The Wisdom of Millennials
Nathan Schneider is a scholar-in-residence of media studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. He is the author of God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. He is a regular columnist for Vice magazine and America, the national Catholic weekly. He is currently co-editing a book on democratic business models for online platforms.
March 23, 2016
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
MR. NATHAN SCHNEIDER: I hope that we can learn to see that dignity that’s in all of us, that divinity that comes when we organize together, when we meet each other face-to-face, and even sometimes through a chat room — how to tell those stories. How to hold up those moments where we find our agency and our ability to make a change. That’s what I’m looking for. And that’s what I hope, more than anything, to contribute.
MS. KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: There is a kind of brilliance that flashes up in early adulthood: an ability to see the world whole. My guest today, Nathan Schneider, has been able to articulate and sustain that far-seeing eye of young adulthood. He’s also a gifted writer, chronicling the world he and his compatriots are helping to make — spiritual, technological, communal. Could the growing number of non-religious young people be a force for the renewal of spiritual traditions? How might the internet of the future look utterly different from the internet of now? And what did the Occupy movement really tap into, and what has it become below the radar? With Nathan Schneider, we explore the wisdom of a millennial generation public intellectual on the emerging fabric of human identity.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
MS. TIPPETT: I spoke with Nathan Schneider in 2014 before a live audience at the outdoor Hall of Philosophy of the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York.
MS. TIPPETT: When I set out to write the introduction to Nathan, I discovered his introduction of himself on his website or blog. And Nathan Schneider’s self-introduction is both poetic and deeply informative. It’s going to tell you as much as I could have in different terms.
“I’m Nathan Schneider, a writer and editor based in Brooklyn. I published a book each on God and the Occupy movement. Writing articles for a variety of publications, from Harpers, The Nation, and the Chronicle of Higher Education to The New Inquiry and The Catholic Worker keeps my notebooks filled. Editing the online religion magazine, Killing the Buddha, keeps me odd.”
“Waging Nonviolence, a publication I co-founded, keeps me up on struggles for justice around the world. And being a contributing editor at the Social Science Research Council’s online forum, The Immanent Frame, keeps me in touch with the Academy.” So glad that you made this trip. So, I want to start out — I’m not sure about this — in what year and where were you born?
MR. SCHNEIDER: I was born in 1984, and had the chance to experience a really rich slice of American religious diversity and pluralism in that upbringing. That was in Arlington, Virginia, inside the Beltway, in the midst of the political circus, but in a very rich home, with a Jewish father and a mother who’d grown up in the Protestant tradition. And both of them, together, were searchers. And I got to go along with that in the midst of my childhood.
MS. TIPPETT: You write about your parents in a wonderful way, and I sense that they weren’t just spiritual seekers, but spiritual experimenters. And I have to say, you — after millennia in which most human beings in most cultures inherited religious identity almost like they inherited hair color and skin color, you are this new phenomenon of the 21st century, in this culture, certainly, where you were invited to create your spiritual life yourself.
MR. SCHNEIDER: Yeah, and I’ve been puzzling with the uniqueness of that, the feeling of uniqueness. As I was growing up, I think I felt that there was something kind of strange about this upbringing and this circumstance. One thing that I noticed as I got older, especially, really, as I started studying religion in a more formal context, I started realizing, actually, this weirdness that I encountered is everywhere. And I’m not alone in that.
And then, actually, that this is not new to our time, that when we look back at the past, that people were grappling with many of these questions, as well. That globalization is not new, and the interchange of ideas among traditions is not new, and the kinds of struggles that we’re going through are ones that many of the great thinkers and experimenters, as you put it, of our religious traditions, who we kind of ossify and contain and put into boxes and try to own and control — we’re actually, in many cases, working out very similar circumstances.
MS. TIPPETT: And you went on this quest, looking both across history at that ancient search, that ancient inquiry, into these big existential questions. And then you write, “One almost-gone afternoon in November, as I stepped out into what sun remained in the day, a proof for the existence of God took hold of me.” Tell us a little bit about the nature of that proof.
