Another Week Ends: Immortal Smartphones, Jefferson Bethke, Adolescent Rewards, Profound Comedy, Therapeutic Irony, more George Lucas, Pixar and Hunger Gamesby David Zahl on Feb 3, 2012 • 3:50 pm 2 Comments
1. In last weekend’s NY Times Magazine, Carina Chocano explained “The Dilemma of Being a Cyborg” – AKA what our current obsession with “data” has to say about our humanity – dropping her usual allotment of insight bombs along the way. Not only does she point out the increasingly prevailing illusion that if something wasn’t ‘documented’ it didn’t happen, she gets at the real crux of our smartphoned existence: the false promise of immortality. In other words, a familiar serpent has found its way into the, um, Apple Store:
This is the dilemma of being a cyborg: It’s not just that everything we once committed to memory we now store externally on devices that crash or become obsolete or are rendered temporarily inaccessible due to lack of coverage… It’s that we’re collectively engaged in a mass conversion of what we used to call, variously, records, accounts, entries, archives, registers, collections, keepsakes, catalogs, testimonies and memories into, simply, data.
“Data” has become the default word used to describe the constantly generated, centrally stored evidence of our existence. I wasn’t surprised to learn that the word “data” comes from the Latin for “to give,” and refers to something that is given or relinquished. It also feels significant that data rests at the very bottom of the so-called knowledge hierarchy — below information, knowledge and wisdom.
The ability to store our data externally helps us imagine that our time is limitless, our space infinite. It frees us, in theory at least, from the defining constraints of being human, and sometimes that freaks us out. It strikes me that the current fetishization of analog technology has less to do with nostalgia than it does with an urge to slow down the transfer of data from the internal to the external, from the individual to the collective, and to make it all less instant, less ephemeral, less interchangeable, and more tangible, more linear and more contextual.
2. David Brooks used his column this week to discuss the video that everyone and their brother has been sending around, Jefferson Bethke’s “Why I Hate Religion But Love Jesus.” A few folks have asked me to comment, but I’m not sure there’s much I’d say that Brooks doesn’t cover. Bethke’s making a sympathetic statement – Religion=Law/Control/Judgment, Jesus=Grace/Freedom/Love. I’m glad he put it out and, even more so, I’m glad that people are watching and engaging. It’s perhaps a tad strange how it’s been heralded as groundbreaking, but regardless, Bethke has clearly captured a sentiment that a lot of people share (and always will), and he has done so bravely and creatively. So bravo!
When I first saw the video, I was struck by how much it sounds like the first chapter of 2000 Years of Amazing Grace, where PZ speaks at length about the fundamental tension between institutions and the Gospel. Which is actually indicative of where Brooks goes with it all, namely, as much as Bethke speaks the truth, he also reveals a bit of adolescent naivete about how these issues have been dealt with over the past 2000 (or 50) years. If one were to nitpick, sure, there’s an implicit sense that if we just know what’s wrong, then we can change, that the real problem with Christians is that they’re not hardcore/faithful/loving/gracious enough (rather than these deficiencies being the fundamental problem that ‘religion’ addresses). But by and large, this is good stuff and we should heartily applaud his chutzpah (and certainly not hold his youth against him!). I suppose I might just temper his statements with some acknowledgement of the religious impulse being something that lives within us all, Christian and non, for worse and for better, that perhaps it’s even bigger than we are. Brooks puts it this way:
For generations people have been told: Think for yourself; come up with your own independent worldview. Unless your name is Nietzsche, that’s probably a bad idea. Very few people have the genius or time to come up with a comprehensive and rigorous worldview.
If you go out there armed only with your own observations and sentiments, you will surely find yourself on very weak ground. You’ll lack the arguments, convictions and the coherent view of reality that you’ll need when challenged by a self-confident opposition. This is more or less what happened to Jefferson Bethke.
The paradox of reform movements is that, if you want to defy authority, you probably shouldn’t think entirely for yourself. You should attach yourself to a counter-tradition and school of thought that has been developed over the centuries and that seems true.
3. Speaking of adolescents, Alison Gopnik offered a few thoughts on their brains in the Wall Street Journal, in particular how they are no less wired for Punishment/Reward (Law) than adults, maybe even more so, albeit with a slightly different center of gravity, ht VH:
What happens when children reach puberty earlier and adulthood later? The answer is: a good deal of teenage weirdness. Fortunately, developmental psychologists and neuroscientists are starting to explain the foundations of that weirdness.
