3 Books on Technology and Cultural Change

Given the launch of Kindle Unlimited, now seems a good time to recommend three books that look at how technology is changing the way we read and receive stories:

The first to recommend is Alan Jacobs’ book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. There are three things I particularly admire about this book: First, Jacobs addresses technological shifts (and really does take them seriously) without resorting to lots of handwringing and alarmism. Second, he reminds his readers that reading ought to be fun. This is particularly useful in a book like his because the sort of person who picks up a book with such a title is likely the same sort of person who has read How to Read a Book or Amusing Ourselves to Death and has taken some really bad lessons from both. Jacobs’ book is a great antidote to that. Third, Jacobs’ loyalty is to the written word, not to any single device we might use for reading. So he manages to speak intelligently about codices (conventional books) as well as Kindles and other e-readers. (As long as you’re reading him, you should also read his lecture “Christianity and the Future of the Book.”)

The second I’d recommend is Everything Bad is Good for You by Steven Johnson. It’s not a perfect book and if you only are going to read one of my recommendations, read Jacobs. But Johnson’s book is an interesting and engaging look at how pop culture is getting smarter and how technological innovations have helped make that happen. For Berry-loving luddite-types like myself, this is a really helpful counter. (His discussion of TV shows is especially good and helps explain the marked increase in quality we’ve seen on TV in the past 10-15 years.)

The third is Susan Maushart’s The Winter of Our Disconnect. Maushart is a single mom living in western Australia who decided to unplug in her house for six months–and she took her children along for the ride. This is a fun read because you get to hear first-hand how the experience changed her and her kids and how they brought screen devices back into their home after the six months ended. She also looks at different research that has been done on the effects screen devices have on us. It’s a breezy, fun read that still manages to teach its readers something interesting and helpful.

Introducing Kindle Unlimited

The announcement from Amazon

Dino Grandoni is not impressed:

Amazon officially unveiled an all-you-can-read subscription service on Friday that gives you access to more e-books than you could ever finish.

That’s right, never have more books been available to you — unless you have a public library card. … The argument for Amazon’s service and against buying a freaking library card is that going to the library requires putting pants on and… going to the library. But library systems from New York to Los Angeles actually do lend e-books for free over the Internet, meaning you can download them in your home with your pants off.

The WaPo and Time aren’t sure it’s worth $9.99 per month.

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Wikipedia’s Most Prolific Author

From the WSJ:

FALUN, Sweden— Sverker Johansson could be the most prolific author you’ve never heard of.

Volunteering his time over the past seven years publishing to Wikipedia, the 53-year-old Swede can take credit for 2.7 million articles, or 8.5% of the entire collection, according to Wikimedia analytics, which measures the site’s traffic. His stats far outpace any other user, the group says.

He has been particularly prolific cataloging obscure animal species, including butterflies and beetles, and is proud of his work highlighting towns in the Philippines. About one-third of his entries are uploaded to the Swedish language version of Wikipedia, and the rest are composed in two versions of Filipino, one of which is his wife’s native tongue.

ESPN’s Affinity for Affinity Sites

Robert Lipsyte:

ESPN’s affinity sites are largely representative of the growing media trend of creating a boutique around a marketable personality. The PressThink blogger, Jay Rosen of New York University, calls them “personal franchises” and cites, besides Grantland (Bill Simmons) and FiveThirtyEight (Nate Silver), examples such as Andrew Ross Sorkin’s DealBook in The New York Times, Ezra Klein’sWonkblog in The Washington Post (he has since moved to Vox Media) and Peter King’s MMQB for Sports Illustrated. Without risk to their brands, the larger institutions can take advantage of the contemporary breakdown between reporting and opinion and benefit from the loyalty created by an idiosyncratic blogger.

Rosen writes, “The nature of authority and trust in journalism is changing. It’s easier to have confidence in ‘here’s where I’m coming from’ than the view from nowhere and its institutional voice.”

Simmons, Silver and Whitlock have distinctive voices; it’s easy to know where they are coming from. Within ESPN, there are executives and writers who resent the attention and resources the sites get and wonder whether they subvert that ESPN directive posted on the lobby wall outside FiveThirtyEight’s New York offices: “OUR MISSION/ TO SERVE SPORTS FANS/ANYTIME/ANYWHERE.” (A far more vociferous version of that kind of internal resentment reportedly helped drive FiveThirtyEight from The New York Times to ESPN earlier this year.) For the most part, the affinity sites expand ESPN’s reach.

Who Needs a Liberal Education?


In a world increasingly shaped, for better and for worse, by technological advancement, how can we form people who are thoughtful enough and free enough to distinguish between what we can do and what it would be wise for us to do? Many hope that an education in the liberal arts might help us become people who are neither captive to technology nor dismissive of it. But, alas, it is becoming ever more difficult to find places where the liberal arts flourish.