MR. SCHNEIDER: Oh, gosh. Well, I try to avoid explaining what that experience was because I have no idea, still. But, see, what had happened was that — around the time I was 17 or 18, this funny thing happened in the midst of this very interesting upbringing that I found myself drawn into the Catholic church. I was baptized and confirmed, and entered the church at age 18 at the Easter Vigil.
And this was after a year of really particularly furious searching on my own part that began when I encountered a monastery in Virginia that my mother had actually suggested I go to, a Catholic Trappist monastery. And it lit something up in me at that time. And as I was arriving at college, a very intellectually stimulating place, an intellectually oriented place, I wanted to intellectually orient myself around this thing that was happening. And I spent a lot of the next ten years exploring that word, “proof,” trying to come to terms with this experience that was happening in me, often in many cases, in relation to that word.
MS. TIPPETT: One thing — you looked back at one of the classic seekers of a proof, St. Anselm. And one of the observations you made as you grappled with that, and with the whole way this question has been taken up across time, is that what was really in that approach to a proof was not the question of whether God exists as much as how we think about God and how we think about one another.
MR. SCHNEIDER: Yes. Absolutely. That was something that was so striking to me. This was a time when the New Atheists were just getting going, this was right after 9/11 — those were the things that were happening in the world around me. So this question of “Does God exist? Is religion real? Is it something that — what is its relationship to violence?” The stakes of these questions were very, very high. And they were framed in terms of that question, “Does God exist?” “Is there anything ‘there, there’?” Right? And as I started diving into the tradition of what I thought would be people trying to answer that question, I actually realized that that was not so much what was on their minds.
And the real power of a lot of these arguments of these so-called proofs, Anselm’s being a particularly vital one, is in the kind of relationship that they’re forging, the way in which they express God in and through an account of relationship between people. A lot of the philosophical language that Anselm uses I realized was also in a letter that he had written to a friend describing his admiration and affection for this friend. This language that is always presented in these textbooks as being a kind of yes-or-no, cut-and-dry logical statement was, for him, a statement of affection. It was still a statement of logic, but you can’t separate that logic from that affection.
And so in the course of entering this question of proof, wanting that yes-or-no answer for myself, I had to come to terms with the fact that the way I’d been framing the question, the way the question was being framed around me, was not the only way to do it. And maybe it wasn’t the best way.
MS. TIPPETT: Or maybe even the most interesting way. So your generation that — this age right now has given rise to this phenomenon that’s been defined by opinion polls called the “Nones,” N-O-N-E-S. Again, it comes from multiple-choice question, and “Nones” refers to people who say that they have no religious affiliation, are not ready to put that label on themselves. It’s something like 20 percent of Americans now, and one third of adults under 30, are religious — self-described religiously unaffiliated.
I’ve really been looking forward to this discussion with you because I want to ask you about that. Because it seems to me that what you’re describing, which is trying to figure out what these traditions are about at their heart, and across time and space, and in their best expression. And often not being religiously affiliated because you don’t see the traditions living up to what they’re capable of. I experience a lot of spiritual searching, a lot of theological curiosity, and certainly a lot of ethical passion. So tell me how you think about the Nones and what’s going on there.
MR. SCHNEIDER: Well, it’s a really vexing formulation. First of all, it’s impossible to pronounce without also spelling, which is a problem.
MS. TIPPETT: I would say it’s not the ones on the bus. That’s what I’d say.
MR. SCHNEIDER: I find myself doing that a lot. And I think it requires us to turn our heads around a little bit. On the one hand, one thing I experienced when I became a Roman Catholic, drawn in by this medieval contemplative tradition, as well as this tradition of courageous social witness exemplified by the Catholic Worker and many other examples throughout history and around the world — I came into Catholic churches and realized that many of the people who were going to those churches, they didn’t really know about that stuff. They didn’t know their own tradition. They were kind of keeping on, in many cases, certainly not all, but with a kind of inertia.
On the other hand, people I’ve found outside of these spaces, of these churches, were intensely interested in these questions, had very good questions that they were trying to think through and work through. They didn’t feel like they could really commit themselves to these institutions, but they were curious, and they were looking for something. And it was so striking to me to — fast-forward to book two, which, in my head, fits together with book one in these funny ways …
MS. TIPPETT: Well, I want to name the titles, because they’re great titles. The first — book one is God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet, and book two is Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse.
