Christian Internet Ethic (i.e. how to be in the internet), Part 4

If you have a job where the internet is necessary, then what can be done? Maybe set times aside where you lock your phone and computer up in a safe only your wife knows the code, too. Do it at night. As soon as you get home from work, put all technology in a safe. Read a book. Forget about digital connections for a night, bother yourself with physical ones.
If you can’t do even this, put your phone on silent more often.
The thing I’ve learned, having lived in the internet my entire life, is that you can get by with less than you think. You think you need to check your emails as much as you need to. You think you need to go on facebook. But, I know you would be happier with less. You would suddenly have more time to do the things you want. Few people I know want to spend all day on facebook, checking their emails. The people that do just do it are unaware they are being led by the secret desires of the mind, the insatiable craving for instant gratification and meaningless knowledge. It’s not good for the brain, if you go to it without focus or intention. But, it’s what we are all steeped in. We are strong tea.
If you come to the internet obscurely, with no plan, letting your mind wander, and let the links that look most appealing take you, what you are getting is not an internet ethic you yourself have formed, but rather an ethic the internet is forming for you. You are learning, by catechesis, that instant gratification is a good thing, that what looks appealing and takes you on the internet is actually appealing.
You are allowing your morals to be set. And this is a different ethic than I began talking about. A lot of the internet, a lot of the click bait on facebook, depends highly on your sense of right and wrong. We are, sometimes in equal parts, attracted to clicking on what looks wrong to us as what looks right. We are attracted to the dogs welcoming their owners home from the military and also attracted to learning about Caitlyn Jenner and “what the world is coming to”: a sort-of home-brewed conservative Apocalypse. Get over it. The internet wants you to feel these ways. How many songs by strong female singer-songwriters have been written about this? The blind following we have to the internet, consumerism, the media? We are the pieces in the machine run by Google. They know our every thought. David Byrne has probably written a song about it.
I am not one of those Christians who thinks that Christendom is going to hell in a Walmart bag, that we feed our children to Mammon, and that the only escape is distributism and community gardens in Detroit where the Lord’s Supper is Swiss Rolls and Triscuits. But, I understand the sentiment. The things our culture steeps us in are only poison when we fail to recognize the label on the bottle.
Do you see where I have gone with this post? I have come to a point where I sound like a fanatic. But, if I am a fanatic of anything, it is intentional living. Do not go living your life, unaware of how things are affecting you, failing to recognize what patterns you are following, what habits you are giving into. To be wise is not to know pithy one-liners. To be wise is to let knowledge change the way you live. So let the knowledge of your own life, knowing yourself, change the way you live. Form an ethic for everything you do. Don’t stress yourself out doing it, but be intentional. Enjoy it. Check everything you do. There are always ways to be happier, more satisfied, and these ways of pursuing happiness are directly related to your faithfulness to God and your relationship to the Father. Are you seeking him while you’re on the internet? Are you burying your talents in hours spent, not worshipping Mammon, but yourself? If your facebook causes you to sin, cut it out. Don’t be a slave to yourself. The internet is only dangerous, if we are not careful, if we let ourselves wander. To those who are pure all things are pure. How many more Bible verses do I need to paraphrase to prove my point?
The sum of the matter is this: you can live a more satisfied life, if you will take the time to think intentionally about the internet. Delight in the days of your youth–and know that for everything you put before your eyes, God will take it into account.
We can do better.

 

