I Heart Your Icon

Dave Humphrey recently wrote a post on the possibility of expressing love online. His question, essentially, was this: can humans genuinely express love (deep friendship, appreciation) to one another over the medium of digital communication?

Reflecting on his post reminded me of some statements made by Hans Urs Von Balthasar in Love Alone is Credible, written long before the days of email and Twitter:

In order to gain an insight into humanity, the individual must encounter an other. The human being exists only in relation to others; he truly is only in the reciprocity of an I and Thou. [Think: Martin Buber] The otherness of the other is a fundamental fact that he must acknowledge if there is to be any possibility of forming a harmonious community in the commonality of human nature… we must recognize that the actual individual human being is not merely the key to nature as a whole, but also the sole object of philosophy: philosophy is in the end nothing other than anthropology. It therefore follows that “the new philosophy is founded on the truth of love…Where love is lacking, there can be no truth.” Only in the love of the other as other, wherein I passes wholly beyond itself into the sphere of the Thou, can we find the way from man to mankind.

Or, in briefer synopsis, Balthasar recaps:

Man sustains himself—indeed, he first comes to himself—in an encounter. When one man meets another face to face, truth comes to pass, the depths of human existence come to light in spontaneously, in freedom and in grace.

This interplay between love and truth was recently alluded to in beautiful, poetic conciseness by my friend Luke Hill in a short piece entitled On Truth and Knowing:

Truth must be known, not as facts are known, but as lovers are known, partially, fleetingly, uncertainly, overwhelmingly, undeniably, impossibly. It can be known only with a knowing that never defines or delineates or delimits, that never assures or guarantees or promises. It can be known only so far as we are in it. This is why we can never have the truth, why we can only ever be in the truth, and even this is beyond all guarantee.

I wonder if human, face-to-face interaction is itself the greatest practice of truth in which we can engage. Not a linguistic or philosophical truth, nor a truth governed by the properties of mere human premonition (like our arguments of objectivity), but a kind of truth that is, as Luke Hill muses, something that we can only be in, but never own for ourselves.

Returning to Humphrey’s contemplation on whether love can be expressed online, I believe it is worth noting that we can never be “in” digital communion with other people. (Digital communication, yes; digital communion, no.)

Even in person — even when face-to-face with Thou — my pride, prejudice and presuppositions can tragically objectify Thou into an It. The internet paradoxically amplifies my own human insufficiency of perspective: on the internet, the Other is always an It; and it can never actually be the Thou that it merely represents. In essence, we all turn into avatars of ourselves and the only thing we can genuinely love of the other is the icon of Thou, but the icon itself is itself an It. On the internet, we can only love what images and words represent, but not the images and words themselves, for they are nothing but vectors of values.

Intuitively we would say that the greatest expressions of love occur when the masks are diminished; but the internet is itself a continual masking of pixels and language. In the real world we do the same thing, often projecting inauthentic metaphors of our own character into our conversations and ways of being with one another. However, when face-to-face, beyond the veil of pixels and the emotional firewall of written language, the self meets another self in a human way that transcends the fiber optics of the words you are reading now.

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Focus: Controlling the Inputs of Social Media

As recently discussed in the post about intentionality on Twitter, the engines of social media do precisely the opposite of turning distractions off. Rather, they fuel a nicotine-like addiction to a splattering of “de-focusing” stimulants. Every Tweet, every status update, is like another carcinogen propagating the erosion of your focused attention.

The Theoretical Framework

We sometimes tend to think that focus is the product or result of hard work. “I had a really productive day—I was very focused.” Upon further reflection, however, it is obvious that focus is the engine that pulls the train of productivity, not the caboose. The pursuit of productivity is ultimately first a pursuit of focus.

Put another way: focus is concerned with input, not output. It is not about turning one particular thing “on” but about turning other distractions off.

The first word processors, like the typewriters before them, could only do one thing at a time. If multitasking platforms were the first abstraction from sequential process, then social media takes the framework of multitasking and essentially randomizes it. The networked computer now creates an environment exactly opposite to the typewriter: it feels like playing paintball in an appliance store…there are too many useful devices to use all at once, and too many distractions attacking from virtually every angle.

Now it’s time for a great experiment. With the thinking above as my theoretical basis, I have tried applying the following practical steps to my computing practices:

Focused Browsing

Removed all the tabs, icons and buttons as possible — stripped everything down to the actual “thing” that I am trying to focus on. “Switching jobs” requires a mental gear shift, and should therefore require an adequate and intentional process to initiate, not just “one click.” From this perspective, many features (i.e. “buttons”) described as “convenient” are actually just unnecessary distractions that will tempt mental derailment every time they catch your eye. Here’s my idea: Treat the address bar like the command prompt; and type-command one task at a time, sans a bunch of flashy little icons screaming for massage from that little, wandering mouse-point.

Focused Social Media

Removed all “two way” social media applications from my mobile devices. For me this meant deleting the Facebook app altogether, and only using Twitter “notepads” like Birdhouse and Tweetr. With these apps I can “Tweet out,” but cannot read my Twitter streams on the go.

To “read” Twitter, I use ListiMonkey to feed only certain, focused streams to my email inbox, from there I can command and sort all incoming data at intentional intervals during the day. Likewise, to track my @ mentions I created a search generated from search.twitter.com, which I burn through FeedBurner to deliver directly to my inbox as well.

To interact on Facebook, I have essentially removed everything from my profile except for the option to send direct messages, which I have forwarded to my general email inbox as well.


The result: all in-coming connections are channeled to one place, my email inbox. This, again, is all based on the premise that focus is about controlling my inputs. For a borderline ADHD kid like me, my capacity to focus on the present is directly linked to the intentionality with which I turn off other distractions. Now I can put content “out” at anytime, but have a highly regulated process for allowing content “in.” This, I propose, is the best framework for establishing a “focused” approach to digital, online work.

And now begins the experiment. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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