Tag Archives: the internet

A grief observed… online

Rachel Held Evans was something of an internet phenomenon; a voice of a generation of Christians, especially women, who felt sidelined and marginalised by an institutional church and a form of Christianity many have struggled to reconcile with the Jesus we meet in the Gospels. She took twists and turns that made many (including me) uncomfortable, but her desire (whether you think she got there or not) to take Christianity back towards the heart and example of Jesus was undeniable, so too, her impact on the broader church, especially women and other people the status quo of how the church operates (especially in America). I’m reminded, in moments like these, that it is by grace, through faith in Jesus, that people are part of God’s kingdom, not (mercifully for me, and others) by ticking the correct doctrinal boxes. One just has to glance at the hashtag #BecauseofRHE to see this. She’s an interesting and powerful testimony to the way the internet destabilises the status quo in the church in a similar way to the printing press, giving a voice, and power, to those our structures might exclude.

Rachel Held Evans went to hospital for an apparently routine matter, and complications in the procedures, or with the medication, left her in a pretty dire, ultimately fatal, set of circumstances. The story about her health broke on twitter when an acquaintance published a private Facebook post, without permission, which led to a Twitter wide prayer vigil, and an incredible outpouring of support. The internet collapsed our creaturely separation from these events. Medical procedures happening a world away, to one individual, were suddenly occupying the attention of people around the globe; me included. I refreshed the page updating her condition daily; praying as I did. A new ‘daily office’ of sorts that compartmentalised a small part of my attention; and thus my embodied life, placing it in a virtual hospital waiting room a world away. It did this for many people. One life, a life I have no creaturely, physical connection to, a person I do not know, occupying attention that is limited, and probably has prior claims put on it by those in my more immediate, embodied, orbit.

And then Rachel died. Those updates and the outpouring of prayer and support changed, and there’s now an outpouring of genuine grief; the vast majority of this grief is being expressed by people who had no physical connection to Rachel Held Evans, but rather a spiritual connection. A sense of a connection to her built by her writing, in her questions, in her activism — in what she represents in terms of a challenging of status quos — she represents so many others, especially women who are often deplatformed by the evangelical status quo (and so turn to the Internet for a sense of community and a space to talk, and question, and be recognised). For good or for ill, for most of us grieving, we are grieving the loss of a persona as much as a person, because for many of us, our access to Rachel was always mediated by pixels and in words. All interactions with all people are mediated and the idea of getting an intimate knowledge of who a person truly is requires not simply embodiment, but vulnerability; Rachel’s writing and her approach to the internet in general, has been celebrated as being exemplary human, and vulnerable. Her impact on the church is real, even if virtual. Her loss is being felt by many — even those who had sharp theological disagreements with her online. The questions she confronted us with are not just questions of the content of our beliefs — where I was as likely to disagree with things she said as I was to agree — but with questions about our forms and practices, both in the physical church community, and the virtual space we now occupy.

What’s clear is that while many people are grieving the loss of Rachel Held Evan’s presence, mediated online, there’s a family — especially a husband and two very young children — and friends, for whom this loss, this grief, is more palpable; more tangible; the hole left by this tragedy will not be filled by hashtags or pixelated stories.

Grief is a strange thing to observe; and the internet makes it stranger. In the outpouring of grief around the death of one loved persona we’re seeing the best of the Internet, but also the weirdness of our increasingly disembodied, ‘excarnated’ age — where a local community of believers has, in many cases, for many people outside the norms, been a disappointment, such that comfort, community, and the sense of being known and loved has led many online, and many to voices like Rachel’s. It would be a tragedy for us, as the church, not to learn something from the expressions of grief from around the world, especially from women, and those our communities marginalise (including those seeking to reconcile their faith in Jesus with their sexuality), and to ask questions about where we might have failed locally; where there might be other women like Rachel, or who felt championed by her, in our midst; and where we might need ongoing reform of our church practices — our forms — to align them with our content.

