We finally finished Christmas celebrations yesterday; rounding out a week with an extended Campbell family get together (almost) all of us in the flesh. That’s what Christmas — this holiday season — is about… isn’t it? Connection. Family. Togetherness. My Facebook feed has certainly been full of family photos of similar gatherings.
Today our little family unit hit the cinemas to catch Paddington 2 with the kids. The movie is what it is; if your kids liked Paddington 1 they’ll like the sequel (though this one isn’t quite as scary). The Christmas holidays are prime cinema advertising season, so the big guns were out — especially two big guns of Aussie ‘connectivity’ — Qantas, our Aussie airline, and Telstra, our Aussie telecom. Qantas, whose aspirational tagline is ‘the Spirit of Australia’ and Telstra, whose ‘vision’ is “to create a brilliant connected future for everyone.”
Two cinematic ads — stories — speaking to our desires, especially our holiday desires for connection with loved ones.
Both feature family separated by distance, both seek to bridge the gap because life is about connection.
The Qantas ad featuring the song Feels Like Home offers a critique to Telstra’s magic solution to distance (I’ve written about Telstra’s ad before). It features an adult daughter (and kids) connecting to her geographically distant mum via a screen; her disembodied head on the kitchen table as candles are blown out and her present opened — a picture of distance or ‘excarnation’ — the relationship is missing something because she isn’t there in the flesh. And then. She opens the present and its tickets for the family to bridge the gap, to be present with each other. Happy holidays. They smile. They hug. They are tearfully united. Cut to the shot of the flying jet and the line ‘Our Spirit flies further’ while the song finishes with the words ‘back where I belong’ — it’s almost poetic; here is Qantas’ vision of connection and the flourishing human life. The desires of our hearts met. Our emotions satisfied. And it’s all about connection through presence.
Telstra wants us to believe that connection can be mediated by a device running some software to link us as pixels; space is no longer an obstacle if we can “be in two places at once” — the promise of technology; the promise of Telstra and the means it is relying on to deliver its vision for a flourishing ‘connected’ future society. Qantas suggests there might be something less satisfying about this vision — that real connectivity isn’t via FaceTime but is face-to-face. Embodied. Fleshy.
Telstra wants us to believe we can have presence without sacrifice — presence without having to leave where we are to achieve it. That through technology we can be two places at once. Their business model, their vision, is to essentially put Qantas out of business and replace them with black glass, cameras, and touch screens. Swipe right for connection; just without leaving your home. Bridge the gap from your pocket. Virtually.
I’m reading a fascinating book at the moment — one building the framework for an ethic of attention in an age of distraction — it’s called The World Beyond Your Head: How to Flourish in an Age of Distraction. I’m loving it because of my own dabbling with Iris Murdoch’s ethical ideas around ‘loving attention’ back when I was thinking about the Internet outrage machine. The problem with Telstra’s solution for connection is that what they’re offering is technology that actually feeds distraction and disconnection (there’s some stuff on social media and media ecology and how technology changes us back in my archives too). Author Matthew Crawford paints a picture of life in our distracted age, where even public space has been given over to private interests and electronic screens bombarding us with messages, he asks what the escape is, and what happens to our ability to be present or pay attention if life is mediated to us by screens. He describes the dilemma of the modern worker who spends all day reacting to electronic stimulus — to notifications and hundreds of emails — who then heads home… or goes on holidays… and this sounds eerily familiar (it sounds like my life).
“Yet this same person may find himself checking his email frequently once he gets home or while on vacation. It becomes effortful for him to be fully present while giving his children a bath or taking a meal with his spouse. Our changing technological environment generates a need for ever more stimulation. The content of the stimulation almost becomes irrelevant. Our distractibility seems to indicate that we are agnostic on the question of what is worth paying attention to—that is, what to value.”
Telstra isn’t going to save us; their business model — their vision for the future (their own economic future) depends on reinforcing this behaviour, and convincing us that connectivity — that bridging the gap between us and other people just takes a screen.
Crawford suggests the Qantas ad might also be wishful thinking if we can’t disconnect ourselves from the screen long enough to pay attention, and picks the airport departure area as a prime example of our modern dilemma — even our attempts to connect are likely to be thwarted by the ‘magic’ of virtual connectivity and distraction. He talks about the way so much physical real estate at the airport is taken up by advertising, and attention grabbing ‘content’ right up till when you sit down in the departure lounge in front of TV screens playing the news with no sound on (unless you pay to ‘escape the commons’ — the public space — to retire to the silence of the airport lounge. He paints a picture of our excarnation — our desire to move our attention away from where the ‘flesh’ is, in order to be somewhere else. Via our attention — and away from those we are embodied with.
