“Blogger’s Anonymous,” or, thoughts for when you’d rather visit the Bloggernacle than do your Visiting/Home Teaching

ijDavid Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest explores the problem of entertainment-fueled solipsism (getting stuck inside your own head). The massive novel was published about a decade before we began carrying around Internet chat rooms, blogs, message boards, and Facebook in our pockets, but it anticipated some of the anxieties people feel about recent technological developments. In the book, a group of wheelchair-driving Canadian separatist terrorists from Quebec (don’t ask) are trying to get their hands on a weapon of mass destruction in order to bring the United States to its knees. It’s not a nuclear bomb or a toxic virus or anything like that. The weapon is a movie. A film. A film that is so perfect, so pleasurable, so captivating, so entertaining, that the moment you begin watching you will forgo everything else in your life (food, sex, friends, sleep, everything) just to keep watching.

Pretty much until you literally die.

This entertainment causes viewers to disconnect entirely from everyone and everything else in order to forever enjoy the pure “infinite jest.” In Wallace’s words, it is “lethally entertaining.”1

Wallace said this surreal premise was intended to spark some thinking about our relationship to technology and other people in a lampoonish way, but through the course of the novel it becomes less and less lampoonish because it reflects real concerns Wallace had:

“WALLACE: I mean, at some point in the next ten or fifteen years we’re gonna have virtual reality pornography, which I would just invite you to think about given the level of, you know, people whose lives are ruined just by addiction to sort of video peep show stores now. I mean, what its gonna be like and what sort of resources we’re gonna have to cultivate in ourselves and in our citizenry, to keep from, sort of, dying [laughs] on couches. I mean, maybe that sounds silly, but this stuff’s gonna get better and better and better and better, and it’s not clear to me that we as a culture are teaching ourselves or our children, you know, what we’re gonna say yes and no to.”

In light of the Church’s recent emphasis on sharing goodness and faith using technology, I want to focus here on four inseparable subjects: technology, communication, entertainment, and human relationships. Elder David A. Bednar’s landmark address on using communication technology to spread our faith is actually just the latest in a long line of optimistic sermons by LDS leaders who exult in the power of technology.2 But church leaders have also consistently manifested Wallace’s discomfort, too. New technologies can have both positive and negative effects; they can be used to bless and they can be used to curse.

Anxiety surrounding communication technology is as old as Plato. In Phaedrus he lamented the spread of writing as a corruption, a mode far inferior to speech—static scratches on parchment is nothing compared to the living, breathing, full-blooded direct speech of the rhetorician. Every advance in communication technology has been accompanied by warnings that new modes—telegraph, telephone, internet—would sound the death knell for healthy embodied human interaction.3 Wallace fits into this cautionary mode, and so does Elder Bednar, whose warning about “excessive video gaming or online socializing” appeared in one of the most interesting sermons on communications, embodiment, and technology I’ve ever seen from an LDS leader.4

Some of Elder Bednar’s remarks could just as well have been spoken by Wallace: “We live at a time when technology can be used to replicate reality, to augment reality, and to create virtual reality.” Yes, he adds, many wonderful benefits have accrued as a result, but we should also beware possible dangers “such as experimenting with actions contrary to God’s commandments or enticing us to think or do things we would not otherwise think or do.”

This resonance is not so surprising, considering Elder Bednar is speaking from the future Wallace envisioned. But then Elder Bednar goes on to discuss something Wallace’s novel didn’t explore as much: the way that technology and entertainment has increasingly come to include other people—you’re not necessarily alone like the spectators of IJ, but you don’t need to actually be present with anyone in order to feel connected, which can cause disconnect from people closer to you as you become closer to people further from you. Elder Bednar warns:

“Please be careful of becoming so immersed and engrossed in pixels, texting, earbuds, twittering, online social networking, and potentially addictive uses of media and the Internet that you fail to recognize the importance of your physical body and miss the richness of person-to-person communication. Beware of digital displays and data in many forms of computer-mediated interaction that can displace the full range of physical capacity and experience.”

pawelkuczynski1facebookGiven Joseph Smith’s teachings about matter and embodiment, Elder Bednar’s underlying claim (“our relationships with other people, our capacity to recognize and act in accordance with truth, and our ability to obey the principles and ordinances of the gospel of Jesus Christ are amplified through our physical bodies”) might even be glossed to say these particular things aren’t merely amplified by embodiment, but are ultimately contingent upon it.

