Sunday, January 26, 2014


Godwin's Law states that online debates will eventually result in someone invoking an analogy to Hitler or the Nazis. The assumption is that a Hitler analogy is always going to be a stretch, and that once you've invoked one, you've lost the debate.

I kinda wish there was a similar law in regards to analogies to pornography. At least we would all agree that porn is a base line of evil. When considering the worst atrocities of photography, film, sexuality and relationships, we would fight the temptation to say something like, that Netflix series wasn't any more redeeming than porn. 

My point is that I know that relating the smartphone to the voyeurism of porn might be a bit much, but bear with me a little longer.

The obvious irony or perhaps, hypocrisy, is that I'm bringing porn into conversation with the smartphone and social media while I am personally involved with social media. These reflections then are a kind of lament because I ironically feel trapped in these apps that are intended to be so socially liberating. When I was a kid there was usually a TV on in more than one room in the house. In high school I recognized I had developed a compulsion to turn the TV on when I entered a room, and I recognized it as an addiction.

My solution was to never have a TV again once I left for college. Now over twenty years later, I have two TVs but they are never used. I bought one to watch an OU football game when I was 27. It sits in our basement for the boys to watch VHS tapes on. My father in law bought us the other. It hangs on the wall behind two paintings.

But the internet has taken up the addictive space of TV in spades. When I wrote the first essay on the smartphone, I had been concerned about the amount of time I spent on the laptop. Now the smartphone might as well be an appendage. This phone-as-new-body-part way of living is the new norm that we might at best chuckle about with a bit of chagrin. I'm hoping these reflections can open a more significant conversation that might help me and others be more aware of our daily disciplines.

I was able to cut myself off from TV and cable. Well, I never had cable. It would have been too much. So, goodbye prime time television. I'd already lost interest in sports, so that wasn't difficult. And I was apolitical at that point, so the news didn't matter either.

In his book Technopoly, Neil Postman asks, "what is the problem to which this technology is the solution?" What dire need do we have for social media and the smartphone? How has it attained the status of a body part?  Getting rid of this smartphone is exponentially more difficult than cutting myself off from TV, and I've only been using one for a couple months. I'll elaborate later on some specifics angles to what I'm struggling with, but I want to return to the analogy to pornography.

We have an incredible capacity to hold and touch, to draw close and fondle. We have a drive within us to linger, ponder, meditate, gaze upon lovingly and adore. I'd like to suggest that smartphone can simulate this intimacy. I'm suggesting that it is the device itself that we are largely grateful for and that content is largely inconsequential.

In Amusing Ourselves to Death, written in 1985, 12 years before the debut of the iPhone, Neil Postman explains:
"Information is now a commodity that can be bought and sold, or used as a form of entertainment, or worn like a garment to enhance one's status. It comes indiscriminatly, directed at no one in particular, disconnected from uselessness; we are glutted with information, drowning in information, have no control over it, don't know what to do with it."  
What we love is not so much the information itself but the power of the voyeur, the giddy freedom to glide effortlessly throughout the WORLD WIDE WEB! We love the constant opportunity to do what we want, when we want, how we want. And we love having all this power in our hands.

Of course there are many interesting things to be found through the phone and through social media. I'm hoping you'll read this blog after all, but perhaps there is a more healthy access? Maybe it shouldn't be the air I breathe all day long but something occasional instead?  Phones used to have cords attached to walls. Newspapers were eventually folded and left at the breakfast table by an empty coffee cup. A movie was something you watched once in a while. I'm nostalgic for those limitations.

What even more interesting things might we do if we put down our damn phones?

I'd love to hear from you. How do you discipline yourself? Am I alone in this struggle?


Kin said...

Warning: It's late, so the filters might be off. Same with the proofreading.

Anyway, thanks for writing these reflections. They've been very interesting and affirming. I struggle with similar feelings towards social media/internet/easy access through devices. I also believe that many people share your feelings, though probably to a lesser extent.

What helped me the most is two things:
1) Simple acknowledgment that easy internet is nothing but cheap entertainment.
2) Aggressive removal of negative content.

Once I stopped looking for depth in my online, text-based interactions and my content surfing, I realized I was enjoying my smartphone and easy internet. I agree with you that internet interaction (the quick, easy kind) is mostly imagined connectedness. Also, I believe that much of the content found online is junk. Once I stopped expecting a good, growing, positive experience online, the scattered bits of goodness that were hidden began to shine through. I also began to aggressively prune sources of content that were either upsetting or annoying to me. I unsubscribed from countless sources of content and unfollowed hundreds of people and Facebook and Twitter. Channeling every last bit of ruthlessness I could muster, I even hid some of my best friends simply because I couldn't handle their social media presence any longer. The constant highlight reel of my friends' lives was beginning to change my view towards them negatively. I also found I just couldn't keep up with it all. There's too much stuff going on and I was trying to follow everything all at once.

I am aware that my sentiment is a very pessimistic view of this stuff. My view is born of a bit of frustration and resignation.

If you've noticed (probably not), I've been distant from anything social media lately. All I post now are cheesy one-liners, food pictures, and Snapchat drawings. You might say that I'm fleeing from the internet. Also, it's interesting to note that Facebook is showing signs of being dead in the water. People are deactivating their accounts in greater and greater numbers, switching to easier, "no commitment" social media (like Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter). I think this trend is revealing sentiment similar to your own, though the average person might not be able to recognize and articulate his or her individual need to change online habits like you and I have done.

So, quick summary: I stopped trying to find depth online, allowing the content inherently meaningful to rise to the top. At the same time, I used my unsubscribe machete to clear away the content that was harmful to myself. Combined with a general distancing from the internet, I found myself enjoying online time much more than before.

I can't say I spend any less time goofing off on the internet, but I can say I choose to use the majority of my internet time at an appropriate level of seriousness: As a way to have fun in my spare time with the occasional surprise of good content. For me, the key is to keep the internet from becoming more than it should be.

I've managed to figure out a way to limit the amount of negative content from showing up for me, which allows the better content to be more readily available. Greater quality of content along with reduced expectations allows me to increase the overall value of my internet consumption. Reduced expectations IS HARD TO DO (it is super easy to become dazzled by all the nice pictures and funny things online).

I hope that my thoughts can be at least a little helpful to you. As men of depth, we are doomed to suffer in a world catering towards the shallow, quick, and easy.

Joshua Banner said...

Thanks Kin. Very thoughtful. Love it. I agree that we need to be aggressive. That is a great way to describe what many of us may need to do. Perhaps eventually I'll share my efforts to build boundaries.

I don't think pessimism is necessarily bad. I describe myself as a techno-pessimist. The question is how love undergirds our pessimism. Are we pessimistic because we hope for greater and better or are we just bitter and cynical?

Kent said...

Great Topic Josh. I realize that any form of random access, unlimited and instant stimulation through media of any type hits most humans where we are most vulnerable. We seek more of what makes us feel good in the moment, wether it is literally pornography or facebook, sports, Netflx, shopping etc. However, I'm more worried about our kids who have always had this access to unlimited stimulation, on the many screens that fill our house. I see the addiction has quickly taken to my kids. Even my 4 year old who isn't satisfied with the dozens of games on his tablet, "daddy can I download another game?" I suppose we as parents have the biggest lesson to teach by our actions, in unplugging our selves for the sake of living self control and not just preaching it.