MR. SCHNEIDER: Right. Thank you for the footnote. [laughs] As I was saying, “God book” and “Occupy book,” we can call them that.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, OK, the “God” and the “Occupy book.”
MR. SCHNEIDER: When young people in this secular social political movement started turning their attention to churches, and sometimes, actually, for instance, protesting in front of churches, it wasn’t that they were protesting that this was a church, or the things that a church would claim to believe. What they were actually saying was, “Church, act like a church.” And these were people who — many of whom had never really been a part of a church community or another kind of religious community, or if they had, they’d had some experience of alienation. But the general identity was a kind of — that of the Nones.
But it was so striking to me that that was the cry. “Act like a church.” And I still keep on my — the background screen on my little cell phone, while I’m pulling up my Facebook and my Twitter and all that stuff, is a picture of what happened after Hurricane Sandy, when those Occupiers filled churches with rescue supplies through a process of organization, not managed by the state or by corporations.
MS. TIPPETT: And that was what became — what they called “Occupy Sandy.”
MR. SCHNEIDER: Occupy Sandy, yes.
MS. TIPPETT: But actually I don’t think that was quite as much in the headlines or covered as much. I’m not sure people necessarily know that Occupy Sandy was something that grew out of Occupy Wall Street.
MR. SCHNEIDER: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: Why don’t you tell that story a little bit?
MR. SCHNEIDER: Well, absolutely. So, when Hurricane Sandy hit New York City and surrounding regions, immediately, a small group of people who had been involved in Occupy Wall Street who knew each other through that protest experience decided that they were going to organize some kind of relief effort. They had to do something. And so they did. And they happened to be — had the first website up, the first place on the ground where people could deliver supplies, in churches. And they ended up becoming a major part of the early phases of the relief effort, which is still ongoing and is still tremendously unequal.
But it was really interesting to see, in the course of that process, the way in which this group of people, many of whom did not have comfortable relationships with traditional religious institutions, work with religious folks, work with these religious communities. On the one hand, see the power of those communities, see the resilience of those communities in a way that their movement had not been able to build for itself. And on the other hand, to see what they could draw from the ideas of those traditions. They started talking about jubilee. They started recognizing that there was something real in this religious language that connected with the frustrations that they were feeling with the society around them.
[music: “Lise” by Bonobo-Trio]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today with writer and millennial generation public intellectual Nathan Schneider. We spoke in a live event in the outdoor Hall of Philosophy at the Chautauqua Institution.
MS. TIPPETT: So sometimes I think about Bonhoeffer’s phrase “religionless Christianity,” which he didn’t really live to develop. He wrote in his letters and papers from prison, where he died — the Nazi prison where he died. But, he, in his era, and a very different set of circumstances, but in his circumstances, where the church was completely co-opted by a corrupt state, he came to believe that the essential truths and the essential impulses of Christianity would survive even in the absence of religion.
And, sometimes, I feel like what you’re describing is, whether you agree with the politics of Occupy or not, that passion for social justice, which has been carried across time in a lot of our religious institutions, alive and vibrant, and actually making a practical difference in the lives of these young people who define themselves outside the walls of these institutions.
MR. SCHNEIDER: Yeah, it’s such a tantalizing passage that so many people ever since have been trying to unpack. And it’s also in Barth, it’s something that comes up in a lot of modern religious thought. Something of it in Hegel, as well. Many others. There was the Death of God phenomenon in the 1960s. It sold more issues of Time magazine than any cover ever had when they asked “Is God Dead?” in red type on black background. There’s something tantalizing about that question. And “Is the church really necessary?” “Are these communities really necessary?” My feeling about it — and we can’t know what Bonhoeffer thought — but I think that these communities are necessary. And I think these institutions are necessary.
MS. TIPPETT: That traditions are.
