Screens and Souls
Screens play a huge role in our life, and almost all of our relationships are mediated in some way through social media.
How can we live connected, authentic, purposeful lives in a world of screens?
1 a thing providing concealment or protection:
2 a blank surface on which a film or photographic image is projected:
Screens can come between us, and they can connect us. Their role in our life will be determined by the way we use them. This week, we’ll explore the way that screens can distort our view of reality by appealing to our deepest, human longings even though they can only ever offer us a virtual satisfaction. How, then, can we work toward using technology as a tool that helps us connect more deeply with reality rather than draw us continuatlly away from it? Today on the podcast, we will explore this question by looking at three pieces of art: The Truman Show (visual), Hymn of the Acxiom by Vienna Teng (musical), and the poem “Manifesto: Mad Farmer Liberation Front” by Wendell Berry. Listen to the podcast above and follow along in the notes below.
Visual — The Truman Show
Everyone knows Truman Burbank. No really… everyone! That is because this affable, average fellow is protagonist of the world’s favourite reality TV show. His life has been observed by viewers from the day of his birth, through high school, through college, graduation, and marriage. He smiled at his first camera in the womb. The catch? Truman doesn’t know his life is a reality show, that every person in his life is an actor, and that the sunny, white collar island he’s learned to call home is actually the world’s largest movie set.
This is the premise of The Truman Show (1998) written and produced by Andrew Niccol. This movie, created 20 years ago, before the advent of Facebook, Snapchat, or Instagram, anticipated the oddity and potential danger of a totally public, and totally materialistic life. Niccols is interested in the ways that technology will form and malform our societies and ourselves. Niccol's observations were prescient. As I rewatched the movie I wondered if he could possibly have guessed that within a few decades we would be willingly submitting ourselves to Truman’s fate.
Truman lives in a world controlled by comfort and fear.
On the one hand, Truman’s life is easy and comfortable. He lives the American dream, with his perfect wife, his picket fence, and his pristine town. Christof (the creator of the show) uses these comforts to convince Truman that this life is the life he wants. He is, as Neil Postman put it, entertained nearly to death.
But Truman’s life is also haunted by fear and trauma. To ensure that Truman stays within the borders of the world Christof has created for him, Christof manufactures the death of his father in the set’s giant ocean, ensuring that Truman will not ever drive across the water. When he goes to get a plane ticket, the walls are strewn with outlandish warnings regarding the dangers of travel.
Truman’s world, you see, is mediated to him, controlled, and filtered. Both through fear and pleasure, Christof seeks to control Truman’s life.
Meryl Burbank, Truman’s wife, is the emodiment of the emptiness of Truman’s life under the power of mere entertainment. She is a generically good looking woman— blonde hair, blue eyes, symmetrical features, and a permanent, plastic smile. She frequently gives awkwardly scripted product placement ads, in ways that seem jarring in the scenes. Whenever Truman tries to emotionally connect with her, she spouts meaningless fluff.
Christof doesn’t primarily want to destroy Truman, he wants to control him. But often, control leads to destruction if the controller cannot get their way.
Some have said that Christof, the creator and director of Trumans’ reality show, is a picture of God. There are certainly numerous subtle and unsubtle indications of this idea— his name (Christ-of), the line where he introduces himself to Truman “I am the creator… of the Truman show,” and the fact that he literally speaks to Truman, god-like, from the sky. If he is meant to be a deity, he is certainly a capricious one who repeatedly manipulates and harms Truman and even endangers the actors.. I would suggest, however, that this movie is not meant to criticise Christianity. Rather, it shows us the grave danger of letting technology, media, and consumerism take the role of God in the life of a society.
The Truman show is not an indictment of Christianity, it is a cautionary tale, reminding us what happens when we let technology, media, and consumerism play God in our lives.
As Truman struggles to discover the unmediated reality, to discover truth, he begins to ask big, serious questions: What is reality? Who am I? Can I make meaningful choices? These questions haunt our world.
Though we may not have a show like Truman, we voluntarily give ourselves over to Truman’s fate, documenting our every moment for the internet, and letting advertisers and politicians exploit the publicness of our lives to form our desires, to market to us, to tell us what we want.
Just as Truman fights to escape his screen bound world, we must fight to escape ours.
One thing I love about this movie: the motivation to seek reality comes from Truman’s one real, unmediated connection. Love is what draws us out of the bondage of a constrive, technological reality.
2. Musical — The Hymn of Acxiom
Vienna Teng worked in Silicon valley with the tech industry before pursuing a career in music. In Hymn of Acxiom she poignantly depicts how social media and marketing appeal to the fundamental, personal, spiritual needs we have and seek to satisfy them through making us good consumers. Acxiom is a data analysis company. In a review of the song, Jill Scharr writes about the company:
The Arkansas-based Acxiom collects both off-line and on-line marketing data, and collates it into profiles of individual people. Acxiom then sells that information back to the retailers through which the company had collected the data.
Those retailers, in turn, use the profiles to conduct targeted marketing, sending people offers based on their location, age, gender or sex, race, income and previous purchases.
Acxiom's data collection possibly rivals the National Security Agency's
Pretty crazy, huh? Seems like maybe our lives are more like Truman’s than we thought! Let’s listen to the song…
Hymn of Acxiom
somebody hears you. you know that. you know that.
somebody hears you. you know that inside.
someone is learning the colors of all your moods, to
(say just the right thing and) show that you’re understood.
here you’re known.
leave your life open. you don’t have. you don’t have.
leave your life open. you don’t have to hide.
someone is gathering every crumb you drop, these
(mindless decisions and) moments you long forgot.
keep them all.
let our formulas find your soul.
we’ll divine your artesian source (in your mind),
marshal feed and force (our machines will)
to design you a perfect love—
or (better still) a perfect lust.
o how glorious, glorious: a brand new need is born.
now we possess you. you’ll own that. you’ll own that.
now we possess you. you’ll own that in time.
now we will build you an endlessly upward world,
(reach in your pocket) embrace you for all you’re worth.
is that wrong?
isn’t this what you want?
Teng shows us how the fundamental desires we have to be known, loved, significant, and not forgotten are exploited by both social media and the people who use social media to market. It is a hymn for the same reason Christof is a picture of an anti-christ— it is substituting our desire for the divine for technology. The problem is that social media can never fill those essential needs. Ultimately, marketing techniques can only muster lus not love, as Teng poignantly notes.
Teng shows how when we live in a world shaped for us by screens, we aren’t tasting the true sweetness of reality, of love, or of spirituality. It will leave us dry. Social media makes a lousy God.
What then are we to do?
3. Literary — Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front
Wendell Berry is righteously grumpy.
And this is why I love him so much. He is a prolific writer, an environmentalist, a farmer, and for him all these things are tied up in being a Christian. Now in his 80’s Berry has never owned a computer. I was deeply moved by his book Life is a Miracle in which he argues that one of the major problems in our society is that we only treat things as valuable insomuch as we can quantity and control them… sound familiar? He says we treat the world and ourselves as machines, which is to say as inanimate, dead things. And often, when we treat things, people, and the earth that way, we end up killing them or their hope.
Manifesto: The Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front
by Wendell Berry
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” from The Country of Marriage, copyright © 1973 by Wendell Berry, reprinted by permission of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.