Applying a Postmodern context

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Current events continue to reveal what our culture is up against as the age of Postmodernism continues to unfold and expand. This vision is so clear to me that I see things that others don’t, and while I’m sure some people view that statement as arrogance gone to seed, it would be foolish of me to deny reality. The problem most folks have with this is a lack of context with which to view ongoing events.

Premodernism: I believe, therefore I understand.
Disruption: The printing press.
Modernism: I think and reason, therefore I understand.
Disruption: The internet.
Postmodernism: I participate, therefore I understand.

The single, most important difference between Modernism and Postmodernism is that the former is hierarchical while the latter is horizontal. This produces an inherent conflict, and while these conflicts can be obvious, they don’t mean anything other than just news items unless and until they are put into the context of a significant cultural shift.

For example, here’s a cute story about 9-year old reporter Hilde Kate Lysiak breaking a murder story ahead of the local press. Ha-ha. Funny, huh? No, this is heavy-duty stuff in light of the culture change. Miss Lysiak has her own printing press – a.k.a. website – and considers herself a journalist. Here’s the way the Washington Post put it.

As the editor and publisher of the Orange Street News, in her hometown of Selinsgrove, Pa., about 50 miles north of Harrisburg, Lysiak is a dedicated multi-media journalist who loves going after crime stories. Her father is an author and former New York Daily News reporter who took Hilde to his newsroom and to stories he covered around New York and hooked her on the rush of chasing news.

“I just like letting people know all the information,” Hilde said Monday. It’s also what she sees as her career, no matter what stupid adults might say about the future of journalism. “It’s just what I really want to do. And crime is definitely my favorite.” She said she learned of the murder story because “I got a good tip from a source and I was able to confirm it.” Well, that’s how it works.

When community members squawked on Facebook that a 9-year old has no business reporting on such, Miss Lysiak went ballistic: “If you want me to stop covering news, then you get off your computers and do something about the news. There, is that cute enough for you?”

Meanwhile, across the sea, two people described as “freelance multimedia journalists” produced a video about Israel bulldozing Bedouin homes and a school in the occupied territories, presumably to one day build Israeli settlements on the land.

And of course, the big story worldwide this weekend was the release of what are being called “the Panama Papers” from an unknown whistleblower. Wired reported that the cache of documents leaked was enormous:

”In total, the leak contains: 4.8 million emails, three million database entries, two million PDFs, one million images and 320,000 text documents. The dataset is bigger than any from Wikileaks, or the Edward Snowden disclosures.”

So the whistleblower – presumably someone with access to the knowledge of the “business” dealings of the Panamanian law firm that was the source of the documents – was able to transfer these files to investigative reporters around the world via the same network that makes participation in the distribution of knowledge files possible in the first place. This has nowhere to go but up, and if you’re involved in some hierarchical dealings that you’d rather not your underlings know about, I’d be pretty damned nervous about what’s going on in this “Age of Participation.”

Technology may be providing the means, but it’s the culture’s rebellion against hierarchies that is providing the heat for the Postmodern awakening. The press, in the form of a 9-year old neighborhood reporter, freelance multimedia journalists in the Middle East, or whistleblowers distributing confidential business documents, is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of disruptions to modern western culture. Every complex organization will be impacted, because the view from the top is no longer private, and as I wrote long ago, every day that an average person uses the internet, they become more and more disruptive. This principle shows no sign of slowing down, as long as the Web remains open. Efforts to close it – through government or privatization – are already beginning to appear, for example, with net neutrality threats.

Those who have ears to hear, let them hear. Those who have eyes to see, let them see.

Another postmodern signpost – banks

Here we go again.

A new Citi Global Perspectives & Solutions (GPS) report on how financial technology is disrupting banks provides another look for us into our rapidly ascending postmodern future. According to the report, mobile distribution will be the main channel of interaction between customers and the bank, which will mean a dramatically reduced need for bank branches. This will lead to the loss of 1.8 million employees between now and 2015, down a whopping 40-50% from its peak in 2007.

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An article in Business Insider referencing the report compares it to earlier projections:

That’s in line with former Barclays CEO Antony Jenkins’ recent prediction that pressure from the tech industry “will compel banks to significantly automate their business” and “that the number of branches and people may decline by as much as 50% over the next years.”

The CITI report suggests that as more and more transactions move to mobile, there will be a “rebalancing of staff from transaction-based roles to advisory-based roles,” but I don’t believe such jobs will pay as much. As such, I’m not certain this “rebalancing” will make much difference for those out of work.

