Original version: August 31, 2011
I finally finished reading John Médaille’s “Will There Be Zombies?” article over at Front Porch Republic. It is good. It clearly identifies the problem—the end of the world—and does so in a persuasive way. It understands and explains the interdependencies of all the failing cultural systems, while maintaining both a sense of humor and a (non-utopian) sense of hope—and, what’s more, a basic plan of action.
I urge anyone reading this post to read the article. Before you read these ramblings, in fact.
Done? Ok, here we go.
1. Survivalism Is Insufficient.
It’s easy to preach (sell?) a message of “head-for-the-hills survivalism,” but that kind of libertarian self-sufficiency is not particularly compelling, being compatible neither with Christianity, nor long-term living, nor any sort of cultural upbuilding. Of course it’s legitimate to move to a new location out of concerns for physical safety or spiritual health; and of course preparing for a possible crisis (of whatever kind) could be very prudent. But not if the goal of it all ends with mere “survival.” People want more, obviously, than mere survival. They want a full, rich life with eternal significance.
Médaille is a rarity, in that he deals with the whole problem, not just an isolated portion, and in that his worldview is robust enough to see that (a) whatever happens, it’s not The End, and (b) there are things we can do about it, now, during, and afterward. Which I consider very refreshing.
2. Technology and The Present Crisis
I can’t judge all of Médaille’s factual/historical interpretations. As is evident from the comments section, plenty of people have a different perspective on many of the issues he deals with (oil, the collapse of empires, etc.). But I think, in the main, he’s right: there are unique crises in our era which, in some ways, are without precedent.
Most of these unique crises, it seems to me, are unique to us because they are bound up with technology. Now, it’s no good criticizing technology-as-such: technology has been around since Adam first levered a stone out of his field with a stick, and human beings are obviously, by design, technical creatures. But we’re also social, rational, and skeptical creatures, and socialism, rationalism, and skepticism haven’t worked out so well. Technologicism is showing the same cracks. Like the pursuit of most things—all things, probably, apart from love of God and love of neighbor—the pursuit of technology is subject to the law of diminishing returns: the more of it you have, the less it buys you.
One reason for this is precisely what Médaille has identified: in order to fulfill its (present, erroneous) purpose of providing man with absolute control over nature, technology has had to become a version of magic. And magic always requires a magician—that is, a man who works by obscure means and, as a result, holds some degree of power over lesser mortals. In seeking power, we have put ourselves at the mercy of others who are more powerful than we are.
However, the system is now so big that we’re no longer ruled by a small cadre of priests. Now we have a priesthood-of-all-baccalaureates. Almost everybody (except those who compose the welfare state) is a minor wizard of something; and so everyone is at the mercy (or mercilessness) of everyone else. As Médaille says:
…no matter how many doctorates one holds in computer science, at some point the system disappears into a world of magic. Thus the hardware engineer finds operating systems bewildering, while the systems programmer is mystified by telecommunications, and the communications engineer can’t help you with applications. Expertise is one area is matched by ignorance in other areas, so that to each practitioner of the computer arts, at some point the whole thing fades into a world of wizardry. This is why, when you call him for help, and after pressing “1” for English, Sanjay in Mumbai often appears to be bewildered by your problem; he is not always the wizard to help you, but you both know a wizard is required.
For about two weeks this month our internet connection was, literally, on the blink. Multiple times per day, with no predictable pattern, the “DSL” light on our modem would cease to shine steadily and begin blinking. This told us that we were no longer connected to the internet. It did not tell us anything else. After placing perhaps four calls to Verizon’s Sanjays in Mumbai (who all courteously, efficiently, and semi-intelligibly asked me the identical series of diagnostic questions, all to no avail), and after receiving two equally courteous but equally unhelpful computerized calls informing me that the “problem on the line has been resolved” (the first of which occurred while the modem light was cheerfully blinking away), the issue was “escalated” to the network technicians at the Home Office.
A week later one of these magi called to tell me that the problem was a “card” of some type, which would occasionally stop functioning, with the result that all of the cards below it would similarly fail to function—rather like a string of Christmas lights, I gather. This is a device whose name I do not know, whose function I cannot divine, whose location I am wholly ignorant of, and which I could not repair if I had the design manual, because the failing component was in all likelihood invisible to the naked eye. Fortunately this wizard, or one of his fellows, eventually found the time to heed my prayers, and had a replacement handy (and fortunately he did not require any additional sacrifices or libations in repayment for his service).
During this period, my job—which is performed 100% on the computer and 80% online—was thus rendered very difficult to perform. For the latter half of it I was on vacation and computer free, but for the first half I did my work at Starbucks, drinking tea and eating muffins, and thus bolstering the local economy.
