Linking In

Like many in the internet age, I have most of my “connections” online.  It’s somewhat of a rarity to be invited, for example, to connect on LinkedIn by someone I actually know.  I remember the early dissemination of information from that network—it was strictly for people you really did know in real life, because they could help or hurt your career.  I took that seriously for a year or two, but it became clear that this was another Facebook with a more professional cast.  I’ve been told of authors who try to build their online platform by adding thousands of connections on LinkedIn.  The website, however, is not intended as an advertising venue.  It has, however, become one.

I’m not denigrating LinkedIn.  I’ve found two jobs through it and I’ve had recruiters reach out to me because they found my profile there.  For a religionist that can be quite flattering.  Academia and society tend to tell you that such a skillset is okay but basically useless.  Having others who know the wide diversity of human employment these days can be a sign of hope.  Nevertheless, advertising has crept into LinkedIn.  I’m not talking about the frequent invitations to go professional on the site, which will only cost a small fee that will suddenly show up on your credit card bill when you least expect it and thought you were in the clear.  No, I’m talking about connections contacting you to do gratis work for them.  Advertising their book, or their services.  Letting others know, they ask, that they can provide this or that service.  (Just to be clear, I’m not referring to people who contact me personally because we have an actual connection!)

For those of us working stiffs not in a position to hire anyone—professionally or personally—this is another symbol of how any form of communication becomes commodified.  Fully over half of my email is soliciting money in one form or another.  Hearing from an actual person with an actual message for me is so rare that I’m stunned to find one in my inbox.  Capitalism just doesn’t know when to let go.  And it doesn’t have a good read on what little I actually do buy.  Underwear (and just using that word will color the tailored ads I receive for weeks) vendors seem to think I’m concerned about the fashion of garments others don’t see.  The books Amazon suggests, based on a solid track record, are generally far off from my interests.  What hope do those who don’t know me have of selling me their wares through LinkedIn?  The dream of connection without cash changing hands nevertheless remains alive.

Old school connectivity

The Price Is Wrong

The costs for academic books can seem criminal.  Don’t get me wrong; I work in academic publishing and I know the reasons—or at least the reasons publishers seem to believe—for such pricing.  Still, when I see a book that my little public library will never be able to convince its network that it should be able to borrow, I look at the prices and blanche.  At least the pallor looks good with my skin type, or so at least I’m led to believe.  Why are books so very expensive when so few of them retain any resale value?  Publishing—the information business—is unlike any other.  In fact, it could be argued that the printing press was the earliest internet.  Ideas could be spread more quickly, among those who were able to read, than they could have previously.

These days books are the handmaidens to the internet.  The problem, of course, is that the web contains ideas that haven’t been vetted.  Publishers offer that service, but you have to pay for it.  Books don’t sell like they used to—physical books, I mean.  Inflation, however, ensures that the cost of paying employees is constantly going up.  This is the hidden factor of “overhead”—the cost of doing business.  You need to sell a lot of books to pay a staff.  Not only that, but unlike most “commodities”—I shuddered as I typed that word—books can be returned to a publisher if they don’t sell.  It’s like an entire business model run on consignment.  And the honest truth is—academic authors may want to cover their eyes for this part—very few books sell more that a couple hundred copies.  That means that the per unit cost has to go up.  Next thing you know you’re selling a kidney to continue your research.

I keep a running list of books I’d like.  Some are for research and some are for other pleasures.  The list grows quite lengthy when more and more interesting books get published.  I look at academic books and I wonder if maybe there’s another way.  If they were priced down in the range of mere mortals, would they sell enough copies to meet their costs?  I’m well aware that Holy Horror is priced at $45.  Believe it or not, that’s on the lower end of academic extortion pricing.  Many books on my “must read” list cost three times as much.  Are we paying the price for keeping knowledge solvent?  Or is all of this just criminal?

Quaker States

Religions have always fascinated me.  Having grown up in one that was self-assured that it alone was right, I didn’t have much opportunity, as a child, to look closely at others.  I had to assume that other religions took their beliefs just as seriously as we did, but that they were dead wrong.  Majoring in religion requires a bit more broadmindedness.  We looked, as objectively as possible, at other traditions.  Still, Grove City College is unapologetically evangelical, so some professors weren’t shy about stating this or that belief was just plain wrong.  Things improved from then on, academically speaking.  By the time of my doctorate, and as an Episcopalian, I learned to distance myself a bit; dispassionate was the only way to be in the face of sometimes conflicting accounts.

The other day, following my natural curiosity, I was researching Unitarian Universalists.  Having a strong biblical background, I was curious about this denomination that represents Scriptures quite differently.  The Google metrics brought up a page with logos of various traditions: the Unitarian one I recognized, as I did the Episcopal and United Methodist Churches, having been a member of both.  Then I noticed the symbol used for the Quakers: the Quaker oats man.  I was inclined to laugh and be horrified simultaneously.  The “Quaker” Oats symbol is a commercial mock-up, and had Google read Wikipedia it would’ve known that the company has nothing to do with the faith.  Capitalizing (literally) on the reputation of Quakers for purity, the company used William Penn as a model for a guy who wouldn’t cheat you.