Christian Internet Ethic (i.e. how to be in the internet), Part 3

The internet is not the only distraction. People are the worst. I don’t know who I am kidding (myself) when I go to a coffeehouse, one where I know there are people I like, and sit down to “write.” I always end up talking to someone for hours about stuff and junk. It’s just not a good place to go. It makes no sense to go to a coffeehouse and write. Who does that? To be seen? The writer in the corner. They’re onto something…
The main point I’m trying to make is: I needed to get rid of the internet, because my desire to write is not strong enough to override my physiological repulsion from creation. I also needed to get rid of people, but that is an ongoing project.
How did I do this?
Since the beginning of this, I have been talking about place. And so I think it is very important to carve out a place where you can write. Don’t trick yourself and say, “Well, as soon as I get a place, then I can start writing.” The goal ought to always be writing. Writing should be enough, even when it isn’t. You can always go deeper. I can always go deeper.
But, if you can’t, you really need a place.
In my search for a place where I could write, I realized something life-changing: I needed a place without internet. Jonathan Franzen recently made a list of ten serious rules aspiring writers should abide by. #8 was: it’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection is writing good fiction. Stephen King still uses a typwriter.
As for me, I cut off internet at home. I don’t get internet at home. As I write this, I am sitting at home, internet-free, typing it into Evernote. I can’t check my emails, even if I wanted to. It’s delightful.
But, you ask, how do you expect to run a blog? Be up-to-date on emails?
The first is no problem at all. The second would be a problem, if I was an “important” person. Luckily, I’m not a chairman of any board.
Monday is my internet day. I have written out on a schedule (one I aim to cling to, but often fail at doing) what I am to do on Interneday. This is what I call Monday, at least for the summer. When the school year rolls around, I need to figure out what will be the new cadences of place, where I go and when. The rest of the week, I write every day. When Interneday comes upon me, I take a journey to the internet, go downtown to a coffeeshop, and then schedule all the posts for the respective days of the week. It really is quite easy. And I love this, because it offers my week a sort of purity that before it did not have. Before, my days would be odd mixes of activities. Now, I know what to expect and when before the week even starts. This is the benefit of a schedule, something I learned from monasticism. And who said monasticism didn’t apply to lay life?
Anyway, what I am working on now for myself is not only having an Interneday, but also coming to the internet with a to-do list. I don’t want to come to the coffeeshop I have discipled myself to (this sort of loyalty is valuable for a lot of reasons) and not have a place. I did that this week on Interneday and I was lost for six hours, researching internet outrage and public shaming. It was fascinating and I learned a lot, but I was quite exhausted by the informational gluttony. And I missed all the sunlight.
To be continued…

Christian Internet Ethic (i.e. how to be in the internet), Part 2

Most people who use the internet are addicted to instant gratification. Humans, it’s been said, are “informavores.” We crave information or, to put a more biblical spin on it, we thirst for knowledge. But, to the writing of books and the gathering of wisdom (though this is not all the internet offers), there will be no end. And there is no built-in end to our internet usage, until something in our life pulls us away from that labyrinth, that big sweaty metropolis with no street signs. The internet is a dangerous place.
But, so is Chicago. And that’s why I don’t avoid the internet entirely. There are bad neighborhoods, certainly, but the downtown is an “important” place to visit. It is important like chairmen of boards. They are “important.”
What I want is to be intentional about where I go and why I go. If you’re going downtown Chicago, have a point. If not, you’ll just be spending a lot of money. In this extended metaphor we’ve made, which will break down in about thirty-five seconds, the money we are spending is time. The internet is costly in time. Almost everything you need or want on the internet is free. And if it isn’t free, there are ways around that, too.
You might be asking yourself, “Okay, so what have you done?”
Before I tell you what I have done, let me tell you why I’ve done it.
I like to write. And when I write, what I need is complete focus. I enjoy having a bit of white noise in the background, but my taste in white noise has changed significantly in the past few years. In high school, I liked the white noise of coffeeshops and they were the only place I really could write. Nowadays, I like the white noise of a road, or maybe birds. A window fan (mine being unfortunately pink: the red box lied). I can only listen to music that I have successfully placed in my mind as “background music.” This is hard for me to do, because as soon as I relegate an artist I enjoy to this place, the thrill of listening to them on their own fades away.
I need some sort of extra thing going on in the background–more than just my typing–to keep me focused. It really helps.
What does not help with writing is instant gratification. Instant gratification, the option for it, is simply too great a thing for me to handle while I’m writing. I am always tempted by instant gratification right before I sit down to write. This makes sense, too. The most difficult part of writing is actually sitting down and starting. We have this built-in fear, a direct upgrade from the fall, of creating things. Secular writers call it Resistance (all rights reserved) and one even wrote a book called “Do the Work,” a book about fighting against this primordial darkness of Resistance. He argues that nature wants to stay as it is, with nothing unchanged. When we create something, we are fighting against nature, which sends Resistance after us. I guess.
Part of this Resistance is fear. We, or me at least, fear to sit down and make something. It is a physiological thing. It could just as easily be called laziness. And this laziness–or resistance, or fear–pushes us away from the work set before us to anything around that might consume our time, our motivation, our energy, our skill, our image-bearing reserves.
And when the internet is in the room, fear and resistance and laziness and distraction unite to bring even the most brilliant writer down.
Or me.
To be continued…

A Christian Internet Ethic (i.e. how to be in the internet), Part 1

I want an internet ethic: how to be in it, what to do in it, when to go.

