. For most people these two parameters terminated in place: a specific place to use your computer, and a specific place for that computer to connect online—at phone modems first, and then broadband cables. In other words, for most of the last 20 years access to the internet has been filtered through technological and geographical barriers. If you didn’t have a computer, you didn’t have internet. If you had a computer but you didn’t have an available connection (or better yet, if someone else was chatting on the phone during the days of dial-up!), you didn’t have internet.

Those barriers were part of what made the internet an experience. You went online. Remember those commercials that used to run? “Hey kids, grab a parent before going online.” There it is: the verb going suggests a contained experience, one that could be anticipated, realized, missed, etc. You were either online or you weren’t. You were watching a movie, working, going to school, eating lunch…and then after that experience, maybe you would find time to go online.  And then after you logged off you would do something else, until the next time you went online.

Thus the internet was an experience that was enjoyed, even depended on, yet also contained. But now the internet is no longer an experience. It is an ambience. The internet has few parameters to mediate it. It is instead the default mode on which most of us operate. The idea of “going” online is absurd. We are online. The internet is not so much something we go do as it is something we are. We are on Instagram. We are streaming music. We are reading the news. And we are doing it everywhere and anywhere, with no geographic parameters and only one physical mediation (a phone signal). Thus, the internet has invaded every conceivable social setting, every space and slice of time. The internet is ambient in the car, ambient in the airplane, ambient in waiting room, ambient in the office, etc. Ambience, not an experience.

This seems pretty significant to me. If technology forms and shapes us, then logically it follows that the more access technology has to us, the greater its formative effects. Technology that is mediated through place and time has formative effects that are more controllable or manipulatable: i.e., in the experience-age of the Internet, moving the family PC into the living room instead of someone’s bedroom undermines addiction and secrecy, but it also undermines the idea that I should have constant access. It undermines that nervous tick we are developing where if we read something good or see something funny we instinctively reach for our phones. The internet is perceived to be more important to our lives, not because it actually is but simply because it is more present.

Ambient-age Internet, however, does the opposite. It generates a low hum of anxiety and boredom as brains become dependent on the web’s neurological matrix of change and feedback. It recalibrate how we think, tangling thoughts into sub-literate knots. And it gives the impression of the greatness of minutia, as fringe ideas and people take advantage of our lowered epistemological barriers and turn themselves into memes. The experience-age of the Internet was not without problems, but while it lasted we at least remembered that this technology was finite and fickle. Walking away from the PC was a dose of reality. In the ambient-age, there is no walking away, and the doses of reality much harder to get—or want.

The Politics of Distraction

I think Ross Douthat is exactly right about the need for some kind of positive, strategic response to the smartphone age. “Compulsions are rarely harmless,” he writes, and therein lies the key point: Digital addiction is real, and its long term consequences, though mysterious now, will not be something to receive with gladness. Some may scoff at Douthat’s idea of a “digital temperance movement,” but scoff at your own peril. If hyperconnectivity and omni-distraction are indeed what we think they are, the cultural harvest from a digitally addicted age will stun.

In any event, now is certainly no time to be underestimating the long-term shaping effects of technology. Consider how incredibly prescient Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death seems in a post-election 2016 era. Is there any doubt that the television’s impact on the public square, especially its reliance on trivialization and celebrity, played a key role last year? If you were to close your eyes and imagine a United States without cable news as it exists right now, does it get easier or harder to mentally recreate the last few years of American politics? Postman warned in Amusing that television represented a watershed in mass epistemology. In other words, television changed not just how people received information, but how they processed it, and consequently, how they responded to it. Our political culture is a TV political culture, and 2016 was irrepressible proof of that.

You don’t have to venture far from this line of thinking to see why the digital age represents similar dangers. As Douthat mentions, the soft, inviting blue glow of impersonal personality and our Pavlovian responses to “Likes” and “Retweets” are enough of a rabbit hole themselves. But consider still the effect of the digital age on information. The online information economy is overwhelmingly clickbait: “content” custom designed by algorithms to get traffic and give as little as possible in return. Even more serious news and opinion writing, when subjected to the economic demands of the internet, often relies on misleading, hyperbolic, or reactionary forms of discourse.

