Faith, Technology, and The Suburbs
A couple of loosely connected thought, links, and quotes for a Friday morning…
A few weeks ago, I came across an excellent new collaborative blog called Wondering Fair (a number of contributors are alumni from Regent College). Interesting and engaging topics, good writing, nice accessible look and feel… definitely worth adding to your reader. Due to my ongoing interest in how technology shapes us as human beings, I was particularly drawn to David Benson’s post on why he doesn’t own a mobile phone. His summary hits the nail on the head, in my view:
In subtle ways, we all begin to reflect the technology we use. To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Or, as Postman extends the truism, “To a man with a camera, everything looks like an image. To a man with a computer, everything looks like data.” And to a person with a mobile, everything looks like a text message. I’m not made in the image of a phone. But I do believe I’m made in the image of a loving God, who respects people as people, and objects as objects. And never shall the twain meet.
While we’re on the topic of good thinking about faith and technology, I continue to make my way through (and to have my approach to and use of technology challenged by) Quentin Schultze’s Habits of the High-Tech Heart. Of particular interest today was a passage on how, in a digital age, the quantitative analysis of data is frequently assumed to be synonymous with wisdom. Schultze rightly worries that our obsession with data will lead to an impoverishment of genuine wisdom and a narrow view of how worth is to be evaluated:
For all the successes we can score with quantitative analysis, we still face the danger of succumbing to one narrow, instrumental, quantitative way of thinking and means of discerning worth.
So I was thinking about these things last night as I sat listening to the glorious strains of Arcade Fire‘s new album called The Suburbs and doing a bit of online “research” on the band and the album. In light of my reading on how technology shapes our interpretation of the world, I found it particularly interesting to read Wikipedia’s entry on The Suburbs, particularly the section dealing with how the album has been received by critics. The “worth” of the album is determined as follows:
The album has received widely positive reviews from critics. Collating 39 reviews, the review aggregator website Metacritic gave the album an average score of 86%, which puts it into the category of “universal acclaim.”
Quantitative analysis. Narrow instrumental ways of thinking. Quantitative ways of discerning worth. To a person with a computer, everything looks like data… Hmm.
Well, I am certainly not an expert, nor do I have an exhaustive and eclectic music library, nor do I have any kind of long training in critical analysis of music, nor can I appeal to any mathematical data or taxonomical divisions to support my verdict, but for whatever it is worth, I think TheSuburbs is simply brilliant. Best album I’ve heard in quite some time, actually.
As evidence for the preceding claim, I cite the following:
- It makes me feel very good when I listen to it.
- It inspires periodic pathetic attempts to hum/sing along.
- People smarter and more culturally relevant and quite obviously cooler than me seem to like it too.
- I’ve listened to it virtually non-stop for three days.
- Sometimes I buy albums where one or two songs are good and the rest is mostly terrible and it produces this weird combination of disgust and nausea and why-oh-why did I spend $10.99 on this and The Suburbs doesn’t do this.
- Arcade Fire is Canadian (well, mostly… I realize Win Butler is an American by birth) and so am I.
- It makes me wish I was in a band.
- It makes me smile.
Based on the preceding thoroughly qualitative, unapologetically subjective, and naively selective collation of sensory input and emotional responses, I hereby place The Suburbs in the category of “awesome.”
Thanks for making me smile! If I can find 39 people to give me good reviews, maybe I can be “universally acclaimed” also!!
I will be trying (again!) this year to be more personal in my relationships – it has struck me again how easy it is to read someone’s facebook status and feel like I have connected with them (after all, I know what they are up to now!) when in all reality I have no connection whatsoever – how does one feel cared for by means of a comment on one’s facebook status? I suppose it means you know I’m thinking of you, but how does it show I care? I have also seen how horribly things can be misconstrued through texting or messaging rather than talking – how can the written word possibly convey inflections in voice? I think in our impatient, instant gratification society taking time to talk to people becomes an inconvenience (“I wish they would stop rambling! I have things to do!!”) Taking time to be present with someone is becoming a lost art… something I will be practicing more this year. =)
Well, you can count me as one of your 39 Kara!
I couldn’t agree more with your comments about the importance of taking the time to simply be present with one another. Sometimes I think one of the best gifts we can give people throughout our day is to treat them as more important than whatever happens to be beeping, flashing, or vibrating in our pockets. It’s amazing to me that we implicitly communicate, day in and day out, that the unknown message coming at us in our devices is more important than the known entity—the flesh and blood human being—right in front of us.
Thanks for your kind words about my work as well as your wise words about life. You speak of the whole person, which in a digital age is a dying art in need of revival. I recently wrote a book about writing resumes and cover letters that aims to help younger, more technologically rich persons see themselves more broadly as whole persons with gifts and callings–not just “skills.”
Thanks for the link, Quentin. And thanks for writing the book. I think the need for the application of the wisdom it contains has only grown in the eight years since its publication.
