The debate around “knowing”

So what do we think of TIME’s decision to name Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg their Man of the Year? We, the citizens of Facebook, I mean — citizens of the third largest nation in the world, if 500 million accounts counted as a nation. But also we as in all of us, whether we’re on Facebook or not, who know how profoundly media and technology have shifted, who have adapted our communication and connection habits, whether we wanted to or not. And we as in all of us who know that notions of private and public are being re-shaped, again.

There’s plenty of chatter about the angles of this – from sneers that TIME isn’t exactly the authority it used to be on what’s important (which is why I asked what “we” all think, if the we over at Facebook can just pause from collecting tractors for our farms for a moment, or taking a test to discover what dead celebrity we might have been in another life) to SNL’s comics setting up WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange as bitter over Zuckerberg getting TIME’s honour (and this landing in newspapers and on computer screens everywhere as news!).

Of the list of TIME candidates (Julian Assange, the Tea Party, Afghan president Hami Karzai, and the Chilean miners), my pick would have been Julian Assange.  Not because I find him more likable (it’s not about liking — Hitler was once was Man of the Year, and Stalin was twice), but because I think the WikiLeak events and the impulses behind them will reverberate through global politics and life more significantly than Facebook has or will.

But whether Zuckerberg or Assange, whether social media’s “sharing” or the WikiLeaks insistence on “transparency,” both confront us with the same thing, as Doug Saunders noted in a helpful article at The Globe and Mail. They’re on a historical continuum of debate and action over public versus private, over the ideal of “total openness.”

I’m not inclined to summarize that debate or even offer my opinions on where individuals or societies should land. (I am on Facebook, so I shouldn’t get too snobbish about that.) But, I’m going to veer off  in closing this post to one place that seems almost untouched by the current discussion. I’m speaking of the institutional church, and — since I know it best — my particular Mennonite denomination. (If you’re not a participant in any of these, you don’t need to read on.) And it strikes me that though there have been, in the past, lively conversations about how one balances the work of “the press” (the need to know) and the work of  boards and head offices (the need to not reveal too much of the internal) within a community where love and trust are core values, we’re not talking about it much anymore. This debate often arises around negative goings-on, though it shouldn’t be seen as pertaining only to those.

If that debate is still active, it’s not reaching my ears. My denomination is on Facebook, has a website, and a magazine, and there are good stories and also news releases carried in all of them. But the MB Herald, still our national body’s main reporting medium, is not allowed at meetings of the executive board or board of faith and life, currently the main loci of the denomination’s decision-making and direction. Generally, I think it’s safe to say, we’ve settled for much greater distance between the constituency and our leadership structures than ever before.

So I’m wondering, how does information, disclosure, transparency, watching – the interplay of public and private – look in the context of church? Do our thoughts/opinions about TIME’s man of the year and the cultural shifts that Zuckerberg (or Assange) are presiding over have any relevance or application here? I need to think about this a lot more, but would welcome thoughts or links to the subject (in reference to a church context) that I may be missing.

9 thoughts on “The debate around “knowing”

  1. Thanks, Dora! Yes, our society has a tendency toward disclosure and information – but perhaps it’s mostly superficial or trivial information. I know that my Facebook friends are making gingerbread cookies… but I have no clue how their marriage or family finances are doing! So, maybe “Amusing Ourselves to Death” was right – important facts and details are becoming more and more hidden/inaccessible/irrelevant. Perhaps that’s why we in the church are comfortable with the divide between constituency and leadership structures – as long as leaders keep us amused with trivial information, we don’t ask the tough questions!!

    • Hi Laura, great to see you here! I know these questions are dear to both of us! Many good wishes to you as you finish up your mat leave and then go back as MBH editor to navigate the waters. — I think you’re right, that while there’s more of one thing, there’s less of another. As Ryan says, your last sentence is a sobering one.

  2. I really enjoyed this. Both Zuckerberg and Assange have to a degree rewritten the rules of how we relate and how information gets shared. I don’t know if either qualify as the person of the year, but I think that is not the point. For the most part, I endorse the direction of fewer secrets, but I am not convinced that theft and hacking (as in Assange) and data mining (as in the case of Facebook) justifies the end.

    With respect to the church, I always thought (when we were living in India) that the published accounts and biographies of missionary activities were often boring, and less than truthful in that they failed to tell so many parts of the really interesting human stories.

    • Thanks for your comments, Al. I agree with you on fewer secrets, as well as concerns about the means. I think that diplomacy requires a skillful blending of public face versus private observation/knowledge, so the revelations of WikiLeaks have bothered me from that perspective. But in discussing this with a younger person recently, I discovered from her a real appreciation for the potential of such revelations to expose abuses of power. Much as we in our time delighted in the “leaks” of the Watergate investigation. — I know what you mean about those missionary stories. When readers are also one’s donors, the censor hovers between the words.