As I’ve spent my emotional energy watching the reaction to this tragedy roll out around the Internet, reading far too many awful, negative, ‘gotcha,’ pieces alongside the genuine expressions of lament, and loss, and connection to Rachel Held Evan’s and what she meant to real people, I’ve felt a little like an outsider; not to the expressions of grief, but to its embodied reality. I’ve felt like one affected by the loss of a persona rather than a person. I’ve been detached enough to start asking questions about the nature of grief, of personhood, of spiritual community, and of the Internet, I’ve not been able to escape the title of C.S Lewis’ writings about grief: A Grief Observed, and wondering if Lewis has much to say about how the Internet and this grief might be doing strange things to our personhood. I’m not without empathy; the thought of Rachel’s husband Dan having to publicly mediate his wife’s last few weeks to a legion of fans, while working through the medical process, and his personal grief, and now the thought of him raising two children who may forget their mother hits me pretty hard; harder than the loss of Rachel Held Evan’s voice — which will live on not just in the mediated pixels of the internet, but in the way her thoughts and experience were ‘incarnated’ into her books. But I also feel like a stranger who has walked in to the back of a church during a funeral service, or who has wandered into a wake and been handed a drink and caught up in what is quite a human experience that properly requires a body and some deep connection to a physical person who is now gone.

In A Grief Observed, Lewis, writing about his wife, H, reflects on how quickly in the absence of her embodied presence, he is left grieving — and recreating in his mind — an image of his wife; a persona, rather than the real person. And how much the reality of a person’s presence overwhelms the versions of them we create in our imagination.

“I am thinking about her nearly always. Thinking of the H. facts—real words, looks, laughs, and actions of hers. But it is my own mind that selects and groups them. Already, less than a month after her death, I can feel the slow, insidious beginning of a process that will make the H. I think of into a more and more imaginary woman. Founded on fact, no doubt. I shall put in nothing fictitious (or I hope I shan’t). But won’t the composition inevitably become more and more my own? The reality is no longer there to check me, to pull me up short, as the real H. so often did, so unexpectedly, by being so thoroughly herself and not me.”

How much more will this phenomenon be exaggerated by the Internet? How much more will our re-creation or re-imagination of a lost person be accelerated so that they become a sort of avatar if we’ve not been physically connected to a person? These questions aren’t to deny the attachment to Rachel Held Evans, or the reality of the grief, or the deep reality of a spiritual connection shared across time and space by those who have the Spirit of God dwelling in them — but to ask questions about how healthy, or human, such attachments are, and to ponder if this virtual reformation prompted by pioneers like Evans would best happen locally, with those our systems marginalise but who are still in our midst?

Lewis ponders this some more in the same chapter:

“Today I had to meet a man I haven’t seen for ten years. And all that time I had thought I was remembering him well—how he looked and spoke and the sort of things he said. The first five minutes of the real man shattered the image completely. Not that he had changed. On the contrary. I kept on thinking, ‘Yes, of course, of course. I’d forgotten that he thought that—or disliked this, or knew so-and-so—or jerked his head back that way.’ I had known all these things once and I recognized them the moment I met them again. But they had all faded out of my mental picture of him, and when they were all replaced by his actual presence the total effect was quite astonishingly different from the image I had carried about with me for those ten years. How can I hope that this will not happen to my memory of H? That it is not happening already? Slowly, quietly, like snow-flakes—like the small flakes that come when it is going to snow all night—little flakes of me, my impressions, my selections, are settling down on the image of her. The real shape will be quite hidden in the end. Ten minutes—ten seconds—of the real H. would correct all this. And yet, even if those ten seconds were allowed me, one second later the little flakes would begin to fall again. The rough, sharp, cleansing tang of her otherness is gone.”