Reading Benson’s post I found a lot I could relate to… especially about how cell phones propagate the illusion that you’re always available, always “on”. I spent a portion of the summer learning the dying art of traditional Japanese painting. It was so good to learn a craft where the results were not immediate, and that required one to wait for and respect the natural materials (for example the traditional paper we used was so rare that it’s only made in one tiny village in Japan). All this was fabulous, but if someone called me a luddite (as in Benson’s post), I think I might be offended… well, depends on their tone I suppose!
I find it a little strange to criticize certain technology while rarely thinking about the technology we have grown accustom to, like the pencil, or the spoon. Those technologies have equally changed how we interact. The title of Postman’s book “The surrender of culture to technology” confuses me for the same reason; I just can’t see how culture and technology could possibly be separated so that one could lord over the other. Not to say we shouldn’t think critically about facebook and genetically modified foods, I just don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Postman is probably purposefully overstating things, but it’s my opinion that the harmful side effects of technology have much more to do with what already lurks in the human heart.
“Suburbs” has a little bit to say about this too… It’s kind of in-vogue to bash the suburbs (a kind of technological development I guess). They are often portrayed in hipster culture as soulless and bleak, like in “Revolution Road”. But there are dangers present anywhere – in small towns and big cities – and I think the album does a good job of exploring both the good and the bad things that suburbia offers. And it’s all framed in a kind of biographical way that thoughtfully acknowledges the effect environments have on personal formation. Even for one who can’t stand the sight of pink stucco, I grew up in suburbia and it wasn’t that bad, especially compared to life elsewhere!
I agree. It is a fabulous album. And for the record I listen to it on my cell phone.
I think you’re right about they hyperbole in some of Postman’s work. Certainly the subtitle of his book seems to overstate things, although one is never sure if a subtitle is foisted by some publisher on an unwilling author or not…
I still think that technologies like the internet (or television, for Postman) have the capacity to change us in ways that spoons and pencils don’t. I suppose nobody’s done neurological assessments of how pencil use affects brain activity and how this differs from pre-pencil brain activity, but there seems to be a quantum leap forward with some of the newer technologies and how they affect things like attention span, concentration levels, etc. I suppose time will tell. Having said all that, I absolutely agree with you that the human heart is capable of extracting harm out of any technology.
(Japanese art, eh? Sounds like an interesting summer :).)
Re: “It’s kind of in-vogue to bash the suburbs (a kind of technological development I guess). They are often portrayed in hipster culture as soulless and bleak, like in “Revolution Road”.
Jessica is right. Where I live this sentiment is strong. I do feel the sentiment. The suburbs do strike me as soulless and bleak.
I live in an urban, gay friendly, bicycle friendly, Prius friendly, organic local produce friendly, physically fit, totally “hip” neighborhood. I spent last weekend in a suburb of LA in a large tract home. I felt like I was suffocating. I tried to not feel this way. I tried to breathe. But I could not.
While staying in a suburb last weekend, I rode my bicycle in a beautiful suburban park in Orange County, a place with no center at all. The landscape was beautiful, but it was the beauty of wallpaper. It was an alluring beauty, but as I rode I could never find the center, never find the substance, never find anything that mattered. It was what Kunstler called “nowhere.”
I have not heard the album you wrote about. I found some lyrics. They sound empty to me, like the suburbs.
This experience, this sentiment, is quite real for those of us who feel it. But I know many people who would rather not live anywhere else. They feel uncomfortable where I live (although some who feel trapped there come to the place I live for entertainment and escape.)
I think the votes are in: the suburbs have won. From my perspective it is tragedy, for humanity, cities and wilderness. From the perspective of those who have voted for it by living there, life there is good, as Jessica wrote, “especially compared to life elsewhere! ”
I do not mean to argue against the suburbs here, only to elaborate on the sentiment that Jessica described that is very much part of my own experience.
The suburbs work and they don’t. My memories are often fond days of playing street hockey and wonderful holiday celebrations. All shared with the neighbours. Yet, I drive though some of them and often feel their soulessness. Rows of seemingly empty places with the occasional person on the street.
I guess what I am trying to say is we often blanket statement the suburbs… calling them terrible places. Yet, when we describe a city we call it by its name or specific local in the city. Maybe it is fair to extend this courtesy to the suburbs, highlighting which ones are thriving and which are lacking.
In California they are named by the marketing personnel of the large real estate developers who built their vast housing tracts in planned communities.
Wise words, Tyler. Like everything else in the world, there is both good and bad in suburbia—and to varying degrees depending where you are. Although, having grown up on a farm I am probably less qualified than other folks here to comment on the merits of the suburbs.
I just like the album.
Hope you’re settling well in Scotland!
Jessica wrote: “especially compared to life elsewhere! ”
It is something like Lewis Mumford wrote: the suburbs began with families fleeing the cities, but have become a “general retreat.”
Tyler wrote: “My memories are often fond…” And he wrote of feeling “their soulessness. Rows of seemingly empty places…”
It is something like Lewis Mumford also wrote: “their effect has so far been to corrode and undermine the old centers, without forming a pattern coherent enough to carry on their essential cultural functions on anything like the old level.”
