ADHD Culture: Emerging Technologies and the Gospel
A young blogger is quoted on Rush Limbaugh’s site: “We are a lazy, spoiled, ADHD culture—soft and uninterested in thinking for ourselves.” 1 An article in the Canadian online magazine Berry’s Bay describes the Canadian government’s confusion over Canada’s role in Afghanistan and its use of the Olympics to shut down parliament as “politics in an ADHD culture.” 2 A review of The Dark Knight uses the same term: “Our ADHD culture needs to take another Adderall, sit down and shut up for a while.” 3 A blog on whether Jesus was rich or poor comments that “[people] will debate their belief, probably passionately and ad nauseam until some other ultimately pointless point claims their attention, which in our ADHD culture should take about—okay, it’s gone.” 4
Like mission workers in a foreign land, we must learn the language and customs of a new culture and risk being changed by it for the sake of the Good News.
In contrast, a panel at the recent SXSW music festival on “Designing Experiences in an ADHD Culture” states: “Attention Deficit Disorder is increasingly recognized as a cultural adaptation to information barrage.” 5 In Delivered from Distraction, Dr. Edward Hallowell defines ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) as “not a mental disorder but a collection of traits that define a way of being in the world.” 6 And clinical psychologist, Lara Honos-Webb, writes:
I understand ADHD [Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder] not to be an excess of energy but rather a heightened need for physical activity and other forms of stimulation. A child with ADHD needs to be able to roam, romp, jump, and stomp. Many times a child with ADHD does poorly in school because he feels like others are “slow boring talkers and thinkers.” They will realize that healing is tolerating imperfection, not the ?nal attainment of perfection. 7
“ADHD” can therefore take on two quite different meanings, depending on one’s assumptions about the “disorder.” Likewise for the term “ADHD culture.”
Our path through this inquiry into the term “ADHD culture” will begin by examining its use as a popular culture trope. We will then make a foray into sociologist of religion Gordon Lynch’s definition of popular culture as the study of the everyday. From there we’ll place Lynch’s definition next to the ancient Hebrew prophets who participated in the popular culture of their day. We will argue that the expression “ADHD culture” (which includes the technologies accused of causing ADHD) is prophetic of the shift from modernity to postmodernity, embodying a critique of, and commentary on, the dominant culture. Finally, the possible implications of this analysis for culture, theology/spirituality and church will be explored. I will argue that ADHD culture and those diagnosed with ADHD provide us with a theopoetic by which to explore the life of God with humanity.
“ADHD CULTURE” AS TROPE
It is communication and media technologies that are often blamed for the emergence and diagnosis of ADHD among young people. The argument is that in a media-saturated world of advertising, video games, movies-on-demand, one can easily become hyperstimulated and quickly distracted by the onslaught of digital stimuli. To suffer from ADHD is to be chronically hyperstimulated and unable to focus on any object of attention for longer than a sound bite. The ADHDer, in other words, is a victim of a world in which media and information technologies are integral and inescapable; a victim in need of therapy, usually of a pharmaceutical kind. Applied to popular culture, then, the term “ADHD culture” is derogatory, for it sees popular culture as pathological, breeding ADHD in those immersed in it. To call it a “culture” at all is ironic, since it is the enemy of the sustained, focused energy that all real culture demands. “ADHD culture” is thus a trope of disparagement, connoting easy distraction, addiction to hyperstimulation, and laziness.
A very different perspective is that ADHD is an evolutionary paradigm shift which allows us to adapt to a fast-paced, multi-channeled, always-connected digital world. ADHDers are not victims of a sick culture but the vanguards of a robust and incredibly vibrant new culture that favors quick and versatile minds, digitally savvy and able to “shift gears” at a moment’s notice as new challenges arise. In this light, to refer to popular culture as an “ADHD culture” is a compliment that implies digital competence, extreme mental dexterity, quick adaptation to new situations, and joy in the new and experimental, making for unrivaled excitement. It is a culture that appreciates the variety of human giftedness, the plurality of ways in which humans are made. (Yes, despite popular perceptions, ADD and ADHD can affect girls as well as boys and adults as well as children.)
Without dismissing the concerns of critics, in the reflections that follow we will be partial to the latter view, viz., that popular culture is an “ADHD culture” in a positive sense, that ADHD, far from being caused by sensory overload, is an adaptation that adds another dimension to human diversity.