This is downside of the Great Horizontal, when it’s viewed from a strictly modernist, top-down perspective. These bank executives know that reduced expenses mean increased profits, so their concern about employees is disingenuous, at best. They will be surprised when faced with the granular investment opportunities that will occur along the bottom of their top-down paradigm, and then the real postmodern disruption of the banking institution will begin. A modernist culture requires banks, but I’m not convinced they will be at all relevant as the twenty-first century moves along.

One thing is absolutely certain: making a living will be completely redefined, and the time to start thinking about that is today.

The Tiny Homes Disruption

From time-to-time, I come across little signposts pointing to the disruptive nature of our horizontal culture. Here’s one that requires a certain vision that’s not commonly shared. It’s an article from fastcoexist.com, a niche vertical information site from the folks at Fast Company.

tinyhomesThis is a fascinating look into the tiny home movement and the work of Auburn University engineering students. The idea is to build a house that costs less than $20,000 in order to sustain somebody living below the poverty level. If you’re a student of the movement, however, you know that people are looking at tiny homes in many places and in many ways. It’s an idea percolating from the bottom of culture, because, well, it costs so much money to own a “regular” home.

What these folks at Auburn are doing, however, is exploring (and changing) the problem of a housing industry that doesn’t fit the requirements of this new model. In addition to designing and building these tiny homes, a second objective is to do so in such a way that supports the workers who will build the homes. This is why they’re designing homes outside a pre-fabrication model. Apparently, that would be too culturally disruptive, which is the very real danger to the broader culture in the destruction of its institutions.

What they’re learning, however, is the depth of reinvention necessary in the new era. Rusty Smith is associate director of Rural Studio, the undergraduate program handling the work. According to Smith, they’ve had to study and work with zoning laws and banks in order to craft new approaches for each. These have been incorporated into guidelines that Rural Studio is publishing along with actual instructions for building the homes.

“The most daunting problems aren’t brick and mortar problems,” Smith told Fastcoexist, “they’re these network and system problems that are threaded together and all intersect in the build environment. We’re able to attack all these problems simultaneously—when we see a lever over here and wiggle it, we can very clearly see the implication it has on other systems down the road.”

And this is exactly the problem with infrastructures designed to support the top-down culture of a fading industrial age. Silos that are connected at the top each have their place in an elaborate – and highly inefficient – system in which each is rewarded for its disconnection with the people actually doing the paying. The Auburn University group is trying to overcome this, but it will likely only see limited success. There’s just too much at stake for the housing industry to up and revolutionize itself, and yet here we find evidence of its inevitability in a culture where the bottom is able to cut across everything to overcome the inherent bias of modernity.

Postmodernism isn’t just some weird philosophical theory; it’s a new age in Western civilization, and we – that’s you and me – really need to be paying attention.

Sadly, it’s not the kind of news beat that sells.

The horizontal church

pomoLet’s get one thing absolutely straight about institutions, postmodernity, and the Great Horizontal, a.k.a. the age of participation: hierarchies are inefficient, self-centered, and therefore, unacceptable governors, and this truth is universal. Therefore, anyone proposing hierarchical governance – regardless of the logic applied – is cutting a path back to modernity and even premodernity by virtue of its one-to-many paradigm. This is where those writers of postmodern Christianity or postmodern churches do themselves a disservice in their prophecies. They don’t look beyond the immediate future, and thus are prone to error in advancing postmodern Christianity today.

Of course, culture change isn’t a zero sum game, for vestiges of all will remain in Western civilization, but the rejection of hierarchies as self-serving is a core concept of the postmodern era, which has just begun. It will be viewed as anarchy and chaos for those who long for the equilibrium of external command and control of the masses. Ah, those good old days. Let us never forget the social engineering words of Edward Bernays, the father of professional public relations, in his 1947 essay and 1955 book “The Engineering of Consent:

If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it.

Or from his 1923 book Crystalizing Public Opinion:

Those who manipulate the organized habits and opinions of the masses constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.

Bernays and cronies like Walter Lippmann may have brought these concepts into sharp focus at the start of the twentieth century, but this knowledge has existed throughout human history. Humankind has always known individuals striving for the top with the unspoken goal of raising one’s standard of living by arranging for lesser “others” to do all the work. As Ricky Scaggs sings in his song My Father’s Son, “The rich man writes the book of laws the poor man must defend.” It’s our innate animal nature. The strong thrive and survive, right?

For most people, the word “postmodern” causes a subconscious roll of the eyes or a conscious face palm. Christians have heard about the postmodern practice of deconstruction, but only insofar as it relates to their faith, and this is not an accurate depiction of postmodernism or our response to it. It’s much, much bigger than that.

