Flattening our reality, one share at a time

This past semester I taught our school’s senior class a unit on media studies. This was mostly an excuse to geek out on Marshall McLuhan and call it “work.”

But in the context of our course as a whole, I had another aim. We are spending the year studying the way in which we derive stories from various influences and then enact those stories in our own lives. When we live our lives, full of thought, passions, and actions in the world, we tell a story—what we’re calling (after Richard Rorty and Mark Edmundson) our ‘Final Narrative.’

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I’m hoping to help students identify the sources (scriptures, rituals, works of literature and art, philosophies) from which they hope to consciously construct their Final Narratives. I am also hoping to make them aware of the ways in which their immersion in the structures of social media may inhibit their efforts to discern, adopt, and enact dimensions of the Final Narratives proposed by compelling authors, mystics, filmmakers, and artists.

In short, it’s hard to mine Homer, Hemingway, Hebrews, Heidegger, Herzog, or Handel for actionable glimpses of the good, true, and beautiful when most of our attention is captured by #hashtags, handles, and header images.

And, even if our minds and hearts are profoundly moved by an encounter with great Final Narrative proposals, the life-changing impact of such encounters may be significantly diminished by the way in which our social media supervenes upon our lived experience. We are brought crashing back down from our mountaintop experiences not by the demands and duties of our daily lives, but through the banality of living within social media’s world-flattening reality.

We put down a great novel and pick up our phones. The Old Man and the Sea was trying to convince us that doing what we were made for, and doing it with heroic perseverance, is intrinsically valuable. But now Twitter is trying to convince us, by the very structure of its ‘world,’ that the latest nuclear provocation by Kim Jong Un is worthy of the same amount of concern as a snarky comment by Stephen Colbert.

We come home from church, where the liturgy was attempting to en-world us in the life of the world to come. We sit on the sofa and amputate that far off world in order to save the World of Facebook, within which a historically private moment like a marriage proposal is photodocumented alongside the also historically private (but for opposite reasons) event of my high school buddy’s afternoon snack.

When we bookend our reading experiences, however immersive they are, with immersion in social media, however brief, we tell our souls that the worlds of those books are fantasy, and these selfies and cat videos are reality. When we enfold our corporate worship within a life more fundamentally framed by Facebook, in a subtle but undeniable fashion, it is Facebook that corporate worship becomes about. 

Our technology has enabled us to see the world from the vantage point of distant planets. But our technology has also given us lifelong memberships in the Flat Earth Society. And, when our lives are through, it will be difficult for people to discern from their movements story arcs other than, perhaps, “they were born, they posted, they died.” Our Final Narratives, our supposed visions of the life well lived, are telling the story not of deep conviction and persistent action, but of things liked, things shared, things retweeted.

Are there some of us who manage to utilize social media in ways that do not allow its structures and its ‘world’ to supervene upon the ‘real world’? Are there some of us who primarily live within a world wherein duty, heroism, conviction, love, and sacrifice are treasured and enacted, rather than a world of mere likes and retweets? Certainly.

Do we have the reflective capacity to recognize when we’ve swapped the enchanted world of the great texts, great films, great artworks, great religions and real-life heroes for the flattened earth of Facebook? Do we have the will power to make a substantial change if we recognize that we’re living in the wrong world? I’m not sure.

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