Monday, April 04, 2005

Verbal Litter

There are a lot of areas in which my conscience stands in need of greater sensitizing but one behavior about which I'm already scrupulous is littering. I have very little tolerance for people who cavalierly toss trash out of car windows and drop wrappers, cans, or bottles wherever they happen to be upon completing their contents. If you ever do my laundry you'll want to make sure you check my pants pockets first. There you'll most likely find scraps of paper and gum wrappers that I intended to throw out when I got to the next garbage can but never did. No, littering is not a temptation to which I'm prone.

The information age is strewn with verbal (not to mention visual) litter. I'm thinking about the proliferation of words that computers and other media allow us to generate and disseminate so easily that words become cheap and the wonder and responsibility of communication escape us. By verbal litter I mean the heaps of words that are carelessly spoken, typed, and forwarded; that must be waded through in search of those that are really valuable. Part of my reticence to begin blogging was due to the fear of contributing to the staggering volume of foolishness. According to Proverbs 18:2, a fool takes no pleasure in understanding but only in expressing his opinion. For that reason, the internet with its chatrooms, emails, blogs, and websites can be a fool's paradise.

Proverbs personifies wisdom and folly as two women calling out to the passersby to come in and dine upon the meals they've prepared. Lady Wisdom raises her voice "on the heights beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals" (Prov. 8:1). There she pleads with the naive and simple to heed her invitations: "To you, O men, I call, and my cry is to the children of man. O simple ones, learn prudence; O fools, learn sense." (Prov. 8:4-5). The reason she must raise her voice is because she is situated in the hub of activity, the city gates abuzz with commerce and a variety of other social activities. She must contend with countless other voices conveying messages far more appealing. She struggles to be heard above the din.

In an editorial that appeared in the March 20th volume of the Chicago Tribune ("Knowledge in U.S.: I Know I'm Right and You're Wrong") Robert McHenry, former editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica, describes the modern counterpart to the proverbial depiction of wisdom's struggle to be heard:
The simple fact is that the Internet has made instantly available to anyone who can connect to it all the information but also all the misinformation, all the thoughtful judgments as well as all the mindless prejudices, that the human race has thus far been able to digitize. It is left for us, the users whose lives are not lived entirely online but in the world, somehow to wade through these terabytes of data. Unfortunately, we are not, most of us, very good at this.

The frequent warnings against speaking rashly and answering before hearing a matter (marks of the fool and not the wise person) should lead us to seriously ponder how we make use of this medium. There's no doubt that the internet can be a valuable tool but we need to be on guard against buying into the values of what Quentin Schultze calls informationism, the utopian belief that the ability to transmit, acquire, and store information at greater speeds and volume is the means to overcoming societal decay. According to Schultze, "Informationism stresses the instrumental value of accessing information over the intrinsic good in knowing well." It shouldn't be difficult to see how enticing an emphasis on the instrumental value of accessing information is to an evangelical culture in which pragmatism often trumps truth.
The ability to instantly respond afforded by blogging, email, and other forms of information technology can indeed be a good thing but not necessarily. Schultze alerts us to a potential disadvantage:

Quickly sending and receiving short digital missives will never direct us to shalom. Many people have reached a point technologically where most of their communicating is only unreflective and trivial messaging. In the information age, we might be losing our capacity to listen and thus to become intimate with the moral wisdom embodied in religious practices. It may never even occur to us that listening can be a virtuous practice of willful obedience to truth. To listen is to give attention to the "other" - even to the divine other. From the perspective of cyberculture, listening is inefficient, old-fashioned, and impotent.

Unfortunately, Schultze's book, Habits of the High Tech Heart, is one whose cautionary notes will most likely only be read by those already aware of the dangers being cautioned against. Doug Groothuis's The Soul in Cyberspace is another valuable volume offering guidance in thinking about information technology from the perspective of a biblical worldview.

1 comment:

OhioWoodsman said...

How true! Especially in the workplace, supervisors in every field I see are, well, quiet "clueless" to what is actually going on under their noses. In my lawfirm my boss talks all day about the movie or play he just saw, yet has no idea what is going on in the thousands of cases our firm is handling. Needless to say, he think "religion" is superstition.