Get On My Lawn

The alternative to place is not omnipresence and omni-connectedness. It is nowhereness.

In chapter five of Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, Cal Newport recites a familiar but enlightening distinction. Drawing from Sherry Turkle, Newport pits Connection against Conversation. Connection is digital interaction; it’s a category of social experience that is low-grade, easy, fast, and mostly impersonal (e.g., it avoids things like facial expressions and vocal cues). Conversation is human-with-human time, an exchange of physical identities and characteristics in the course of talking. A conversation is what you have when a friend drops by for a visit, and connection is what you have when you Like or comment on that friend’s photo. Newport’s essential argument throughout Digital Minimalism is that, for the modern tech user, balancing these experiences is almost impossible, because each one requires time, and time spent on one is time taken away from the other.

I’ll have more to say about the book in the weeks ahead. But I was intrigued by the intense contrast Newport draws between connection and conversation, and the way this contrast reveals how important place is to his entire digital minimalist project. There’s no separating conversation from place, because conversation depends on the people near you, in this moment, wherever you are physically. There is no such thing as place-less conversation, and there’s no such thing as local digital connection, because the digital medium necessarily dislocates users.

If you know a little something about the history of Facebook, this point is very important. Facebook was originally structured to be a platform within specific places, called Networks. In the early days of Facebook Networks were everything; you couldn’t even join the site unless you applied for membership in a Network. The original Networks were colleges, then cities. When I joined Facebook in the summer of 2007, the site required me to indicate I was in Louisville, Kentucky’s network. In addition to curating a list of “People You May Know” from mutual networks, the network requirement—at least in its own way—tethered the experience of Facebook to place. It gave place something of an honorary role as gatekeeper for social experience. Nominally, you could not experience Facebook without belonging to a particular place.

Facebook dropped the Network requirement shortly after I registered my account. Without the Network requirement, anyone could join Facebook, and Facebook was now its own “community” instead of a digital tool for experiencing your community. The point of Facebook became one’s relationship to the site, not one’s relationship to specific people in particular places. Almost every major ill that Facebook has spilled into the public square is downstream of this change. The loss of Networks was representative of the transformation of Facebook from a site that facilitated social interaction to a one that encouraged isolation, advertising, and artificial relationships. The truest, most natural experience of Facebook now is not achieved out in the offline world, meeting friends whom you can “connect” with later. The authentic Facebook experience now is being constantly logged in, attending to one’s own digital ID and trying to master Facebook’s ever-shifting algorithms that create the impression of “good content.” We are left with connection for connection’s sake, which is to say, we are left with a platform instead of a network.

By “overcoming” place, Facebook thrust users into nowhere. The same ways that place constricts our relational bandwidth are the ways in which it richly rewards it. You cannot have the humane joys of place without also experiencing its power to locate you here instead of there, with these people rather than those people. The alternative to place is not omnipresence and omni-connectedness. It is nowhereness: ephemeral “connection” that demands addiction to self-consciousness in exchange for minute sensations of digital belonging.

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Of Paintings and Place

How the simplest of things can teach us a theology of home

In one of my favorite parts of Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow, Jayber attends seminary and begins to realize he has a host of questions. Fearing this may mean he is not called to the ministry, he goes to speak with one of his professors and unloads the laundry list of doubts and questions. The professor, Dr. Ardmire, listens to his questions. The professor speaks up and says to Jayber:

“You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out — perhaps a little at a time.’
And how long is that going to take?’
I don’t know. As long as you live, perhaps.’
That could be a long time.’
I will tell you a further mystery,’ he said. ‘It may take longer.”

This scene came to my mind on Friday when hanging a painting in my office. With it came a rush of emotions that frankly, I did not expect. It recalled memories from the past and hopes for the future.

The painting has several memories, each woven into who I am. It’s an image of the 4th of July in my hometown of Campbellsville, Kentucky. Every year we’d gather on Main Street and watch a parade of floats, horses, dirt bikes, four-wheelers, tractors, cars, and youth sports league champions. My childhood was spent on this street and in a few of the stores with my parents. I learned how to drive on this street. I spent many a Friday night cruising with my friends up and down Main Street before heading over to a bakery that would open at Midnight. We would sit in my dad’s pharmacy parking lot (located right next to the bakery) or in the church parking lot across the street. Those memories are embedded on me like a deep scar, and I look back on those times with a fondness (and embarrassment at times) that grows with age.

It is a remarkable feature of humanity that something so simple can give rise to a host of complex thoughts, regrets, and hopes. To disentangle oneself from a scenario and contemplate your own humanity is an act of the moral imagination that still befuddles. Staring at an object that is filled with history, location, context, and memories might engender a desire for halcyon days where innocence seemed to roam the interiors of your mind.

But there’s more to this painting than the memories of growing up in a small-town. This painting was in my dad’s office for as long as I can remember. I have vivid memories of walking into the back door of his pharmacy as a young child, running toward his office, and seeing this painting hanging on the wall over my father’s shoulder while in my his — very tight — embrace. When I would come home from college to see him, I’d once again race back to his office. He’d be sitting in his chair, paying bills, sorting mail, and weaving back and forth between his office and the front counter. When he would leave I’d sit in his chair, feeling like a young prince sitting in his kingly father’s throne. Directly across from his desk was this painting, always in eyesight. It was a reminder to me that, despite moving away, this place will always be a part of me. It will always be home. 

I’ve never really asked my dad if there is something uniquely special about this painting or if he just liked it. I’m not sure it matters. He retired last July and I asked if I could have the painting to put in my office. As time passed after his retirement I assumed he had forgotten my request and I didn’t really want to bother him about it. For some reason, it seemed silly to me. After Christmas he gave it to me and it’s been in my office, hung within eyesight, ever since.

Since my son was born I have been thinking about what tangible objects might we acquire or currently have that can be passed down to our children. What physical embodiments of “Bryan” and “Danielle” do we have that mean the world to us that our children can hold and admire and say, “This is something Mom loved. This thing is something Dad loved”? I’ve chosen a life project that does this in hopes that my kids will one day be able to look across the room in their offices or homes and see a physical embodiment of something that brings back the memories of their parents.

It’s important, I think, to believe that this drive to remember, to honor those before us, is as old as humanity. From memorial stones in the Old Testament to paintings in one’s office, they are physical reminders of what Roger Scruton calls oikophilia, or a love of home. They are reminders of a “place where you and I belong and to which we return, if only in thought, at the end of all our wanderings.” What might seem lost can be restored. Home can be felt again and there is One ever-working to do precisely that. A love of home and place, under His rule and reign, takes a new — though no less physical — meaning. At the end of all our wanderings stands a bloody cross and a victorious Savior.

Freedom on the Fourth is a theology of place in a painting. Many of the individuals in the painting are likely gone from us now. Many more have grown up, forgotten the place to which we all belonged at one time and — potentially — forgotten who they are. I was painfully close to such peril. I don’t have full answers to the questions I’m seeking. Like Jayber, I have been given questions to which I cannot be given answers. I will have to live them out — perhaps a little at a time. They are important questions and I hope to consider them for the rest of my life.

The painting now hangs in my office, and now I’m able to pull my son into my arms while he looks over my shoulder with this painting in full-view.

Bryan Baise is an assistant professor of philosophy at Boyce College. He has three kids and is far too emotionally invested in his sports teams. You can follow him on Twitter.