Wired magazine recently posted a thought-provoking article on Kim Kardashian, selfies, and the democratization of the Internet (warning: bare bum). There are so many contradictions in that last sentence that I’m not quite sure where to begin.
At the article’s core, the author suggests that the rise of online social networks has allowed the general populace to shape new definitions of the word, “beautiful.” In former times, the gate-keepers of physical beauty resided in the executive offices of a few print publications and even fewer mainstream movie studios. The editors of Cosmopolitan, for example, had proportionally high degrees of influence over cultural understandings of feminine beauty, and with that power, they constructed a narrative now familiar to any person with eyeballs. To be beautiful is to be: tall, skinny, toned, have a flawless complexion, full this and tucked that, etc. The establishment experienced little resistance to this narrative primarily because the average person had no direct control over the media of the day.
And then came 1993. Then websites. Then Google. Then Facebook. Then the Drudge Report. Then the myriad forms of self-expression and identity shaping that exist in this present age. Now, in the hands of a 13-year old girl in the Global South, the Internet transforms the world into an enormous level playing field. She can worship the gods of ancient times—the Monroes, Crawfords, Campbells, and Evangelistas—or she can go full iconoclast, raging against the status quo with her newly discovered power.
Usually, society’s calls for the underdog to “change the world!” are regularly ignored as youthful idealism. In the case of online social networks and public influence, however, I do not think that Wired is overstating its case. 13-year old teeny boppers were responsible for the shaping of public policy and the near collapse of a popular South Korean administration just a few short years ago. Read about it here.
In the Age of the Internet, yesterday’s gate-keepers are being hunted, one by one. What replaces them remains to be seen.
When power diffuses to the ground level, from power of the few to power of the many, there seems to be at least four distinct stages:
Stage 1: Terrific fits of joy as the oppressive status quo is lifted, or at least noticeably eroded. The image that comes to mind here is the Berlin Wall’s collapse in 1989—reunions, tears, sledgehammers, and the Hoff. Don’t hassle him.
Stage 2: The creative and optimistic stage that everyone feels at the start of a big project that has just be commissioned. This is much like a blank canvas that has the potential to reveal the next Vincent Van Gogh. The question becomes, “now that we have the power, what exactly should we do with it?”
Stage 3: The turn toward the Dark Side. In short order, the creative optimists realize that the cultural destroyers are flooding into the room beside them. With the Internet, comes Internet pornography. With fashion, comes skinny pants. With democracy, comes Jesse “The Body” Ventura.
Stage 4: A new equilibrium that is equal parts fragile optimism and the fear of new forms of oppression emerging in the vacuum.
On the whole, the ground-level ability to change narratives, such as the definition of beauty, appears to be a good thing. I include myself in that evaluation. When the power of the few is broken, new stories can be told—stories that command our attention. Yet the draw to consolidate power is like the liquid metal terminator in T2; it keeps reforming no matter how many times you break it down. For example, Facebook offers freedom for individual users to set new narratives in motion, while at the same time, they are accused of manipulating the narrative itself. Power has coalesced once again in the hands of a new gate-keeper.
I wonder if we ever stop to recognize the damage we are doing when we create such wholesale changes in the first place. If everyone is able to define for themselves words like, “beauty,” “good,” or “truth,” then the words no longer have any meaning at all. Do these terms necessarily require an external standard by which to judge claims of their presence? The democratization of words may not be empowering so much as obliterating.
Changing the beauty narrative, as the Wired article calls it, sounds good and beneficial to the hordes of girls (and guys) who are chained to an image conjured up by someone in a New York city skyscraper, trying to sell more clothes. But changing a narrative also sounds like a politician’s move, manipulating data at will then convincing the public to act on its proclivity toward mob mentality. Is this freedom?
In my own religious tradition, we continue to celebrate the Protestant Reformation, initiated by a particularly ornery Augustinian monk named Martin Luther in 1517. The substantial abuses of the Roman Catholic Church were confronted by a man with two remarkable things going for him: 1) a personal attitude that combined fury with fortitude, intellect with authority; and 2) an innovative way to communicate en masse: the printing press. He attempted to chisel away the rough edges of the religious oligarchy, but soon looked down and realized he was carrying a chainsaw.
“In the Age of the Internet, yesterday’s gate-keepers are being hunted, one by one. What replaces them remains to be seen.”
What was the cost of this theo-political upheaval? In short, the Roman Church’s power declined. The individual’s access to sacred texts went up. Splintering religious factions became the norm, not the exception. Society’s standard-bearers of what was true, good, and beautiful fell under attack. And, most notably, the underpinnings of a stable society were overthrown, leaving the door open for the Enlightenment which largely sought to explain a world apart from the former narratives provided by the once-unified Church.
Can we expect a similar invoice from the digital revolution? The doors of media are thrown open to a new world. Everyone styles himself as a Rembrandt. Or, a Woodward and Bernstein. Or, a Streep. Or, in my circles, a Bonhoeffer. This sounds eerily similar to giving everyone a ribbon for participating as no standards of excellence or accountability are required. It also sounds like a world that is interesting, complex, beautiful, and slightly terrifying to a rule-follower like me.
The splintering of the Christian Church in the 16th century is due, in large part, to a man whose theology I admire greatly. But, perhaps, when I am honest with myself, I can recognize that I, too, mourn the loss of unity within the Church. While I’m convinced that grace comes by God’s grace through faith, I’m conscientious that my church’s celebration every Oct 31st (Reformation Sunday) came at great cost to Christendom as a whole. And of great cost to me. I have Burger King theology far too many times; I want it my way. My reading of Scripture is best done in the context of a faithful, accountable community—the Church—and I admit, I resist someone else telling me how to interpret the Word of God. I prefer theological anarchy for myself, but demand strict theological supervision for everyone else.
Stanley Hauerwas once noted that we should leave room in our Reformation celebrations for contrition. I think he’s on to something, both on ecclesial and personal levels.
The cost of a reformation is prodigious. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t (or isn’t) worth the struggle, it just means that when we recognize the forthcoming dangers, we are able to be more empathetic to both the few and the many. Christian community, after all, needs both.
© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.