Deconstruction is not an analysis, a critique, or a method, and I’m afraid that those who are defining postmodernism within the church today have reduced it to exactly that. Let’s be real here, folks. Postmodernism rejects much of what has held up the modern world, including processes and systems that were used to justify the institutions themselves. Just allow your imagination to wander, for example, to the institution of medicine, which is one of my favorite targets. Horizontally shared information and knowledge is a profound threat to anyone who has a stake in maintaining the medical status quo. It is fundamentally naive to think that protecting its turf isn’t job one for any institution, including medicine. As Clay Shirky points out, it’s the duty of institutions to help maintain the problems for which they are the solutions. I think this is true, and as such, health care in the West will always default to the haves, unless and until everyday people do something about it. And as I’ve discussed many times in the past, this is already taking place without crossing the line of “practicing medicine,” which is the government endorsed task of the institution. Postmodernism won’t do away entirely with institutional medicine, but it will alter its value proposition considerably.

This is why I’m so outspoken regarding those with something to lose (or gain) within Christianity by writing about postmodernism and deconstruction as if they were handy tools for reinventing the faith in the image of itself. This is not what’s in store for Christianity, and I will pull no punches in expressing that view as I further explore the disruption of equilibrium in Western culture.

Along the way, we’re going to try out some pretty neat stuff. I hope you’re ready.

The Christian church and postmodernism

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a topic I will be exploring much further in the time ahead.

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Many years ago, I was speaking to executives of a media company in Florida about my views of media and culture. I’ve always used culture to describe the forces impacting media, and I’ve been studying postmodernism or postmodern culture for over fifteen years. I had even named my blog after the term. One of the people in the audience that day spoke up that he was fascinated with my presentation, but that he’d only ever heard the word “postmodernism” in church and had no idea it was anything other than that. He thought it was a theological study of a fresh form of Christianity.

Up until that point, I’d never considered postmodernism to be a topic associated with Christianity, so I started researching the affiliation, which is where I first encountered Leonard Sweet. A quote of his sits at the top of this blog, because I think it’s so spot on. We’ve had conversations, and he’s way smarter than me. However, his understanding of postmodernism is a little different than mine, as is the understanding of a whole host of writers who fall into the category of “emergent” or the Emergent Movement. This, I believe, is what that executive back in Florida was referencing, because the arguments presented in making the case for a new “emerging” church use postmodern themes. One “deconstructs” their faith by going back and revisiting troublesome Christian assumptions. The idea is to then reconstruct that faith in a way that eliminates some of the nonsense of the evangelical Christian experience, including issues like gender equality and making room for gays and lesbians. It closely resembles a shift from Evangelicalism to Ecumenicism, although the energy is different, for it revels in its “newness” and change.

I’m currently a member of an organization that practices a form of this – The Lasting Supper  (TLS)- and I’ve really been enjoying the fellowship. It’s a breath of fresh air led by a remarkable artist, David Hayward, and I feel it’s likely to grow into something significant. Hell, it already is.

But here’s my problem with using the term postmodernism to describe the conflict with Christian tradition and not taking it any further: what’s “reconstructed” is simply another modernist view of an institution, a top-down, male-dominated, mass marketing enterprise that exploits for personal gain a very real search for spiritual belonging. This search is largely a response of intelligent Christians (no, it’s not an oxymoron) to the intolerance and divisiveness we witness today in person of the Christian wing of the Republican Party (or is it the Republican wing of the Christian Party?).

The problem with my view is that I, like many of the Christian writers, represent postmodernism as a new cultural era. The difference is that I view the Internet and the Web as the triggers for this new era, much as the printing press is viewed as shifting culture from one based solely on faith to one based on logic and reason, modernity. That era’s influence is diminishing as horizontal connectivity demolishes modernity’s institutions by directly challenging their authority. The Great Horizontal, as Jay Rosen aptly named it, will ultimately reshape everything, because it disrupts the fundamental protection accorded modernist institutions – hierarchical status earned through credentialing from the hierarchical elite. It’s all just self-serving and prevents any real challenge to the cultural totem pole it represents. This is why The Evolving User Paradigm remains one of the most important essays I wrote under the banner of Reinventing Local Media. Everyday that ONE “experiences” the Web, the disruptive nature of that one grows. This includes the church.

However, I think the biggest difference in the way I view postmodernism and the way it is viewed by these Emergent writers is that they view it as an event that demands a response, while I view it as a very long term shift that nobody really understands today. The moveable type was invented in the fifteenth century. Six hundred years later, and we’ve just begun to truthfully examine the shortcomings of modernity. The Roman Catholic church’s initial response to the printing press was first to try and stop it, then to prohibit printing a Bible without a license, then to shout down the evils of printing, especially erotic novels, then to question the reliability of any translation outside the original, and ultimately giving up with a huff, “The jewel of the elites is now the toy of the laity.” That same lament is echoing once again through the shrinking halls of the professional class, and it’s all just beginning. Culture will make the same mistakes made six hundred years ago, and “the” postmodern church will be a long time developing. Such is the lot of humanity.

