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On the Internet, Fairy Tales and Fear
by Mark Stokoe

Reading Fr. Washburn’s reflection (11.09.09) was like spending time with old friends - in this case the Seven Dwarfs.

Fr. George’s reflection begins Grumpily (“About forty years ago, when I was not only still open to new ideas, but actually sometimes understanding and getting some good out of them...”) but quickly turns Bashful (“To the best of my increasingly dim recollections ...”). This is unfortunate because many would agree his thesis is rather Happy: “... I would like to suggest that the nature of the medium, in this case the internet and blogosphere, is itself the message we get here even more than the content that people purport to communicate and consider.” Alas, this insight is followed by Sleepy thinking. As a result, Fr. Washburn spews forth criticisms one after the other- like Sneezy on a bad day. Unfortunately, most are pretty Dopey upon closer examination. For the good Doc of our souls - and his respondents as well - never penetrate to the real problem. Like all fairy tales Fr. Washburn’s essay is thought-provoking, but one should never confuse what is being said with reality.

This is not to portray Fr. George as the Evil Queen to my Snow White. In fact we are all - Fr. George, Mr. Banescu, Mr. White, Anonymous Antiochian Priest and myself - more like the Magic Mirror than anything else. We are disembodied voices speaking truths on the internet that can only be fully understood depending on the questions being asked. And like the Magic Mirror, the internet usually ends up telling you mainly about your own fears than anything else.

When Fr. George begins “What is the inherent message of this medium- regardless of its ostensible content?” he is asking about his fears. He then lists them in good Orthodox fashion, both cataphatically and apophatically. The internet is democratic, participatory, instantaneous, reactive, anonymous, intrusive and inclusive; as well as non-reflective, unrefereed, unverifable and unedifying. I may have left some out, there are so many, but you get the idea.

One should not dismiss anyone’s fears, but one can dismiss the criticisms that emerge from them. For this is where sleepy-thinking comes in. Being “anonymous,” “non-reflective”, “unverifable”, “unedifyng” and “reactive” are not characteristics of any medium. They are judgements about the content found in them. And we are, by the parameters set forth by Fr. George, not to speak of content - so neither should he.

So let us turn to his fears. He writes: “It is intrusive and inclusive by nature, and seems to invite all and sundry to believe that anything knowable, believable or assumable about anyone else who is part of the Orthodox world is the business of anyone with time, access to a computer and the ability to send in a comment.” Intrusion infers lack of choice - yet one’s computer does not turn itself on, does not seek out the internet automatically unless one chooses to have it do so, and does not go to OCANews,org, or any specific website unless one chooses such an “intrusion”, which by definition, it is then not.

It is not that the internet intrudes, but that it seems to be everywhere nowadays, and increasingly indispensible in life. In short, I would suggest his fear is not that the internet is intrusive, but that it is ubiquitous.

The internet's ubiquity is yet another aspect of Fr. George's more pervasive fears that the internet is “instantaneous”, ”inclusive” and “participatory”. Here too his criticisms appear to be less of the medium itself than to those who are using it. He writes: “This lends itself to participation.. and to domination by people who seem to have the most time on their hands, the least responsibility for the other things, and the least self-restraint.” Fr. George includes himself among the reprobate: “Truth be told one’s immediate stream of consciousness, at least mine, is not that pretty or edifying..." Such self-deprecation, while evincing modesty, does not make his criticism any more valid. Would Fr. George be equally fearful if only the most responsible, most restrained, most reflective were allowed to opine publicly? I doubt it. In an earlier age such fears would have been more colorfully characterized as fear of the “great unwashed”. No wonder then, Fr. Washburn chides the internet and blogosphere as “democratic” - the “demos” can indeed fully participate. But here, too, we have sleepy thinking.

Blogs are not "democratic", even if they are ubiquitous and frequented by the “great unwashed”. Blogs are completely totalitarian. The author controls the look, size, shape, content, indeed almost every aspect about his/her blog - apart from hosting. And some even do that. The internet offers everybody who posts possibilities that can only be described as Nietzschean. This may indeed be a problem in itself - but “democracy” has nothing to do with it.

I would suggest that Fr. George’s real complaint about this 21st century medium is not that it may best be described by a 20th century media critic named McLuhan, but that it is best described by an 18th century economist named Smith, Adam Smith. The internet is the closest thing to the “free market” described by Smith the world has yet seen. It is indeed inclusive, participatory, instantaneous, ubiquitous - for it allows everyone expression . As such, the internet is not a medium, like television or newspapers; it is a medium like oil or acrylics. It is Performance Art.

Fr. George argues as if only those in the Royal Academy should be allowed to exhibit. Like some 19th century Realist Art Critic he refuses to accept that the camera and mechanical reproduction (or in this case, the internet) have changed the way we look at things permanently.  There has always been, and always will be Bad Art - but he fails to admit that the changes of the 19th century also allowed us to see the world in beautiful new ways, as in Impressionism, Surrealism, Hyper-realism, Abstraction, and more recently, Performance Art.

Performance Art by its very nature it challenges established traditions, conventions, rules, authority and accepted norms. And this is the dark heart of all of Fr. George’s fears: the internet lacks hierarchical deference. It recognizes no authority - not of age, rank, expertise or position. As such Fr. Washburn can only see anarchy, real and symbolic. But this is fear - not reality.

The internet is not anti-hierarchical by nature - it is ahierarchical. It is not prejudiced against age, rank, expertise or position - it just is not prejudiced towards them either. The internet doesn’t care who you are - just what you produce. For Fr. George , this is a deficiency - and threatening beyond adequate words.

Is he right to be afraid? Does this new medium with its a-hierarchical realities present serious challenges, real and symbolic, to all hierarchal structures in general, and Orthodoxy in particular?

It presents questions, yes. But fundamental challenges? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

Orthodoxy has found a way to survive the collapse of monarchy - all governing monarchies - in the past century. We lost our God-anointed Emperors, Tsars and Kings, replacing them with Prime Ministers and Presidents, duly elected. And yet, Jesus is still Lord, and not President-for Life  throughout the Orthodox pleroma. I suggest we shall  find a way to transition the symbolic changes wrought by the internet as well.

In actual terms the OCA has not fallen apart from the changes introduced by and through the internet. (Even Fr. George admits many of the changes are welcome, even if he worries the “cure” is worse than the disease). In the Antiochian case the internet has caused significant short-term changes as well; and depending on how several current initiatives being undertaken at the Archdiocesan level resolve in the next 2 years, may produce significant long-term change there as well. The internet may be instantaneous - people rarely are, and churches never.

The bottom line? In both the fairy tale world of Snow White and the real world of Eastern Orthodoxy there is much to fear, begininng with women offering apples. We shall just have to wait to see if the internet is a poisoned one, or one the True Doctor has ordered for us. We shall have to wait in faith, hope and love - which is not so much different from how we have been living these past 2,000 years. The biggest difference is now we can all blog about the wait. And anytime Orthodox Christians are given the chance to share their faith, I think the Church comes out ahead in the long run.

But then, I still believe in happy endings.

-Mark Stokoe



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