The most immediate adversary
On the twenty-fourth of May 1844, Professor Samuel F. B. Morse tapped out a four-word message before a hushed gathering in the chambers of the United States Supreme Court in Washington: “WHAT GOD HATH WROUGHT.” It was the first telegram sent over Morse’s invention, the telegraph. Yet for all the fanfare, people like Henry David Thoreau predicted a cost in conquering “the first enemy.” What enemy? What cost?
Samuel Morse grew up in the nineteenth century characterized as an industrial revolution, a transportation revolution, or a market revolution. In 1817 for example it took nineteen days over back-breaking rutted roads to get from New York City to Cincinnati. But Oxford historian Daniel Walker Howe believes the nineteenth century was primarily a “communications revolution.”1 This is because for centuries, the most immediate adversary – “the first enemy” – was distance.2 It took months and even years to get messages from one place to another. People hated distance and sought to conquer it.
The Morse Code opened the floodgates. It promised “a unified American discourse… but at a considerable cost,” said media theorist Neil Postman.3 Henry David Thoreau described the price tag: “We are in a great haste to construct a telegraph from Maine to Texas. But Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”4 Distance may have been a downer but it enjoyed one advantage over immediacy – it provided breathing room for discernment. I remember for example when the US mail was delivered to a metal box at the end of our driveway and it sat there until you were good and ready to retrieve it. We then had to go some distance to get it. I remember when – you might not believe this – nobody answered the phone if no one was home (no answering machine). And no one had a mobile phone. Yes, it’s scary but true. Somehow, someway, my parents got along fine without knowing where all four kids were every moment. And we survived into adulthood. It’s a miracle.
Today we have obliterated distance. You can draw a straight line from the telegraph to Treos. This summer for example I’ve talked for free with my daughter in Rwanda and son in London. Distance? What distance? Cost? What cost? Oh, there is a cost but we can’t see it up close. We’re being pumped with “information (at a very rapid rate) which answered no question we had asked… or leads to any meaningful action or reflection or analysis,” said Postman.5 We’re on the receiving end of an information fire hose – and no one knows they’re drowning. In fact, Librarian of Congress James Billington believes it’s worse than that. “Our society is basically motion without memory, which of course, is one of the clinical definitions of insanity.”6 Sane people devote some time to distance.
Distance is an ancient discipline called solitude. “In solitude we find the psychic distance, the perspective from which we can see, in light of eternity, the created things that trap, worry, and oppress us,” writes Dallas Willard.7 It is solitude that “enables us to return to society as free persons.”8 Jesus regularly distanced himself. Without creating an appropriate distance from the daily deluge, Henry David Thoreau said our existence “withers from a lack of a hidden life. Conversation degenerates into mere gossip and those we meet can only talk what they heard from someone else.”9
New technologies promise to do something for us yet we are often unaware of what they will undo said Neil Postman.10 “A man in Maine and a man in Texas could converse, but not about anything either of them knew or cared very much about. The telegraph may have made the country into “one neighborhood,” but it was a peculiar one.”11 What’s peculiar is that Blackberry, Treo, and Facebook have become modern day iron lungs. You’d have to be insane to willingly live in an iron lung.
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? asked T. S. Eliot. Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? Wisdom is seeing life through a wide-angle lens. A wide-angle lens doesn’t work up close. This summer might be a good opportunity to begin the weaning from always needing to be “in touch.” The truth is, people who are mostly in touch are mostly out of touch. How about loving “the first enemy” instead? Jesus said to love your enemies. What he really meant was echoed by Abraham Lincoln, that you destroy an enemy when you make that person your friend. Distance might have been inconvenient but it was never an enemy. When you live with your big nose pressed against the small screen all the time that’s hard to imagine – and change.
“The fact of the matter is this: the essence of morality is to tell you that in some circumstances you must do what you don’t want to do,” advises Dr. Dallas Willard.12 Turn off your phone when you’re with friends. Check emails only once a day. I’m not suggesting that we become Luddites.13 I am reminding us “in quietness and trust is your strength” (Isaiah 30:15). You can’t find quietness in a life of continual communication. Why not love distance and make it more of your friend?
1 Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 5.
2 This term originated with the French historian Fernand Braudel in The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, trans. Sian Reynolds (London, UK: Fontana, 1976), p. 355.
3 Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 1985), p. 65.
4 “The Bigelow Papers,” Poetical Works of James Russell Lowell, ed. Marjorie Kaufman (Boston, MA: 1978), p. 18; Henry David Thoreau, Walden intro. Norman Holmes Pearson (New York, NY: 1964), p. 42.
5 Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 1985), pp. 68-69.
6 Joel Achenbach, “The Too-Much-Information Age,”
Washington Post, March 12, 1999, p. A01.
7 Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1988), p. 161.
8 Willard, Spirit, p. 161.
9 Willard, Spirit, p. 162.
10 Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, (New York: Random House, 1993), p.5
11 Postman, Amusing, p. 67.
13 The Luddites were a social movement of English textile workers in the early 1800s who protested against technologial advancements produced by the Industrial Revolution. The movement was named after a mythical leader, Ned Ludd.