MR. SCHNEIDER: Traditions, communities, institutions. But they are necessary only to the extent, of course, to which they’re willing to undertake that paradox that I think is at the heart of any religious tradition of constant renewal alongside respect for tradition. Of a space for a prophetic voice in the midst of the kind of priestly cohesion. That’s a tension that you see in so many traditions. It’s something that we all confront in so many different ways. And I think that’s a challenge that the Nones amongst us are facing right now. I think there isn’t a sense of satisfaction with being a None. It’s isolating.
MS. TIPPETT: It’s not an ending point. Right. So what this makes me wonder is if the Nones — and, again, I just find language so awful in so many ways — are actually like monastics in the early centuries of Christianity, these forces for spiritual renewal that actually collected outside the institutions. If the Nones, in fact, the new non-religious, may be the forces that will renew religion in this century, if it is to be renewed.
MR. SCHNEIDER: That’s a really — I think an important connection to draw. The monastic movement formed, in Christianity, at least, right about the moment when Christianity became the religion of empire. It formed in response to the institutionalization of the faith, of this recognition that there has to be something else. There’s another part here that we’re missing when we’re just doing the institution. Institutions will always fail us. And the institution, they felt, was failing them. And I think that’s something that every generation has to confront in new ways.
MS. TIPPETT: We’ve talked about diversity a lot this week at Chautauqua. And there’s this funny thing I have to tell all of you. So, I wanted to put together as diverse a program as possible for these five days. And it has been in so many ways. And I only notice at the very end that — I didn’t pay any attention to religious diversity, OK? And we have four Roman Catholics.
Four Roman Catholics and one Methodist, and the biggest common denominator from my life of that is that my Southern-Baptist grandfather would say none of you are going to heaven.
But on the other hand, any of you who’ve been here all week, you could not have a more diverse four Catholics, right? A Brazilian intellectual, a Mexican-American writer, an African-American Catholic, grew up in Alabama, and Nathan, who grew up and adopted Catholicism as an adult. So that’s really, really been fun unpacking this word “diversity.” You also talk about the confrontation with diversity and the difficulty of it as something that was very challenging inside the Occupy movement.
MR. SCHNEIDER: Yeah, I think it was really kind of crucial to the undoing of the community that formed there. There was a tremendous amount of violence happening around the Occupation that formed in New York City and the many, many occupations in cities all around the country and around the world. But the internal tension, especially in a lot of the big-city Occupations in the U.S., ended up being about race, and about class. About the things that divide us that we don’t know how to talk about. “We are the 99 percent” was this rallying cry, but it turned out that we are the 99 percent in a lot of different ways.
And some of us have been more impacted by the kinds of economic inequality and inequity that the movement was so concerned about in far graver ways for longer periods of time, through generations. And as people in the movement came in, the educational process that I would see happen again and again was that, suddenly, people were realizing, as they stripped away the usual political discourse — no one was talking about candidates, nobody was talking about Herman Cain’s sexual foibles, which everyone was talking about at the time — people started recognizing the pain that so many in our society are carrying that we don’t have language to talk about. And because the movement had not initially been built around that pain, built around leadership by people who are most impacted, it ended up marginalizing a lot of those people over and over again. And that was deeply frustrating and deeply hurtful.
It’s something that we see in movements a lot of the time. That the injustices in the outside world replicate themselves inside any community where we try to constitute ourselves and start over again. But it was deeply puzzling and deeply troubling to many people, and, I think, for the better, changed a lot of lives. It sent a lot of those people off into places where they can support those who are most vulnerable, where they can connect the local with the global in a way that they hadn’t thought to before.
MS. TIPPETT: And I think that’s part of the story that hasn’t really been told. It’s certainly true of the Civil Rights Movement, that it spawned these other movements. Because those injustices were in the movement themselves, became so apparent and so problematic. Now, certainly, we have a very short sense of time in this culture. So it looks now like Occupy failed and went away, right? I think that’s how many people think about it. So it’s really interesting to hear you talk about that legacy that still lives on among us in quiet ways.