So the Internet adds a potent new component to Wallace’s hypothetical IJ. Rather than being singularly captivated by an entertainment all by yourself, the Internet offers the ability to generate friendships—very real ones, sometimes very important ones. Some of my most rewarding friendships have come about through the Internet.

And that’s just it. Can this all-too-easily replace the ward functions I’m supposed to perform and be a part of, not to mention interactions and bonding with my immediate family? It seems to me there is something crucial about being present with others that can be lost if the majority of our most intimate interaction is confined to the Internet, or if we allow digital connections to impede physical connections. Adam Miller touched on this in a recent interview about his book Letters to a Young Mormon:

Mormon Stories: “So what’s the difference between—for you—what’s the difference between going to an LDS Church and sitting through the three hours and getting whatever you can out of it, versus what you might experience walking through nature, for example, in the sense that a walk might be enlightening or edifying. Is that religion, too, for you?

Adam Miller: Well I certainly think that spirit and grace can show themselves to you going for a walk in the woods. But I think that there’s a different kind of urgency to the experience that you have in church on Sunday when you show up and you sit for three hours with, with a group of people who, like you, are sinners; who, like you, are struggling with things in their lives, and who will make demands on you for your time, for your care, for your attention. That’s not the kind of thing I think that you’re likely to find walking by yourself in the woods, though I don’t want to downplay the importance of that kind of silence and solitude either.

Yes, let’s use technology to serve, uplift, and teach. Yes, let’s consider the drawbacks to the miraculous resources we have to work with today. (In addition to the problem of sacrificing physical presence for digital, there’s the ongoing problem of cyber bullying.) Elder Bednar has encouraged us to use technology to spread faith but he’s also warned us of the potential misuses of technology.

Yes, there are plenty of blog posts that are more interesting to me than a lot of Sunday School lessons I sit through. But what good are they if they don’t impact me beyond the screen?

I like the Bloggernacle best when I carry, next to my heart, the ideas garnered here—ideas that I can implement in my local interactions at home and church. Sometimes our online Mormon communities can feel more enriching than our local Mormon communities. My hope is that I can make better use of both to enrich the other.

 

FOOTNOTES*

1. This and other Wallace quotes in the post are from an interview with Wallace on To the Best of Our Knowledge in 1996. The audio is available here. (Direct mp3 link here.)

2. Orson Pratt, one of early Mormonism’s foremost authors and publishers, exultantly wrote from England in 1850 that the increasing ease and speed of travel had “almost united the two continents into one.” Technological developments enabled Isaiah’s prophesied “swift messengers” to warn the world of coming judgment and gather the elect to Zion: “The extensive circulation of the printed word has also given an impetus to the rolling of the great wheel of salvation.” See my piece “Google Earth Mormonism” for more.

3. For more on this, see one of my favorite books of all time: John Durham Peters, Speaking Into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (University of Chicago Press, 2001).

4. Elder David A. Bednar, “Things as They Really Are,” from a CES address delivered at BYU–Idaho on May 3, 2009. All Elder Bednar quotes in this post are from that address.

*Photo from amberwilkie.com and picture by Pawel Kuczynski at pictorem.com. Tip o’ the cap to Google Images and Michael Hicks, respectively. 

Comments

  1. You had me at DFW, but this is really great stuff, Blair, and in keeping with the concerns expressed in Elder Bednar’s talk. Like you, I’ve met lots of great friends through the internet, and I’m really grateful for that, but there’s still no substitute for breaking bread with someone in person. I try to do that at every chance I get.

  2. This is a pet topic for E. Bednar, and it’s a good one. I often wonder about my own kids’ ability to interact in person with other people. I’ve noticed it with the missionaries who are coming out in the last few years, too. They seem really uncomfortable talking over the phone, just not sure what to say or how to end phone calls, and I hear my kids do this too. They also aren’t that confident having to talk to teachers in person. I think it’s got to do with the fact that having a conversation in writing is very different from a verbal conversation. In a verbal conversation you have a lot more clues as to meaning, but you also have more time to formulate your response and to try to understand what the other person is saying (or to willfully misunderstand them).