Love, in some sense, is, and must be, bodily, not simply imagined or excarnate. When the Apostle Paul speaks about love in that most famous of passages, 1 Corinthians 13, he describes not just the physical, expressed, characteristics of love from one person to another; but paints a vision of love as being completely known, not simply imagined by another, not simply a reflection or a persona, but known. This is a picture that describes a future — the renewing of all things, the hope of the new creation.

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” — 1 Corinthians 13:12

Until that time all our knowing of an other, all our loving, is mediated — we encounter personas who are on the journey of becoming persons to us; the hope of those of us who believe in the resurrection is that, in the course of eternity, those we know now only virtually will be made real to us, and we to them. There’s certainly a longing for this to be true being expressed by those grieving the death of Rachel Held Evans this week; but also in all our grief.

But I wonder how healthy it is for us, as humans, to pour so much attention and affection — so much love — into pixelated personas; into people across the world where our hope for deeper connection is to be eternally, rather than temporally, realised? I wonder if the accounts I’ve read — and my own experience — feeling gut punched by this tragedy a world away might be time, emotion, and attention better spent locally, in my own (or your own) embodied, incarnate, existence.

As well as talking wisely about grief, C.S Lewis talked about how the invention of the car and the proliferation of international news via the newspaper, had a profound destablilising affect on our human experience — and not always for the better. In Surprised By Joy he wrote about how new technology — the car — led to the ‘annihilation of space’ — a breaking down of our embodied creatureliness and natural barriers; how much more is this true of the Internet? And how much should we be concerned by how that might disintegrate our attention and thus our affections and our relationships, so that we find our ‘deepest’ sense of being known with people we are not meeting face to face. Lewis said, of the car:

“I number it among my blessings that my father had no car, while yet most of my friends had, and sometimes took me for a drive. This meant that all these distant objects could be visited just enough to clothe them with memories and not impossible desires, while yet they remained ordinarily as inaccessible as the Moon. The deadly power of rushing about wherever I pleased had not been given me. I measured distances by the standard of man, man walking on his two feet, not by the standard of the internal combustion engine. I had not been allowed to deflower the very idea of distance; in return I possessed ‘infinite riches’ in what would have been to motorists ‘a little room’. The truest and most horrible claim made for modern transport is that it ‘annihilates space’. It does. It annihilates one of the most glorious gifts we have been given. It is a vile inflation which lowers the value of distance, so that a modern boy travels a hundred miles with less sense of liberation and pilgrimage and adventure than his grandfather got from travelling ten. Of course if a man hates space and wants it to be annihilated, that is another matter. Why not creep into his coffin at once? There is little enough space there.”

Distance is an essential part of being human; but also of our ethic — of our ability to love well. In a letter to a friend, Bede Griffiths, Lewis talks about the affect of the newspaper — the way news and views from across the globe suddenly, and more immediately, occupy our attention, first because of the connectivity brought about by the telephone, and telegraph — connecting newsrooms around the globe, but now on steroids via the Internet, the 24 hour news cycle, and the citizen journalism of the Internet. Is it healthy or helpful for me to obsessively refresh health updates about a woman across the globe when surrounded by the sick and dying in my city? Or to give attention to Rachel Held Evan’s family not just at the expense of my own, but at the expense of families in my community? These are, perhaps, questions that in our increasingly excarnate age, fuelled by the “annihilation of space,” that we need to keep asking ourselves lest we be lost; disintegrated, broken up into pixels that fly around the world, mediated by glass screens. Lewis said:

“It is one of the evils of rapid diffusion of news that the sorrows of all the world come to us every morning. I think each village was meant to feel pity for its own sick and poor whom it can help and I doubt if it is the duty of any private person to fix his mind on ills which he cannot help. (This may even become an escape from the works of charity we really can do to those we know). A great many people (not you) do now seem to think that the mere state of being worried is in itself meritorious. I don’t think it is. We must, if it so happens, give our lives for others: but even while we’re doing it, I think we’re meant to enjoy Our Lord and, in Him, our friends, our food, our sleep, our jokes, and the birds song and the frosty sunrise. As about the distant, so about the future. It is very dark: but there’s usually light enough for the next step or so. Pray for me always.”