MR. SCHNEIDER: Well, one of the great privileges for me while I was working on covering what was happening with the Occupy movement was I was also — I had this responsibility to edit columns that were being written for this website, wagingnonviolence.org, by a pair of Civil Rights veterans. And one of them had been working with SNCC. One of them had been marching with King. These were people who were closely involved in the organizing work of that movement and many movements since.
And I’d be talking to them and say, the media’s saying this, everybody’s coming up with the — “Where are the demands?” “Who are the leaders?” All of these usual questions. “This is chaotic.” “It doesn’t make any sense.” Everyone was saying this. What do I do? Are they right? And these folks would say, “Yeah, that’s what we were dealing with, too. It’s OK. It’s how these things go. Just roll with it.” And that kind of recognition was so powerful to me, and, also, I think, so missing. It’s such a reminder of the amnesia that we give ourselves about our social movements.
We tell our history in the stories of great men. And that’s such a tiny, tiny, tiny slice of what really moves — what has moved our history, and we forget what these movements have looked like. And we forget how to build strong ones in the future.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. I did a conversation at the end of last year which included Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, who was one of the leaders of the Mississippi Freedom Summers. She was about 19. And it ended up being a lesson for all us that, yeah, we remember — now, 50 years on, we have this triumphal memory of the March on Washington, Selma to Montgomery. And just these mundane realities were so important where I said to her — she’d written about going to Mississippi, and I said, “I noticed you were writing about the same period in which the March on Washington happened, and you didn’t mention it.” She said, “The March on Washington? My parents wouldn’t let me go to the March on Washington.”
Right? So we have this idea now that they all knew what they were creating, and that ultimately there would be this triumphant memory of it. And they didn’t. And these kids had all the resistance that kids now have from their parents. Anyway, that’s kind of an aside. But it is important, because if we don’t remember the human complexity and messiness, then we tend, I think, to overestimate how hard it feels for us to get things moving.
MR. SCHNEIDER: Absolutely. Absolutely. And we saw this so much in the course of the disappointment and frustration that the Occupy experience led so many idealistic people toward. And I think a lot of the reason for that was — actually fell on the storytellers. A lot of these people were working with the story that was told, for instance, about the Tahrir Square uprising in Egypt. They really, in many cases, saw themselves not as Americans rising up as another kind of Tea Party, but as actually joining a global movement that was happening around the world.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. It was very striking to me. You wrote, “I had been watching revolutions from a distance since the beginning of the year.”
MR. SCHNEIDER: Absolutely. And one thing that I was noticing about the way those stories were being told was that it was just about the flicker that happens on the streets for three weeks. It was just about the flash, about the spectacle. And, again, through my work with Waging Nonviolence, I had been in touch with organizers who had been working with Egyptian activists for years and years and years. And had been developing a lot of the networks out of which that uprising came. So when I saw the CNN reports, I thought, well, that’s not really the story. There’s another drama here. There’s a drama of long and patient organizing, and failing, and failing, and failing, seemingly over and over again.
There was another story of what was going on in the midst of it, about what unions were doing, about ways in which the texture of Egyptian society was shifting at that moment. And then ways, of course, in which it would flip back. And I think, because of the way we told that story, it set up a lot of young people for a kind of disappointment. And then it set up a lot of other people to say, where’s your Martin Luther King coming from the sky to tell you what to do? It was a very strange set of expectations that we’ve been prepared for by the way we tell our stories. And I think it’s very important for those of us who tell stories to break through that.
[music: “Mima” by Helios]
MS. TIPPETT: You can listen again and share this conversation with Nathan Schneider through our website, onbeing.org. I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.
[music: “Mima” by Helios]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today, in a live conversation with the millennial generation public intellectual Nathan Schneider. He’s the author of two books: God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. We spoke in the outdoor Hall of Philosophy at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York, in a week exploring the “American Consciousness.”
MS. TIPPETT: So let’s talk for a minute about technology. I like this language I’ve been hearing lately of “digital natives,” that people of new, emerging generations have grown up and are native. And I think that’s helpful, because I think the rest of us spend a lot of our time aware that we walked onto this frontier in mid-life, and we may never catch up. And we are trying to learn the language, and just be oriented. And that’s the best we can do. But digital natives are going to be differently hard-wired, and have different instincts and intuitions. And I wonder what your — if you have a sense of that, of how technology is forming and reforming human nature, capacity.
