Category Archives: Media/Entertainment

The Medium is the Massage: on the Temptation to Replace People with Technology

Sherry Turkle is distraught. The more this MIT professor of the social studies of science and technology looks at the world around her, the more she sees an obsession with technology that undermines genuine social interaction and hinders meaningful relationships. She goes to technology conferences and finds that “what people mostly want from public space is to be alone with their personal networks.” This is because, “online life provides environments where one can be a loner yet not alone, have the illusion of companionship without the demands of sustained, intimate friendship.” In other words, we find that we need something outside of ourselves, but at the same time we don’t want the messiness and difficulty inherent in traditional relationships. New technology helps us to circumvent this tension. Said one elderly Japanese woman of a robotic dog in her nursing home (as quoted by Turkle): “It is better than a real dog…It won’t do dangerous things, and it won’t betray you….Also, it won’t die suddenly and make you feel very sad.”

In one sense, Turkle’s critique goes too far. In another sense, it doesn’t go far enough. Most of Turkle’s critiques could also be applied to just about any other medium which stands in for traditional communication. The internet meme with a decades-old photo of a train full of passengers all reading newspapers instead of talking to each other underlines that point quite nicely. Once a medium acquires respectability (through nothing more than time and familiarity), we simply stop noticing how much it gets in the way of face-to-face interaction. The Disney film Beauty in the Beast, for example, features an 18th century female protagonist, Belle, who is thought strange by her neighbors for her obsession with a medium of communication, namely books, and the impact that this has on her ability to socialize with them (it really is a tale as old as time!). However, we are expected to sympathize with Belle, whose anti-social habit we now view as sacrosanct, and view the villagers as provincial and outmoded. Replace Belle’s books with online video games and the lesson would be a very different one—and at the very least the online video games have a more obvious social dimension. In sum, Turkle seems to be missing the point by picking on only the contemporary technologies.

At the same time, this is exactly why her critique doesn’t go far enough. Books connect you to people of a different time and place, giving you the ability to see through their eyes and enter into a kind of dialogue with them. Similarly, online video games and chat rooms provide opportunities for those who struggle to fit into their own communities to form others with satisfying friendships and regular affirmation of their interests and personalities. However, insofar that both can become a replacement for and not a facilitator of our interactions with others, they become something akin to an idol—an object of obsession which stops us from loving God and loving others. As John Calvin wrote, our minds are a “perpetual factory of idols.” We allow pornography to replace our spouses, the Bible to replace God, and chat rooms to replace friendships. Anything which stands in the way of our loving God and others is a threat, and our trouble is not necessarily that we love the wrong things, but that we can quite easily make good things into idols. As Turkle astutely puts it, “emotional life can move from ‘I have a feeling, I want to call a friend,’ to ‘I want to feel something, I need to make a call.’” The trite but accurate expression, “we are supposed to love people and use things” is relevant here, and we must always fight the temptation to get these reversed.

I looked, and behold! a spray tan horse (or, how the loss of literacy could spell the end for western civilization)

When Kim Kardashian tweeted, “Today marks the 100 year anniversary of Armenian Genocide!” as if she were giving a birth announcement, it predictably elicited some snickers. But not from John McWhorter. In his Daily Beast article appropriately titled “Why Kim Kardashian Can’t Write Good,” McWhorter argues that America is shifting from book-patterned thinking to more informal, verbal-based communication, and that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s just an example of “times changing in ways that hurt no one.”

On the surface, he seems to agree with media theorist Neil Postman’s premise that the primary communication medium a society uses will necessarily shape how it communicates, and that each medium has its own structure and emphases. What he doesn’t claim (and what Postman does) is that not all mediums are appropriate for all messages, and that when a new medium becomes the predominant one in a culture, it can fundamentally change the public discourse. Writing, for instance, is linear and builds upon previous information. Television, in contrast, must be formatted to be consumed in bite size chunks where no previous knowledge can be assumed. This is why Postman argued that education, as traditionally defined, is better accomplished through writing than through television.