Despite my tone, I don’t really mean to criticize Verizon in all of this. Their folks were pleasant, and as helpful as they could be given the unusual issue—not to mention the strike they were experiencing at the time. But all these elements illustrate that they are a part of a system that is very obviously, to use Médaille’s term, “brittle.”
With technology, we have succeeded in taking magic out of the domain of the occultic witch-doctor, de-demonizing it, and making it considerably more democratic. Thus we’ve (perhaps) circumvented the explicit prohibitions of Scripture against sorcery and have thereby made magic acceptable to Christendom (or at least “family friendly”). But in many ways the end goals are still the same: godlike sway over the natural word and thus (we think) over our circumstances and our destinies; glorification of self in the eyes of our neighbors, who are left in awe of (or at least dependence on) our own small sphere of arcane knowledge; and transcendence of the moral law. In fact, by whatever means possible, we want to be as God.
My own life—or lifestyle, I should say, to be perfectly accurate—is pretty firmly bound up with technology right now. I don’t know how to extricate it; though, given some sudden “crash,” I would probably figure it out. But I can resist its pull:
- I can refuse to buy a new car simply because it’s new and (purportedly) requires less maintenance: my old car is not tremendously reliable, but it works, and also we don’t drive very much.
- I can refuse to buy a new computer simply because they get “faster” and “cheaper” all the time: the laptop my company provided meets all my current needs, and I didn’t have to pay for it; I’ll buy a new computer when I actually need one.
- I can refuse to own a microwave: it would simply take up valuable counter space, bias us towards leftovers or pre-packaged “foods,” produce unhealthy and less-tasty outcomes, and discourage planning ahead. We put ours in storage on top of the dryer, and after several months of not missing it, gave it away. (I’ll admit, we replaced it with a toaster oven which is just as computerized, bulky, and difficult to repair. But it’s more versatile and more healthy.)
- I can eat lettuce from my garden, instead of from the grocery store, during whichever months of the year I can manage to grow it.
- I can leave the GPS off when I actually know the way to where I’m going.
- I can let the calculator rest and (try to) do an occasional multiplication problem in my head.
- I can be content with no FiOS, no cable, no television for that matter, and (as my father-in-law would call it) a “dumb phone.” This last costs about one-fifth as much per month as its more highly evolved successors and, if it doesn’t actually diminish the time I spend staring at a screen, it at least keeps me from staring at a small one and being reduced to the two fingers I used before I was taught to type.
- And I can refuse to sign up for Facebook.
(I use the first person in all of this, but really my wife has been the motive force behind many of these practices, and we agree on and implement them together. It probably says something about people in general, and also about the gravitational pull of the tech, that this kind of resistance is easier and/or more necessary in the context of a family, versus bachelorhood.)
I don’t want to brag about all the bits of technology I decline to use, as if there’s a particular virtue in being spartan or technophobic; there isn’t. Even self-sufficiency (so called) is as much a temptation as a benefit. So really I’m not condemning any of these technologies. (Not even Facebook: I’ve seen my wife, for example, make a conscious effort to use it well—i.e., to resist or transcend the bent, perhaps even the design, of the technology. Most of the time she succeeds; it just takes discipline.) But I am criticizing the cumulative force that these “improvements” apply to our lives. I am criticizing the “zombifying” effect they tend to produce, when they are used as their creators, or at least marketers, too often intend: that is to say, without intentionality, deliberation, or restraint, and not in response to any actual need. I feel that zombification at work in myself, and I don’t like it. Therefore I have begun to resist.
I am not a particularly good neighbor. I am not even an especially good friend. I am not adept at forging deep, meaningful relationships. Maybe this skill takes a lifetime to learn, and maybe no one is expert at it, but I do feel that many people are better at it than I am. I have not been well taught, and I haven’t made sufficient effort to learn. I really do try to care for people—at least when they have a specific need that I know, or think, I can meet. But as much as I denounce individualism, I find I would rather trot off with David to the playground down the street, than make an effort to help him play with the rather obnoxious and rowdy boys next door.
This specific set of neighbors, I’ll say as an aside, is a curious case study: whatever their faults of laziness, dissipation, irresponsibility, inconsideration, and general annoyingness, they are, without doubt, vastly more “neighborly” and communal than we are. We like our privacy. They probably never lock their doors and have perhaps a couple of dozen persons who commonly turn up on their back porch at all hours of the day. True, they spend most of their time smoking, drinking, and talking in elevated tones about not-very-elevated topics, but I suspect that when one of them has a need, he doesn’t call an expert (a magician, that is): he calls one of his friends. They are Godless, and for that and other reasons they are evidently not very happy; but also I suspect they do not experience the same hectic loneliness that plagues most of the townhome-dwellers in our area, who commute an hour east towards D.C. every day to perform mechanical tasks in support of governmental ends they are often ignorant of, or do not believe in, so that they can be oversalaried with taxpayer dollars, so they can collect things they don’t have time to enjoy. Our neighbors buy cheap beer, I have no doubt—and probably more than their bodies or wallets can afford—but they do seem to enjoy it.
