I’ve been watching James Burke‘s series Connections (1978) and The Day The Universe Changed (1985) on YouTube lately. There was one passage that struck me in particular:
“Before 1450, life was intensely local. Most people lived and died in the same cottage, and never went further afield than seven miles. […] Here, in church, was where they got their word-of-mouth news about the mysterious and unreal world, out beyond the forest where nobody ever went. The pulpit was their TV, newspaper, wire service, calendar, landlord, lawyer, teacher, timekeeper, social diary.”
–James Burke, The Day The Universe Changed, Episode 4, “Matter of Fact”
Replace the word “pulpit” above with the word “iPhone”, and think about that for a second. What an amazing technology churches were! The church, once upon a time, was the state-of-the-art communications technology. For people in the Middle Ages, it performed many of the same functions that mobile phones perform for us in 2013.
Around 1439, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, and everything changed. This technology, the church, which contained many different products in one, began having its functions stripped away from it one by one. Now that people wanted to read things themselves, you didn’t have just a single, monolithic technology called “church” anymore. You had churches, and schools. And books, and newspapers, and calendars. And as knowledge quickly started to spread because of the new printing technology, other innovations happened which plucked off more and more functions of the church.
550 years later, in 1989, Tim Berners-Lee invented the world-wide web. The iPhone followed 18 years afterwards, and gravity suddenly reversed itself. All these technologies, which had been blown apart half a millenium earlier, suddenly started consolidating again, back towards a single monolithic technology: the mobile phone.
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Western religions have a linear view of time. They see history as having direction, a beginning and an end. They build empires, like Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar, and never expect these empires to fall. Another great conquest is always coming next.
Eastern religions like Hinduism see history as cyclical. The universe and everything in it comes into being, then cycles out of being, then back into being again. Or as Tim Lott writes about Alan Watts and Zen Buddhism:
The emphasis on the present moment is perhaps Zen’s most distinctive characteristic. In our Western relationship with time, in which we compulsively pick over the past in order to learn lessons from it and then project into a hypothetical future in which those lessons can be applied, the present moment has been compressed to a tiny sliver on the clock face between a vast past and an infinite future. Zen, more than anything else, is about reclaiming and expanding the present moment. […]
For all Zen writers life is, as it was for Shakespeare, akin to a dream — transitory and insubstantial. There is no ‘rock of ages cleft for thee’. There is no security. Looking for security, Watts said, is like jumping off a cliff while holding on to a rock for safety — an absurd illusion. Everything passes and you must die. Don’t waste your time thinking otherwise.
With a linear view of history, church administrators in the west spent a lot of the five and a half centuries following the printing press looking for that old security, never quite believing that their breakup was acceptable, yearning for the good old days when the church was all the technology anyone needed. History is moving in the wrong direction! People aren’t coming to church as much because of these newfangled books! Let’s invest in Baroque art! That’ll wow ’em back into the pews! We have to fix this!
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The popular technology of the day seems to agree more with the Buddhist view that all that matters is the present. As Erick Schonfeld wrote in TechCrunch in 2009:
Once again, the Internet is shifting before our eyes. Information is increasingly being distributed and presented in real-time streams instead of dedicated Web pages. The shift is palpable, even if it is only in its early stages. Web companies large and small are embracing this stream. It is not just Twitter. It is Facebook and Friendfeed and AOL and Digg and Tweetdeck and Seesmic Desktop and Techmeme and Tweetmeme and Ustream and Qik and Kyte and blogs and Google Reader. The stream is winding its way throughout the Web and organizing it by nowness.
Alexis Madrigal thinks, however, that a backlash towards this nowness has begun in 2013.
Nowadays, I think all kinds of people see and feel the tradeoffs of the stream, when they pull their thumbs down at the top of their screens to receive a new updates from their social apps.
[…] And now, who can keep up? There is a melancholy to the infinite scroll.
Wouldn’t it be better if we just said … Let’s do something else? Let’s have the web be a museum or a curio box or an important information filter or an organizing platform.
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Time Magazine named Pope Francis its Person of the year. I’m Lutheran, not Catholic, but I admit I am fascinated by the man. Robert Barron at Real Clear Religion, however, quibbled with Time’s emphasis on the changes he’s making, and wrote this in response:
If I might cite the much-maligned Benedict, the Church does essentially three things: it cares for the poor; it worships God; and it evangelizes. Isolate any of the three from the other two, and distortions set in.
Those three things, here in 2013, are a lot fewer than the long list of things the Church did in 1413. I wonder then, if Pope Francis’ popularity isn’t just about the Pope’s message itself, but also about two linear arrows of history intersecting: a time the Church is ready for a pope to focus the Church on those three things, and also a culture at large that has reached a point where it is ready to hear a message about lasting values.
Perhaps now, in this peak-iPhone/webstream era, people have found out through their own experience that the Buddhists and the Christians each own a piece of the truth: that most things in life are transitory; yet there are a few select eternal truths worth hanging on to. Perhaps mankind is relearning an old lesson: that one should render unto Steve Jobs the things that are Steve Jobs’, and unto God the things that are God’s.