MR. SCHNEIDER: I think that term, “digital native,” is troubling.
MS. TIPPETT: Do you?
MR. SCHNEIDER: Yeah. It’s a funny word. There is something true about it. There’s definitely something true about it, and there’s definitely ways in which this experience is shaping us. But I think it’s also important to recognize what kind of natives are being produced by the kind of technology that we are, I think, in many cases, consuming. In some ways it’s analogous to the shift from a generation that knew how to repair cars to a generation dealing with cars that can’t really be repaired, except by computer and expert and garage, right?
You have to send your car back to the manufacturer in order to get it — even the tiniest thing, and they just replace the part rather than actually fixing it. I think something like that is going on with a lot of the technology we interact with. You see people growing up knowing how to use this stuff the way that it’s been set up to use, but they don’t necessarily have a whole lot of knowledge about what’s going on back there. Or what other kinds of choices could have been made in designing those things.
Why is it that we’re using Facebook instead of something that we control, that we can make decisions about privacy for? Why is it that we’re stuck, in many cases, using operating systems that we have to update all the time in order to get the latest software, and we pay for every round of updates, rather than being able to use community-driven open-source software?
MS. TIPPETT: You started out studying computer science, right? In college?
MR. SCHNEIDER: Yeah. I was drawn to that really for the same reason I was drawn to religion — because I was interested in the stuff that was affecting our imaginations. I had this idea that I might do a thesis about how people organize their files on their computers, right?
Because some people have a total mess where everything’s everywhere. And then some people have everything very beautifully displayed, but we never talk about how and why we make those decisions. And I was just so curious about that. But it’s those decisions that I’m interested in technology. It’s not yes or no, technology or no technology. It’s what kind of decisions can we make about how we use that technology, how we structure the economics of it, how we build communities around it?
There’s been this idea running around for a decade or so that it would be a lot more efficient if we used something called “mesh networking,” rather than the traditional ISPs and wireless networks that deliver our internet. This would be a way in which people are basically feeding each other the internet all the time, rather than everyone getting it independently from Comcast or whichever. But it doesn’t work, partly because we’re not organized enough, our neighborhoods aren’t organized enough to make that happen, to build the relationships that that kind of networking would happen. The people who do build those kinds of networks always have to do it on the basis of existing, offline, flesh communities. So I think it’s so important that when we talk about technology, we’re also able to talk about how we relate to each other in other ways.
MS. TIPPETT: And Sherry Turkle, who wrote that book that got a lot of attention a couple of years ago from MIT, Alone Together. She makes this really important point that because the internet has so quickly taken over so many aspects of our lives, we feel like it’s full-blown. And, in fact, the internet is in its infancy, and it’s up to us to grow it up and to shape it to human purposes. I really do think that has to be the work of the new generations. That maybe you all don’t know how to repair the back end of the internet, but we’ll never be able to figure it out.
MR. SCHNEIDER: Well, I’ve been spending a lot of time lately exploring some of the frontiers of ways in which people are doing that.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. So tell us.
MR. SCHNEIDER: For instance, I was just at a place in Southern Italy where activists, hackers, mainly, from around Europe, technology activists, have been gathering and actually adopting and playing with hacking, so to speak, the rule of St. Benedict, the rule that’s the basis of Western Christian monasticism, looking at it as a kind of protocol, as a kind of basis for building sustainable, sustaining communities. They look at the way in which monasteries carried civilization through the Dark Ages. Preserving the art of writing. They’re looking to this religious legacy as a means for starting from scratch. And thinking about their — about what kinds of reorientations they could make in their relationships with the technology that they’re using, and how they could build livelihoods for themselves in a way analogous to monks.
And, again, these are not people who affiliate themselves with any religious communities in particular. Yet they’re drawn to something that is in these traditions. They recognize something is there, and they don’t feel that they can go to the existing institutions to explore these. And so they’re kind of playing around on their own.