And I am intentionally speaking about the internet as a place. I think that is the most helpful way to think about it. It is an extension of relationships we could have, if only we moved our bodies to certain places. When I think of the internet as a place, too, a place that I go to for certain periods of time, whether I go to it at a coffeeshop or at home, I am going there to connect with other people. That can be as direct as a facebook conversation or as indirect as an article on wikipedia. But, the internet is one big social sphere: the public square.
I’m sure there are a lot of people that would love me to nuance this definition or maybe tackle the more complicated definitions that a deeper knowledge of what the internet is might allow. But, I don’t have that and I can’t offer it. All I can offer is my experience with the internet, having grown up there, and how I think about approaching it intentionally.
Really, that’s all I want to offer. Do you think about the internet intentionally? You should, dang it.
I come from the internet like I come from the Midwest, from the suburbs, from coffeeshops.  I want to begin the process of knowing how it has shaped me.
What I really want to do is tell you what kind of internet ethic I use for myself. It may or may not fit you and you might even find it strict, or intolerable, or even unnecessary.
The internet is a place I have to go to. The main problem I had to tackle was the instant access to the internet. There is no train ticket to pay for. It’s everywhere. I was probably in it before I knew I was there. And once you are in the internet, it is quite easy to get lost, forget where you’re going, click on a thousand links, go to wikipedia, go back to facebook, get morally indignant about a puppy being run over by a drunk driver, go back to facebook, check your emails, leave them because you don’t want to respond to the long ones (it would take too much time), go back to facebook, wikipedia, the news, outrage, morally indignant, four hours later.
This kind of experience on the internet is pretty common, though, and the rhythms and cadence of your usage are formed by the way the brain works. The brain likes to be gratified and the internet allows instant gratification for whatever we click on, whether that be as benign as checking your facebook wall over-and-over again (is it benign?), or as ancient a sin as indulging lust by watching pornography (the end, not the means).
To be continued…

Interview with Austin Storm

Austin Storm: Austin Storm grew up in Annapolis, MD and moved to Moscow in 2003. He and his wife Laura have a sparrow named Rocky and a quail named Sticks.

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Caleb Warner: How do you approach your ambitions?

Austin Storm : Oh my gosh, I am a terribly ambitious person. How do you quantify ambition? All I know is that I have a lot of it and it’s dangerous. Vaulting ambition: bad. Shakespeare says it, God says it (laughs).

CW: I would often describe my excess of ambition as a lust for the future. As an ambitious person, do I even have the right to think about the future? Or should ambitious people keep their heads down, stay quiet, and keep working?

AS: Ambition is preferable to the acedia I felt in high school and college. I used to not know what I wanted to do and felt like I had vast expanses of free time, which mystifies me. I don’t know where that went. And when that was replaced with an overwhelming sense of my own finitude and mortality and the sense that I will never get done the things I want to get done in my lifetime: that’s a big life moment. But I prefer the current uncomfortable relationship with my ambition over not knowing what I want to do after dinner (laughs).

CW: What is your relationship with cynicism?

AS: Cynicism and I used to be like this (laughs and crosses fingers). I’m wondering how you are going to express that (laughs). In high school, I was exposed to a lot of culture and cynicism helped me maintain a level of discernment, because cynicism gives you an emotional detachment. But C.S. Lewis had this idea of suspending judgment on art and letting it speak on its own terms. I was also really wary of sentimentalism in high school—I viewed it as the death of cultural engagement—so I avoided it at all costs. But, you get older. And, um, I have a much higher tolerance for sentiment. So now I endeavor to like all of the things that I like simply—

CW: Without irony?

AS: Without any irony. I don’t like anything ironically.

CW: Do you think irony is an excuse or a cop-out?