Today, for example, the church is only active within the Great Horizontal as it uses the connectivity for mass marketing purposes. Getting the message out is the objective of modernity, while listening is the objective of postmodernity, and the church has never been big on the practice of listening. This is why people are beginning to turn away from the Emergent Movement. The books just aren’t selling as they once did. While I think it might end up in the “denomination” category, it’s producing new “stars” who bathe themselves in the prosperity of managing the new institution. With that has come the inevitable self-centeredness, scandal, and bullying, the traps of human nature that seem to follow those at the top of any human hierarchy. As it transforms from movement to institution, it becomes just another mechanism with which people who claim unique understanding can arrange their lives and the lives of those who choose to follow. The shame and humiliation that honest searchers feel today – because they’ve been duped once again – are testimonies to diminishing power of anyone who wishes a seat at the top of the heap.

Authority in anything postmodern must be spread out across the culture or subculture for these very reasons, and that’s where Christianity has completely missed it. It’s interesting to me, for example, that Christianity has been at the forefront of every communications breakthrough in history, except the World Wide Web. That’s because it is so different than anything that came before it. It rejects mass media, because it doesn’t present as a theatre. It’s not one-to-many; it’s many-to-many. We’re no longer captives of those who have the power to influence from a single location. Television advertising is shrinking, because it’s no longer as effective as it used to be. This will continue, and those – including modernist forms of Christianity – who cling to mass marketing as THE operative infrastructure representing their mission.

Welcome to the postmodern era. Now what are we going to do with all that connectivity?

The Emergent Movement’s big failure

dragonfly1Let us forever remember the words of Henry Adams, Chaos is the way of nature, but order is the dream of man.

As I’ve written over the last fifteen years, another word for chaos is change. Change is the norm for the twenty-first century, where equilibrium is a constantly moving target. Hence, we all must change, personally and professionally, in order to adapt, for the rules in a world of change are different from those in an ordered universe. The Internet is the backbone of postmodernity, the single most misunderstood and misapplied term of this century, and something about which I’ve been writing since the beginning. When Kevin Kelly wrote his seminal essay “We are the Web” in 2003, he wasn’t speaking metaphorically. We – the people – ARE the Web.

I used to write about media and proclaimed that the original sin of newspapers – the one that led to the downfall of the whole bloody institution – was reinventing themselves for the Web in their own image. This was a dreadful and costly mistake, for the Internet is not an infrastructure for mass marketing. All the terms associated with the newspaper industry come from processes and systems created for the printing and selling of newspapers to a mass, including the advertising that sustained the whole thing. It is both understandable and reasonable to assume this was the mission when forced to face the disruptive nature of the Web, but it missed what’s really been taking place: a dramatic retooling of the levers of commerce that vastly outperform the two fundamentals of mass marketing: reach and frequency. This is a message that newspapers rejected without serious consideration.

As I shift my focus from media to religion, I’m finding this same dynamic – identically – occurring within the institution of religion – Christianity in particular.

The last fifteen years have seen a ton of books by authors representing a movement that’s called the emerging church. “Emergers” are those changelings – such as dragonflies and butterflies – that live half their lives in one world and then “emerge,” transform to creatures who live in another. The movement is a response by a group of people to what they identify as the failings of “the church” in a postmodern world. The view that the church has failed extends far beyond this group, but Emergents (a subset of the emerging church), led by Brian McLaren, are the most popular and organized.

Their view, however, of postmodernism as a cultural era is badly limited, and this opens the door for the same error that newspapers made: you cannot reinvent church for the postmodern era by doing so in the modern era format. The Emergent Movement has planted church buildings and created new hierarchies, neither of which belong in the same sentence with “postmodern.” Despite attempts at adjusting theology and rules that better fit diverse interests in the twenty-first century, they lock themselves into a top-down paradigm designed to serve an archaic model of western culture. This will be its downfall. In fact, a well-known New York literary expert told me a few weeks ago that publishers are already backing away from these books, because they aren’t selling as well as they once did.

Does a nymph emerge from the water as a new nymph? No, it’s a different creature. Does a caterpillar emerge from its chrysalis as a new caterpillar? No, it’s a butterfly. Both of these emergers can actually fly! There’s nothing even remotely similar to their former state. “No one pours new wine into old wineskins.”

