POC Blog

The random technotheolosophical blogging of Reid S. Monaghan

The Unbearable Shortness of Writing

This morning I have finally been provoked enough to write something that has been chaffing me for some time.  In the LA Times, Neal Gabler recently published an opinion piece entitled The Zuckerberg Revolution - Social media have increased the volume of our communications yet diminished the substance of them in which he discusses the effect on public discourse of our desire for communication today to be “seamless, informal, immediate, personal, simple, minimal and short.” In other words, the desire that communication be a short stream of nothingness floating by us in a feed of tweets, news and nonsense. OK, that is perhaps my bias showing already.

I will say up front that I am on Twitter, Facebook and obviously I am writing this on my own personal blog. I am in no way a Luddite nor do I disdain new forms of communication. I do however, share Gabler’s concerns that if these sorts of communications become the de facto standard for life in our culture we will loose our ability for complex thought, shaping of ideas, forming arguments and will continue on our way towards a sort of imbecility.  Gabler’s argument centers around the difference between a culture of books/print/reading and that of passive consumption of textual electronic communication. I will leave it to you to read his entire essay - surrounded by banner and Google ads of course - but before I move on from him I want to share a few of his more significant quotes - too long for Tweeting of course. 

The seamless, informal, immediate, personal, simple, minimal and short communication is not one that is likely to convey, let alone work out, ideas, great or not. Facebook, Twitter, Habbo, MyLife and just about every other social networking site pare everything down to noun and verb and not much more. The sites, and the information on them, billboard our personal blathering, the effluvium of our lives, and they wind up not expanding the world but shrinking it to our own dimensions. You could call this a metaphor for modern life, increasingly narcissistic and trivial, except that the sites and the posts are modern life for hundreds of millions of people.

Gutenberg’s Revolution transformed the world by broadening it, by proliferating ideas. Zuckerberg’s Revolution also may change consciousness, only this time by razing what Gutenberg had helped erect. The more we text and Twitter and “friend,” abiding by the haiku-like demands of social networking, the less likely we are to have the habit of mind or the means of expressing ourselves in interesting and complex ways.

He [Zuck] has facilitated a typography in which complexity is all but impossible and meaninglessness reigns supreme. To the extent that ideas matter, we are no longer amusing ourselves to death. We are texting ourselves to death. Ideas, of course, will survive, but more and more they will live at the margins of culture; more and more they will be a private reserve rather than a general fund. Meanwhile, everything at the cultural center militates against the sort of serious engagement that McLuhan described and that Postman celebrated.

Postman [referring to Neal Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death] was more apocalyptic. He believed that a reading society was also a thinking society. No real reading, no real thought. Still, he couldn’t have foreseen that a reading society in which print that was overwhelmingly seamless, informal, personal, short et al would be a society in which that kind of reading would force thought out — a society in which tens of millions of people feel compelled to tell tens of millions of other people that they are eating a sandwich or going to a movie or watching a TV show. So Zuckerberg’s Revolution has a corollary that one might call Zuckerberg’s Law: Empty communications drive out significant ones.

Gutenberg’s Revolution left us with a world that was intellectually rich. Zuckerberg’s portends one that is all thumbs and no brains.

Neal Gabler, The Zuckerberg Revolution, accessed 12.24.2010

For some time I have been scratching my head as to why we find it a good thing to “write short, simple things” on our blogs so that “people will read them.”  It is like we simply accepted that the kids don’t read good any more and we will play along.  Even Derek Zoolander made a stand for the kids where we seem to find no will to be counter cultural in our writing, reading and learning. 

Just yesterday I was reading a site about how to make your blog awesome, build traffic etc. One of the answers was - keep entries real short and simple containing no complex ideas and thought. I will not tell you the french words I uttered when reading that schmack.  Of course this was counsel for those who want high traffic, high readership and high dollars out of their blogs. Obviously, I do not. 

One of my passions is to serve the Christian communitity by challenging us to think a bit more. No, I am not some super intellectual guy. I did not get anywhere near a perfect score on my SAT and I am no genius of any sort at all. I do care that we think, engage God, life and mission with some serious reflection about our questions and deep truths. Some of the most popular Christian blogs have taken up the “short entries” banner these days. You can read most of the entries in less than a minute and not  have to scratch your head one time, or think through anything. I am guessing this is an intentional style to communicate in today’s culture.  But what if today’s culture is heading in a direction that is stupid? Do we just go with it? 

I know I will likely hear from some of you that we must accommodate and contextualize in order to connect and communicate today.  Of course I will agree.  But for God’s sake we must also call ourselves and one another into the deep end of life and thought even though our culture might think there is only a three foot section of the pool. Keep your floaties on kids!

Some might find communication in 165 and 140 characters sufficient and perhaps it is for SOME things. Perhaps we think 22 words is enough to say something and it certainly is enough for something. But are we to be damned to only such things? No, we must not.  

Some ways forward. I’ll keep them short and in bullet form so that we all can read them good. 

  • Be a hold out on the reading of books - even long books
  • Write stuff that is not simple and short - ever so often attempt to say something
  • Live that way with people - your family, community, church, etc. 
  • Think deeply about important things - life and death, God, truth, ethical lives and meaning - stuff the Bible is about. 
  • Think through your questions and put together your thoughts on them. 

So tweet, friend and text in your life but menace your digital flickering with time for thinking, reading and learning.  Hold on to truths that cannot be said so quickly and should not lost.  We are a culture intent on living through reality TV and tweeting about the fact that we watched it. Each and every generation has cultural forms that lead us to what Ecclesiastes call a chasing after the wind; we certainly have our own. Shall we choose to live only through short and simple nothingness? No, we shall not.  Too much remains at stake under the Sun.  As Christian Apologist Ravi Zacharias aptly titled his radio broadcast years ago we must stand and cry into the digital winds “Let my People Think.” 

That is all - Merry Christmas friends! I will tweet that to all in a bit.