Friday, September 14, 2012

Seeing the game: Constraints on virtuous online discourse

Image from Rob Annable/Flickr
My techno-linguistic-virtue brain has been working overtime today as I've encountered a few pieces online. First I came across this great little piece from author/church-planter, J.R. Briggs, offering 10 self-reflective questions for making status updates on Facebook. They are:
  1. What is my motive?
  2. Will this matter in a month?
  3. Is this wise?
  4. Is it worth it?
  5. Does everyone need to read this?
  6. Am I encouraging conversation or shutting it down?
  7. How’s my tone of voice?
  8. Is this honoring?
  9. Is this truthful?
  10. Could I be investing my time more wisely by doing something else?
While the list is a bit longer than you'd want to write down and tape next to your computer monitor for every single time you post something to Facebook, it nonetheless offers great reminders, especially the first question on motive. "What is this status update for? From what desires does it spring, and are those legitimate?"

Virtuous discourse is something I think and write about from time to time - so it's nice to see other leaders in the church encouraging the same. And then I saw this tweet from Adam Graber:
We must learn to see technology the way we see language, "as transparent conduits of meaning."
This had actually come after an earlier tweet of Adam's, which sent me to this excellent article at The Atlantic by Navneet Alang: Google Glasses and the Myth of Augmented Reality

Alang has a number of outstanding insights in the article and they get to my one concern with Briggs' post: If we're not careful, the good advice that is focused only on our individual behavior and motivations in the "world" of Facebook might lead us to a rather detached, instrumentalist view of our participation in it.  In other words, we may get the impression that we're "over here" and Facebook is somehow "over there" and we can be "objective" about how we use it. (I'm not accusing Briggs of doing this, since it's the only post I've ever read on his blog...)

This statement from Alang helps caution us against such an understanding:
When we walk down a street [or use Facebook], what is 'out there' is already constructed by us and for us. How we respond to the design of a car, the layout of a building, or fellow pedestrians [or the status update box] is already overloaded with interpretation, weighted down and moulded by things much bigger than us.
Alang goes deeper into territory that I've covered - on the telos of for-profit purveyors of social media, i.e. profit. He's analyzing a video from Google for their Project Glass - quasi-eyeglasses which augment your field of vision with digital information and interaction...
Compare to first image
But as Alang humorously points out, "Google wants you to see a leisurely, consumptive day of coffee and ukulele." So while Google is pitching here a digital-utopian vision, it is one with an inescapably consumeristic anthropology. Somewhat breathtakingly, Google wants to condition - literally - your vision of everyday life into one of constant consumption and informational acquisition (itself a form of consumption).

Facebook is similar. As we're trying to go about the good task of communicating virtuously through our status updates, we also have to understand that the status box comes preloaded with meaning. In the case of Facebook, anything we give it is marketing data that is then sold to advertising clients and fed back to us in new and surprising/annoying ways.

Example: In the past month I've started seeing mens underwear ads on Facebook. And despite my hiding them and marking them (I do this somewhat tongue-in-cheekily) "sexually explicit" or "offensive," they keep coming back: Pictures of men's butts in "fab" underwear. Additionally, on Spotify (which is connected deeply with Facebook), I've noticed ads for condoms for the first time since I've started using the app . What gives?

My hunch is that I've been posting status updates lately about being a "bachelor," in the sense that my wife and daughter have started our transition from Virginia back to our home state of Iowa while I finish my work in Virginia, living alone in a basement apartment I've called - in status updates - "the bachelor pad." What do bachelors in this consumeristic age need? Stylin' underwear and condoms sound like likely candidates! (Just in case you're wondering, ad robots, I am not in the market for either.)

So what do we do? With Briggs, I'll keep on using Facebook and Spotify - just like we'll all keep using computers and cars and air conditioning and buildings and books and clothes...all instances of tradition- and value-laden technology. As Alang says, "there is no such thing as an 'un-augmented [or un-technological] reality'," but as we do so, "we will need...counter-cultural realities sutured into our more ordinary ones, bursts of the counter-hegemonic appearing before our eyes while waiting in line for the taco truck." (What a great sentence!)

For the church in American society, this task of embodying "bursts of the counter-hegemonic" could be thought of as striving first for the kingdom of God and God's righteousness/justice (Mt. 6:33) in our daily lives in/as Christ's body...waiting in line for the taco truck, perhaps strumming our ukelele.

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