MS. TIPPETT: That is really interesting. I also find there’s a paradox, as much as we talk about how technology is dividing us, and we’re all on our phones, which we are. There’s also this total paradox that this is the age of convenings, and even in our media space, people — the more interesting the digital spaces get, the more people say, we’d really like to get together. Meet each other in person. And you said this beautiful thing — this is from your God in Proof book — “Reason alone, one way or another, eventually turns into reasoning together. It sees the light of day, it meets its own history, it strikes up a conversation and is never the same afterward.”
MR. SCHNEIDER: And that was something I saw very vividly in the midst of the Occupy movement. Here was something that was organized on the basis of an email that got sent out by a magazine with no actual on-the-ground organizing, initially, whatsoever. And it got spread and went viral. It started because it went viral on the internet. This is as internet-driven as you can get. Yet at every major occupation, there would be a print newspaper within a couple of weeks.
And over time, as it developed, the posters started growing. The art, the print, it was — everything was printed. The first company to come out of Occupy Wall Street was a worker-owned co-op that was a print shop.
It was a print shop. It wasn’t a social media shop. It was a place in a warehouse to print flyers and to print beautiful posters. And so it was really — as a writer, as somebody who loves books, that was very exciting to see, on the one hand, this vibrancy of online participation alongside this commitment to the presence of the text. And I think that was also driven by the fact that there was this presence of people together.
MS. TIPPETT: Of bodies, yeah.
MR. SCHNEIDER: Yeah, the bodies were — it was so important. That occupied space, for whatever one might think of what was being said from it and what you might have heard about what went on there, what drew people there was the sense of sacred space. And everyone knew that that sacredness was just created by the fact that all those people were there, and just talking to each other, and just sharing experiences all over the place. So many people you’d hear, they were just talking and talking and talking and talking as if nobody had ever listened to them in their entire lives. And then they talked themselves out, and then they would finally start listening to somebody else.
But it was this fundamental, essential human experience that seems like, oh, wait, this has been missing from our lives. And this isn’t necessarily antithetical to technology, but it demands that we have a different kind of relationship to it.
MS. TIPPETT: OK. Let’s involve you in the discussion. This mic is on, and we’ll have ten minutes or so for your questions. I do want to say, in terms of the redemptive qualities of technology, your fiancé is here today. And you told me you’re getting married in a month.
MS. TIPPETT: And Nathan told me that they met through a dating site that a friend of his created.
And what did you say? You said something really — this is why I don’t like to have conversation before the conversation. You said it’s a 21st-century way of people meeting through friends.
MR. SCHNEIDER: Basically, yeah. It was a case where a friend of mine is a computer programmer, and he was involved in a startup to build a dating website. It ended up kind of catching on in other guises, but that particular project didn’t work out, except I met the wonderful woman I’m about to marry through it.
MS. TIPPETT: OK. Yes.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 1: Hi.
MS. TIPPETT: Oh, wait, wait, wait. Before you do that, I need to do my radio thing, sorry. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today with writer and millennial generation public intellectual, Nathan Schneider, we’re in the outdoor Hall of Philosophy at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 1: The Occupy Wall Street movement — could you please give us a Twitter-like synopsis of its origin, its goals, the outcome, and, specifically, what was in that email that went viral?
MS. TIPPETT: I’m going to give you 280 characters for that one.
MR. SCHNEIDER: The email just said, “Occupy Wall Street. Bring tent. What is our one demand? September 17.” The “What is our one demand?” thing kind of got ditched in the course of things. But something about those words, those three words, “Occupy Wall Street,” resonated with people. And I think any of us who don’t see why need to look a little more closely into the structure of our society. Those three words resonated with millions and millions of people. They knew exactly what that meant.
Another three words that I think were very important for me in understanding what was going on, again, came from the Spanish occupation movement that had begun in May of 2011 in Spain, in Madrid. They rallied under the banner “Real Democracy Now.” That’s very powerful. It sounds very ordinary, but I think it’s very powerful. We grow up being told that we live in a democracy, and yet, over and over, experiencing, in small interactions, in the grand politics, constant messages that we really have no agency, that we, have no control over our futures, that we can’t change — we can’t stop our society from destroying the planet, for instance. Why is that? What kind of society is one that can’t stop itself from destroying the planet?