Although this concept of mediums shaping messages was given popular expression by media theorists like Postman and Marshall McLuhan, it has much older, deeper roots in Judeo-Christian thought. In the Old Testament, we find two mediums of communication privileged when it comes to facilitating theological education and worship: writing and speech. Writing seems to be the highest form of discourse given the place of primacy that the Ten Commandments, and indeed the whole Torah, had in the Jewish mind (see Deuteronomy 31:10-12). However, oral discourse also had a distinct religious importance since it was the primary mode of daily communication; thus the command to talk regularly about the law of God with one’s children (Deuteronomy 6:7).

In contrast, pictorial representations for the purpose of teaching and inspiring worship were not completely without merit (Exodus 25:22), but could not be used to facilitate worship proper, as the Hebrews learned all too well during the incident of the golden calf (Exodus 32). God could be represented in words, particularly those written words that He inspired, but not in images. The implication of this is that the medium in which a message is transmitted is not irrelevant to the content of the message. Pictorial representations of the God of Israel were not seen as capable of conveying the things about Himself which He wanted to disclose, but would instead lead the recipients of His self-disclosure astray.

The relationship of medium to message is implicitly disclosed in the New Testament as well. Jesus of Nazareth, the itinerant preacher, relied primarily on verbal modes of communication, and can therefore be contrasted with Paul, the writer. Jesus told memorable parables and stories which could be easily remembered and reinterpreted for different contexts. Paul wrote long letters that relied upon sustained linear argumentation. He communicated his points by building his case progressively and carefully arranging his data. He wasn’t interested in quickly grabbing the attention of a passerby and sharing a convicting aphorism for him to remember, but in demonstrating his thesis to someone who was willing to follow his train of thought from beginning to end. The result is that Jesus’ theology has to be constructed by the reader while Paul’s already is constructed. The listener trying to make sense of Jesus’ philosophy will miss quite a lot if he isn’t capable of laying it out systematically, as Paul did. That’s what makes Kim Kardashian’s tweet, symptomatic as it is of a larger trend, so terrifying. It represents a fundamental failure to think beyond 140 characters.

The danger we find ourselves in today, of casting aside the more literate Pauline approach, is that in doing so we will have lost the ability for sustained, developed, complex thought and be left instead with a worldview resembling a Twitter feed—a random arrangement of slogans and metaphors. Once we have given up literacy because it’s too difficult, we cannot be like those oral cultures which were shaped by Homer, the Mishnah, or Beowulf. We’ll be lucky if we can aspire to Lady Gaga.

Is Kim Kardashian the harbinger of the West’s doom, and proof that careful, structured thought is on its way out? Perhaps. But that is exactly why westerners should remain, as the Qur’an referred to Jews and Christians in an era of increasing illiteracy, a people of the book.

Nebulosity, thy name is feminism

Aziz Ansari recently delighted mainstream feminists on The Late Show with David Letterman when he claimed that, “if you believe that men and women have equal rights, and then someone asks you if you’re a feminist, you have to say yes.” His contention was, essentially, that feminism is nothing more than the claim that men and women ought to have the same rights.

As nearly every westerner knows, feminism has an image problem. According to a recent Huffington Post poll, only 23% of women identified with the label feminist, even though only 9% of both male and female respondents claimed to disagree with the statement “men and women should be social, political, and economic equals.” In this climate, Ansari is a welcome public supporter for many feminists (the ones who don’t think that having male genitalia necessarily makes you an oppressor, anyway). But is he correct? It’s certainly true that most dictionaries agree with his definition, but there are so many varieties of feminism, some of which frankly contradict the idea of gender equality, that it doesn’t approximate how the word has been used by many self-defined feminists.