“Of course, in my airport example, one can simply shift in one’s seat and avert one’s gaze from the screens. But the fields of view that haven’t been claimed for commerce seem to be getting fewer and narrower. The ever more complete penetration of public spaces by attention-getting technologies exploits the orienting response in a way that preempts sociability, directing us away from one another and toward a manufactured reality, the content of which is determined from afar by private parties that have a material interest in doing so… Alternatively, people in such places stare at their phones or open a novel, sometimes precisely in order to tune out the piped-in chatter. A multiverse of private experiences is accessible after all. In this battle of attentional technologies, what is lost is the kind of public space that is required for a certain kind of sociability.”
It’s scary stuff — genuinely I’m ok with the use of technology coming with some opportunity cost, but pit Telstra’s promise — its picture of connectivity — up against Qantas’, and I know which one I prefer. As I’ve read Crawford’s book I’ve started making changes — I’ve turned off all notifications on my phone, for example, to remove some interruptions (and found that liberating).
There’s something about the slightly different emotional responses evoked by these two ads that reveals something true about the world and about connection and about a ‘flourishing human life’ — I watch the Telstra ad and I feel like I’m meant to feel, they’ve pulled particular heart strings and there’s an inherent imagination and desire for ‘magic’ that it taps into. It’s better to have this sort of connection — this magic — than nothing at all, if there’s a gap that needs bridging something is better than nothing… but I watch the Qantas ad and there’s a greater longing, a deeper or truer emotion that it taps into for me. The ‘spirit’ of technology might stretch far enough to bridge a gap in a disembodied way, but Qantas is right — their ‘spirit’ does fly further. The Qantas ad makes me feel something deeper because it both reveals the limits of screen-mediated, excarnate, presence and the goodness of fleshy, embodied, incarnate, presence. We know that embodied presence is somehow realer and of more value than disembodiment. Part of being really human is being fleshy.
Being present requires paying attention — killing distractions. It requires actively resisting the claims made on our attention by our devices — our technology — our desire to be elsewhere. So that we are incarnate both in flesh and via our attention. When that happens — that’s where real connection can happen. Qantas’ vision and Telstra’s aren’t entirely compatible.
It’s the ‘holiday season’ — or Christmas season — which ultimately is the celebration of incarnation over excarnation; of Qantas style ‘bridging the gap’ over Telstra’s picture of connectivity. It’s the celebration of flesh and spirit trumping ‘spirit alone’. Christmas — the incarnation of Jesus — is God’s picture of connectivity, it’s God ‘bridging the gap’ as ‘Emmanuel’ (God is with us). It brings with it an ethos of presence; a valuing of the flesh, a sense that to be fully human is to be ‘in the flesh’ — incarnate — and that real love and connection requires this. Certainly it’s better to have ‘excarnate’ connection than no connection at all; but there’s a reason Qantas tugs at our heart strings in a way that Telstra doesn’t quite… it’s the same reason the Apostle John wrote, a couple of times:
“I have many things to write you, but I would prefer not to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to come and speak with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.” — 2 John 1:12 (cf 3 John 1:13-14)
This is the same John who wrote the Gospel which opens with the magic of the incarnation — the magic of presence — the sense that God bridging the gap between us and him required his presence in the flesh dwelling with us — the reason that Qantas trumps Telstra.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. — John 1:14
This is Christmas. This is what the holiday season is all about. This is what real connection, real presence, real humanity looks like. We flourish best by connecting with the God who incarnates himself, but whose ‘spirit flies further’ even than Qantas’ — but we also flourish more in life when our patterns of relating line up with God’s; when our character is shaped by his. Because this is how we were made to be by the one who made us and made us fleshy — that’s why Qantas makes us feel things that Telstra does not — by speaking to our hearts in a way Telstra doesn’t — a more complete and joyful way… the Qantas story taps into something true about God, the world, and us.
Home isn’t just where the heart is — or Telstra could have us home-and-absent. Home is where the flesh is; and the magic of the Bible’s story is that God made his home — a ‘dwelling’ with us — in Jesus dwelling among us, then by the Spirit dwelling in us, but ultimately, for eternity, where we’ll be home with him dwelling with us. Where we’ll be in the flesh; with our desire for a flourishing life answered. Telstra operates according to its vision of the future, well… here’s John’s vision of our future hope; our future home. We’re made for this sort of connection…
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.‘ He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” — Revelation 21:1-5