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‘When The Crash Finally Happens’

Are people giving up on the system? If so, will we need non-religious Benedict Options?

Take a look at this eye-opening piece from The Atlantic. The writer Sam Kriss went to Europe’s largest tech conference recently, and wrote a bleak report in which he said the people he saw there were in a frenzy to move forward, with no idea where they were going or why they — or any of us — are going there. Excerpt:

There are, broadly speaking, two different ways of thinking about technology. The first is strictly functional: You look at what a tool does, how it interacts with other tools and helps its user achieve their aims. A hammer drives in a nail; a virtual bartender is interacted with over Facebook Messenger. Web Summit is a grand exposition of all these new tools; here you can find the things that might be making all our tasks easier for decades to come.

In the second, broader, more materialist account, technology is seen as regulating relations between people. A hammer doesn’t just drive a nail, but builds a wooden house in which the distinct family unit can wall themselves off from the world; a virtual bartender keeps you in that house log after dark in a silent city full of humming unearthly-white screens. As Marx writes in The Poverty of Philosophy, “the hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord: the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist”; as Lewis Mumford argued, the machine isn’t so much an ordinary if complex object as it is a mode of organization; the first such mega-machines, in ancient Egypt, used human bodies as their working parts, and their products are still here today. In our own society the products are ephemeral, and its structure is one of increasing chaos. You can watch that chaos roiling through an exhibition center in Lisbon. Web Summit is a hyper-concentrated image of our entire world, and the panic and confusion that is to come.


For all the usual guff about dynamism and entrepreneurship, it’s clear that Web Summit isn’t really about showcasing new ideas or changing the way anyone does anything. The point is to attract buyouts or investment; this is how so much of the tech industry functions. (Social networks, for instance, generally make their money through investment or market flotation; they build up a vast userbase first, and defer the question of how to actually squeeze a profit out of them later.) The game isn’t to build anything that might last, but to secure just enough money to land unharmed when the crash finally happens.

Read that again: The game isn’t to build anything that might last, but to secure just enough money to land unharmed when the crash finally happens.

That is not just the tech world; it’s the world most of us live in, isn’t it?

The Benedict Option, the idea that I’ve been thinking about and working on and will soon publish a book about (pre-order here, if you are so inclined) is really a more hopeful variation on that line of Sam Kriss’s. It’s about building a Christianity and Christian culture that will last and carry us through the crash that is happening all around us. I received a nice e-mail from a prominent Protestant theologian the other night who had read an advance copy for review. He didn’t agree with everything in the book (few people will), but he said that the book is going to be very helpful to ordinary Christians in understanding the real-world issues at stake in the present moment, and urging them to think and act in the face of these challenges. In our e-mail exchange, he said that this is exactly the kind of book he hopes the people in his congregation will read and talk about, because it makes the kinds of things that the pastoral staff tries to convey quite clear, and urgent.

In other words, his hope and expectation is that the book will be a wake-up call for everyday Christians. Similarly, just this morning I got an e-mail from a reader who is the principal of a conservative Christian school in the American heartland. He said that:

Here in [deleted], everyone thinks it will be okay. I am convinced that we will save neither our children nor our society if we do not live counter-culturally.

I need help talking to my parents and convincing them/sharing with them about raising children into adults who love what is good, true, and beautiful.

The book is written for educators like that, and the parents of the students they educate (as well as the older students).

Now, I’m not bringing this up to sell books. I’m bringing this up in context of the Sam Kriss piece, specifically the impression he got from the big tech conference that people are just scrambling to get themselves into what they believe will be a safe space when it all comes crashing down.

Do you think that is generally true about our society and our civilization — that people, whether they are conscious of it or not, and operating in a sauve qui peut (save who you can) panic? To be perfectly clear about the Ben Op: it is based on the idea that Christianity itself within the West is facing this state of affairs, and that believing Christians, therefore, have to build new structures and reinforce old ones to last through the religious crash that is already happening. 

