No place like here

If you are listening carefully, you may have noticed that it is not just the Mad Christian who has been encouraging people to consider what they want their local community to be, decades from now. Voices calling for a return to localism are getting louder. Frustration with national politics, as well as the space to think that 2020 provided, means a lot of us are unplugging a bit and taking a look around. All technology changes the society that adopts it, for better or ill, and the ubiquity of communication tech has quietly formed us in ways that are sometimes hard to discern. C.S. Lewis once wrote to a friend: “It is one of the evils of rapid diffusion of news that the sorrows of all the world come to us every morning.” And he was only speaking about radio! With today’s digital whizzbangery, news from far away is no longer yesterday’s news but as geographer Yi-Fu Tuan pointed out: “With instantaneous transmission, all news is contemporary.” Welcome to life in Modernland. 

Writing for Tablet, Alana Newhouse covered a huge amount of ground in her stellar essay about what she calls “flatness”. The slow homogenizing effect of Modernism, she argues, is the result of making everything “frictionless,” that is, low-cost and convenient. Newhouse sees the internet as a huge driver of this, the ultimate mass producer, spewing approved messages across placeless time and space. She writes that it is no wonder that Progressivism spreads so easily on the internet – to Newhouse it is the pinnacle of flatness.Sean Blanda picks up on a lot of the same points as Newhouse, pointing out that Big Tech seeks to make location irrelevant. He writes that the hope of “techno-futurists” is that people would become free from the constraints of physicality. But as he points out, “If I wave that magic wand and everyone holds Bitcoin, goes to school via Zoom and Youtube, and can work anywhere with a wifi connection — what do we, as a nation, build? The very things we want flexibility to enjoy are only possible because someone made a commitment to a community and a place.”

Another sharp observation is made by Michael Sacasas in his excellent article for the Convivial Society. He writes that having access to the “digital deluge of indiscriminately instantaneous information” leads to a feeling of listlessness, which medieval folks knew as acedia. He argues that before electronic media, your news intake was regulated by where you were. It was easier to be “present” as we might say today, dealing with the information that was coming from your locality, rather than navigating dispatches from afar. Moreover, Sacasas points out that local news is more likely to be information that you can do something about.

Sacasas follows a series of threads in his piece, analyzing the ramifications of news from far away. He notes the exhausting work of “tending to our information ecosystem” and the blurring of work and rest as a result of “ubiquitous connectivity.” He also ponders how access to endless information leads to a kind of “context collapse”, where the lack of delineation between types of information and audience leave us unsure how to act or be. He ends with a half-finished thought: historically, the “body has been the root of all human understanding” but in an age of disembodied information, the body is increasingly seen as a liability.

Each of these essays is worth reading and considering, with a gold mine of links and references that we haven’t been able to do justice. But they also contain some very practical ways to stave off the acedia and start building for the future. This is not a call to a Luddite existence or to cut cords. But it is a call to “Give up on our current institutions; they already gave up on us,” as Newhouse says. Write, build something that will remain after you’re gone, learn the names of trees, as Dr. Koontz has recommended. Try hard things and lead lives which are characterized as Newhouse puts it by “lots and lots of creative waste.”

As Proverbs 25 says, there is definitely a place for news from far away and global events can impact us, no matter where we are. But C.S. Lewis continues, in his letter to his friend: 

“I think each village was meant to feel pity for its own sick and poor whom it can help and I doubt if it is the duty of any private person to fix his mind on ills which he cannot help. (This may even become an escape from the works of charity we really can do to those we know). A great many people do now seem to think that the mere state of being worried is in itself meritorious. I don’t think it is. We must, if it so happens, give our lives for others: but even while we’re doing it, I think we’re meant to enjoy Our Lord and, in Him, our friends, our food, our sleep, our jokes, and the birds song and the frosty sunrise.”

Yes, the days are evil and the future is often in shadow but we have treasures in this darkness – the sure Word of God which is a lamp to our feet, the comfort of the sacraments which assure us we are his, and the fellowship of the saints, a foretaste of Paradise. As Lewis concludes, “It is very dark: but there’s usually light enough for the next step or so.” 

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