Image 19th c cafe
Are these readers each in their own little world, or in a common world?
By Reinhold Völkel (1873–1938) [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons

Although I am still thinking about the problem of the ineffectiveness of human-divine communication, it has occurred to me that our own non-divine communication processes are not always remarkably more effective, and that we are at present facing not exactly similar but remarkably similar challenges in human to human communication. Maybe the challenges are really no greater than they used to be. But they do seem to be different. In the past, the big barriers to communication included geographic isolation, language barriers, and cultural difference. Today, we can communicate in real time with people thousands of miles away; Google can translate for us; and a person might be able to make a case that globalization is eroding cultural difference, at least for some classes of humanity. And yet, in the United States, people can be next door neighbors, speaking “the same” official language, say, English, and sharing significant elements of macro-culture, and still find themselves living in entirely different communicative worlds.

Yesterday, noticing this sent me off on an excursion into ancient, or maybe pre-, history. I once worked as a secretary in the Telecommunications Department of Michigan State University – “once” referring to the late 70s. We were high-level early adopters by having a remote line printer in the TC offices that could communicate by modem with the campus mainframe. In those days, my boss was Dr. Thomas Baldwin, the chairperson of the Mass Media Ph.D. Program, and one of his research undertakings during that time was something everyone called the “media environment project.” The hypothesis was that people with different media environments would … be significantly different in various ways; in particular, they would use media differently, or they would use different media altogether. In retrospect, it might have been something of a fishing expedition. However, from the vantage point of the present, that research looks like it was way ahead of its time. The basic insight – that the media channels people use shape the news they get and, presumably, the attitudes they form and the decisions they make on the basis of that news – was sound; it just needed the kind of media environment that was going to make it evident to come into being. Forty years later, we don’t need a study to tell us that there are distinct media environments and that they make a difference. In the age of narrow-casting and the internet and the role of social networking platforms in the dissemination of media content, which weren’t even on the horizon then, tribal media environments are our new normal.

If that study had been undertaken today, it might have looked a lot like The Wall Street Journal’s Red Feed Blue Feed project, which vividly suggests that “different media environments lead to different substantive content and thereby the experience of living in different worlds.”

The human-human communications problem this “different worlds” situation generates is similar, if not identical, to the divine-human communication problem. The problem in both cases is that the basis for communication, which is something like “sufficient commonality,” may not be present, and even where there is something like minimally sufficient commonality, other requirements for successful communication, like interest, motivation, good will, and maybe some other conditions, still may not exist. The structure of this problem also seems similar to the structure of the Christian evangelical problem, the problem of “connecting with the unchurched.” In that scenario, there are a bunch of people “out there” that “you” might want to communicate with, but who don’t know you, give two cents about you, whose interests and desires and ordinary activities and so on are not yours, etc. etc.

[It strikes me that God’s way of approaching this problem, or so Christians have been saying for … ever, is for God to come live in the human world, to get into the situation of human life, to make the effort to communicate from within that situation, but with insight from “outside” it. At least – that’s one way of thinking about the doctrine of incarnation. Whether a similar approach could be adopted by the next door neighbors who live in parallel universes feels like an interesting, but potentially scary, question.]