Now that I live in the Quaker State (again), I’ve grown curious about the Society of Friends.  This is particularly so since they are one of the few Christian groups to have been expropriated by the commercial world.  Who’s ever heard of Presbyterian laundry detergent?  Well, with the exception of hospitals and caregiving institutions, which are happy to take the name of a denomination, religion is hardly a trusted commodity these days in these parts.  The Quakers do have a symbol—two superimposed, four-pointed stars.  Metrics, however, are based on search frequencies, I suspect.  As far as religious denominations go, the Society of Friends isn’t massive.  Far more people search for Quaker Oats than the actual religion whose name the company borrowed.  Such is life in these United States—the ultimate corporate venture.  Now a wholly owned subsidiary of The Trump Organization.

Holy Ghost

paranormalmediaOn a family trip to Cape May, New Jersey, some years back, a ghost tour caught my eye. My daughter was old enough not to be unduly scared, and appropriately curious. With a group of total strangers we walked the streets after dark, hearing tales of tragedy and woe. Little did I know at the time that I was being trendy. I just finished Annette Hill’s Paranormal Media: Audiences, Spirits and Magic in Popular Culture. The first point that really haunted me from her study is that the media has transformed the paranormal from religious to secular. I have always considered that paranormal belief and religious belief share an enormous amount of fuel—they are driven by similar engines. Then some media folk figured out that, like religion, the paranormal could become a revenant “revenue stream.”

Hill has other ghosts to hunt in her study—she is a media scholar after all—but I kept wondering about the cheapening effect of commodification. That which creates the most wonder becomes the most tawdry when it’s put up for sale. Life is terribly ordinary. There’s an ennui to much of human experience, so people turn to religion, drugs, or increasingly, the paranormal, for escape. But as any savvy media expert (or Heisenberg fan) knows, being involved in the experience changes the outcome. This applies to money just as it does to people. One is more evil than the other, however.

Experiences of awe are a dwindling resource. The frisson of many an adolescent night when something unexplained or holy lurked outside your window has now become just another CGI gag pulled on a gullible public. I used to watch Ghost Hunters on DVD. Then someone released debunking b-roll footage on the internet, making me feel like I’d wasted more than a few irredeemable hours on a fraud. Just one prank is all it takes. Why? The show has to make money, and who is going to watch if nothing is found? Don’t be offended, it’s only entertainment after all. Nobody said there really was anything that you couldn’t plumb yourself. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems nothing frightens a ghost away like money.

Buying Salvation

October is upon us. The telltale signs are all there: trees just starting to turn, gray skies that hide an intangible menace, a coolness in the air, and Halloween stores sprouting like mushrooms. Halloween is a holiday with incredible sales appeal, I suspect, because people are still, at some level, very afraid. We evolved into who we are from a long history of being prey as well as predators. Fear governs many of our interactions in social settings, although we prefer to call it more abstract names such as “rule of law” or “peer pressure.” Deep down, we are afraid. Halloween allows us to wear that fear on our sleeves. And it isn’t just the Celts who made this confession; Día de los Muertos developed independently, giving us a different flavor of the same emotion. Savvy marketers know that where a human concern lies, there will be the purse-strings also.

Commercialization of religion—the fancy word is “commodification”—is as close to American religious experience as you can get. We live in a religious marketplace. Various religious groups offer their wares, sometimes obviously, sometimes subtly. Often the underlying motivation is fear—fear of displeasing deity, fear of eternal torment, fear of reincarnation. We are afraid and we don’t know what to do, so we try to buy our way out of it. Other times the Madison Avenue approach works. Consider the Crystal Cathedral, or even the great medieval cathedrals of Europe. These are tourist destinations, architectural marvels that draw us in. The message is still pretty much the same: the deity will get you unless you give back. How better to show respect (that is fear) than erecting a massive, complex, and very expensive edifice to the angry God?

It is simplistic to suggest that religion boils down to fear, but when all the water evaporates, fear is certainly evident among the residue. Next to the overtly commercial holiday of Christmas the most money can be coaxed out of Americans at Halloween. Or consider the appeal of horror movies. Love them or hate them, they will draw in big money at the box office. In a society that sublimates fear and tells its citizens that unimpeded growth is attainable, Halloween is the most parsimonious holiday. Perhaps the most honest, too. A full month before the creepy sight of naked trees and chill breezes that sound like screams whistling through their bare branches, the stores begin to appear. When Halloween is over they will be dormant for eleven months of the year, but like the undead they are never really gone. Only sleeping.

A parable.