To cite only one example, in an episode of the podcast Fully Engaged Feminism, Avory Faucette of the Radically Queer blog brought up an issue dividing traditional second wave feminists from more contemporary feminists–whether men who identify as women should be welcomed into the feminist fold. Said Avory, “it’s right for some people not to identify with the label feminist because” of the “radical feminist” notion that “patriarchy equals [having  a phallus].” They also discussed a feminist event at a pagan conference that excluded transgender men who identified as women because “their physical embodiment in a space was triggering” to women.

Despite what Ansari claims, the most accurate-to-life definition for feminism is probably the etymological one. A feminist is someone who has beliefs or doctrines centered around female concerns. Therefore, feminist thinking is woman-focused thinking. It should be obvious that this doesn’t necessarily tell us about its validity or rightness. Which women? Whose concerns? The feminist group Radicalesbians emerged out of woman-focused concerns that oppression of women was so central to men’s identities that any woman who has sexual or romantic interactions with a man is participating in their oppression. They therefore consciously chose to engage in only lesbian relationships. Is this equality-focused thinking? No, but it’s certainly a form of feminism. On the other side of the feminist spectrum, women like Suzanne Venker and Christina Hoff  Sommers have claimed that much of feminism has negatively affected women by putting pressure on them to pursue what are traditionally thought of as male-oriented activities (career, sexual “freedom,” etc.) when that often isn’t what they want. They are also women who are concerned about women’s issues, and yet they are often labelled anti-feminists due to a feminist orthodoxy that has nothing to do with feminism’s dictionary definition.

This brings us to the other major problem with saying feminism is simply synonymous with equality: it is, frankly, sneaky. Some issues which are considered to be essential feminist issues, such as open access to abortion or making sure that women have equal representation in the corporate world whether they want it or not (and data suggests that many don’t), are not obviously relevant to the cause of equality. But by saying that feminism (which is often seen to include pro-choice philosophy by default) simply is  the belief in equal rights between the sexes, one can sneak these controversial issues in and make the person who has accepted the feminist propagandist definition believe that they are common sense, since political equality between the genders is common sense.

As a Christian, I think that the safety, well-being, and freedom of women should be an essential concern on both a personal  and societal level. But when someone asks if I’m a feminist, I have to ask, “what do you mean?”

The Dark Knight Rises, the French Revolution, and the Dangers of Political Extremism

Recently released on DVD, The Dark Knight Rises completes director Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. The plot hinges upon villain Bane’s takeover of Gotham for the purpose of destroying it, on the pretense that he is a liberator giving Gotham back to the people in an anti-rich uprising. This event pulls Batman out of retirement, forcing him to do something to save his city.

The Dark Knight Rises was released at the tail end of the Occupy Wall Street movement’s popularity. OWS was a generally strongly left leaning movement (though there were certainly libertarian factions) that reacted against a few Americans holding much of the country’s wealth. They called themselves the 99%, although compared to the rest of the world’s wealth distribution, most of them had much more in common with the wealthy 1% who lived a life of comparative leisure. That aside, many of the concerns they raised were quite valid, though some of the more extreme rhetoric was at times quite troubling.

The Dark Knight Rises places some of the OWS rhetoric into the mouth of Selina Kyle (Catwoman). Kyle aligns herself with Bane against those in power in Gotham who she views as greedy and selfish (including, ironically, Bruce Wayne, though he has admittedly been lax in recent years of his philanthropic responsibilites). At first she almost seems to view Bane as a force of retributive justice, but it doesn’t take long for her to see how volatile and twisted he is.

After Bane kills the rich and “gives Gotham back to the people,” including redistributing their property, Kyle, while looking through what once was a wealthy person’s home, woefully remarks to her friend, “This is someone’s home.” To which her friend responds, “no, it’s everyone’s home… this is what you wanted.”

Similarly, when Bane “occupies Wall Street,” some police seem less than enthralled about stopping him. When it is remarked that he’s messing with everyone’s money, one cop says, “my money’s under my pillow,” suggesting he has no sympathy for the rich because they live more comfortably. Of course, he fails to understand that the economy is an inter-connected web, and the loss of a (at least relatively) free market harms everyone, and he is chastised for it. If Wall Street falls, the money under his pillow won’t be worth anything.

