“How did I get here?”
It’s an apt question for many occasions, from GPS-assisted directions to deciding whether to marry, move, or change careers. In this article, I want to consider this question in an especially broad sense: how does the contemporary mind arrange input to arrive at decisions? What destination does this type of mind tend to send us toward? And finally, are there other approaches we could take in making decisions, from simple choices to the longer-lasting decisions that collectively form the bedrock of society?
From Porous to Buffered
In The Secular Age, Charles Taylor, an emeritus professor at McGill University in Montreal, does a masterful and meticulous job tracing the journey from the pre-modern mind to the one we use today in the developed world. One of the many contrasts he observes is of a porous versus a buffered view of the world. Essentially, the mind of hundreds of years ago was more permeable, or porous, to the outside world while today’s buffered mind is more detached from its surroundings.
As an analogy, consider our residential dwellings. The longhouse of indigenous cultures, with its one-room open floor plan, is porous. The extended family, with its multiple generations, shared life together under one roof, with little division between spaces for cooking, socializing, or sleeping. Our modern dwellings, on the other hand, are buffered. Single-family homes segregate the family unit with walls dividing the dwelling space; extended family often live a great distance away.
Our intellectual forebears in Europe lived in a world that was inherently social, like the longhouse. One implication of this is that they lived with no separation of sacred and secular. In times past, if one person rebelled, it was believed that everyone would be affected since all were intertwined. Moreover, the minds of porous individuals did not allow for an internal mental retreat from the world; the idea that they could do so would never have occurred to them. In contrast, those of us with modern buffered minds believe it is possible to disengage from everything outside of ourselves. Our interactions with our physical and social surroundings therefore affect us quite differently. The buffered mind defines meaning and purpose within itself while the porous mind looks for these underlying existential concepts outside of itself through the cosmos and society.
The Consequences of Buffering
Our buffered mindsets create legions of negative consequences. At the economic level, we can compartmentalize our own wealth accumulation by comparing ourselves to peers instead of a broader cross-section of society. We segregate from those not on our economic level, blinding us to the concentration of wealth at the top. This in turn imperils us all because our collective success depends on narrowing the gap between the haves and have-nots.i At the social level, we isolate around increasingly tailored entertainment options. This makes it more and more attractive to remain home or online instead of seeking to spend that time with an organized group, reducing our civic participation.ii At the political level, buffered minds tend to create individuals who are more prone to isolation and rootlessness. Such lonely and disconnected citizens are much more likely to be manipulated by those with extreme views.iii
At the political level, buffered minds tend to create individuals who are more prone to isolation and rootlessness. Such lonely and disconnected citizens are much more likely to be manipulated by those with extreme views.
At a more practical level, our buffered minds allow us to opt out of the less convenient parts of human relationships. Imagine the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan in our current context. Would you or I interrupt our agenda for a day to tend to a complete stranger? And not just tend to him, but take him to a hospital and pay for his care since he was uninsured? I think the vast majority of us, including myself, wouldn’t do it. At the less extreme end of social engagement, we each probably have a friend or co-worker who needs encouragement, but who make us want to insulate ourselves from their problems. Instead, we avoid the chance to provide hope and meaning to others and invest in our own spiritual growth.
Individuals with buffered minds are also more likely to make choices with high social costs without stopping to weigh how their decisions impact the rest of us. When I ask friends why they don’t get vaccinated, they cite things like personal risk, unethical use of fetal tissue, freedom of choice, and government overreach. I am not trying to weigh those concerns here, but I’ve never heard my circle of contacts discuss what their individual choices mean for the rest of us or explain how their actions are loving toward their neighbors. This is only one example of many where our overindulgence in personal autonomy has damaged our ability to have compassion for others.
A Question of Balance
This isn’t a call for medieval nostalgiaiv—a phrase that elicits a double-take. Our predecessors suffered from Byzantine problems associated with oppressive institutions, superstition, and illiteracy, just to name a few. At one point in church doctrine, married couples could only have sex for procreation and any copulation for pleasure was sinful.v For centuries, immersing the body in water was thought to be deadly; even King Louis XIV rarely bathed because of this belief.vi I’m not suggesting we return to the porous mind that was predominant in the Middle Ages.
Instead, I’m highlighting the porous aspects of our minds from which we’ve run too far. The pendulum needs to swing back. Hopefully, it will settle at the sort of golden mean Aristotle described, in which we find the ideal space between the extremes of buffered and porous. Such a position recognizes both that we can’t endure the costs of disengagement and compartmentalization and that we can’t be connected to others to a point of exhaustion. I recognize that balance is hard to find, but Jesus Christ may be the ideal example here. He oscillated between immersion with crowds, intimate discipleship with a close group, and periods of contemplation with his heavenly Father where he could refresh before jumping back into the fray.
The pendulum needs to swing back. Hopefully, it will settle at the sort of golden mean Aristotle described, in which we find the ideal space between the extremes of buffered and porous.
