In the January 2017 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture (the best damn written and thought-provoking monthly magazine one will find between the Pacific and the Atlantic), editor Chilton Williamson, Jr. writes, “My own opinion is that what turned this election year inside out, the greatest single contributor to the chaotic political atmosphere, are digital media, from the largest and most expensive systems down to the individual iPhones carried by an estimated 94 million Americans, or one quarter of the population” (6). The gist of the particular editorial blurb from which that quotation has been taken is not political but sociological: technology fuels our incessant but vapid desire to communicate, not the converse of that statement. In this case, it may very well have determined an election. (Key voter: the meme.)
Mr. Williamson refers to the thought of the Southern Agrarians, and, by implication, their bucky magisterial work I’ll Take My Stand, in which they rail against the overriding preoccupation with means without any regard to ends. In tracing in order to critique the philosophy of progress, Lyle H. Lanier writes in my 1962 edition, “The industrial technology is an important agency through which these desiderata [metaphysical rendering of communism] could be realized, for it facilitates commerce and exchange of ideas; it breaks down feudal intellectual barriers, class distinctions and traditions” (emphasis his, 138). One need not go the whole socially-stratified hog with Mr. Lanier to admit that technology, primarily Internet-oriented technology, has facilitated the exchange of ideas among peoples of different classes and abilities and stations in life to a degree unprecedented. Given that anybody can communicate, everybody, it would seem, does communicate whether or not he/she has something worthwhile to say. Granted, people, being the chatty things that they are, have never let a lack of content stand in the way of a statement or conversation. In fact, among the most charming conversations one can have are those that are truly about nothing, understanding, as Mr. O’Connor would remind us, that there is often mystery behind the manners. (Let the reader be made to understand.) However, what we now have is a truly universal mechanism (Can one properly call the Internet a “mechanism”?) through which to broadcast our opinions, and now that we can, we must have opinions about any and every matter and event that comes across our TV, computer, and *smart* phone screens.
I am fully aware of the irony of an occasional blogger fustigating the Internet. This reminds me of one of Walker Percy’s essays in which he scathingly writes (as if he wrote any other way) about the counter-revolutionary who will rail against modernity, yet be the first one to make use of penicillin if his well being requires it. Still, just because I have to use a car does not mean that I cannot criticize a frenetic and destructive way of life that is centered upon cars, not people. I also am reminded of something that another Southern Agrarian Allen Tate once wrote. In a collection of his work entitled Essays of Four Decades, he writes, “Communication that is not also communion is incomplete. We use communication; we participate in communion” (emphasis his, 9). Technology has multiplied the means by which we can communicate, and we take full advantage of this. Perhaps, ultimately, for the better. Yet, mere communication will not satisfy any more than satire or dank memes do. What we truly desire is communion with one another and with something greater than ourselves, a communion that nourishes and inspires–not a communication that only amuses us to death.