  3. Thanks for this, Dora. Really thought-provoking… I think Laura has nailed it—the social media revolution overwhelmingly conditions us toward superficiality and distractedness. Wasn’t it Postman who echoed McLuhan’s “the medium is the message?” If the medium is a fire hydrant blast of uncontrollable volumes and varieties of information, we increasingly seem unable/unwilling to sift through it with discernment and purpose. Instead, we skim the surface of this ocean of information, contenting ourselves with status updates, celebrity gossip, sports scores, and 140 character spurts of triviality.

    Re: the MB Church, Laura’s last sentence is a sobering one indeed… There are little signs of attempts at broader engagement—I think of the BC Pastors Study day on the atonement in November that was made available on a live stream to anyone who wanted to participate from anywhere in the province—but overall I’m not sure the divide is shrinking.

    • Thanks for your comments, Ryan. — The fire hydrant blast analogy is certainly apt. — I’m glad to hear of the live stream option for the pastors’ study day; I hadn’t known about that. The formal news release of the event didn’t reveal much, but I’ve been cobbling together a somewhat fuller picture from Brad’s post at the Forum, and also from Jay’s report in the recent MBH. I think that there’s a reluctance, in our reporting, to identify personalities with positions — perhaps it comes out of respect for them and for the process — but IMO it’s the mix of ideas/positions and the particular people who carry them that makes matters as ostensibly boring as missionary work or discussions of atonement both interesting and potentially engaging for the wider community. But it feels counter-intuitive to report that way, and I certainly wouldn’t want to imply that it’s not complex.

      • Yes, well put. In the BC situation around the atonement, I sometimes wonder if our reluctance to actually speak more candidly and directly about who is saying what and what it means is dragging things out unnecessarily and unhelpfully. This “debate” has been going on for a few years now, but you still routinely hear of people at these get-togethers that have no idea what all the fuss is about. This is probably due both to the way in which these things are officially presented, as well as a general unwillingness on the part of individuals to take the time to understand (which gets back to Laura’s point above…).

  4. Great thoughts as usual, Dora. I really appreciated the Saunders article. I do think that transparency changes behaviour for the best, his Cuban prison example notwithstanding. In the early days of the Internet porn would pop up all the time. Now, I never see it even when doing long images searches for sermon backgrounds. We are all aware that what looked like private viewing- isn’t. We know we are being watched. [Of course the internet is still full of porn, maybe more than ever, but now it must be intentionally hunted down.]
    Person of the Year- I’d vote for Assange. You don’t like the Assanges of the world if they are goring your ox, but unless we have them secrecy wins. Frankly, we need an MB Assange. Hey, Laura, Karla, J 🙂
    In MB world, I think one of the things that is going on is a generational shift. I remember arguing that the MHB must refuse to yield on its journalistic mission- that it served the MB constituency not the Conference. It seems to me that fundamental the importance [as opposed to a great conversation piece] of that distinction is now the domain of a few of us oldsters.
    I am however hopeful that the next generation will get it. There has never been as much opportunity to open up debate and information, as we have today.

    • Happy new year to you, James, and thanks so much for your comment. There’s so much in it for further conversation… I appreciate your strong word for transparency, and also the reminder that ultimately the MBH serves the constituency, and by that route, the conference. It’s a complicated relationship, for the medium is strongly “embedded,” as it also needs to be. And yet there has to be distance, and will be different kinds of communication. Earlier, as you say, we had Harold Jantz and Don Ratzlaff in particular, I think, articulating and pushing on the distinctions. — I do have a lot of confidence in the next generation, not only in their writing skills and interest, but in figuring out a way to work at the journalistic mission.
      One of the things I’m really excited about, though I think it’s still finding its wings, is the potential of the internet to forward a significant participation in community events like conferences, be that by live streaming or through blog-type reports. We first experimented with the latter at a PCO in 2009 and then the Mennonite World Conference and most recently it was used to good effect, I think, at RIM and Celebration 2010. My struggle in some initial attempts at such posts was to find the right “voice” for such reporting and I’m not sure I found it then or that it’s quite been found yet. The temptation is for the posting participants to provide their “happy thoughts” or to mediate sermons from an event instead of stepping back to the edge of their particular assignment event and summarizing not just what was said but the dynamics in the room, some of the key responses, and so on. The kind of journalism that, metaphorically, is scribbling notes and then rushing to the telephone or telegraph wire to transfer the “news,” to get the scoop. But maybe that’s a thoroughly old-fashioned view of what such reporting can do for us! Every new method of communication takes figuring out, but at any rate, I see this as having real potential. —
      I’m still not sure of the path to more transparent, revealing information from Ex. Bd. and BFL meetings. The mag’s request for presence was turned down. Should it be pursued again? Or, perhaps it’s not, in fact, the MBH’s job?

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