AS: I didn’t have a lot of tools for discernment. It served me pretty well, but if you have a choice, there are probably better tools to cultivate discernment. It’s hard to turn off once you tap into that well.

CW: Since high school was a season of certain cultural engagements for you, can you give me a narrative of the following seasons?

AS: Of my life (laughs)? Like Proust? It’s a little bit blurry, I guess (laughs)…um…I wanted to be an aesthete, I wanted to appreciate beauty, but I was very wary of beauty. In a Protestant context, faith is word and reason and, you know, aesthetics can be deceptive.

CW: You sound like Augustine.

AS: Yeah. I empathize with that guy. By the way, when I say “Moscow,” I’m referring to the Christian cultural project here. It uses irony a lot, this project, or it used to…There is this idea of pointing out that the emperor has no clothes by using parody, which I think was good for establishing a reputation for truth telling…And I think that’s helpful, but in terms of rhetorical growth, it feels like a very high school thing. It’s easy to make fun of stuff! It’s fun! It’s much harder to make stuff that other people will make fun of. But I still do it (laughs). I want to be on the side of the people making stuff; although that is not the divide. Some people want to make art out of protest, and I think a lot of people start in protest. Gosh, the Arts and Crafts movement was a protest. An awesome protest.

CW: So, what motivates you to make?

AS: Discontent motivates people to make! People make stuff out of a sense of lack. And Moscow has recently lost sight of that. Our cultural ambitions, which seemed so broad, have    narrowed. The only reason that one would start a classical school is if one was discontented with one’s current schooling options. And I think the same thing goes for the fine arts. There is gratitude and discontent mixed together.

CW: What do you mean?

AS: You’re grateful for the things in the world, but also discontent with the current state of things. As a counter-example: the worst kind of music is something that is made to sound like everything else in the world. And the best music is made by someone receiving [the world] with gratitude, but also wanting something more.

CW: Which is innovation.

AS: Yeah, exactly. You see people making things that are attempting to be exactly like other things on the mass market and that’s sad…But divine discontent is what made us start a college in the first place, because we were…

CW: Unsatisfied with the current college choices?

AS: Yeah—yes. We imagined better things. I want to be the happiest, most discontented person in the world. There is no area in the modern life that we cannot not imagine better if we only tried.

CW: So would you say…um…

AS: Yes, often.

CW: (laughs) So discontent seems to be related to imagination?

AS: Yeah. You can’t put in fake laughs, by the way (laughs). Anyway, God gives you the whole world, which is a pretty big one gift-wise, and you’re supposed to respond to it. And your response has something to do with our subcreator role. But that is super abstract.

CW: God made us to continue His work of creation. And he left space for us to make the things he made good, better?

AS: Man, now I’m getting all melancholy and egoistic…We have to realize that there is only so much in our world that we can change. We cannot control everything in our cultural orbit. That’s all I got. I don’t know.

CW: Do you have mentors, or people that make you want to keep getting work done? How important are mentors in the creative process?

AS: I am a big fan of the do-the-work school. It’s better than the genius school. There is the do-the-work school where you study, produce a body of work, and then genius comes somewhere in the process. And I am a fan of this school, because it’s the only option open to me. I know that I am not a particularly gifted person, so I know that in the process of pursuing something for a long time, I will get better at it. And I think mentorship is one of those things that can provide a lucky break; at least that’s how it looks in my life.

My landlord is my mentor. He has been very successful, but is very unassuming, which is a rare combination. I am very assuming, but I would like to think that if I become successful I will mellow out. Otherwise, I’ll become insufferable! You can get away with insufferability up to a point, or at least that’s what I tell myself. But you can’t refer to someone in their forties as precocious. That just sounds terrible. I think you can incubate yourself a little bit. You can create your own self-sustaining bohemian culture, where maybe you can get away with a, like a blue man group type-of thing into your late thirties—

CW: Are you referring to Sufjan Stevens?

AS: Yes (laughs).

CW: Where does ambiguity and the weird fit into expressing our orthodox faith of the historical Jesus Christ?

AS: Uh. You’re gonna make me say already/not yet. Moscow is a land of aphorisms. One of the best things of Moscow is that it has no memory, because of the rotating student population. It could have sprung into existence ex nihilo four years ago and no one would know. Before that, it was a swirling sea of mists. The good thing about Moscow’s lack of institutional memory is that you can grow and change.

