Critiquing Social Networks | Technological Bad Faith

socialnetNic and I have been having some good exchanges recently around issues of our relationship with technology. It’s something that’s prominent in the forthcoming book, but I wanted to introduce a few of the ideas here and hopefully provoke some debate to sharpen my own thoughts.

My view is that while we do create tools, our tools do end up recreating us aswell. The internal combustion engine was a human invention, but its invention did have a profound effect on us too.

In his book Exclusion and Embrace theologian Miroslav Volf talks about creation in Genesis as a process of ‘separation and binding’: the water and the land are separated, humanity is bound in stewardship of the earth. Nic disagrees, but I think that this is a helpful metaphor for a good relationship to technology: we are bound to it – we cannot live without it – but we are also separate from it.

Now, using the ideas covered in the series of posts on ‘Bad Faith’, we might view this from another angle: our relationship to technology should have both facticity and transcendence, and it is when this duality collapses on either side that we see problems occuring. In a recent interview an Oxford Professor of Neurology expressed real concerns about the effect increased screen-time could have on our brains. Without practice at decoding the subtle and complex messages in face-to-face communication (nuance, tone, context, pheromones, gestures) our brains will perform worse in this area – and this could be a viscious cirle as embarrassment could lead to further withdrawal.

But, in my view, there is a parallel danger. By experiencing so many more relationships through media like Facebook or Twitter we risk collapsing the complexities of ‘the other’ into pure facticity: they become seen by us as no more than the sum of their status updates, and we also risk seeing ourselves in that way too. As Pete has pointed out, we are much more mysterious than that.

The danger works the other way too. Our status updates don’t mean nothing – they do communicate something of who we are, and to ignore them and claim separation from them is to collapse into pure transcendence – we are above all that.

Neither is true. We are separate from our social networks (virtual and ‘real’) but bound to them too. The art of living in technological ‘good faith’ is going to be negotiating the line between these two states, and avoiding the temptation to collapse either side.


18 responses to “Critiquing Social Networks | Technological Bad Faith”

  1. It’s interesting that you have put up this post at this time. I’m currently writing an MA dissertation about the shape of postmodern mission to generation Y from an “insiders” perspective. The whole debate of identity which is more and more commonly found through social networking is a key element to the thesis.

    It strikes me that the praxis of personal interaction (as you highlight above) are being replaced with the search for acceptance – popularity is now measured by the number of followers you have and your decisions are influenced by the tweets your receive from complete strangers. There is a fine line somewhere which makes the distinction between community and simple interaction, and this line seems to be disappearing at an alarming rate.

    You are right, however, when you say we are dependent upon technology – the this dependence will never be reversed. It would be interesting to hear any thoughts you have about interactive mission, as opposed to communal mission?

    In my opinion technology can have a great use when it comes to supporting and nurturing faith, but it could also be a destructive force if faith becomes dependent on technological interaction, rather than community with the maker.


  2. In terms of interactive vs communal, I think that we can’t now make that sort of hard distinction. They are interdependent to some degree. What I don’t accept is that one can be a substitute for the other. Claiming you attend a ‘virtual church’, and claiming your main support community is virtual is never going to do it for me.

    The activist ‘Ched Myers’ was asked by an old monk ‘where is your hope?’ He tried to act all pious and say ‘In God’ and ‘In the Bible’, but the monk kept saying he was wrong. He gave up… ‘Your hope,’ the monk said, ‘is where your ass is.’

    Your ass is never virtual, though it may benefit from the comfort of a chair, an ass technology…

  3. Really interesting thoughts. I would love to see you follow this idea further. There are lots of people talking about this topic, but sadly I don’t think anyone really knows the answer (not to say there is *one* answer, but that we are all groping in the dark right now with it), myself included.
    How do you think Sartre would see/describe someone using technology/social networking with authenticity especially related to those who follow Christ. I see the two ditches, but where is the path between?

  4. A large part of the first section of the new book is given over to this area of discussion…

    There’s an excellent essay by a US Prof of English called Mark Edmondson called <'Dwelling in Possibilities' in which he looks at the effect this online/virtual life is having on their university education, and their development as people. One of his conclusions is that students will never reach their potential unless they ‘meet their great antagonists’ – and university is fast becoming a place where that simply never happens, as so much study is so surface, with people in lectures twittering, ichatting etc. The end result is that the bigger point of university – self discovery, and the discovery of what our ‘ministry’ in life might be – is missed.