Sound advice in an age not just of outrage, but where the suffering of others we have no embodied connection with is beamed into not just our lounge room, or our study, but our pockets. As the philosopher Iris Murdoch suggests, virtue lies in deciding what to give attention to; and then in how we act; the internet makes the stakes different in this, it brings us closer to those who are far away, but at risk of making us further away from those who are near. The question ‘who is my neighbour’ has always been a vexxing one when it comes to suffering around the globe, and to not ‘annihilate space’ but live a hyper-local life seems to be just as problematic in reinforcing our blindness, but I wonder if the right use of the Internet rests in something like C.S Lewis’ affirmation of the goodness of the car; a chance to journey to far off places, but not forget where home is, a chance to, in our travels to meet ideas and people “clothe them with memories and not impossible desires,” to recognise the power of these ‘memories’ or ‘ideas’ to unite us and make us feel recognised and so not to minimise them, but also to remember that a persona is something slightly different to a person to us and more of a person to those in their proximity, for whom they are embodied.

An open letter to the persons who named Richard Dawkins the top thinker in the world

To the Editor, Prospect Magazine,

Dear sir, it has come to my attention as a citizen of the internet, that your, until recently, esteemed publication has named polemicist Richard Dawkins as number one on your “world thinkers” list for this year.

I understand that this poll is, in essence, well in every sense, a popularity contest, and thus is not really indicative of the intellectual lay of the land… or globe. Even if some 70% of practicing “philosophers” are atheists according to a recent study, Richard Dawkins isn’t even atheism’s top thinker. Alain de Botton, and Lawrence Krauss must surely trump him in the brain stakes. Ricky Gervais tops him in the wit stakes. And Penn Jillette tops him in the making magic appear to happen when he opens his mouth or moves his hands stakes…

Far be it from me, an unpublished writer of an unpopular, by any real measure, blog, to call your judgment into account when it comes to publishing this sort of list after soliciting advice from an expert panel constituted of “the masses” (I understand your survey drew more than “10,000 votes from over 100 countries” in “online polls”) but I just wanted to humbly remind you that this is, after all, the same internet that attempted to send Justin Bieber to North Korea, sent Pit Bull to Alaska, and continues to be enamoured with web polls that present opportunities for Pharyngulation. This feels a lot like one of those events.

You see, dear Prospect, there is a real chance that in proclaiming that the person with a large social media presence is the world’s foremost thinker, in a study that is a result of a poll conducted on the Internet, that you may open yourselves to being considered what the youth of today might call a “numbnuts”… such polls aren’t just open to manipulation, they lend themselves to manipulation, and your analysis of the poll which trumpets the power of social media essentially invites manipulation.

Dawkins, as much more learned people than I – like literary critic Terry Eagleton – would attest, is guilty of a little bit of overreaching when it comes to lambasting his opponents, and underreaching when it comes to, well, thinking… As Eagleton puts it (in the London Review of Books):

“Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be…

…Dawkins holds that the existence or non-existence of God is a scientific hypothesis which is open to rational demonstration. Christianity teaches that to claim that there is a God must be reasonable, but that this is not at all the same thing as faith. Believing in God, whatever Dawkins might think, is not like concluding that aliens or the tooth fairy exist. God is not a celestial super-object or divine UFO, about whose existence we must remain agnostic until all the evidence is in. Theologians do not believe that he is either inside or outside the universe, as Dawkins thinks they do. His transcendence and invisibility are part of what he is, which is not the case with the Loch Ness monster. This is not to say that religious people believe in a black hole, because they also consider that God has revealed himself: not, as Dawkins thinks, in the guise of a cosmic manufacturer even smarter than Dawkins himself (the New Testament has next to nothing to say about God as Creator), but for Christians at least, in the form of a reviled and murdered political criminal. The Jews of the so-called Old Testament had faith in God, but this does not mean that after debating the matter at a number of international conferences they decided to endorse the scientific hypothesis that there existed a supreme architect of the universe – even though, as Genesis reveals, they were of this opinion. They had faith in God in the sense that I have faith in you. They may well have been mistaken in their view; but they were not mistaken because their scientific hypothesis was unsound.”

