media

From the Commonplace Book: Why Our Phones Make Us Sad

Permit me a bit of philosophy on a gray Sunday morning.

From Guy DeBord’s The Society of the Spectacle, a passage I keep returning to, because I think it sums up what is new about the world of screens:

Images detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream, and the former unity of life is lost forever. Apprehended in a partial way, reality unfolds in a new generality as a pseudo-world apart, solely as an object of contemplation. The tendency toward the specialization of images-of-the-world finds its highest expression in the world of the autonomous image, where deceit deceives itself. The spectacle in its generality is a concrete inversion of life, and, as such, the autonomous movement of non-life.

And what is non-life? How is it autonomous? It is the world of algorithms, of thought moving without spirit.

The Byzantines and the Orthodox Church today believe that consecrated icons are alive. An image of St. Michael *is* St. Michael and deserves all the reverence due to the archangel. I witnessed in a remote Greek monastery the monks setting vast hanging light fixtures swinging at the height of their liturgy, to symbolize the world dancing with spirit. These are images which move only with spirit to move them, either human or divine. There is no deceit.

In the form of our screens we are surrounded by unconsecrated images which move only with alien intelligence. Like the demiurge or St. Paul’s dark mirror, they only reflect us. They do not bring life together, but fragment it.

How media reshapes our consciousness

“All of us have become the unwitting workforce for social change.” -Marshall McLuhan

Lincoln Douglas Debates (source: wikimedia commons)

In nineteenth century America, it was common for citizens to gather and listen to dense political oratory for hours at a time.  At the first of the famous debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in 1858, Lincoln proposed that the debate be split in half to make it easier on the audience.  The two men would share the podium for just four hours before lunch and three hours after—even with the break, an excruciating stretch of time by today’s standards.  Yet the crowd that day reportedly listened with rapt attention for the full seven hours, only breaking their silence to express support or disagreement, or to applaud a well-turned phrase.  Nineteenth century audiences regularly gathered by the thousands to perform similar feats of sustained attention.[1]  Neither Lincoln nor Douglas were considered prolix, yet just one of Lincoln’s responses that day ran to over sixteen thousand spoken words.

In contrast, the entire televised debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in September of 1960 ran to fewer than ten thousand words. (more…)