    I’m convinced that what we see in Jesus’ temptations is him doing exactly this: meeting his great antagonist – and thus working out what sort of ministry he was going to have.

    How does this relate to the above? What facebook and Twitter have never been for me is this ‘antagonist’. In other words, I’m not going to get authentic learning about myself, or wisdom from/about the other in online engagements. It’s useful for surface-to-surface contact, but not much else. Heidegger talks about discovering and existing in ‘the clearing’ – lichtung – and I think this is what we miss when we cram our lives full of screen-time: proper time for self-reflection.

    We also risk promoting the ‘fantasy self’, and what we see in Jesus’ temptations is him facing down this fantasy self – all perfectly possible ways he could have gone on with his ministry – and choosing a different way. In fact, he persisted in deflating the fantasy self at regular intervals: disappearing, healing in secret, refusing to glorify himself.

    So I’d say another part of the path is about becoming aware of the fantasy self that can grow online. But at the same time, it’d be foolish to dismiss social networks and refuse to join them. Anti-incarnation, if you will.

    How would Satre see it? I think he’d be amused at the energy and time wasted in the ‘search for acceptance’, but would write a mean, pithy tweet.

  5. Talk about being drawn in !-)

    As usual I’m not sure if are positions are too far apart.

    I think we were trying to hammer out a definition of technology that we could both agree on. My problem with ‘separation and binding’ was that it didn’t really work for me. I was looking for a model that could represent the idea of a seamless ‘nature-culture’, where there was no ‘anticeptic split’ between two domains. I was also after a less paranoid and suspicious definition, something that had a more benign approach to our technological companions— co-evolution and the ‘parliament of things’.

    Here’s a question, if the idea of ‘self’ has become destabilised, what has happened to ‘other’?

    I think this is why I like the idea of a ‘quasi object’.

  6. I don’t think admitting that there is a paradox inherent in our relationship is suspicious. On the contrary, I think it’s more accountable and honest.

    If I remember our discussion on the ‘parliament of things’ it refers to the idea that objects have equal footing to us, or am I wrong? Quoting from the above link:

    “Latour argues that modernity has systematically refused to consider the rights of the object, partly because of its systematic propensity to think in terms of subject/object dualism.”

    I’d be interested to know what you think that ‘rights of the object’ would mean in relation to technology, and our relationship to it. Are we simply in goverment with things? If so, who has a governing majority?

  7. Pete Fox

    I think that both the other and the Self have been destabilised. Social networks distort our ideas about other people, and we present a distorted self aswell. What do you mean by a ‘quasi object’ Nic?

  8. The ‘suspicion’ relates to the type of arguments that tend to be associated with technology. They seem to be permeated with fear. An example might be Virilio’s ‘obey and resist’ angle on technology (not unlike your proposition) or even Nokia’s bizarre prefixing of technology with ‘human’ (who else made it— aliens?). Personally, I’m looking for notions of technology that are tech-positive, not negative.

    Yup, ‘parliament of things’ is Latour and so is ‘quasi object’ (a hybrid)

    I tried this argument on Jules and he did his onions. He told me that he did not defend guinea-pigs or horses in court, let alone food-mixers (my paraphrase!).

    I like this all from a speculative point of view. Especially with respect to the very imminent ‘denser-now’— a scenario where more and more objects (‘spimes’) come with data shadows and are getting increasingly savvy. The firewall of our skin is only going to get more ambiguous. Make room for our new friends.

  9. I’d be with Jules on that. I think that the parliament does risk collapsing the paradox into pure facticity.

    The skin firewall is a very good point though – and a prescient one too. We are going to need a new theology for the cyborg age, and the ‘data shadow’ is going to be interesting. Akin to original sin, perhaps?

  10. Another factor to recognize in this mix is that of origins–our social networks & technology did not spring into existence alone, but grew out of perceived (consciously or otherwise) human need.
    fb status updates, for instance: As a society, we’ve become less adept at asking questions of one another, and of showing interest in the facticity of each other’s lives. With the advent of fb, we now have a culturally acceptable way of telling one another details about ourselves–details which otherwise would go unsolicited and unknown. Though these factoids are far from providing the whole picture, the opportunity to express them lends itself to feeling more “known”.
    Perhaps the facticity in our virtual relationships can serve as a conduit to the transcendent (who we are beyond the bytes), while the transcendent can continue to inspire and facilitate our technologically mediated social interactions.