In Dawkin’s defence – he doesn’t have time to worry about sky fairies, or publishing intellectually credible and honest works – he’s lining his pockets with the proceeds of the angry anti-religious screeds published in the guise of popular science or philosophy books – and as you point out in his bio, appeasing his horde of Twitter disciples with cameo turns on the Simpsons. He is a busy gent. He’s too busy to debate serious opponents, and he’s been far too busy to publish original academic work in a peer reviewed science journal since 1980. You know this. Because your own biography of the world’s leading thinker has almost nothing to say about his capacity as a thinker.

When Richard Dawkins, the Oxford evolutionary biologist, coined the term “meme” in The Selfish Gene 37 years ago, he can’t have anticipated its current popularity as a word to describe internet fads. But this is only one of the ways in which he thrives as an intellectual in the internet age. He is also prolific on Twitter, with more than half a million followers—and his success in this poll attests to his popularity online. He uses this platform to attack his old foe, religion, and to promote science and rationalism. Uncompromising as his message may be, he’s not averse to poking fun at himself: in March he made a guest appearance on The Simpsons, lending his voice to a demon version of himself.

How deliciously ironic that in trying to feed an internet culture predicated on the popularity of memes, and the sharability of lists, that you’ve given top billing to this English gentleman and then damned him with faint praise. Is this the biography of a leading intellectual? I’ve bolded the bits that refer to his contributions as a “thinker” rather than as a rabid attack dog operating in an area in which he has only the credibility afforded him by his tribe of minions.

37 years ago he had a good idea. And now he’s a crotchety old man with a megaphone. Here are ten “public intellectuals” with more Twitter followers than Dawkins who you might like to consider for next year’s list. I’ve put stars next to the ones who have been on the Simpsons.

  1. Justin Bieber (approx 39.1 million)*
  2. Lady Gaga (approx 37.3 million)*
  3. Katy Perry (approx 36.5 million)*
  4. Rihanna (approx 29.6 million)
  5. Taylor Swift (approx 27.8 million)
  6. Britney Spears (approx 26.9 million)*
  7. Shakira (approx 20.6 million)
  8. Justin Timberlake (approx 20.2 million)* (in N Sync)
  9. J-Lo (approx 18.2 million)
  10. Kim Kardashian (approx 17.8 million)

I hope this helps. I look forward to reading a more rigorously and well thought out (ie not dumb) approach to identifying “world thinkers” in the future. Unless your link bait strategy was to be very clever and ironic and I’ve missed the joke.

Sincerely,

Nathan

The weight of the internet…

This video is doing the rounds – and I can see why. Because it is kind of interesting to know that all the 0s and 1s that make up the stuff we read on our screens actually weigh something. 50 grams, as a matter of fact.

Selling up the content farms…

Content farms are the bane of the content creator’s existence. Other people flooding the Internet with cheap mass produced content has the same effect on the content market that any mass producing of something once good and pure has… it cheapens the experience for everybody, big companies make all the money, and then eventually something shifts in the market. It happened with beer. It happened with coffee. Now Google is stepping in to stop content farms leeching off the Internet with their search engine snake oil.

If none of this makes sense to you – then don’t worry – this infographic and accompanying post from techi.com is here to help.

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Black’s Friday and the future of the Internet

This song is awful. Just awful. Many people are calling it the worst song in the world (Dave Miers isn’t). I wish Autotune technology would become sentient and eat all the awful autotuners out there. And Justin Bieber. That’s a singularity I could get behind.

