When the pandemic separated us from our sacred spaces like the church or other communal places, Zoom promised connection. However, Zoom—as a medium of education and relationship—prevents us from truly connecting because of technology’s nature to divide, distract, and isolate.
But when it came to the subject of letters, Theuth said, ‘But this study, King Thamus, will make the Egyptians wiser and improve their memory; what I have discovered is an elixir of memory and wisdom.’ Thamus replied, ‘[…] [Y]our invention will produce forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it, through lack of practice at using their memory, as through reliance on writing they are reminded from outside by alien marks, not from within, themselves by themselves. So you have discovered an elixir not of memory but of reminding. To your students you give an appearance of wisdom, not the reality of it; thanks to you, they will hear many things without being taught them… and they will be difficult to get along with because they have acquired the appearance of wisdom instead of wisdom itself.’
—Plato, Phaedrus, lines 274e5-275a5
Sacred spaces remind us that existence is more extensive than our daily lives. They point us toward new ways of knowing and existing. The wild desert monk may have no need for the sacred space. For him, the world’s seams tear and reveal the naked glory of God. But for most of us, the sacred space is necessary to orient ourselves toward hidden worlds. According to the famed media ecologist Neil Postman, a church building—or even a gymnasium converted into a church—is a sacred space because it is “designed as a place of ritual enactment.” A church building guides us by providing us symbols and rules for living in the sacred space. In a church, the congregants understand when to rise, when to kneel, when to pray, and when and how to worship. These rules help to create a place that is distinct from the profane. However, when technology claims to place the sacred in the profane, it deceives us. The place’s activities make the place either sacred or profane. Thus, an image of the Sistine Chapel on our phones does not create veneration in the same way as the actual chapel does.
The pandemic has separated us from our sacred spaces. If a sacred space contains ritual activity and behavior, even a baseball game can be called a sacred space. At least until recently, National Anthem demanded that we stood; the announcement of our team’s starting lineup demanded that we cheer; the opposing team’s lineup demanded that we jeer. We sang “Take me out to the ballgame” during the seventh inning stretch and celebrated, at least in Wisconsin, our favorite sausage as it races other sausages around the field. Sacred spaces connect us with others and a world richer and more profound than our daily lives through gossamer strands of tradition and communal activity. But the lockdowns snipped those threads, leaving us isolated and dangling from our egos, no longer a part of collective stories we tell ourselves about how we fit in the world.
Technology, however, promises a solution. Our phones connect us through Zoom and FaceTime, video messages, photos, text messages, and phone calls. As always, technology presents a false idol. It promises to improve upon tradition, but inevitably transforms and then destroys it. Technology does not intend this destruction, but the destruction is necessary, for a person does not pour new wine into old wineskins. We can see this destruction in education and how the idol of Zoom challenged the god of the classroom and changed education into an isolating, fractured, antisocial event.
The example of television can help explain how and why this happened. Postman, in Amusing Ourselves to Death, showed that when religious people attempted to join the sacred to the televised, entertainment won. We might say that Nietzsche declared God dead, but only television could kill him. Preachers attempted to conduct serious religious programming on television. However, television prevented religious services from being serious and transformed faith into entertainment, television’s preferred model. To engage the viewer, the television preacher had to play to the audience, work around commercial breaks, make heavy use of music to influence moods, and, above all, entertain. Dante placed treacherous sinners in the lowest level of hell. If it were divine, television would consign boring programming to those icy depths, for tedium is the greatest treachery against the medium.
Postman gave two reasons for this triumph of the medium over the message. First, television could not consecrate the physical space where the services were being held and, thus, could not compel behavior. Television enters our profane areas: our bedrooms, kitchens, and living rooms. These profane spaces, where we live and eat and breathe, tell us how to live, not television. I, for one, have no issue climbing onto the couch and falling asleep in front of a Netflix special. At church, I would at least have the dignity to pretend to be praying. Thus, the physical environment shapes our behavior. Television cannot shape our physical environment and must be entertaining enough to engage viewers in their living quarters. Church tells us when to rise, kneel, pray, and worship, and in that togetherness, the sacred is formed. In our living room, in front of the screen, we cannot have that experience because I cannot be compelled to do anything other than what is natural to the room except being persuaded through diversion.
Second, said Postman, the psychological connection to entertainment makes it difficult for television to teach and guide. The best television amuses, and the worst television does not. Even educational television is more entertainment than education. The magic of the Magic School Bus is not what they learn, but the characters, conflicts, and dangers they face along the way. The awareness that more entertainment is a mere channel change (or, in these days, app change) away forces religious figures to entertain rather than to inform and persuade. After all, if Ms. Frizzle spent 24 minutes lecturing instead of taking students on a daring trip into the human bowels, the magic would be gone.
Thus, television, as a medium, promises to educate but actually entertains. In the same way, it creates entertainment that pretends to be serious religion. This does not mean that serious education or serious religion cannot be done on television, just that the medium resists the language of seriousness and seriousness will never be the dominant language. Similarly, the promise of Zoom or any videoconferencing software is that of connection, but the actual language is of isolation and distraction.
For one, an organic conversation on Zoom is nearly impossible with two people and essentially impossible with more than two. Our attempts, as a family, to have conversations with extended family have ultimately led to kids mugging at the camera, random screeches, and an inability to hear anything. When more than one person participates in a call, no one is quite sure who is talking to whom due to a lack of eye contact and verbal cues, leading either to a comedy of starts and stops and apologies or clear rules of engagement that determine who speaks and when. Either case annihilates the sense of togetherness by destroying the organic give-and-take of conversation. Zoom school, specifically, promised connection by providing in-person education at a distance. Educators leaned on Zoom as an alternative to the traditional classroom during the height of the pandemic. In fact, by April 2020, over 90,000 schools were using Zoom to conduct classes. But the technology changed education; as with television, education could not compete with the medium’s nature to divide, distract, and isolate.