There is this disorienting experience as a college student where you go away, you grow, you read new books, you are exposed to new TV shows and you go home and no one knows that you’ve grown and suddenly you feel like your high school self and everyone interacts with you as your high school self. But it’s a good thing in Moscow, because you can change and people will accept that. Many an NSA student (laughs, hand out, a pause), between their sophomore and junior year, go home and come back with a whole new wardrobe, a sweet pair of Warby Parker glasses, and a pipe-smoking habit—and that’s cool, it’s a safe place. But the bad thing is that the level of discourse stays the same and you hit the same things over and over again. And I don’t feel like I have anything to offer in the already/not yet, but you should attempt ambiguity; it’s a good way to express that tension and anticipation that is in the Gospel and in your art. That was a long way to get back to that.

CW: Well, here is a long question: when you are daydreaming about being interviewed on primetime television, what do you imagine the country will remember the best?

AS: This is a hard question to conceptualize because I have lately seen my life as rejecting a system that perpetuates reductive ideological thinking (laughs). I think if I had a moment like this, it would have to be…like that guy [Howard Beale from Network] who has a meltdown on live television and exhorts the audience to open their windows and scream “I am mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” If I had a soundbite, it would be some sort of meltdown. I’ll allow late-night TV. It’s benign, but there is something effective about it. I like that every late-night TV host has a nemesis…I wish I could be Stephen Colbert’s late-night nemesis, but he already has one: Jane Fonda. She went on his show and basically out-charactered him. I do wish I could be a late-night TV show’s nemesis (laughs).

CW: When did you decide to stay in Moscow and why?

AS: God clearly brought me here. There has to be some clear indication from him that I have to leave. That sounds very pentecostal, but I like that I’m here.

CW: Would you ever run for mayor?

AS: Um, no. A lot of my life decisions are made specifically to preclude me in the future for running from mayor. I often think of myself in the future as a different person. I refer to him as “future Austin.” And sometimes for his good, I have to do things now (laughs) to PRECLUDE FUTURE AUSTIN—that needs to be in caps.

CW: Thanks for your time, Austin.
AS: Thanks. I hope I don’t get you in trouble in your first issue (dead serious, walking away slowly).

Fallout 4 and my Deep, Primal Desire to Explore

Every day, I wonder to myself maybe today is the day.

I have no idea how many times I have searched “fallout 4” on google (google does, despite the USA FREEDOM Act), but I do know that finally getting an announcement, after thousands of little anticipations, has been worth it.

There are a number of thoughts going through my head about this announcement. The first is: “The amount of time I am going to spend on this game is terrifying.” The second is: “The pleasure I will have playing this game is terrifying.” The third is: “I am a slave to marketing tactics and I don’t care, because the pre-marketing for this game was outstanding.” Little tiny leaks, gestures, “accidental” comments, hundreds of rumor mill blogs.

Gamers are some of the most fiercely loyal fans in consumer culture. They will literally kill other people or themselves for their games. They will hack company blogs. They will obsess over games and rumors of games and start apocalyptic blogs predicting the signs of the times, the symbols deciphered which contain within themselves the actual release dates. There are youtube priesthoods. Gamers will study under the most revered users on Twitch. They will bring offerings to them. Some priests can even make a full-time living from their followers.

But, the main dedication of gamers is not production companies or famous users. They are dedicated to their games. And when they have looked forward to a release date and have gone through the midnight ritual, dressed up as vikings (which I observed firsthand at the Skyrim midnight release four years ago), and they go home and put in their betrothed disc late into the night, laying down with their elbows slipping off the sides of their bed, indifferent to the discomfort of laying down with your neck craned, Doritos at their side (which I have done), eyes fixed to the screen, yelling with excitement (which I have done), and the first loading screen is too long and they are play-blocked for just a minute more than they can truly stand and then the game loads and all the sudden they fall into a mountain (which happens), there is not a feeling of betrayal deeper than the one inside their hearts.

The first party they blame is the production company. Never themselves, of course, for putting their hope on delicate systems.

