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The Secular Internet

I was reading Harvey Cox’s The Secular City the other day (secular in the sense of “contemporary”, “of the current era” rather than as in any sense of soulless and dry) and it struck me that what he writes about “city” is often even more true for “internet”. Obviously the internet didn’t exist in 1956 when the original lectures were developed but sometimes going back is just what you need to do to go forward. One section, “Anonymity”, in particular, was useful for me to read.

The gist is that people who grew up very rurally (as I did) can have a hard time adapting to the city life, and internet life. He describes two kinds of relationships: one where you know someone thoroughly and another where someone is just a faceless nameless replacable radar blip.

When you expect everyone to be wholly familiar, as small-town dwellers do, you keep getting burned and overwhelmed and killed because that’s not possible, that doesn’t scale. I was nodding along here as he was referring to the Rilke and Kafka novels that I love and identify with. But we don’t want the brutal head-biting 4chan internet either. Maybe a lot of people on there are small-town dwellers that went a bit crazy.

He proposes a middle category:

Perhaps between the poles of the two types of human relationship he has elaborated we could designate a third. It would include all those public relationships we so enjoy in the city but which we do not allow to develop into private ones. These contacts can be decidedly human even though they remain somewhat distant. We like and enjoy these people, but as Jane Jacobs says, we “don’t want them in our hair, and they don’t want us in theirs either.”