It is hardly news that higher education in this country is beset with many problems. Students graduate — if they graduate — with more indebtedness than many of them can manage. Tuition continues to rise, aided and abetted, no doubt, by the availability of government-financed student loans. Graduate programs continue to produce freshly minted Ph.D.s, many of whom may not find teaching positions, and others of whom may find positions with which they are far from happy. The increasing use of adjuncts, understandable as a money-saving move, breeds considerable discontent among a growing faculty underclass. The proliferation of mid-level administrators, who increasingly make many of the decisions that shape college life, never seems to end. Online courses multiply even as fewer and fewer students seem interested in a traditional liberal arts education that emphasizes the humanities.

None of these trends, problematic though they are, really threatens the continued existence or well-being of the very best (and most highly endowed) colleges and universities. But these trends are widening the gap that separates the fortunate institutions from the rest of the academy. Schools are naturally disinclined to fold their tents and go out of business, so, whatever their pretensions, they become places that are in many ways (pretensions aside) indistinguishable from community colleges.

Evangelicals and New Urbanism, Ctd.

Gene Fant in First Things:

Every town of any size in America seems to have a road called “College Street”; often there is no longer an institution there, but one was planned or one was shuttered as the economy fluctuated or populations shifted or mistakes were made that proved to be fatal.

Recently I toured several college campuses while on a business trip, which is a favorite activity for me. Their semi-rural, leafy campuses were marvelously lush and peaceful. Like many of the colleges in the U.S., they reflected a viewpoint that college life was best lived in a retreat, out in the country where reflection was possible. This is why, for example, Ole Miss is in Oxford rather than in the state capital of Jackson. Most flagship state universities are in cities away from the urban areas, even as land-grant institutions (mostly agricultural and technical institutions) were rural for specific purposes.

Christian colleges in particular have tended to be rural, reflecting the heartland populations of the faithful. To some extent, cities were for missions trips, while towns were for study. When I look at a contemporary map of faithful Christian college campuses, most are rural or semi-suburban. Many have reached out beyond their respective “bubbles,” and the advantages of their settings are many, but something is afoot in Christian higher education: urbanization.

Kevin DeYoung makes some smart comments about this trend:

Fant is careful not to denigrate suburban or rural ministry, but he believes the movement of Aslan in our day is a move to urban settings. Fant’s final exhortation is a summons to the city: “The moment we face as American Christianity is whether or not we will shed our suburban comforts for the challenges of urban life.”

Let me say it again, I am thankful for people who feel called to an urban context. Whether it’s to alleviate poverty or embrace diversity or influence cultural elites or simply to be where lost people are, I have no problem with evangelical appeals to be involved in cities. In fact, I am entirely for it! But if this ongoing discussion about evangelicals and cities is to be profitable, we have to figure out what we actually mean by cities.

What makes one’s setting “urban”? On the one hand, Fant exhorts evangelicals to leave the comfortable suburbs behind, but then he mentions a number of “urban” evangelical colleges and seminaries which can only be considered urban in as much as they belong to a large metropolitan statistical area. I love Trinity and Wheaton, but both institutions are in the suburbs. Gordon College (my wife’s alma mater) may be a part of the Boston metro area, but the campus is 45 minutes away on the North Shore, nestled with woods and water in one of the most idyllic, non-urban setting you can imagine.

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The Eucharist and Politics

Brad Littlejohn:

Peter J. Leithart’s recent Between Babel and Beast concludes by calling for the Church “to work out the practicalities of a eucharistic politics.”  A couple decades ago, the call for a “eucharistic politics” might’ve sounded rather bewildering, but few concepts have proved more fashionable in the Hauerwasian/Radically Orthodox world of contemporary political theology.  The concept undeniably has a certain appeal, and few slogans are better calculated to capture the imaginations of the young and disaffected than “Towards  eucharistic anarchism” (Bill Cavanaugh’s phrase in Radical Orthodoxy) and other such brazen assertions of liturgical politics.  But in all the talk of eucharistic politics, a surfeit of aesthetic appeal seems to have usually compensated for a shortfall of logical clarity.  Just what are folks like Cavanaugh, Hauerwas, and now Leithart calling for?  In particular, is the Eucharist itself a political action, or does it serve as an apolitical paradigm or pedagogue for authentically political acts?  If the former, then how would this actually work, and are we really comfortable with what it might entail?  If the latter, then are we really saying something revolutionary, or are we simply dressing up familiar concepts of Christian discipleship in a sexy new garb?