Bane is not only no better than the power-hungry capitalists Kyle railed against, he is far worse– far more destructive. The implication is that one can’t be too careful when jumping on political bandwagons. Just because someone is against the old order doesn’t mean they can be trusted to bring a better new order. Political extremism is dangerous, no matter what side of the spectrum it’s on.

This point seems to be driven home by plotpoints with historical parallels, particularly in the French Revolution– an event in history where the king and many aristocrats were killed (by the use of the guillotine, the Revolution’s most terrifying symbol) and power was given to “the people,” which is to say to anti-aristocratic, anti-religious tyrants who claimed to represent the rights of all men. Their concerns about the privilege of the powerful were quite valid, but what they inherited through the tools of violent oppression were no better.

One key example of TDKR paralleling the French Revolution deals with the iconic moment par excellence of the Revolution– the storming of the Bastille prison. This is matched in TDKR by Bane storming Blackgate Prison and releasing the prisoners. In both instances it was claimed to be an act of liberation against the oppressive jailers who are at the head of society.

Other similarities include the leaders of the new order– in TDKR they are seated as judges on ridiculous high benches; during the French Revolution the Montagnards (mountain men) were named for the high benches from which they declared the fates of the formerly rich and powerful. Also of note is that the French new order’s convention began meeting in a tennis court, whereas Bane announces the new order in a football stadium. All of these parallels in TDKR point to the fact that the threat of political extremism isn’t theoretical– it’s a genuine danger. It’s happened before.

Other parallels are less specific, such as when Bane tears up a picture of Harvey Dent in front of the crowds, claiming it is a false idol. This brings to remembrance the destruction of places of worship by the anti-religious French revolutionaries. Bane claims that he has given Gotham back to the people, but then rules over it far more despotically than the capitalists and cops had before, demanding the deaths of the rich and powerful in the name of freedom. Bane is the French Robespierre, the Russian Lenin, the Chinese Mao. He claims to represent the people, and because his tyrannical approach looks different than that of the previous corrupt forces, he is mistakenly hailed as a savior. However, his impact is in hindsight only detrimental to freedom, prosperity, and human life.

The Dark Knight Rises also seems to pull from fictional protrayals of the French Revolution, specifically Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. This becomes clear at the end of the film, when Commissioner Gordon reads an apt selection from it.

The Dark Knight Rises is a more complicated film than one might suspect at first glance. Sure, it’s a superhero movie and some of its events seem improbable, but the points it illustrates are incredibly significant for our lives, and have a lot more to do with historical and contemporary reality than we would be expected to think.

The Dark Knight and Christ’s Substitutionary Atonement

I know I’m posting kind of late about what has long ago been a cultural phenomenon, but I felt like I had made an interesting discovery and wanted to share it. There’s a theme in the film that I’m not sure was intended. There seems to be a strong Christian parallel of Batman, Joker, and Harvey Dent with Jesus, Satan, and Adam respectively.

The Joker is unique as a villain because he doesn’t have some sob story to rationalize why he does what he does. He simply loves to hurt people. However, killing people is not necessarily his main focus. In fact, he would gladly face death himself if he could bring Batman or Dent into sin, ruining whatever good is in them.

Harvey Dent, the squeaky clean district attorney of Gotham, shares an important characteristic with Adam– he starts off good, but is led away by the Joker, constantly being torn between his original good nature and the evil nature that has taken over. Finally, he completely demolishes all of the morals he once believed in. That’s where Batman (as a type of Christ) steps in.

Although I can’t say Batman shares a lot of characteristics with Jesus, he at least shares three– he is the last source of moral order in a world gone wrong, he doesn’t succumb to Joker’s temptations, and he takes Harvey Dent’s place by putting his sin upon himself. This seems to me to be a clear parallel of substitutionary atonement– Christ taking on our sins and allowing himself to be punished so we can be declared righteous (justified).