In the digital age, the competition is not so much for people’s patronage but for their attention, and screams and alarms always get attention. This trend isn’t just annoying for readers and exasperating for writers. It represents a fundamental challenge to the discipline of thinking, and to the moral obligation to believe and speak true things. Postman warned that using lights and flashes to blend facts with entertainment would shape culture’s expectations of truth itself. When what is interesting/fun/sexy/cool/outrageous/ becomes indistinguishable, visually, from what is true, then what is true becomes whatever is interesting/fun/sexy/cool/outrageous. If this is true for television, it is exponentially more true for the smartphone, a pocket-sized TV with infinite channels.

Who can foresee the politics of a distracted age? What kind of power will conspiracy theorists who master the art of going viral wield in years to come? What kind of political ruling class will we end up with when a generation of would-be leaders have been Twitter-shamed out of their careers? It’s hard to say.

Can we reverse these trends? I do like much of what Douthat prescribes as antidote. But the fact is that the internet, social media, and the smartphone are not merely trendy fads. They are part of an emerging technological transformation. Facebook will wither and Twitter will fade, but the “age of ephemera” will stand. Resisting it will likely depend much more on what people value than what they fear. Loneliness, for example, is endemic in the social media generation. Does the healing of lonely souls with real physical presence disarm an important motivator in online addiction? That’s a question that every parent, and every church, should be asking right now. And of course, individuals fed up with the noise of pixels will trade in their smartphones and delete their accounts.

For those who really want to resist the age of distraction, there will be ways to do so. The hardest challenge will be for those who kinda want to resist but also want to be plugged in. These are the folks to whom the smartphone is most cruel. And perhaps the best advice that can be given for those of us in this camp is: Deactivate every now and again, go to church, walk outside frequently, and read at least 1 physical book per month. A distracted age is a loud age. Thankfully, the universe is, once you’re able to really listen to it, pretty quiet.

Quote of the Day

From a remarkable Wall Street Journal op-ed.

All people are unique individuals and we can be sure that Mr. Weiner’s problems are at least in part a matter of his personal psycho-pathologies. Yet his behavior squares with what we have observed with all too many men, especially in the U.S. or other Western countries that enjoy liberal values and material prosperity. These are men who, by any objective measure, have succeeded yet regard themselves as failures. These are men who feel marooned in lassitude because they enjoy physical security, who feel bereft and bored even if they are blessed to have the committed love of a wife or girlfriend. These are men who believe that cruising the internet for explicit footage of other women or sharing such images of themselves over the remote communication offered by smartphones are risqué but risk-free distractions from the tedium.

The march of technology is irreversible and we aren’t so naive as to believe that any kind of imposed regulation could ever reseal the Pandora’s box of pornography. What is required is an honest dialogue about what we are witnessing—the true nature and danger of porn—and an honor code to tamp it down in the collective interests of our well-being as individuals, as families and as communities.

-From this remarkable joint op-ed by rabbi Shmuley Boteach, and actress and former centerfold Pamela Anderson. Bet you didn’t expect to see those two together.

The Politics of Porn

“A man with an addiction,” C.S. Lewis wrote, “is a man with very little sales-resistance.” That means that porn is political.

Here’s how it works. When a generation’s sexual consciousness has been thoroughly pornified, it will start to define satisfaction and happiness in terms of fantasy. The deepest appeal of pornography is not that you get to see what you otherwise wouldn’t see. If it were, millions of men would not spend GDP-like money on digital liaisons when cheaper, and in some cases legal, prostitution is readily available. No, the draw of porn is that it turns insecure, afraid men into irresistible, all-worthy champions of sexual conquest. Every single pixel of pornography is completely enamored with its user. You deserve it, she knows it, she can’t help herself.

This fantasy isn’t just an illusion which evaporates once the session has ended. Modern research is detailing the effect of porn on the user, and the results are terrifying. Porn’s power to recalibrate the brain’s relationship between reality and (chemical) reward has implications far beyond the sexual. Indeed, we are only beginning to discover just how differently brains hooked on pornography see the world.

