Overwhelmed in the Shallows?

Yesterday at Honors Tea, a question surfaced and bobbed around for a while like a sugar cube in the saucer of our talk: how do you live faithfully when you are overwhelmed?  One student said immediately, “I make lists.”  Another student, a little disconcertingly, denied being overwhelmed.  Others counseled taking one day at a time.  One student said that sometimes it could be life-giving simply not to do an assignment.  Still others raised the point that being overwhelmed is a powerfully real experience, even if later we look back and realize that we weren’t really so close to death as it seemed.

Nicholas Carr is overwhelmed.  His new book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (Norton 2010) argues that Google just might be “making us stupid.”  Instead of the slow, sustained, deep reading we used to be capable of, our minds are skittering across the surface of things. At one and the same time, we are engulfed in the mass media (hence, his feeling of being overwhelmed) and yet, somehow, left in the shallows of existence.  (The metaphoric play doesn’t seem quite fair somehow.)

I’ve read this book before, although this is the first time I’ve held it in my hands.  It was, after all, Plato who worried in The Phaedrus, 2400 years ago, about that alarming, late-breaking technology, the pen.  Or you could reference Augustine’s bafflement in his Confessions over Ambrose’s disconcerting practice of reading books silently. What were the implications of reading books in such an unsocial manner?  In grad school, I read Neil Postman’s 1980s fears that we were Amusing Ourselves to Death, and that the engulfment of television would swallow education and religion. My first year or so of teaching at Trinity, I read Todd Gitlin’s 2001 Media Unlimited: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives, which names the massiveness of mass-mediation in everyday life. Apart from nuclear apocalypse, he intoned, there’s no escaping it.  Ever. In 2005, Thomas de Zengotita similarly addressed the pervasiveness of what he calls “the Blob” of Mediation.  All philosophy is a footnote to Plato, but it begins to look like every book on the media is a trailer for The Matrix.  Actually, it was Marshall McLuhan–not Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus–who said that we make our tools and then our tools starting making us.

Something there is in Western thought that loves to be appalled.

These authors are good companions for our conversation yesterday. They offer an angle, an important angle, on our frequent feeling of being overwhelmed.  Overwhelmedness seems to be in significant part a function of our technological way of being.  Our time-saving devices can devour our attention, our time, our prayer.  It is distressing to me as I sit in my office, at my command center of techno-institutional competence, filling out internal reports and turning in receipts and filing emails and fielding questions about why the demonically infused Moodle platform is still not accepting certain student submissions—it is, I say, very distressing to see the stack of books beside my computer monitor.  I know how restorative, how healing it would be to push back from the keyboard and spend even an hour in deep reading.

At the same time, our tea-time conversation yesterday recalls another kind of truth in our lives. Our wellness is not grounded in a just-right participation in the world of the media.  I do think that wise relationship to our media is terrifically important.  But Carr and Postman and Gitlin and Zengotita all tend to treat the media as if they have somehow become the ground of our existence. Or, as if the media are the brute object against which our subjectivity must take shape, if it is to take shape at all authentically.  As the Reformed philosophers would probably put it: these critics absolutize what they criticize.  But our conversation yesterday afternoon (sipping Leah’s tea and munching on inadvertently low-fat Oreos—for which, my apologies) recalled the strange persistence of simple things like laughing at each other’s jokes and telling stories and groaning over each other’s predicaments and admiring some students’ answers to the question, “What is success?” splashed across a community college white board.

(Hmm.  I think that’s in the you-had-to-be-there category.  Sorry.)

We weren’t detaching ourselves from the world of media. Not with Pandora playing on the large screen television behind us.  Not with you texting one-handedly throughout the whole conversation.  (And I now hear that more than one of you texts in your sleep.) Not with me Web 2.0-ing for all I’m worth in this blog.  No, what we were doing, I think, was more deeply involving ourselves in a togetherness energized not by the dynamic of page or screen, but by the speech of God.

I need your help to think what that might mean for us.  Let’s see if this gets you started.  What we know of the life of the Holy Trinity, as Pastor Bill reminded us in chapel yesterday, suggests that our identities image the divine by being neither reductively individual nor diffusely impersonal.  We can’t every be exactly pegged as this or that.  But our particularity is somehow recognizable.  I’m wondering today what this might have to say about our feelings of being overwhelmed, about our sense that my “me” is getting swallowed by tasks and tools.  In other words, what would happen if we’d think about our overwhelmedness not in terms of technology, but in terms of the Trinity? Not in terms of trying to prop up an identity that can withstand the quasi-cosmic forces of the mass media, but in terms of losing and finding ourselves in the life and word of God?

Think about this before bed tonight, and then, when you find yourself deep in sleep, text me a response to this post at 630-926-1086.

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