MR. SCHNEIDER: So I think that’s a long answer, but those are a few short, little slogans, a few short, little tweets that I think actually say a lot, a lot more than they’re given credit for.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: What is a mesh network?
MR. SCHNEIDER: Pass. [laughs] It’s a different way of configuring an online network, where rather than everybody having a particular hookup to the big cable company, you have a community who are connecting with each other, and they’re sharing their connectivity. And they have a little private network within their community, and then they can also share the connections that they have to the outside network. When you talk to people who were around during the early days of the internet, one of the most interesting questions to ask is, what could have happened but didn’t?
The internet didn’t have to be structured the way it is. It didn’t have to be all Google all the time, all Facebook all the time. And, I think, as we consider what our relationship with this technology is, it’s worth looking back to some of the old texts, the old stories of that time to rejuvenate our imaginations, and then also to use those imaginations to think about really more equitable, more just, more profound kinds of connection that this technology of connectivity might allow us.
MS. TIPPETT: So Nathan, here’s something you wrote. “As the business of reading technology continues along its trajectory, whether apocalyptic or utopian or both, perhaps those of us who continue to fancy ourselves concerned readers, however much we give into the new and shiny, might turn our attention and new to what one might call inner work.” You then also quoted, William Blake. “He who binds to himself a joy doth a winged life destroy. He who kisses the joy as it flies lives in eternity’s sunrise.” Tell us what you care about in those lines, what that evokes for you.
MR. SCHNEIDER: I found those lines pasted to the wall of the monk who was my baptismal sponsor, who was one of the great friends and mentors of my life. And pretty much the whole time I knew him, he was dying. And at the time, he was getting close. It would be one scare after another, always hooked up to some machine or another. A man who lived a rich and complicated life in the world before entering the monastery, and then lived a rich and complicated life there. At around the time that I saw that on his wall, I asked him what role this God that he had helped lead me toward had meant in his — in the course of his process of dying, what comfort it had given him.
And he said something that I had kind of suspected, which was that he no longer really had that belief anymore. The first feeling that I had with that sense of — one could feel betrayal, one could feel sadness, a sense of loss. His honesty about that made me feel a sense of gratitude and joy, and also a sense of the mystery of how our lives intertwine and how they play out. That a person who had been losing his faith was the same person who guided me into mine.
MS. TIPPETT: So last night I met with a group of young people at Chautauqua. I think early 20s and teenagers. And they asked me where I find hope. And I wanted to ask you, as we close — I want to ask you two questions, possibly intertwined, possibly always intertwined in life. As you look around at the world now, what makes you despair, and what gives you hope?
MR. SCHNEIDER: I think the sense of despair that I feel, it comes from the stories. It comes from the stories. When people tell each other stories in which they have no agency. When we tell each other stories in which someone else has to do it for us. And for me, the experiences of hope are often the stories I’m grasping to be able to tell, and I know people are grasping to be able to tell, but that we see in the world where people are living that agency. And building the kinds of communities that we need to resist the injustice that has sunk so deeply into our world.
I hope that we can learn to tell those stories better. I hope that we can learn to see that dignity that’s in all of us, that divinity that comes when we organize together, when we meet each other face-to-face, and even, sometimes, through a chat room. How to tell those stories? How to hold up those moments where we find our agency and our ability to make a change? That’s what I’m looking for, and that’s what I hope, more than anything, to contribute.
[music: “Book of Clouds” by Mode Fabric]
MS. TIPPETT: Nathan Schneider is a scholar-in-residence of media studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is the author of two books: God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. He’s published widely as a commentator, including regular columns for Vicemagazine and America, the national Catholic weekly. He is currently co-editing a book on democratic business models for online platforms.
On Being is Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Annie Parsons, Marie Sambilay, Tess Montgomery, Aseel Zahran, Bethanie Kloecker, and Selena Carlson.
Special thanks this week to Maureen Rovegno and Dr. Robert Franklin at the Chautauqua Institution. Also to Mitch Hanley.
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