Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Benedict Option: Chapter 10 (Man and the Machine)

It's always sad when a series comes to an end. Well...maybe "sad" isn't quite the right word for it. "Disappointing" doesn't really work, either. Maybe..."relief"? That's the one - "relief" really does describe the feeling I get when one of these things is out of my house for good. Doubly so in this case - there's still a waiting list and I damn near had to pay a fine.

But let's not get distracted, as Chapter 10 is significant. It's here that we will delve into a truer form of chaos and face the menace of our times. Within these pages we will confront the awful totem, that sinister artifact bound in the sorcery of wrack and ruin. It is the great curse of the 21st century, a machine of devil's make with the power to lead wanton youth into a metaphysical void from which neither light not joy can escape. Hearken, even now the malevolent wheel of fate turns against this God-forsaken domain...


...Which is to say that we're into the obligatory "Those Kids These Days and Their Dang Smartphones" section. Someday, when all the fires have been put out and the madness of this age has been pushed back into the wilderness, I would like to write the definitive account of the smartphone as the central object of Boomer scorn. Truly, I have never seen so many rancorous assholes direct so much fury at something they all own and use every day. Of course, that scorn is usually just displaced derision for the Kids These Days, or KTDs as I called them during my exploration of the inner life of David Brooks. This even showed up in the saga of The Road to Character, making a cameo in David Zweig's fact-check:
On “Morning Joe,” as one of the hosts recited the erroneous passage, another host waved a cellphone, signaling, “See? This is the problem with today’s youth!”
When commentators whine about smartphones, they're really bitching about the internet in general - employing the time-tested "It didn't exist until I heard about it" thought process, they trace their first serious internet use back to Apple's insipid "There's an app for that" campaign and simply blend the two in their minds. The same goes for Dreher, who finds the diabolical device only slightly more worrisome (in that it's hard for a parent to monitor) than the networks that power it.The difference is that most of these whiners are using smartphones as a focus of contempt only because the KTDs were inconsiderate enough to avoid violence, criminality, promiscuity, substance abuse, and other traditional markers of immorality, forcing Boomers to scramble for a reason to look down on them. Dreher, on the other hand, has a specific reason for hating the 'net. Care to take a guess?
When parents hand their children small portable computers with virtually unlimited access to the Internet, that should not be surprised when their kids - especially their sons - dive into pornography.
No points for guessing that one.

I've been eliding over this because it doesn't come up often, but Dreher has mentioned porn before this, and it's clear that he considers the Tsunami of Smut to be a close second to the Rainbow Hordes in terms of its destructive impact on sacred tradition.

While Dreher does briefly touch on bioscience (though we're cheated of any hyperbolic screeching over pig-men), this chapter is mostly dedicated to the evils of the internet. It's not just smut, though - Dreher has a lot of problems with the internet, few of which will come as a real surprise. Pornography was an obvious one, but Dreher is also writing to a slightly more high-brow audience and thus is obliged to write a bit on the corrosive impact of Technology:
But the Internet, like all new technologies, also takes away. What it takes from us is our sense of agency...
...The result of this is a gradual inability to pay attention, to focus, and to think deeply.
He backs this up with a number of people, including his dear old friend Andrew Sullivan (you know, the one whose great epiphany about the dehumanizing effect of technology led him to quit blogging and move on to writing short sequential articles for the internet, which is totally different) and media critic Neil Postman. I've read some Postman, and I understand why Dreher likes him so much. Postman can be insightful, but I've also seen him take his McLuhan pitch well into Luddite territory. The man once argued that the rot of American civic culture started with telegraphy, for fuck's sake - how seriously can I take him?

All of this covers up Dreher's real problem with the internet. It's not pornography, it's not distractibility, it's not because it made Andrew Sullivan bitterly wistful - it is, in fact, something we first encountered many, many pages ago:
If we can use technology any way we like as long as the outcome results in our own happiness, then all reality is "virtual reality," open to construal in any way we like. There are no natural limits, only those that we do not yet have the technological capability to overcome...
...To go through the screen of your computer or smartphone is to enter a world where you don't often have to deal with anything not chosen.
There it is - choice. That's the problem we've been grappling with since the very start of this exercise.

