The Open Question

Alan Jacobs, as usual, digs into another interesting issue with technology, in this case the need, the necessity for the Open Web. Given the revelations of Facebook this essay is all the more pertinent.

I say there is no financial compensation for users, but many users feel themselves amply compensated by the aforementioned provisions: ease of use, connection with others, and so on. But such users should realize that everything they find desirable and beneficial about those sites could disappear tomorrow and leave them with absolutely no recourse, no one to whom to protest, no claim that they could make to anyone. When George Orwell was a scholarship boy at an English prep school, his headmaster, when angry, would tell him, “You are living on my bounty.”6 If you’re on Facebook, you are living on Mark Zuckerberg’s bounty.

This is of course a choice you are free to make. The problem comes when, by living in conditions of such dependence, you forget that there’s any other way to live—and therefore cannot teach another way to those who come after you. Your present-day social-media ecology eclipses the future social-media ecology of others. What if they don’t want their social lives to be bought and sold? What if they don’t want to live on the bounty of the factory owners of Silicon Valley? It would be good if we bequeathed to them another option, the possibility of living outside the walls the factory owners have built

Alan Jacobs, “Tending the Digital Commons: A Small Ethics toward the Future,” The Hedgehog Review.

Embodied art

Alan Jacobs writes of a Ray Davies of the Kinks and his nostalgia for the shared musical life with his sister Rene

Oklahoma!might show you some of the shortcomings of your world, but it didn’t necessarily make you hate it. There was a way to bring those distant beauties into your everyday life.
But perhaps this can only be done if you’re a creator and performer as well as a consumer. Davies’s sister Rene went to the movies, yes, but she also danced in the ballrooms and played piano with her brother. She made those songs her own by using her body and her voice, rather than merely observing the words and movements of others. Perhaps we have the power to incorporate mass culture into our lives — but not by just consuming it.

It’s not just for Davies, or for nostalgia to English working class culture.

If we are to be collaborators and co-creators then we would be well-served by creating cultural spaces for this work to take place. Art not as product but co-creation is the stuff of arts / music education. The tragedy being that we have been steadily stripping such programs from our communities in the performance driven educational reforms.

Culture buildling as a political act

Matthew Lee Anderson takes stock of the election,

What people want is not handwringing when things don’t go “our way,” but hope.  And a sober and serious assessment of how things look along with something like a strategy to turn them around that stays true to our principles.  Or maybe I speak too broadly.  So let me narrow the scope:  that is what want from an evangelical leadership, not the sort of handwringing that we are currently experiencing.

Still, it’s not as if Evangelicals will abandon the Republican Party. The first reactions are less about policy than they are about disappointment and real grief. And in understanding  that this still part of a grieving process, several points come to mind.

As political scientists will remind us, political identity is rather stable; culturally evangelicals will continue to be a part of the Republican coalition, particularly in the South. That cultural identity is a trap as to the real transformational goals of the faith community (and this is what I hear you struggling towards). In this light, Evangelicals face something of a choice whether to reinforce this cultural and political identity, that is to take part as a political community, or to take part in something akin to culture-making.

I would opt for the culture making approach.

Evangelicals in the last election voted more intensely GOP than in 2008. If there is an electoral failure, it is not for their not trying. What is missing is their ability to find allies in the center. Here, the deep cultural identity as a wing of the GOP played against them, particularly in the polarized electorate and an election framed as a cultural war, a war the Right lost (per Jonathan Chait).

To advance a transformational approach will it seem, call for different approaches than those previously advanced. At the least, as you suggest, it calls for something like a cheerful engagement. I would suggest that you especially pay attention to Peter Leithart’s concern for justice; a second place to turn would be the sober approach of Alan Jacobs’ thinking on information deficits and global warming.

And Leithart is right in this also: culture making can only take place in the context of a deep faith in the sovereign God who claims our lives at the Cross. Sovereignty and sacrifice walk together, indeed are the proper fuel for hope. But if such hope were easy, we would have it already, wouldn’t we?

Over at The American Conservative, Alan Jacobs takes up the subject of reading Dickens and notes

Bleak House has everything: a cast of characters not discernibly less comprehensive than that of Copperfield; a great mystery story at its heart, featuring one of the first detectives in English fiction, Inspector Bucket; a brilliant and vicious satire on the law; coverage of the whole range of English society, from its height (Sir Leicester Dedlock) to its depths (Jo the crossing-sweeper),

Having just finished the novel myself, I can only agree.

As commentators point out, one of the problematic characters — perhaps the problematic character — is that of Harold Skimpole. A man of few sympathetic characteristics, especially to modern readers. He is a type of Romantic, existing at the sufferance of others, of self-conciously no mind for money, and one who presumes the world to be a gay place. Yet. His carelessness in mannered speech is like a squid’s ink. The person hides behind it, and we rarely see him; perhaps in his home, and again in Bucket’s sharp warning. A character like this raises the awareness of the writing, that the person referred to has his own unspoken history. The verbal display thus hides us from his “real” self.

And Skimpole’s  caricatured Romanticism creates a tension with  Dickens’ own pastoral inclinations (e.g. George’s last scene, turning his back on the Manchester mills to head to the country; or for that matter the sugary description of the New Bleak House in Yorkshire, Esther’s new home). I would think that it is the tug of Romanticism in Dickens that prevents him from seeing or developing Skimpole, the arch Romantic.

Skimpole’s false, Romantic innocence was also the subject of an interesting essay at First Things (1993).


On a Christian Technological Culture

Alan Jacobs writes on his Tumblr page

Can’t we back up a step or two, and instead of asking “What currently cool technologies can we copy?” ask “What are our core convictions and core practices, and what existing technologies best support them?” And maybe even ask this more challenging question: “What if the existing technologies don’t serve our needs very well? How can we acquire the imagination, the technical chops, and the sheer courage to roll our own instead of choosing from a pre-existing menu of options?” It’s better — far better — to risk abject failure than to choose a safely imitative course that makes excellence impossible by design.


This is the perennial problem with culture. Does there exist a separate, distinctively Christian way? How do we speak differently without being co-opted?

Short answer: that’s not ours to plan. It’s an illusion that we have this cultural power, a hubris of our own place. What we do have is this place. The self-aware space where we stumble a little forward, try to do something good, and if all else fails, plant a garden.