Umberto Eco famously declared that Macs are Catholic and PCs are Protestant. That analogy can also be applied to the two social media giants shaping the 21st century
Some 20 years ago, in an article in the magazine L’Espresso, the famous Italian intellectual Umberto Eco launched the arresting thesis that the Mac was Catholic and the PC was Protestant.
His argument was that Apple was “cheerful, friendly, conciliatory. It tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach – if not the Kingdom of Heaven – the moment in which their document is printed. It is catechistic: the essence of revelation is dealt with via simple formulae and sumptuous icons. Everyone has a right to salvation.”
Microsoft’s DOS operating system, in contrast, was not user-friendly. Eco called it “Protestant, or even Calvinistic. It allows free interpretation of scripture, demands difficult personal decisions, imposes a subtle hermeneutics upon the user, and takes for granted the idea that not all can reach salvation. To make the system work you need to interpret the program yourself: a long way from the baroque community of revellers, the user is closed within the loneliness of his own inner torment.” (He also had a theory about Windows being Anglican, but I won’t bother you with that.)
Most people, it’s fair to say, carried on using their computers blissfully unaware of their Catholic or Protestant resonances. But some of us loved the notion and have been wondering how to revive it – if only to annoy liberal theologians who are busy trying to disguise crucial differences of doctrine.
If we’re going to update Eco’s insights, however, we need to move beyond computers: they’ve become too similar (and this is also true of the computers we refer to as mobile phones). For a digital illustration of respective theological worldviews, look instead at the two giants of social media – Twitter and Facebook. One is clearly Protestant and the other Catholic. Let me explain.
Twitter is a wonderful tool for those who wish to preach to their “followers”. The most famous tweeters have heaps of followers, and thus no real way of judging their audience or gauging its reaction. This disparate horde does not form a true community. I follow Richard Dawkins, for example, but I doubt I have anything in common with most of his 1.17 million followers. Dawkins mounts the Twitter pulpit to hand down lapidary truths. They are not there to be discussed, they are to be accepted. Moreover, those who disagree are fools and knaves or, as the professor’s followers love to call them, “religiots” – religious idiots. The tweets that come out of the Dawkins camp are mainly provocations and insults lobbed at the enemy: it’s not dialogue. They represent a faith that is unleavened by any appeal to reason and untempered by the usual rules of civility.
The polemicists of Twitter remind me of Martin Luther who, protected by the power of the German princes, hurled foul insults at the Pope. Many tweeters are anonymous, which allows them to indulge in relentless bullying.
This isn’t say that Twitter is entirely a bad thing. After all, it gives the whole world a voice, and every voice is equal, in that anyone has the freedom to publish whatever thought comes into their head. There is no formal hierarchy in Twitter, any more than there is the revivalist churches of the Evangelical world. Authority comes from your ability to create a cult around you. That’s easy if you’re famous in the first place; otherwise, you have to rely on your wits, your passion or the crowd-pleasing extremism of your message. No offence, but this is all very Protestant.
The noisiest people on Twitter hark back to the very worst of what Protestantism has to offer: protest, not reason; polemic, not dialogue; slogans rather than a theology that appeals to the careful balance between faith and reason that should reign in every human heart.
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