In Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Neil Postman quotes a passage from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden:
We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate…we are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will lead through into the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.
Postman drew attention to Thoreau’s clearsighted recognition that the telegraph wasn’t merely a facilitator of existing discourses, but a revolutionary transformation of the realm of discourse and its content.
The telegraph made a three-pronged attack on typography’s definition of discourse, introducing on a large scale irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence. These demons of discourse were aroused by the fact that telegraphy gave a form of legitimacy to the idea of context-free information; that is, to the idea that the value of information need not be tied to any function it might serve in social and political decision-making and action, but may attach merely to its novelty, interest, and curiosity. The telegraph made information into a commodity, a “thing” that could be bought and sold irrespective of its uses or meaning.
Thoreau’s description of the technology of the telegraph bringing the old and the new worlds nearer to each other is worth reflecting upon. Communications technologies connect existing worlds and, in this process, make possible the formation of new worlds at their meeting points.
A ‘world’ is a realm of human affairs, discourse, and artefacts and one can belong to such a world by participating in these things. While we may be interested in the contents of a world in their own right—the conversations, the creations, and the activities—the appeal of a world is typically greater than the sum of its parts. When engaging in such a world, in addition to engaging with topics, persons, or things of interest to us, we are usually also aiming at securing our belonging to that shared realm.
Princess Adelaide’s whooping cough may seem to be a topic of little intrinsic merit. Postman implies that the value of such information is found in its ‘novelty, interest, and curiosity.’ There is a further value that he does not mention: the sense of connection and belonging it offers. Perhaps this is best understood in terms of ‘phatic speech’, speech that aims, not at conveying actionable information, but that aims at fostering a sense of commonality and human connection. The desire to feel connected impels us to find something to talk about in order to fill realms that would otherwise be silent. By creating a new potential realm of human connection and discourse, social media, like the telegraph, creates a silence to be filled. The invention of a new communications technology could be compared in some senses to the European discovery of America, a vast new territory to be populated and a new dominating horizon for our civilization’s existence.
We often identify phatic speech purely with ‘small talk,’ referring to things such as discussion of the weather or the sharing of gossip. Despite the seeming irrelevance and unimportance of the news of the princess’s whooping cough, it acts as a sort of ‘phatic speech’ between the old and new worlds, helping to form and fill a ‘world’ of transatlantic Anglophone discourse and giving the American reading their newspaper a sense of their connection and belonging to that world.
It is also important to consider the way in which even talk about ‘big’ subjects such as politics can often also function as a sort of phatic speech. All communications media have a social dimension to them to the extent that they all help to create or mediate a human ‘world’. People have always read or watched the news, for instance, not merely out of a sense of the intrinsic significance of the information being conveyed, but out of an existential need to feel ‘in touch’, ‘up to date’, and ‘connected’ to some greater human drama. Contemporary social media can greatly amplify this sense of participating in and belonging to a greater plane of human sociality and community.
Much of the addictive power of social media arises precisely from our addiction to belonging and social connection, to a sense of being part of a larger social group. Where the possibility of being participants in a much broader conversation exists, our more immediate and local contexts can increasingly seem parochial and constricting, existing at some distance from the primary realm of action and social interaction in the virtual world. The creation of a new, larger context of discourse and social interaction can create its own gravitational pull upon us, through our human desire for social belonging, connection, and status. As a result, we become much more invested in the virtual realm and relatively less so in the realm of the concrete.
This plane of sociality, however, is one generally abstracted from both the particularity and the physicality of our immediate contexts of belonging. Identifying subjects of conversation and matters of common interest in such circumstances can be a considerable challenge. The character of such a context functions both as a mechanism for selecting the issues that are emphasized within it and for framing them. In particular, the abstract context of social media privileges both the abstractions of ideology and the simulation of the spectacle.
I will discuss the significance of social media’s relationship to spectacle in a later article. Here I wish to consider how they privilege the abstractions of ideology.
While there are various more obscure contexts online, places where people with niche interests can interact, contexts that are not so far divorced from networks of offline relations, our online interactions are seldom very securely tethered to a world beyond them. Much of the time, the Internet and social media can function as if they were worlds to themselves. However, if only by virtue of our physicality—and even if we may spend much of our time forgetful of it—we remain inextricably connected to and concerned with a concrete world beyond the Internet. Yet, despite our enduring connection to it, the concrete, local, physical, and particular world is, for many of us, no longer the primary realm of our social existence and can lose its salience to the extent that it cannot be reframed by our new virtual world. By turning our backs on the outdoor world, descending into our caves, and sitting motionless before flickering screens with their representations of a virtual reality we feel closer to the heart of things.
As the virtual world of social media becomes the primary realm of our social existence, it increasingly functions as the realm that frames our concrete relationships and engagement. This virtual world is a de-particularizing one, a world that strips away specificity and conforms people more closely to general types. It obscures differentiating contexts. On Facebook, for instance, we are all detached individuals—unplugged from any given context—who must self-define within the provided template of a generic profile. What particularity exists online is largely a fragile veneer over a more fundamental undifferentiation.