  11. The networks that Latour traces are immanent, I think he’d have a problem with transcendence. Quasi-objects are deeply slippy, they avoid distinctions and oppositions: subject/object, self/other, culture/nature, mind/body etc. They slide across the spectrum.

    I totally agree that the ‘denser now’ will require a new theology. Will my coffee-grinder go to heaven? !-) Essentially, it reconfigures everything. This is why I goaded Jules. It will also require new ethics and new legal requirements. Or should I say, it will produce new ethics and new legal requirements!

    I’m trying to work out your connecting of data-shadows and original sin? An objects biography or history would definitely be recorded and past onto successive generations. Although one suspects bugs and flaws would be eradicated by genetic algorithms.

    Are you being judgmental again !-) Technology comes with some sort of curse, Prometheus’s legacy.

  12. I think you’ve got a good point there Lori. Question is, is that conduit working? It’d be interesting to see some research on that.

    Nic, you’re the one who called it a data ‘shadow’! I was pushing your buttons with original sin… but only half. If we do have this biography and history carried over, it will be very interesting to see how that is used. One of the frustrations in teaching is always the brain’s inefficiency – it doesn’t remember everything first time. So we went cyborg and were unable to forget things could difficult, and troubling.

  13. We are already cyborgs, we have always been cyborgs— it’s what we do.

    Writing is the classic machine that according to McLuhan both extended and wounded us. So we lost the skills that allowed us to remember huge chunks of information because writing did it for us. We no longer needed the skills honed by rhetoric practice. We exchanged the ear for the eye. Technologies same old story.

    We’re so used to the coupling of these familiar systems, we no longer notice them. As a designer, I’m fascinated by these bio-informatic assemblages. Machines networked together, human, codex, typographic.

    Different, not troubling.

  14. Look at you with your pink background in the comments !-)

    I was having an interesting conversation with a colleague the other day. (Same one, that I was retelling our conversation about mobile phones and other). You thought you were well clever when you asked me if I actually thought I ‘was’ my mobile phone.

    Anyway, point being— how about Horizontally scrolling blogs? Where the initial post is lost in parallel to all the comments. There is no hierarchy, I really like this.

  15. You should try it on your blog, but isn’t it linked to our history of writing/reading? I remember a Chinese guy once saying ‘we read the bible better than you. When you read, you are always shaking your head. When we read (lines of characters up and down) we are nodding in agreement.’

  16. Nic, I hadn’t really thought about the profound impact writing (and reading) have had on human neurological evolution. As I read your brief post, though, it was obvious to me that you’re right. So if we humans are creating technology, which in return re-creates us, it would appear we’re co-evolving? That being the case, “fear” of technology would almost seem to be self-deceptive, as we are fearing our own creations (and, by extension, the creation of our selves.)
    So to Kester’s point of meeting our “great antagonist”, or my earlier mention of “being known”, might not technology either facilitate or interfere with these processes to the extent that we choose to allow it? In much the same way as introspection can lead us to delve deeper into ourselves (or humanity) or to escape from the same? Does emphasizing our separateness from our technologies create an unhealthy “head in the sand” approach?

  17. Great comment Lori – I’d be interested in your thoughts Nic. Just to clarify though, while I think it’s vital to acknowledge our separateness (I am not my mobile) it is also vital to acknowledge and accept our binding too. I’d certainly never want to go for head in the sand. One of the interesting things about the Amish is not their rejection of technology, but their slowness and care in adopting it. They are deliberately careful not out of fear of it, I hope, but out of careful respect and full knowledge of their co-evolution with it: once adopted, it will change them. As you say though, there can be very positive aspects to this. The growth of the internet has been democratising, and some would argue this has led to improvements in universal human rights through the easy dissemination of information.

  18. Kester, I wouldn’t imagine you’d go for in for the “head in the sand” approach. (I should probably have used “I” rather than “we” in my comments.) This is new territory for me, but as my life continues to be enriched (and shaped) by technology, and as I parent a [very tech-savvy] teen-age boy, it’s often on my mind. I’ve been VERY cautious and intentional thus far, but this particular exchange has been very helpful to me in terms of acknowledging what’s actually going on, and embracing the positive within it. Thanks.