mcluhan on shane hipps community | theology of facebook 3

Shane Hipps , Mennnonite pastor, recently commented on how "dangerous" it is to refer to "virtual community" as real community (watch the video in my last post ).  He had four points real Christian community that I think are helpful starting points for discussion, but perhaps not as dismissible as they appear.

Hipps' four factors for meaningful community:

  1. Shared history (identity and belonging)
  2. Permanence (necessary for the shared history)
  3. Proximity
  4. Shared imagination of the future

Hipps says that virtual community captures the fourth more easily than "true" community, but "utterly leaves out" the other three.  But would Marshall McLuhan , Hipps key thought mentor, agree?

Extensions of humanity.  Basic to McLuhan's thought is the idea the technologies extend natural human functions.  For instance, humans have legs which let them move from one place to another.  The technology of the wheel extended and enhanced that function... suddenly we can do a human thing on a larger scale.  Right?  An axe extends an arm, telephone extends voice, etc.

From this starting point, thought about technologies like an IM chat or Facebook should see certain uniquely human functions like conversation and relationship extended and expanded, not replaced.  (Walter Ong reminds us that invention of the alphabet did not replace the spoken word, the printed book hardly replaced teaching...  new technologies in communication augment, not replace)

Gotta look at the whole system.  A technology can't be evaluated on its own, but in relationship to the system of human perceptions.  Specifically, the ratio of human senses is altered by extending technologies.  And it's not the obvious one.  For instance the effect of radio was to alter... the visual sense.  The effect of the photo is auditory.

Before we can make theological judgments on a technology, we need to think more widely.  Rare is the person that lives only "online" (dark room, glowing screen, empty take-out boxes, no verbal interaction in weeks, etc).  Instead, what is the effect of our online interactions on our physical interactions (and vice versa).

Is proximity physical?  Hipps assumes that proximity is physical and that online interaction breaks the proximity.  But McLuhan assumes that while industrialization created explosion, homogeneity, and isolation (think the suburbs), electronic technology has an imploding, contracting energy effect.  "Everybody in the world has to live in the utmost proximity created by our electronic involvement in one another's lives..." he writes (Understanding Media, p54).  Further, he tantalizingly forces us to examine our definition of proximity:

It begins to become evident that "touch" is not skin but the interplay of the senses, and "keeping in touch" or "getting in touch" is a matter of a fruitful meeting of the senses, of sight translated into sound and sound into movement and taste and smell.

Theologically I'm with Hipps on the importance of the Incarnation, and I think this has implications on physicality.  This is a whole 'nother post... but I'd suggest that "presence" is significantly more than physical (something we call upon every time we speak on sacramental theology), and that online technologies are not inherently gnostic.

Amputation and Numbness.  McLuhan reminds us that a primary effect of new technologies extending human communication function is a sense of over-stimulus and then "numbness."  We become both hyper-aware of the technology (like in 1998 when we all were talking about going to "do our e-mail"), but also oblivious to its sense-altering effects (an exception McLuhan notes is some artists, who write histories of the future).  But an important feature of this is that we can't immediately see the effect of new technologies... in fact, we don't tend to see them until the next technology arrives, allowing us to look back.

From this perspective, it almost seems silly (pardon the strength) to speak emphatically about media effects on community.  Especially items like "shared history" and "permanence" can't really be categories on technologies that have existed less than 10 years.  Google has only been a wide-spread part of our lives since 2001.  The Blogger platform I'm publishing only gathering popularity since 2004.  And Facebook?  While I was on in the "early days" when it was limited to a huge large universities, it has only become ubiquitous in the last 1.5 years.

(allow me to offer apologies again that while I'm responding to Shane Hipps video clip, I have yet to have examined his published book , which may have significantly more interaction with some of the above I'm mentioned...  I'm sure a conversation with him would be fascinating and fruitful).