Should we try to make them our best friends? Well, no: the influence of friendship goes both ways, invariably. But I do envy them their multitude of friends-within-walking-distance.
4. Learning Community
Our parents’ generation, it seems, got a solid dose of “anti-establishment” worked into their psyches. It still crops up in various forms: homeschooling, alternative health practices, home churches and/or chronic church-shopping (or mere non-attendance), scorn of the government, and so on. Now, granted, most of the establishments had serious problems (and still do), so these reactions were understandable and in many cases unavoidable (and in some cases good). But the unintended result is that we, their children, are just plain bad at forming, reforming, or living with establishments, organizations, church congregations, neighborhoods, or communities of whatever kind. If Médaille is correct, and I suspect he is, we are going to have to change this. Or at least we will have to go a long way towards equipping our children to change it. Which will mean that, among other things:
- We must settle in a (good-but-not-perfect) community and stay in it long enough to learn how to work out problems.
- We must teach our children how to research, study, observe, build, garden, repair, invent, maintain, share, befriend, and self-govern. And teach.
- We must strip all the “fat” out of our lives and simplifying (i.e., focusing) to the point where we actually have time and energy to do these things. This will mean we have to find the above activities more compelling, desirable, and positively fun than our own continued “entertainment.” Entertainment—or rather let us say re-creation—is well and good and vital to life, but as Médaille points out, we’ve outsourced far too much of this, too. We must learn to coax music out of other instruments than the radio or the portable DVD player. We must stop buying, and start making. And when we do, I suspect we’ll find that most of what we lose in terms of efficiency, ease, and expense, we gain back in terms of quality, fun, and fulfillment.
- We must spend less time “friending” and “following” our acquaintances, and more time being friends to them. We both need it. And moreover this is the primary distinctive of the Church, as far as the world is concerned: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Love is what draws people to Christ. It is very possible to love someone through a computer (such is the common grace of God), but it is impossible, or nearly so, to do it wholistically. I can give you truth, Scripture, prayer, encouragement, a listening ear, and good advice; but I cannot give you a hug or a bag of my surplus tomatoes.
And all this, I’ll say again, is a broader vision than simply “surviving the crisis,” which is valid enough for the short term, but which is fundamentally a self-centered goal; a means, not an end. God does not call us to survive. He calls us to make disciples. I’ll quote at some length from a letter I recently received from Ken Myers of Mars Hill Audio (to which I subscribe, and which I recommend heartily):
Without some vision of the specific form our cultural lives ought to take, being involved in cultural activity can become merely a fancy form of evangelism. I’ve got nothing against evangelism, but I’m more interested (as were Jesus and Paul) in moving beyond the making of converts to the building of disciples, to the encouragement of the followers of Jesus to honor his authority in all things. The discipleship enjoined in the Great Commission is finally a task of enculturation, of encouraging some forms of life while discouraging—in fact, renouncing—other forms as unfitting for the Kingdom.”The work of cultural analysis that Mars Hill Audio has pursued for almost twenty years has always assumed that some cultural forms are truly better than others. The people I have interviewed have insights into cultural life that I hope will be taken up into the form of life practiced by Christians as an expression of faithfulness and a witness to world. The content of these interviews may be intellectually stimulating, but if that’s all they are, we haven’t really done our work. (The “we” in that last sentence includes you, by the way.) The cultural reform we hope to advance has to be visible in our own communities before it can be effected in society.
The obvious prerequisites to all of this are (a) evangelism, and (b) community. We must improve at both.
5. Neither Utopia nor Dystopia, but Kingdom
One last point. Médaille, for all his apocalyptic banter, is not an alarmist, nor a doomsday prophet. (I hope none of my own comments have trended that way either.) Alarmism is out of the equation because the kinds of things Médaille is arguing for are precisely the kinds of things we should be doing in any event, whether cultural collapse is imminent, or generations ahead, or ten years behind. Because our kingdom is not of this world, our task does not change with the ebb and flow of empires. Christ calls us to build the Kingdom, but he does not call us to build heaven on earth: heaven is coming by storm, soon enough. Thus the means of preventing, delaying, preparing for, mitigating, weathering, recovering from, or repairing a “crash” are all one and the same: build the Kingdom. Build healthy communities composed of serious disciples of the coming Lord.
I could probably go on—it’s a big topic—but this train of thought has grown about as long as the engine can pull.
Thanks again to JMK for sending the article in the first place. Keep similar stuff in the pipeline, please.