The betrayal can go even deeper than low graphics or superficial glitches, though. It can go as deep as the narrative, which a huge contingent of gamers are all about (some, like Call of Duty players, like video games for the mechanical skill of them).

And this is where some good fruits are reaped from gaming culture, which I am not so unjust to overlook. When Mass Effect 3 ended terribly–as in, the ending did not fulfill the game, did not satisfy it, did not bring the story to a full completion–gamers got together and petitioned for a change to the end of the game. They demanded the game be changed. And they won.

Anyways, the really important thing is Fallout 4 here. I called my brother today–and I am ashamed to share this (shame is what Christianity is all about)–and I was giggling and in tears because of this. I told him it feels like I am getting married.

Emotions are a funny thing and I am wondering why I feel so strongly about these games. Why? How did I become a gamer? And why does the Fallout 4 announcement feel like the return of King Arthur, assuming I cared?

My “how” question isn’t about origins really, but more about motivations. What draws me so intensely to the Fallout and The Elder Scrolls games?

Two things.

I grew up with them and there is this deep familiarity. I know how the worlds are made and how they work. I have memories of the worlds. They remind me of myself, of the hundreds of hours I spent in those worlds and what kinds of decisions I made at pivotal moments in the hundreds of plots. This is a similar thing to re-reading books you grew up reading. The thing is: I didn’t. The only books I grew up reading were books for school, which I enjoyed, especially the ones for the high school culture class.

Side-note: My growing up can be approximately re-created by Legos, Peter Gabriel, and single-player role-playing games. Magic Cards were a lesser avocation.

I was watching a seminar with Ray Bradbury the other day and he said that you ought to spend all your time in a library. He said he graduated from the library at 28. He also said that the best thing about libraries is tracing your finger across the spines of books and picking each one up one-by-one, then eventually coming to one which you quickly discover is you. The joy in discovering something familiar–but new.

When playing these games, I am participating in the story, the narrative written by the makers. And there is something that resonates deeply with these games, because the kind of game you experience is up to you. Games which do not give you any essential choices are, frankly, not taking advantage of the main trait video games offer: free will.

The other thing that attracts me to the games–and one that is probably a stronger pull–is the exploration of them. This is the reverse of familiarity. Familiarity gives you the comfort of the old, but exploration depends on the new. And yet, exploring a world is impossible if you are not familiar with how to proceed. The law of gravity.

Why does exploration resonate with me so much?

I don’t know. I’ll slap an answer on it that sounds roughly right, because this post is getting long: fill the earth and multiply. I think it has something to do with that.

I do predict a response: Isn’t it better to explore the world, though? The actual world?

The same complaint can be leveled against books. And to a point, it sticks. Yes, the world is very much worth exploring–or experiencing. And there is a kind of knowledge that comes from touching things which are neither controllers nor pages. I’m speaking of water and frogs.

Plus, exploring the creations of someone else is exploring this world. The worlds they make are built out of elements we ourselves could have discovered and pieced together. You know this: it is fundamental. And we should move on from the fundamental and of speak about clean and unclean video games, for it comes easy to children in the faith, but let us move on from milk to steak.

Most significantly, I think when someone explores games, it actually opens them up to the possibility that our world functions like a video game (if we are careful in remembering that video games attempt to copy the rhythms of reality). When I play an open world video game, I am learning that the possibilities of experience go as far as the system allows me. The only limits are in the programming.

The same thing is true for this world: and video games have taught me this. I can actually go anywhere I want to or experience anything I want if my desire goes far enough. In this sense, playing video games–open world RPGs specifically–cultivate curiosity in the player.

What really is in the barn on the side of the highway I drive by every day to work?

The things we eat–video games, movies, music–are best used to highlight the delights we overlook in this life. Anything that we use to replace the goodness of experience is, obviously, not going to help us. And video games do not shroud my desire for exploration, but grow it.

Coming back to an earlier point: I think exploration resonates with me so much in video games, because exploring in real life is part of what I was made for, but I often fail to take advantage of the opportunities. That’s a lot of what video games are: taking advantage of opportunities in the most fruitful way possible. If you can draw this from video games and apply it to real life, which video games intend to recreate, you will be richer for it.

And so I look forward to Fallout 4. It has been seven years.