  3. *meaning in writing you have more time to formulate a response. Verbal conversations require more off the cuff thinking.

  4. Timely topic, thanks. But a quibble with part of your reasoning, Blair. You say, “[s]ometimes our online Mormon communities can feel more enriching than our local Mormon communities.” But is that not real? If the choice is between going to church or going to the hills, yes, your conclusion is correct — you miss out on something when you don’t come together as real flesh-and-blood saints and sinners. But I don’t think I hear anybody arguing for replacing home teaching, for example, with online interaction.

    You’re faulting an apple for not being a good orange, no?

  5. Hunter, good question. I don’t want to demonize online interaction or imply that enrichment from online communities is always inferior to physical presence. But I think one particular trouble crops up when online interaction becomes so much more satisfying compared to in-person interaction to the point that the latter becomes too burdensome. The church as presently structured calls us each to adhere to geographical boundaries for our worship community. Church shopping is somewhat diminished in Mormonism because you have to literally move in order to be in a different ward. By contrast, our online communities are much more self-selecting.

    So it isn’t a matter of people advocating to replace or abolish home/visiting teaching in favor of online interaction, but rather that my personal enjoyment of the latter threatens to make the former too onerous by comparison.

  6. Thanks for the clarification. Makes sense.

  7. MagpieLovely says:

    Angela C.– I’ve been thinking about this argument since a friend brought it up this summer: the question is essentially whether our children can be good missionaries if they are consumed by the social media/electronic world that we live in. She bans screens and smart phones from her home. So her children are going to be well oriented to interact with other people who also socialize in a certain way (without technology). Perhaps her children are well suited for the expectations of a current, traditional mission. They’ll be able to interact well with adults over the age of 30.

    But they are also kind of social outcasts in the current teenage world in which they live. Their 16 year old desperately questioned me about Pinterest and Instagram the moment her mother left the room. None of the children in this family could even begin to carry out Bednar’s current exhortation to spread the gospel online. They will have to overcome social obstacles to connect to anyone under the age of 30.

    The way our whole society interacts is changing. If no one interacts on the telephone or face to face, why would we insist that there is something morally superior about interacting in that way? I have heard more than one Mormon mother invoke “social skills on a mission” as a way to bolster this argument that communicating through technology is somehow morally inferior, and I think it’s shallow.

    The answer, as always, is the need for balance and moderation, but I really dislike the idea that a future Mormon mission is a good reason to isolate and stunt our children’s technological connections.

  8. Nice sneaky attempt to get me to finish Infinite Jest. Joke’s on you, Hodges! I’m perfectly content with the 200 pages of incomprehensible frustration I’ve already digested!

    But yes – Mormonism is a lived religion. Social media is not living.

  9. Interesting post. I think there are two aspects to address:

    1) There is a risk to online communications/media because they are more “frictionless” than offline communications/media (it’s easier to get on and stay online), that could cause us to avoid more frictional venues (serving people offline requires actual work…)

    2) There is additional friction to some of our offline venues that is external to the mere fact that it is offline, that we can often avoid with online venues because of secondary considerations to how we communicate online. What I mean here is this: it’s true that part of the reason why many interact with others online rather than offline is because it’s easier and more convenient (per 1)…but another part of the reason is because many of the people we would have to associate with offline are annoying, disagreeable, inhospitable, etc., Similar kinds of people absolutely also exist online (and one could say that the “frictionlessness” of online means that people can more easily be jerks or trolls too), but we choose to organize more by shared interests, views, etc., online.

    I can absolutely see how (1) is something worth avoiding. But it’s a little more difficult to suggest that people avoid (2). I absolutely think that many people make the argument (e.g., Eugene England’s “Why the Church is as True as the Gospel,” Adam Miller’s comments on boredom being where we have reached the limits of what interests *us* and as being an opportunity to invest in *others*, arguments in general against joining echo chambers), but it’s just a far more difficult sale.