But the story behind this story (the music video has had more than 27 million hits and the single is roaring up the charts on iTunes), is that this 13 year old girl’s parents paid a company (Ark Music Factory – here’s Rebecca Black’s Profile on their website) $2,000 to make a viral video. That’s $2,000 well spent. Except for all the hate. TechCrunch’s wrap up of the viral side of the story is worth a read. Gawker’s coverage is also pretty good (here’s another, and a story about the company behind the video), and here’s a C-Net wrap up.

Her story has gone mainstream media – where she responds to all the hate and reaches out to Justin Bieber…

Here’s a parody…

Now, if only the Old Spice man would weigh in on a Bieber/Black duet we’d have some sort of viral perfection.

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My mind blown: Don’t Panic

The iPad is pretty much the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and I only just noticed.

Here’s a passage from So Long and Thanks for All the Fish – one of the five books in the trilogy.

“Fenchurch leaned across him and drew over her canvas bag.
“Is it anything to do with this?” she said. The thing she took out of her bag was battered and travelworn as it had been hurled into prehistoric rivers, baked under the sun that shines so redly on the deserts of Kakrafoon, half-buried in the marbled sands that fringe the heady vapoured oceans of Santraginus V, frozen on the glaciers of the moon of Jaglan Beta, sat on, kicked around spaceships, scuffed and generally abused, and since its makers had thought that these were exactly the sorts of things that might happen to it, they had thoughtfully encased it in a sturdy plastic cover and written on it, in large friendly letters, the words “Don’t Panic”.

“Where did you get this?” said Arthur, startled, taking it from her.

“Ah,” she said, “I thought it was yours. In Russell’s car that night. You dropped it. Have you been to many of these places?”

Arthur drew the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy from its cover. It was like a small, thin, flexible lap computer. He tapped some buttons till the screen flared with text. “

iPad + wikipedia = Hitchhiker’s Guide.

Actually, if you read the Wikipedia entry for the guide. Which is kind of meta. It says:

“The Guide’s numerous entries are quoted throughout the various incarnations of the Hitchhiker’s Guide series. As well as offering background information, the Guide’s entries often employ irony, sarcasm and subtle commentary on the action and on life in general.”

Which means it’s probably more likely that an iPad plus reddit is the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Maybe it’s some combination of reddit, metafilter, Lifehacker, wikipedia, and wolfram alpha.

So it seems fitting that you can buy this cover:

How the Internet works

This is a nice, simple, little comic explaining what it is that goes on when you type a web address into your browser. It’s a handy reference for when you have those conversations with a dullard who doesn’t really know what’s going on, but suggests it has something to do with monkeys or magic. Or Monkey Magic.

Via labnol.

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Keeping kids safe online…

I don’t often give serious parenting advice here. I know my audience. But my purpose for this post is twofold – first, to congratulate Steve Kryger from Communicate Jesus for this piece on Sydney Anglicans that has been syndicated on Gizmodo.com.au, and second, to share Steve’s list of ten tips for parents. I think they’re good, and a great acknowledgment that clean feed, or no clean feed, the issue requires a thought out approach from parents not a government mandate.

  1. Understand what your child is doing online (put the computer in a public space, talk to your children, use accountability software).
  2. Ask your child to explain to you what they are doing, and why they are doing it.
  3. Talk to your child about your values, and how these should be lived out, regardless of the environment.
  4. Filter the content that your family views online.
  5. Understand the minimum age requirements for different websites and technologies (children under 13 should not be on Facebook).
  6. Understand how these popular websites are used, and what the opportunities and threats are.
  7. Understand what avenues are at your disposal if something goes wrong (e.g. your child’s Facebook account is hacked).
  8. Consider how you will respond if you discover your child is acting inappropriately, or viewing inappropriate material.
  9. Decide when or if your child will get a mobile phone.
  10. Understand the new functions of mobile phones, and what the opportunities and threats are.