Many Christian writers will view the decline of the Emergent Movement simply as God “rejecting” heresy, but that is shallow and self-serving. There will be postmodern Christianity, but modernist Christianity – based on tradition – will continue also. One doesn’t “replace” the other; it simply modifies the old to better fit the culture. We’ll let culture figure out which one better fits.

So how does one reinvent church for postmodernity? It’s an important question that will take many years to better understand and adapt. It will likely happen long after I’m gone, but here are ten thoughts to begin the conversation:

  1. It will be horizontal, and God, the Holy Spirit will be our focus. This is, after all, the third branch of the Trinity and what Jesus departed to give us. It is a constant here, and a constant now, and it is spread out across the limitations of time and distance. The net facilitates this, just as it has disrupted or already transformed all of life in the twenty-first century.
  2. Community will be redefined. From the very beginning of the Christian church, assembling together has been geography-driven (“the church at Corinth,” etc.). The net overcomes geography, and communities of interest are springing up everywhere. In internet parlance, these are called “niche verticals,” and they are rewriting how and where we consume information. Facebook, for example, redefines community in many ways.
  3. Its mission will be “here and now” focused. The Holy Spirit isn’t confined to Sunday morning, and neither will be postmodern Christianity. This will require, for example, rethinking worship, for the chill bumps of Sunday morning contemporary worship are confined only to those in attendance. We’ll also have to rethink the Eucharist and how that can be administered to those gathered in a networked world.
  4. It will be participatory and self-governing. There can be no FORMAL hierarchical organizational structure, for it is the doorway to mischief and THE principle objection of modernity. It is sloppy thinking to believe that any postmodern “institution” can be top-down. God the Father still exists, but not as the be-all model for the church. This is why I always point to AA when people ask what a postmodern institution looks like. It shouldn’t function, according to traditional management theory, but it does.
  5. There will be no “rules;” a common need will drive us. Absent an enforcement authority, there can be no rules, but as noted above, that doesn’t necessarily mean chaos. The word chaos, as defined by modernist thinking, is abhorrent and cannot be permitted, but postmodernity sees past that and embraces the idea that common purpose and accompanying manifestos can keep us together.
  6. It will be collaborative and inclusive. No one can be dismissed based solely on those attributes that influence people coming together in the natural. It’s a lot harder for me to dismiss or dehumanize another person when I’m not sitting next to them, where they might “rub off” on me.
  7. It will be connected. It’s unlikely this connectivity will be universal, for there’s still that “birds of a feather” thing, even though the flocking together is no longer governed by vicinity. Obvious differences will still appear and have to be considered, but although people, like snowflakes, are all different, we’re still all human beings, and the ability to independently deal with our humanity will be our core motivator.
  8. Blogs will be more important than books. Think about it. If connectivity is our form, then the need for daily bread is part and parcel of that connection. Blogs were created by the network’s originators as the principal tool by which connected people (the Great Horizontal) pass along information. This innovation did away with the role of gatekeeper by displaying such information in reverse chronological order, putting new entries at the top of the distribution flow. The whole thing was designed for aggregation across a constantly moving timeline. Online information displays this way, including social media outlets. The postmodern church will be the same way.
  9. The task of members will be to be more human. This differs from the illusionary task of modernity’s church, which is to help people be more spiritual in order to gain a future goal. This, it turns out, is not the real challenge of Life, for the presence of the Holy Spirit assumes we are already spiritual, otherwise the connection would be impossible. The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, not down the road somewhere. This alters the command and control mechanism of the modernist church’s hierarchy, because it no longer solely possesses the ability to determine and grant one’s eternity. The Holy Spirit is perfectly capable of that in the here and now.
  10. It will be culturally disruptive. Christianity’s ability to impact culture has always been through forcibly herding citizens into the pen of its laws and order. What we see in our world today is all the evidence we need to question the morality of such, and this, too, is one of the energies empowering postmodernism. The lasting way to influence culture is from the inside-out, and that will be the righteous consequence of postmodern Christianity. Joining our connected community will be based on the attraction it represents, not the mass marketing of some special lifestyle, guarantee of prosperity, or entryway into the gates of heaven. It will be knowledge that we are able to thrive physically, emotionally, and intellectually within the chaos of constant change.

We cannot overlook the development of new technologies, such as virtual reality and holograms, tools which will naturally advance the network and demand our continued willingness to adapt to postmodernity. Moreover, we must always consider the Evolving User Paradigm, because sophistication in the use of the Web grows with every day that a person uses it.

Please look at the above and think about what you might be able to add to it. Don’t be like the newspapers that rejected change, because they were so enamored with their existing model that they couldn’t imagine it would ever fall apart.