    That’s why many disaffected or not-so-disaffected-as-just-really-unorthodox folks tend to say things like, “If my ward were like the Bloggernacle, I’d go every week.” It’s not the physical interaction that they were avoiding, primarily.

  10. Andrew S: “That’s why many disaffected or not-so-disaffected-as-just-really-unorthodox folks tend to say things like, “If my ward were like the Bloggernacle, I’d go every week.” It’s not the physical interaction that they were avoiding, primarily.”

    I think this is a good point, that it isn’t necessarily the physical element that makes the difference. After all, we’re not just showing up at church and sitting together in silence. We’re listening to talks, lessons, offering comments, etc. At the same time, it’s easier for me to ignore some Internet troll or anonymous commenter, or faceless commenter, than to shut out that person right down the block who always follows up any comments I make in class with his own corrections, and my obligation seems greater toward the latter than the former.

  11. I would love a BCC ward. several times I have borne my testimony that I think we have a gospel that functions two ways: vertically, in our personal relationship with God and horizontally in our relationships with each other (IRL wards). I don’t think you can make it with only completing one side. Though it’s sometimes tempting.

  12. In a weird way – online is safe – depending on your interest, your struggle, your passions. Living vicariously is safe. The face to face world has become (in my opinion) a land mine of pain. The verbal wars of FoxNews vs. Jon Stewart. The constant state of eternal politics. The inter-religious intensity that is everywhere from bumper stickers to people in line at the grocery store. (I was once verbally accosted by a guy behind in my check out line over Duck Dynasty because of a tabloid picture. I don’t even watch Duck Dynasty, but I got his rant full on). So every day I can assuage my pain, anxiety, fear online. I can hide in youtube, bloggernaccle (I even know where to go for my support), etc. I can delete someone’s facebook post that annoys me. Silently wiping them out – Very fun. And as a faith transition-er I get to have conversations I can’t in my present ward. Some wards can have my conversations, not mine at present.

    I am a huge valuer of face to face interactions, of present human conversation, I spend most Sunday’s making myself available for people who want to talk, even if it’s just telling me the story of their kids soccer match on Saturday. I love that. I want us to share our real lives. I am lucky people will share with me. But attending church for the three hours doesn’t give me much theological or doctrinal fuel. I cheer on the Sundays when the talks enrich, but most are rehashes of something I could read at LDS.org online.

    So while I love the sacramental ordinance, while I love the people in my ward – I really do like them, I find three hours very painful and do hunger for internet interaction at the end of the day.

  13. Excellent stuff, Blair. Comments too.

    Kristine, funny you should say that. I read a similar thing in Catholicism for Dummies, which sees both the vertical and horizontal nature of religion in the cross.

    http://www.millennialstar.org/catholicism-and-the-cross/

  14. I’m quite certain that, without the Bloggernacle, I would no longer be a member of the Church. The social/cultural implications of trying to find comfort/safety/community/understanding about my doubts within the walls of the physical church. The Bloggernacle became a place, unlike my ward, where I could (virtually) raise my hand and say “This stuff makes no sense to me and actually makes me rather uncomfortable.”

    Not only could I not do that in my actual ward without being typecast as “that apostate guy” but I wouldn’t have received the same outpouring of love, support, comfort and understanding as I have in the Bloggernacle.

    So, you can see how, to me, the Internet is not just a device that must be handled carefully in the context of the gospel, but actually a tool that can and does supplement in a real way the physical church in a meaningful way. Its strengths complement the weaknesses of the Church, and vice versa.

  15. Should have said “The social/cultural implications of trying to find comfort/safety/community/understanding about my doubts within the walls of the physical church were too costly.”

  16. I like being active in both arenas, since each arena fills a unique need.

    Also, I believe deeply that establishing Zion is impossible without interaction that includes people with whom I wouldn’t associate naturally, since I believe Zion is NOT a group of people who all think alike about everything. I think Zion is a community of disparate people who love each other in spite of their differences (even serious ones), and online interactions tend to be homogenous or polarizing – echo chambers or verbal confrontations. There absolutely is a place for online groups to function as support groups, but there also is an important place where it is necessary to learn and practice real charity – which includes “long-suffering”.