Here’s how Carl Trueman puts it:

Pornography is not simply changing our tastes through its representation of sex as a self-directed and recreational activity; it is literally changing the way our brains think. That makes the task of defending traditional morality in the public square much more difficult.

…[T]he principle of consent assumes at a minimum that individuals have sovereign rights over the range of purposes and uses to which their own bodies can be put. Yet the evidence of the impact of pornography on the brain indicates that the individual is not consciously in control of determining the nature of that range. Pornography alters the sexual desires and transforms the understanding of the body’s purpose not by ethical or even aesthetic persuasion. Rather it does so by altering the physiology of the brain itself, a process beyond the conscious control of the consumer of pornography, and which thus subverts the assumptions of the principle of consent.

In other words, sociopolitical concepts like consent (a concept which is the difference between lovemaking and rape in most developed countries) are corroded by pornography’s affect on psychology. Porn reengineers the brain to see “Yes” where actually is “No,” and, even more dangerously, does so at a subconscious level. Pornography attacks feelings of compassion and empathy and replaces them with hyper-inflated senses of opportunity and invitation. Love is out, power is in.

This means that porn is, quite ironically, authoritarian.

Is it then any surprise that our nation’s most famous political authoritarian at the moment is a man deeply indebted to the pornification of culture? Should we register shock that a man who trades wives and mistresses like NASDAQ stock, whose businesses build strip clubs, and who appeared on the cover of Playboy believes that the military should be willing to commit crimes against humanity if he so orders? Could there be a connection between this man’s sexual Caesarism and his open disregard for religious freedom and freedom of the press? Most importantly: Could it be that his supporters buy what he sells because they’ve breathed the same adulterous air?

If pornography kills love and worships (fantastical) power, then it’s time to start asking whether a culture drowning in its mire is being primed for the politics of ruthless authoritarianism. If the age of Tinder chases out love and chastity, marriage and faithfulness, might it also chase out things like liberty, dignity, and sacrifice?

Remember that pornography never delivers the satisfaction it promises. It only leaves the user feeling more starved and dependent than before, eager to find a more intense dose that will make finally good on its innuendo. Political authoritarians function much the same way. Emotional and spiritual vacuums, fostered by the decadence of a culture without transcendence, tend to get filled with whatever promises to make life great again. The more intense and outrageous the promise, the better it all sounds.

It very well could be that in 2016, we are staring down the politics of porn. I have to believe that in this moment, Jesus would tell us something like, “If your own political party causes you to stumble, pluck it out.”

The Utter Victory of Online Pornography

How powerful is online pornography? Well, it just single handedly took down Playboy magazine.

As part of a redesign that will be unveiled next March, the print edition of Playboy will still feature women in provocative poses. But they will no longer be fully nude.

Its executives admit that Playboy has been overtaken by the changes it pioneered. “That battle has been fought and won,” said Scott Flanders, the company’s chief executive. “You’re now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free. And so it’s just passé at this juncture.”

We should let that sink in for a moment. Online pornography has become 1) so widespread, 2) so economic and 3) so explicit that the most powerful and most famous “adult” publication in the world has to completely change its business model. Let the reader understand: This is happening not because people find Playboy offensive or immoral, but because they find it boring.

There are people who deny that pornography is addictive, or that its consumption gradually causes elevated levels of craving. If that’s true, then there is simply no explanation for the utter triumph of hardcore, online pornography. There’s no explanation for why executives at Playboy are admitting they can’t compete with “every sex act imaginable.” In a world where porn is a self-contained diversion, this doesn’t happen. In a world where porn rewires the human brain to want more and more and get less and less, it happens.

Oh, and one more note, especially for parents. The smartphone your child is using? It has apps, and those apps–the same apps that all your child’s friends use every day–have what Playboy now aspires to.

The magazine will adopt a cleaner, more modern style, said Mr. Jones, who as chief content officer also oversees its website. There will still be a Playmate of the Month, but the pictures will be “PG-13” and less produced — more like the racier sections of Instagram.

Don’t want to give your 13 year old a free, lifetime subscription to Playboy? Skip the iPhone.