…adolescents aren’t reckless because they underestimate risks, but because they overestimate rewards—or, rather, find rewards more rewarding than adults do. The reward centers of the adolescent brain are much more active than those of either children or adults. Think about the incomparable intensity of first love, the never-to-be-recaptured glory of the high-school basketball championship. What teenagers want most of all are social rewards, especially the respect of their peers.
4. Humor-wise, The Onion reports that “New Study Finds Humans May Have Some Capacity For Compassion.” And there’s a host of incredible and highly relevant material in The A/V Club’s column on “The Profoundest Piece of Comedy.”
5. The Harvard Business Review took a look at “Why Appreciation Matters So Much” an, while they’re primarily focused on the workplace, the observations translate into any number of other arenas (relationships, church, children, etc):
Feeling genuinely appreciated lifts people up. At the most basic level, it makes us feel safe, which is what frees us to do our best work. It’s also energizing. When our value feels at risk, as it so often does, that worry becomes preoccupying, which drains and diverts our energy from creating value.
So why is it that openly praising or expressing appreciation to other people at work can so easily seem awkward, contrived, mawkish and even disingenuous? The obvious answer is that we’re not fluent in the language of positive emotions in the workplace. We’re so unaccustomed to sharing them that we don’t feel comfortable doing so. Heartfelt appreciation is a muscle we’ve not spent much time building, or felt encouraged to build.
Oddly, we’re often more experienced at expressing negative emotions — reactively and defensively, and often without recognizing their corrosive impact on others until much later, if we do at all. That’s unfortunate. The impact of negative emotions — and more specifically the feeling of being devalued — is incredibly toxic. As Daniel Goleman has written, “Threats to our standing in the eyes of others are almost as powerful as those to our very survival.”
6. A fascinating review appeared in The Wall Street Journal a few weeks back of what sounds like a fascinating book, Jonathan Lear’s A Case for Irony. Some of the tastier tidbits include, ht TB:
Mr. Lear similarly reinterprets situational irony, the kind of irony where what happens diverges from what is expected. He offers the example of married “Ms. A” who—given what’s socially expected of married women—resolves not to ask her handsome friend Bruno out for a drink but then does so anyway. Here a social expectation leads to the opposite result… It’s not as if Ms. A heads to the gym to avoid calling Bruno, runs into him there and winds up taking him out for a drink. It’s that the very expectation itself—married women do not invite single men to socialize tête-à-tête—causes a resentment to build up until Ms. A surprises herself by taking the opposite course. In the process, she gains a deeper understanding of the parts of herself that had been “cut off” by social rules and her own acquiescence in their logic.
For Mr. Lear, such moments of irony—whether they involve true meaning bursting through civilized surfaces or true desire erupting through social constraints—can be therapeutic. The more such episodes we can incorporate into our life, the more we will stay in touch with who we really are.
7. A half-hilarious, half-tragic account by Liel Leibovitz over at Tablet about “how George Lucas has ruined our lives”:
[Lucas's] good guys are so good that their unique brand of righteousness hardly matters. Take, for example, the issue of the Force, the power Jedi knights possess to manipulate the physical world with their minds. Here’s the best explanation of how it works (Lucas later concocted other, less-convincing ones), delivered by Obi Wan-Kenobi: “It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together. … A Jedi can feel the force flowing through him.”
What do non-Jedi feel? And what are the Jedi to do with said power, other than vanquish the obviously evil masked menaces that knock about the galaxy enslaving all they meet? Lucas never says. He, like [Joseph] Campbell, is uninterested in such questions, which are precisely the questions religion is dedicated to addressing.
We revere Star Wars because to our minds—modern machines that equate religion with superstition and are willing to disregard imperfections in science but never in dogma—the movies represent transcendentalist humanism at its best, a perfect manifestation of that noxious label, “spiritual,” that people use to describe themselves when they’re too dull to believe in religion and too dim to understand science. This is why the Force has become the organizing metaphor of our time; there’s no better one for those who believe that if we only open our hearts and understand people are all the same and all good we’d be enlightened enough to lift rocks with a tilt of our heads.
9. Finally, in music, The A/V Club published an invaluable primer on Leonard Cohen this week. And The Wall Street Journal’s interview with Dion touches at some length on the singer’s faith. His comment on “the day the music died” is especially touching.
P.S. We sent out the official invites to our Spring Conference in NYC this week. If you’d like to receive one, be sure to sign up for our mailing list. If you’d like extras, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll happily oblige! Stay tuned for an (exciting) announcement next week about breakout sessions.
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