    I think the key is our expectations for each venue – and not assuming one or the other can fill all of our needs in the process of experiencing peace and joy and becoming like God.

  17. To clarify, church alone can fill many people’s needs. Many people don’t need online discussion groups to have peace and joy and become more like God. That’s fine for them. My last comment was about those of us who participate online for an internal reason, not just to share the Gospel with others.

  18. Thanks, Ray, Ben, James, for sounding off.

    Kristine A: I’ve heard it said that Mark Brown is the bishop of the BCC First Ward., FWIW.

    Carrie: Thanks. I hope you can find ways to let the online stuff leaven the in person stuff and vice versa. Maybe through comments in Sunday School or talks in the hallways, or in a sacrament meeting talk.

  19. I am in Ray’s camp, where both the real brick and mortar church fills certain needs, and the bloggernacle fills others. I also find that they tend to feed each other, in kind of a circular way. I participate in some discussion online, but also use my real church experience in my own “flooding the earth” kind of way by posting on my facebook page a “Best Lines From Church Today” series, which includes nuggets like these:

    Best lines from church today: Being Mother’s Day, some of our youth were speaking about their mothers.

    12 Year Old Boy: “My mother keeps me alive, and I appreciate that.”
    14 Year Old Boy; “Mother’s Day, the one day Mom has complete dictatorial powers, although it feels like that on other days, too.”
    18 Year Old Boy, commenting about the lovely piano, cello, and vocal duet that we had just listened to: “I really appreciate that musical number, and how well Sister S. played the cello. I’ve listened to my sister play, and those notes don’t come out of there on their own.”

  20. I have to also add a post script that my husband was very uncomfortable with me participating in the bloggernacle because he assumed I was shifting my allegiance and authority from the church to the internets — until I explained to him it filled a need that I had to be authentically accepted in a faith community. Since then he’s been pretty chill about it.

  21. melodynew says:

    Kristine A: you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. . . ;)

  22. Kevinf, those are great. Kristine A: invite him along.

  23. It will be a warm day in January in Rexburg when that happens; it’s a hopeful thought, though not realistic. He doesn’t read out of lds.org for the moment.

  24. This is an issue that will become more and more important as we move from Infinite Jest to Ready Player One, and we’re forced to tease out the actual differences and pros/cons of real-life interaction vs. virtual worlds. It’s not quite right to express surprise that we have bloggernacle relationships that are stronger than IRL relationships with people in our ward…virtual platforms can be perfect for creating meaningful, personal connections quickly and safely. Our insecurities and vulnerabilities are different online, our communication styles are different, so of course our relationships will be different.

  25. Blair, This was fantastic. I’ve been reading a pile of Philip K. Dick and imagining what people are calling ‘the post-human’ world will look like. We are standing on the brink of things, we can’t even imagine, and what interests me most is how this will change our conception not only reality but of theology. When God created the world through words, in ancient Jewish thought writing itself changed everything (including the creation of new ways of conceiving God based on say, the tetragrammaton). Are we on the verge of a new revolution in how we conceive of the sacred? Already there are calls for the universe to be considered a simulation, and what happens when virtual and real are blurred, for example what if we reach the point where we can attend a ward, and interact so realistically, that almost nothing is lost in the simulacrum (this is easier for me to imagine than a walk in nature because the elements of engagement are just people and pews, a few sleeping high priests, and some rugs)? Or, because I feel like staying home, I just send my avatar to church with my latest brain scan to interact with everyone while I stay home and watch Dr. Who? I have a feeling my grandkids are going to be hanging out in a world so different from mine that I cannot even imagine it.

    PS. Full disclosure the above comment was made by SteveBot7 a new neurological-based text creator for those to busy to interact in virtual on-line life.

  26. Sure, SteveBot7 passes the Turing Test, but SteveBot8 has a bigger touchscreen…

  27. SteveP, I read The Age of Spiritual Machines a few years ago. It was a trip.

  28. I’m disappointed that my previous dumber snarky post got a lot more comments than this one.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 9,463 other followers