This tension plagues Bill Cavanaugh’s most thorough examination of the theme, in Torture and Eucharist.  In the final sections of the book, he first explains how excommunication—exclusion from the Eucharist—could be a means by which the Church makes the Eucharist political, as political leaders are excluded from the fellowship of the Church, so that the Church defines itself as a polis over against the state, and seeks to reform the state by issuing this challenge.  And yet he admits that excommunication was of limited effectiveness in thwarting the Pinochet regime, since its generals could usually find cowardly priests who would not enforce the ban.  More effective, it turns out, were the Vicaria de Solidaridad, essentially a parachurch network sponsored by the Catholic Church that engaged in various forms of social action to help the victims of the regime, and the essentially secular Sebastian Acevedo Movement against Torture.  These had no direct relationship to the Eucharist, which served rather only as a paradigm or metaphor of the kind of enactment of solidarity and of truth-telling community which these movements sought to display in the public sphere.

How We Live Today

These two stories make an interesting side-by-side comparison:

From the Tampa Tribune:

When the Mueller family sits for dinner, the leftover broccoli and crepes are already wrapped in plastic, the kitchen is beyond spotless, and the rest of the home is so tucked-away tidy it looks like they just moved in. In a way, they have: Every inch of furnishing, every little trinket and votive candle, sits precisely as designers placed it five months ago. That would make them the most perfect suburban ideal, except for one catch: This isn’t actually their home. Bob and Dareda Mueller and their three grown sons are, instead, part of an “elite group” of middle-class nomads who have agreed to an outlandish deal. They can live cheaply in this for-sale luxury home if it looks as if they never lived here at all.

The home must remain meticulously cleaned and preserved: the temperature precisely pleasant, the mirrors crystalline clear. If a prospective buyer wants to see the home, they must quickly disappear. And when the home sells, they must be gone for good, off to the next perfect place.

From The Atlantic:

Yes, all four of us are on the deed and, yes, we share the 30-year mortgage and food and maintenance expenses. No, there’s no division of the house into separate sections. And no, all four of us are not all having sex with each other. (Why do many people assume that if adults are willing to share a kitchen, they probably also want to share a bed?) We are just two couples who plan to live together and raise children in one household, hopefully for decades.

When we talk with friends who already have kids about our living arrangement, some are shocked that we are willing to subject ourselves to living with a crying newborn who is not our own. Others can’t imagine trying to agree on consistent rules for the kids or having every minute of their parenting observed by other adults. The idea spooks them.

I do share those concerns to an extent, but raising kids with just one other adult scares me even more. I’ve seen these same friends with children struggle to balance work, family life, community involvement, exercise, and the occasional fun activity. There’s just no way to “lean in” to all those directions at once.

While most people take for granted that dual-parent households usually have more resources to deal with life’s challenges than single parents, why stop there? By forming a household with friends who share our values, we realized we could build an even stronger system of support than we would have in separate homes. The model is not even new; it’s an echo of raising children with the support of an extended family, but with less drama, I expect.

Fantasy and the Buffered Self


When asked by the editors of the website The Immanent Frame to summarize the key concerns of his vastly ambitious book A Secular Age (2007), Charles Taylor wrote,

Almost everyone can agree that one of the big differences between us and our ancestors of five hundred years ago is that they lived in an “enchanted” world, and we do not; at the very least, we live in a much less “enchanted” world. We might think of this as our having “lost” a number of beliefs and the practices which they made possible. But more, the enchanted world was one in which these forces could cross a porous boundary and shape our lives, psychic and physical. One of the big differences between us and them is that we live with a much firmer sense of the boundary between self and other. We are “buffered” selves. We have changed.

As Taylor makes clear, the shift from a porous to a buffered self involves a complex series of exchanges. But to put that shift in simple terms, a person accepts a buffered condition as a means of being protected from the demonic or otherwise ominous forces that in pre-modern times generated a quavering network of terrors. To be a pre-modern person, in Taylor’s account, is to be constantly in danger of being invaded or overcome by demons or fairies or nameless terrors of the dark — of being possessed and transformed, or spirited away and never returned to home and family. Keith Thomas’s magisterial Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971) specifies many of these dangers, along with the whole panoply of prayers, rites, amulets, potions, chants, spells, and the like, by which a person might seek protection from the otherwise irresistible. It is easy, then, to imagine why a person — or a whole culture — might, if it could, exchange this model of a self with highly permeable boundaries for one in which the self feels better protected, defended — impermeable, or nearly so.

A Strange Fatality


It would be a strange fatality if the great revolution by which Western man has subdued nature to his purposes should end in the loss of his own spiritual freedom, but this might well happen if an increasing technical control of the state over the life and thought of its members should coincide with a qualitative decline in the standards of our culture.

An ideology in the modern sense of the word is very different from a faith, although it is intended to fulfill the same sociological functions. It is the work of man, an instrument by which the conscious political will attempts to mould the social tradition to its purpose. But faith looks beyond the world of man and his works; it introduces man to a higher and more universal range of reality than the finite and temporal world to which the state and the economic order belong. And thereby it introduces into human life an element of spiritual freedom which may have a creative and transforming influence on man’s social culture and historical destiny at well as on his inner personal experience.