Faced with a pull towards undifferentiation in a realm where the resistance of particularity is so weak, we often take up refuge in new tribal identities. Social realities and persons also appear in a much lower resolution. Stripped from a personalizing context of relationships, community, locality, physicality, and history, a vast array of disparate persons and phenomena are rendered in terms of abstractions.
Abstraction affords us a way of relating our particular contexts, experiences, and identities to something that transcends them. As the virtual realm becomes increasingly determinative of our identities, it also offers a way of relating to our concrete contexts, regarding them ideologically, in terms of more abstract ideas and categories.
The ability to abstract from the particularity of experience is by no means a bad thing per se. Through abstraction, at the temporary expense of some resolution, we can often more easily discern patterns and connections between things. However, where the resolution that enables us to perceive particularity is not just temporarily sacrificed, but is more permanently lost, abstraction can become a much more vicious process. Rich realities are reduced to threadbare and colourless ideas, or mere instantiations of generic entities. People are reduced to homogeneous groups and types.
And, beyond the de-particularization encouraged by media where we must represent ourselves in terms of generic categories and templates, there is an intensified social pull towards abstraction. Abstraction offers the potential for connection, to render your reality and experience in terms that highlight commonality. Whereas in our local contexts commonality and connection are often found precisely in particularity, in the non-local context of the Internet, these things more frequently present themselves to be sought through abstraction.
For instance, feminist ideologies can often grant women a sense of common identity in terms of exceedingly low-resolution concepts such as ‘the Patriarchy’. Such concepts may not readily serve the task of careful analysis of particular realities. However, as a means of agglomerating the myriad lived tensions of many women’s lives in a single master concept and galvanizing a large movement online it is immensely powerful and unsurprisingly has an intense memetic appeal.
In the de-particularized, de-contextualized, non-local, and thin reality of the Internet, such categories will have considerably more traction than they do in realms where we are in close and constant interaction with a high-resolution particular reality, with its humbling of grand abstractions through its complexity and its textured, multi-faceted, and variegated character. It is difficult to hold grand stereotypes about Democrats, for instance, when you are in close, frequent, varied, and complex social relationships with them in your local context. Such stereotypes become considerably more attractive when you are functioning online, where particularity and differentiation are weakened and reality is flattened out. And, as social media become our primary social contexts, such abstractions begin to frame so much more of our regular offline interactions.
Where the force of abstraction is most pronounced justice will tend to be de-particularized and highly ideologized. This is precisely what we see on social media. The attraction of social justice to highly abstract concepts, demographics, and generalizations—‘white people’, ‘the patriarchy’, ‘cis persons’, etc., etc.—is a consequence both of its functioning within media that present an exceptionally low-resolution reality and of the power of extremely vague generalizations and abstractions in realms composed of so many vastly different persons from vastly different contexts.
Where a connection to particular reality is considerably weakened, being on the side of justice can become more a matter of adhering to the correct ideology—some orthodox abstract representation or system of ideas—than about faithful engagement with very specific persons and contexts. Ideas and representations can begin to eclipse actual particular people. It is at such points that many concerns about a social justice movement that has thrived online arise, as it is compromised by the very conditions that encourage its dramatic spread.
When we engage chiefly in those concrete contexts in which we are immediately physically and socially embedded and, rather than focus on ideologies and abstractions, concern ourselves primarily with loving our neighbour, it is striking to see how much can change. The stubborn and immediate particularity of the neighbour to whom true charity responds serves as a resisting force to ideologization. In loving that neighbour and seeking their good it is important to observe how much common cause we can practically find with our ideological opponents. For instance, one can reject all transgender ideologies and still commit yourself to loving the transgender teens in your context, protecting them from harm, providing for their material needs, and seeking to provide them with a sense of belonging. Such a resistance to the ideologization and abstraction of justice and charity should be characteristic of Christians. This is certainly not to say that differences in our apprehension of deeper principles and patterns of reality are irrelevant—far from it! Rather, it is to suggest that they can be quite considerably broken down in their size.
One final thing that becomes clearer as we become warier of the low-resolution, de-particularizing and abstracting contexts of social media is the place of prudence. Prudence discriminates and differentiates where abstraction and generalization would conflate. Prudence recognizes the significance of particularity, mediating between an awareness of more general patterns and principles and the specificity of situations. The virtue of prudence is easily lost sight of online, where the particularity to which it is properly attentive is largely hidden or actively effaced.
In the absence of the virtue of prudence and the particularity to which it practices attention, the faculties of justice can easily be degraded and compromised. We may assume, for instance, that reality and society are merely a set of nails to be hammered in by our ideologies, failing to exercise wisdom in closely acquainting ourselves with those lineaments of situations by which they are distinguished from others. Where justice becomes attached to abstract ideologies and detached from particular goods we also lose much of the capacity to find common ground with others and we adopt a more Manichaean posture.
Unfortunately, social media as environments accelerate the proliferation of such dysfunctional approaches to justice. Pursuing a healthy vision of justice will require a reorientation of ourselves, a distancing from a world of abstraction and a deepened engagement with the humbling particularity of concrete existence. Such a vision of justice is not apt to go viral, but it will achieve considerably more actual good in the world.
Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) is a Teaching Fellow for the Davenant Institute. He writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.