The suburbs were formed as families retreated from cities for the sake of health and safety. (They still are.) And what was lost (is lost) is what architects call “genius loci” or sense of place.
A couple of years back I spent a couple of days transiting through New Delhi. Its probably also worth a reminder that our most souless suburbs look like paradise to most of the world. My time there was extremely fleeting but I loved it- full of “soul” but also death. I haven’t been able to see our cities with the same eyes since then. I think that’s a good thing.
Yes, when looked at from a global perspective there is certainly a sense in which disdain for the suburbs is the luxury of the privileged few…
Ryan, I don’t think that is fair. It is a put down.
Many people who live in suburbs think they have the luxury of life. Many who don’t live in suburbs give up a certain amount of luxury, perhaps a great deal, for the sake of something one might call “soulfulness” or a better life.
I have a friend who shuttles back and forth between a suburb here in southern California and Mumbai (not much different than New Delhi.) He thinks of Mumbai as a great and vibrant place, as much a paradise, or more, as his home here.
Just to be clear, Ken, the parts of New Delhi I was thinking about weren’t soulful in the sense of a comparison between New Delhi and Southern CA. The picture that has stuck with me was poverty and suffering in graphic, unavoidable detail everywhere I turned- and on a massive scale. Even though I have travelled more than the average American, and lived for 3 years in a very rough part of Fresno [another place where people dream of moving to our suburbs]. I had never had it in my face like that before.
We are the super rich of the world and a reminder of that from time to time, seems worth while. I’m not sure where an insult could be hidden in that.
I was thinking of the reality James describes. From the perspective of the grinding poverty and suffering that is life for so many in our world, a meal and a bed in the “soulless” suburbs probably looks pretty good.
I certainly intended no put down.
If your concern is poverty, then consider this.
Part of the disdain urban dwellers have towards suburbs is that the suburbs represent a retreat from the poverty, crime, and illness found in cities. With gates, CC&R’s, zoning restriction and separate incorporation of school districts and municipalities, suburbs turn their backs on poverty. The city is left to great poverty.
As Mumford put it, the effect of suburbs has been “to corrode and undermine the old centers.”
I think the moral case for living in a suburb is a hard one to make.
At the Statue of Liberty in America’s greatest city, the poem says,
“”Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
You don’t find that message at the gates of the suburbs. You find it in the city.
I am not and have never been trying to make a “moral case for living in the suburbs.” I am aware of the familiar critique that the flight to the suburbs is a flight from poverty, crime, etc. There is undoubtedly a measure of legitimacy to this critique. I am no defender of suburbia. I was simply noting that the ability to critique the suburbs for aesthetic or philosophical reasons (lack of “soul”) is an activity that can only be done from a place of privilege. I didn’t think it was a very controversial statement.
The lack of soul is wrapped up with the retreat from poverty and other things involved in the flight to the suburbs and the protective barrier it represents, as well as with the accompanying sterility of life there. I think you are mistaken about your association of the critique of suburbs with “luxury” or “privilege.”
If you are referring to America as a place of “privilege,” then I certainly agree that it is if you mean we have freedom, rights, opportunity and prosperity, even though I would not use the phrase “luxury of the privileged few” in that context. I don’t think the critique of suburbs is limited to Americans. And I don’t agree that this critique deserves to be put down as “disdain” that “is the luxury of the privileged few.” Neither Americans nor urban dwellers deserve that. Read the poem on the Statue of Liberty again.
I am well versed in Mumford Ken, and would disagree with much of what he said.
“Part of the disdain urban dwellers have towards suburbs is that the suburbs represent a retreat from the poverty, crime, and illness found in cities.”
Why is this a bad thing?
“to corrode and undermine the old centers.” Possibly these centers were already corroded and people did want to escape them. These centers were largely built on poverty, inhumane conditions, and what we now deem as horrific working an living conditions. The “urban dweller” of today is very different than the urban dweller of the past. Understanding this difference is part of understanding the decay of urban cores, the flight to suburbia, and now the regeneration of urban cores. The gentrification of urban cores is now possible… and is now attractive. It wasn’t always .
Tyler, re: “Why is this a bad thing?”
I think the urban dweller’s view is that the flight to the suburbs erodes democracy and equality and compassion as well as the value of cities to humanity (as in Mumford’s analysis.)
A couple of years back I had the privilege of a holiday in New York City and went to Ellis Island. As a Canadian I was truly impressed with the US narrative. Ours is much more pedestrian. For all the inconsistencies that US also lives with, there is a generous spirit that I, an outsider admire. I think that underneath all that makes up the US, there is a desire to live by the principles of that heroic narrative. I think it is something that does set it apart from most nations.
Most of the world lives where it lives for very pragmatic reasons- be it on a garbage dump in New Delhi, a ghetto in Fresno, in a suburb in LA, or a gated community in Nanaimo. This is not a knock on being contemplative about our neighbourhoods- just a reminder that there is another side to the story.
Yes, pragmatic reasons.