Sam Kriss’s line made me think of it like this: what if the religious crash Western Christianity is living through is simply the leading edge of a general civilizational crash (economic, political, etc.) that all kinds of people, even non-Christians and non-religious people, sense is coming? If we are headed into that kind of crash of the existing order, and the existing order of orders, then what role do you see the Benedict Option playing within that catastrophe? I get into that a little bit in The Benedict Option, when I say that Ben Op churches and communities need to practice hospitality to welcome refugees from what’s to come. But I had in mind circumstances like the ongoing collapse of the family, not a general economic or civilizational collapse.

On that front, did you see that the temperature at the North Pole now is 36 degrees above normal? Thirty-six degrees!:

Arctic scientists have warned that the increasingly rapid melting of the ice cap risks triggering 19 “tipping points” in the region that could have catastrophic consequences around the globe.

The Arctic Resilience Report found that the effects of Arctic warming could be felt as far away as the Indian Ocean, in a stark warning that changes in the region could cause uncontrollable climate change at a global level.

Temperatures in the Arctic are currently about 20C above what would be expected for the time of year, which scientists describe as “off the charts”. Sea ice is at the lowest extent ever recorded for the time of year.

“The warning signals are getting louder,” said Marcus Carson of the Stockholm Environment Institute and one of the lead authors of the report. “[These developments] also make the potential for triggering [tipping points] and feedback loops much larger.”

More information about what’s happening right now is at The Washington Post. It is freaking climate scientists out.

Now, re-reading Kriss’s piece, it’s possible that the “crash” he’s talking about is the collapse of what he sees as the current tech bubble. Still, I think his phrase is worth interpreting broadly, if only as a useful imaginative exercise. In my book, I talk about sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s concept of “liquid modernity”: the idea that the rate of change has accelerated so much that there is no time anymore for customs, ways of life, institutions, and so forth to settle, before things change again. It’s like trying to build a house and a village on melting Arctic ice.

Nevertheless, we have to try to do this somehow — that is, we have to build stable, meaningful, hopeful, resilient lives amid the chaos. The question we all have to face, whether or not we have any interest in the Benedict Option, is at what point — if ever — we accept that a major crash of some sort is inevitable, and we shift our focus from trying to prevent it, and instead work on how to survive it and built structures that promote resiliency. I talk about this regarding Christian faith and culture, but people focused on global warming, economics, politics, and other areas would be wise to have the same conversations, it seems to me. As ever, here’s the key Alasdair MacIntyre quote:

It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead often not recognizing fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness.

Your thoughts are welcome.

UPDATE: A reader who is a big deal in the tech industry writes:

I’ve been to a lot of tech trade shows (and trade shows in general).  They are all pretty much like this, and probably were like this in the Middle Ages when farmers brought their cattle to market. Kriss is way off base.

He makes these incredibly broad statements about trade shows not actually helping companies make money, and therefore implicitly is saying that not just some specific company but that the massive number of companies that go to lots of these trade shows every year for decades are just trowing money away, when this is clearly a subject he know nothing about.

He says that there is a tech bubble and a crash coming, which is like saying there is a sunshine bubble and the sun is going to set.  High-growth markets have pricing instability.  You’ll notice that we’ve had a lot of “tech bubble crashes” over the past 40 years, but it continues to be the sector of the economy that keeps growing.

He says that the economic model for these companies is not really to make any money, but just to sell themselves to somebody else, without confronting that he thinks that all of the buyers of these companies are therefore total suckers — again, not one particular company doing one particular acquisition, but the whole acquisition market over decades.

He says that social networks just try to get a bunch of people using them, then think about how to squeeze a profit out of them, without any knowledge of why the economics of a business with network effects might make this rational.

He’s says that various company taglines don’t really mean anything, when he doesn’t grapple with the challenge that it’s usually hard to explain what a piece of technology does in 8 words or less, and that he’s never bothered to learn any of the background knowledge to even get a hint at what they are trying to say.

Like Kriss (and many, many other people), I don’t enjoy conferences.  But then again I don’t enjoy a lot of the stuff you have to do to make a business make money.  Neither do most people in most businesses.  That’s why they have to pay you money to go to work every day.

All Kriss is doing is wandering around a conference that he really doesn’t understand — at all — and pointing out that he really finds these people and what they do baffling, without ever asking himself why it is he might be the one who is baffled.



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