Media and More in Our Distracted Age

past and futureOne of the two speakers at my recent Laity Lodge weekend was Alan Jacobs.  I’m not quite sure how I first heard of him.  I know that I read his wonderful The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction a good while before I knew him as “Alan Jacobs,” if that makes any sense.  I did get to enjoy one group meal with him, dinner on the second day, I believe.  It was good to ask him about his Harry Potter reviews and to talk movies in general with the whole table.

Over the course of his two talks, Jacobs presented himself as something of the “bad cop” speaker when it came to technology.  His was more of a “nuts and bolts” approach to the issues of smartphones and media consumption, those things that often distract us from just about everything, it seems.  It was something of an odd twist for me, as he spoke more frequently of habitus than Jamie Smith did (because when I hear “habits,” I think Jamie Smith).  Jacobs spoke of two key things that popular media culture has honed in on that the church has also seen as a source for its approach to things media-centric: the idea that everything has a simple solution (which he calls ‘solutionism’) and that we should all embrace an “I am my own, I belong to me” mentality for living.  Both Jacobs and Smith returned to these two insidious ideas often. When he mentioned the “I am my own” mentality, Jacobs quickly pointed us to the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism:

Q:What is your only comfort in life and death?

A: That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.

From there, Jacobs walked us through stories, Scripture, and trends/statistics to better understand “the mess that we’re in.”  He went from Genesis to Auden, from Calvin to Bonhoeffer to Lanier in his thinking.  What I appreciated about his concluding argument was that he attempted to point us to the way of wisdom and discernment, knowing that walking wisely through our distracted world would take both courage and renunciation.  Both would be necessary: we just need to know when to embrace each of them.

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A couple of weeks before the retreat, Jacobs posted an interesting essay to The Guardian titled “To survive our high-speed society, cultivate ‘temporal bandwidth.'”  It’s a good read that, as his talks, points us to the way of wisdom.  In the essay, which you can read here, he argues that one powerful way to combat our “instant” and “in the moment” society is to read from the past and think well about the future.  From the essay:

We cannot, from within [our current, in-the-moment] ecosystem, restore old behavioral norms or develop new and better ones. No, to find a healthier alternative, we must cultivate what the great American novelist Thomas Pynchon calls “temporal bandwidth” – an awareness of our experience as extending into the past and the future.

In Pynchon’s 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow, an engineer named Kurt Mondaugen explains that temporal bandwidth is “the width of your present, your now … The more you dwell in the past and future, the thicker your bandwidth, the more solid your persona. But the narrower your sense of Now, the more tenuous you are.”

If we want to extend our bandwidth, we begin with the past, because exploring the past requires only willingness.

Reading well of the past, in turn, helps us consider the future.  Jacobs continues:

Another benefit of reflecting on the past is awareness of the ways that actions in one moment reverberate into the future. You see that some decisions that seemed trivial when they were made proved immensely important, while others which seemed world-transforming quickly sank into insignificance. The “tenuous” self, sensitive only to the needs of This Instant, always believes – often incorrectly – that the present is infinitely consequential.

Odd to think that one of the best ways to understand Our Present Moment is by taking the time to revisit the past and imagine the future.  But I think Jacobs is right.  Without wisdom, though, such actions would look more like distractions.

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