The traditional classroom provides students and teachers a sacred space. Posters on the wall, like paper stained-glass windows, construct narratives about the room and who students should be. Like a Bunsen burner, the subject matters’ physical manifestations communicate the classes’ content and the students’ necessary mindsets. Educational theorists encourage teachers to carefully construct their classroom spaces to increase engagement and build a sense of community. One educator I know speaks proudly of her students knowing what to expect in her class: The students learned to put their cell phones away, complete their bell ringer as she completed attendance, and behave during the subsequent lesson. Her sacred ritual served her classroom’s holy ends.
However, Zoom school destroys that space though promising an alternative space. Like the television preacher’s sermons, the Zoom teacher’s classes extend into the students’ profane rooms. The space determines the behavior, and the teacher loses authority to the space. While teaching Zoom classes, I, for one, saw behavior that would have been strange in the classroom but typical in the students “profane” spaces: students lounging in beds while dully staring at the screen, a student whose roommate started an impromptu electronic dance party complete with flashing lights, and other students, muted on Zoom but not in real life, who engaged in entire conversations with someone offscreen and showed me, with their silent laughter, that my class could not compete for entertainment. Zoom school, with its preference for the profane, destroyed the classroom space.
That being said, we might say Zoom school is part of a cultural evolution. Once, students dressed up to attend school. Then, they came to class in their pajamas. Now, they attend school in their pajamas while in bed. The final step seems to be skipping school altogether and remaining asleep. Thus, Zoom has the effect of isolating us in our own worlds. We no longer participate in the learning process together; instead, we join at will in separate places with distinct environments, no longer sharing learning together. In a sacred place, we share experiences and stories; the air is thick with meaning. In isolated profane spaces, there is only my space and my purpose.
Indeed, technology challenges the traditional classroom—and relationships, in general—another way. Like television, the physical technology Zoom uses is so saturated with memories of distraction that users can hardly avoid checking notifications, answering emails or texts, or surfing the web while purportedly connecting with each other. Not only does our psychology, through regular usage, encourage us to be distracted, but the medium encourages it: So long as we are staring at the screen, we appear to be paying attention to the person on the other side without actually paying attention.
The classroom, however, limits the students to a specific topic within a particular unit in a broad field. A child might study adverbs as part of a unit on sentence structure in an English course. A science class might explore hydrogen bonds in a unit on chemical bonds in a chemistry course. Teachers do not teach all things at all times; they study some things, and those things reveal a larger, hitherto hidden, world. The limitations create a structure of unveiling. The same occurs in conversation in the physical world, an act replete with ritual and roles and, thus, sacred in its own way. Suppose we choose to be distracted by our phones. In that case, the other person at least becomes aware of the distraction, which discourages it or, at least, allows the other person to escape a wasted conversation. But Zoom saves us from the ignominy of knowing we are being ignored and the effort of paying attention; hence, the medium encourages disengagement rather than engagement and division rather than connection.
Death can be described as a final destruction of boundaries, as we are freed from the trappings of the physical body. Boundaries, therefore, are a necessary condition for life. But the internet and internet-connected devices are infinite horizons and encourage boundless experience. Ulysses (in Tennyson’s poem of the same name) described experience as “an arch wherethrough / Gleams that untraveled world whose margin fades / Forever and forever when I move.” Because life demands boundaries, Dante tells us that Ulysses drowned in the western seas before he reached Achilles. When finite humans sail toward the infinite horizon, they cannot help but drown. Likewise, Zoom—as a medium of education and relationship—prevents us from connecting because the technology encourages us to sail across our device’s infinite seas.
Like television or the invention of writing, Zoom makes a promise that it cannot uphold. Those that wish to be monks will be monks wherever they are, but sacred spaces exist to provide a connective tissue for the rest of us. Some instructors have found that Zoom school has been highly effective for the monkish students, for whom any rock can be turned into educational bread. Some people have found it a way to maintain a semblance of connection during this diseased year. However, for many of us, a rock is nothing more than a rock that is either left alone or thrown through a stain-glass window. Zoom promises connection but denies the capacity for organic conversation; it allows us to see others’ eyes without seeing what those eyes see; it promises shared moments without shared spaces.
Like all new technology, Zoom failed to uphold its promise of connection.
Writing promised memory and destroyed it, though it created a new form of philosophy through the recording of extended complex thought and eternal life through words. We will find out, one day, what Zoom may provide to educators and individuals. But it will not be what it promised. Zoom has destroyed traditional sacred spaces; we will see what new spaces it builds.
For this essay, I heavily leaned into Neil Postman’s thinking on both the sacred and the relationship between technology and society. Furthermore, I do not mean to be critical of educators that embraced Zoom as an educational platform. After all, I am one of them. If necessity is the mother of invention, COVID-19 was its excitable aunt, sweeping the children into the house (rather than out of it) and necessitating the creation of new activities to keep the house from being burned down. At times, we do what we must to survive. However, as we near the pandemic’s end, we ought to consider the path we are on and just what this means for the future.
For Further Reading:
Postman, Neil. (1993). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology (1st Vintage Books ed). Vintage Books.
Postman, N. (1996). The end of education: Redefining the value of school (1. Vintage Books ed). Vintage Books.
Postman, N. (2006). Amusing ourselves to death: Public discourse in the age of show business (20th anniversary ed). Penguin Books.
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