But the pursuit of the golden mean is more than a midpoint between a binary choice: it’s far more nuanced than that. Our embodied human interactions, from individual relationships to community involvement, will fail to function if we view them through a mind that buffers us from our family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and society, instead of recognizing that we are inseparable.
Social Media and the Modern Porous Mind
There is at least one important facet of modern society that is porous, and that warns us what it looks like when the pendulum swings too far in the other direction. I am speaking of the internet in general and social media in particular.
We take in information at an alarming rate without conscious awareness, not realizing that we become what we behold.
This information overload informs us about too many problems, most of which we can’t address. Faced with this onslaught, we instinctively compartmentalize to function day-to-day. In other words, in our often-porous modern society, our response is to set up subconscious buffers. This feelings-as-facts mindset may be a natural response when navigating conflicting information at the speed of cyberspace.vii Social media, marketed as a vehicle to connect us, actually drives us into tribalism and reinforces our biases.viii,ix It drives us-versus-them thinking because the most engaging content solidifies rather than challenges our thinking.x It also can lead to something called the firehouse effect, so named after the observation that firefighters who spend lots of time together sometimes begin to believe crazy things. Social media is like this firehouse: because it connects a narrow set of contacts who do not challenge each others’ thinking, it creates isolated groups with increasingly extreme views.xi
This problem only worsens with time, as our information ingestion affects our personal relationships in an escalatory spiral. The more we are exposed to virtual relationships and information overload, the more our willingness to engage in the outside world suffers—and our empathy along with it. The more we feel alienated by our physical relationships and society, the more likely we are to retreat online to a custom-fit reality—that is, a buffered one—that is easier to manage and tailor to our desires.
Ideas for Recalibrating Our Minds
We need to buffer our minds when it comes to online relationships and information ingestion; we also need to make the fortifications in our physical communities more porous.
That is, of course, easier said than done. There are, however, ways we can begin the process. One option is to pursue slow information such as periodicals, journals, and books. These paper-based mediums often have more depth in content and research compared to the myriad sources of junk food content that give sugar highs with little nutritional value. There is also the bonus of time to digest information without the pressures to react to hundreds to thousands of emotionally charged online patrons.
The more we feel alienated by our physical relationships and society, the more likely we are to retreat online to a custom-fit reality—that is, a buffered one—that is easier to manage and tailor to our desires.
One critic of communications technology, Jaron Lanier, advocates abandoning social media altogether because of its harm to our souls, our rationality, and our relationships.xii Another critic turned off his Wi-Fi on the weekends to invest in face-to-face time with family and friends.xiii One journalist tried a television fast for a month and discovered that her patience and relationships got a boost while her stress was lowered.xiv
Another is to share what you think with others outside your filter bubble to hear their takes. You could also try on someone else’s views for a change. A professor at Boston College makes the atheist student argue from a theistic position and vice versa to ensure that each side understands what the other believes.xv
When it comes to eroding the physical buffers in our modern world, one effective means is to give more. While financial donations that simply take a few clicks are often worthwhile, it would be even more effective for our purposes to volunteer your time to help those in need. Participate in local organizations to increase the chance that your community will have the caretakers it needs to steward what many of us take for granted.
The Cost of Continuing As We Are
We need to recalibrate not only to promote our individual human flourishing, but to improve upon what we’ve inherited. José Ortega y Gasset warned in Revolt of the Masses that twentieth century Western generations were in danger of fumbling the hard-earned gift of ordered civilization. Instead of working to uphold and strengthen this gift, we incentivize indulgence while disconnecting from the obligations necessary to uphold our hard-fought rights. When given free rein, our natural tendency to pursue our own personal preferences threatens the larger edifice that enables our excesses and inattentiveness in the first place. In other words, it’s unstable. Unless we see that we have skin in the game, our multi-generational struggle to maintain and advance our freedoms can come crashing down.
Look around and see where you are. Now ask yourself how you arrived at this destination. Did a buffered or porous mindset lead you here? Be more porous with your relationships and community and more buffered with your information absorption and see how you and your surroundings change for the better.
Header image courtesy Suzanne Tucker / Shutterstock
i Reich, Robert; Aftershock: The Next Economy & America’s Future
ii Putnam, Robert; Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community
iii Arendt, Hannah; The Origins of Totalitarianism
iv Mull, Amanda; What did Medieval Peasants Know?
v Stone, Geoffrey; Sex and the Constitution: Sex, Religion, and Law from America’s Origins to the Twenty-First Century
vii Haidt, Jonathan & Lukianoff, Greg; The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure
viii Turkle, Sherry; Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other
ix Lanier, Jaron; Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now
x Haidt, Jonathan & Lukianoff, Greg; The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure Powers, William; Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age
xi Taleb, Nicolas Nassim; Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets
xii Lanier, Jaron; Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now
xiii Powers, William; Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age
xv Kreeft, Peter for Portable Professor; Questions of Faith: The Philosophy of Religion