I was really surprised when Dreher left the development of the internet off of his timeline of civilizational decline. He mentioned it, but only in a very brief aside that described it solely as a contributing factor. The truth is that he probably left it off because he didn't know enough about the history of digital communications. Granted, most people don't - we are, for the most part, content to tie the invention of the internet to the same period in which we started using it. It's only weirdos in the open source movement that actually remember the progenitors, those other weirdos who never became famous because they lent their genius to the world rather than using it to become wealthy.

If Dreher was unfamiliar with this, he should have looked it up because communications technology, in all of its form and splendor, was clearly as harmful to his precious traditional hierarchies as the social changes he decried. There's a certain school of thought that suggests that the Gutenberg Bible actually led to the Reformation, but even if you don't buy that particular argument, it should be clear that social upheaval and the spread of information go hand in hand. If you are ill-suited to your born community and there's another that would accept you, but you never learn of that community, then it may as well not exist.

"Community" is the key word, because for all of Dreher's talk about corrosive individualism, many if not most of his complaints are about communities, not individuals. Protestants, humanists, urbanites, gays, lesbians, artists, science aficionados, civil libertarians - whether formally or in a very loose sense, they all constitute communities if for no other reason than people were or are more comfortable embracing them if they know that they have friends. That's where information and communications technology really helps, by enabling the free-flow of information (or "liquid modernity" as Dreher puts it because he's apparently dedicated to making absolutely everything sound like it came from a discarded Lovecraft story).

The novel aspect of the internet among media is its dual nature - participatory mass communication. Most communications technologies enable just one of those aspects - either one-way communication with a lot of people (as with radio, television and print) or participatory communication with a very small group (as with the telephone and telegraph). That the internet features both makes it uniquely well suited to the discovery, or even development, of communities. The misfit who takes to the internet is likely to discover - for good or ill - that he's not alone. Once he's figured that out, he gains some elevated degree of control over his own destiny. He gains the ability to choose.

To Dreher, that's the biggest problem of them all. His ideal world is a homogenous one, a place of ritual and hierarchy and order. Choice threatens all of that. Present a group of people with a choice they've never had and some of them, inevitably, will reject the status quo. They'll reject the rituals they see as superstition, or the hierarchy that they view as tyranny, or the order that they see as stagnation. They'll choose to seek fulfillment in their own way. Dreher can't tolerate that.

Next time, I take this piece of shit back to the library and we wrap this bastard up.


  1. Just today, by some coincidence, I read this review of David Frum's book Dead Right, from 2003. Seems Mr. Frum is also driven by his discomfort of choice and the way others exercise it.


  2. Hey, not all boomers that hate smartphones also use smartphones. But then I try not to be both rancorous and an asshole simultaneously. I also don't hate the kids these days. I mostly hate the fact that so many people can't put down their phone enough to talk to the people they are walking with, or to pay attention to their surroundings so that they don't walk into my stopped car. These problems are ageless and timeless

    1. Look, I could piss and moan about smartphones as much as anyone, but I always love this implication that electronic fixation is exclusively a problem of the young. It's something I chuckle over when I'm waiting on my weekly slice, when I can see a group of Youngs having a very animated conversation while, two tables away, their elders neglect their kids/grandkids to check how many likes their latest Facebook pictures got.

  3. Too late, but, he was on local radio, KQED in San Francisco! I know, but, didn't have the stomach to listen in, when I heard the program start.

  4. Talk about timing: http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/smartphones-are-our-soma/

    1. Sounds about right, as Dreher cited Jean Twenge a few times on points like this. Twenge is legit, but I question the rigor of that article - it seems like the way to determine if smartphones are destroying the youth is by comparing groups/cohorts most likely to have them against against those who are less likely to have them, rather than simply deciding that all the KTDs had them in 2012. But it's the Atlantic, they posted much worse shit from McArdle for years.