POPULAR CULTURE AND PROPHECY
But what, exactly, is “popular culture”? In Understanding Theology and Popular Culture, Gordon Lynch explores three common definitions of the term: (1) a cultural form that stands overagainst high culture or the avant-garde; (2) a category defined in relation to high culture and folk culture, or seen as replacing or displacing folk culture; and (3) a popular form of resistance against dominant culture or mass culture. 8 In contrast to these, Lynch offers his own theory of popular culture as the study of everyday life.
It is the third definition—popular culture as a place of resistance—and Lynch’s own definition that I wish to explore more fully, for they both touch on the prophetic dimension of popular culture. Below we will explore this idea that ADHD culture embodies a critique of, and commentary on, the reigning culture of an older era.
If we take seriously Lynch’s assertion that popular culture is a place of resistance and protest against mainstream and “official” culture—which includes church, school, and family cultures—one could argue that it parallels the role of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. As most mainstream Bible scholars maintain, the utterances of the ancient prophets were not primarily predictions of the future but a naming and proclaiming of God’s passion for justice, mercy, and reconciliation in their day. Walter Brueggemann, in fact, has characterized their literary work as poetic, rather than literal records of their prophecies.
In their poetic work, the Hebrew prophets radically resisted the dominant culture of their age. At a time when a “Jerusalem elite class” had arisen—who could control access to God and thus secure their political power—the prophets came to speak for those forced to labor so that those “on top” could maintain their power. Prophets were intellectuals of daily struggles and realities, schooled in everyday life—and deeply offended by injustice. At their best, they could also give us glorious visions of a world set aright by Yahweh.
Though not always as self-conscious of its prophetic role as the prophets of old, popular ADHD culture, too, gives voice to ordinary people, impatient and frustrated by the contradictions, injustices, and inadequacies of the dominant culture out of which it has emerged. One might say its very existence constitutes a prophetic protest against the cultural status quo, an implicit critique and (at times) condemnation of how things have been done until now.
EMERGING TECHNOLOGY AND ADHD CULTURE
Conferences like the “Theology After Google” conference at the Claremont School of Theology have suggested that the information age confronts humanity with the biggest, deepest philosophical paradigm shift since the printing press. We are witnessing a radical reconfiguration of the means by which information and knowledge are generated and disseminated. Where information and knowledge were once centralized—printing presses, universities, and official ecclesiastical bodies—they are now distributed across a network of weak nodes where the contribution of the many nodes working in unity has a greater, wider impact than that of organized structures. Like grass that destroys a cement wall, soft can be stronger than hard.
The distribution of goods falls into the category of economics, where emerging technologies have made a forceful impact, both on economic theory and practice. Much of western conversation in the last century has centered on economic issues such as communism versus capitalism. Even the church had a version of this polemic, with the social gospel movement presenting “socialist” or “communist” applications and interpretations of Scripture, and conservative and fundamentalist groups advocating capitalist models of markets and individualism.
But the new world we live in—infused, as it were, by technology that allows all of us to be weak nodes in a decentralized network of equipotency and mutuality—does economics differently. The new technological revolution through which we are living allows us to envision new modes and models of economics. Consider the introduction to the manifesto of the P2P Foundation:
The following essay describes the emergence, or expansion, of a specific type of relational dynamic, which I call peer to peer. It’s a form of human network-based organization which rests upon the free participation of equipotent partners, engaged in the production of common resources, without recourse to monetary compensation as key motivating factor, and not organized according to hierarchical methods of command and control. It creates a Commons, rather than a market or a state, and relies on social relations to allocate resources rather than on pricing mechanisms or managerial commands. 9
The creation of a Commons puts emphasis on the creation of a community and peer-driven projects that contribute to culture, rather than on profit-driven projects whose goals are the flourishing of the few. In an economic model rooted in the cultural shift brought on by emerging technologies, we encounter resistance to the dominant culture and insist that culture belongs to the masses.
The Commons counters modernity and capitalism by engaging in peer production and culture production through a decentralized network of weak nodes. Similar to the holon in Integral Theory, 10 the node is an individual complete in his/her self but also a part of a larger whole—not just a community, family, or church, but also a production network. Holons are wholes that are parts. Many weak nodes contributing uniquely to the Commons can make larger, deeper, wider, and more finely granulated contributions than top-down structures that rely on authority, control, and experts.
Just as the printing press brought shifts not only in the distribution of ideas but in how we thought, a world saturated by the Internet and a multitude of connected devices facilitates similar changes for us today. Again from the P2P Foundation manifesto:
Whereas hierarchical systems are based on creating homogeneity amongst its “dependent” members, distributed networks using the P2P dynamic regulate the “interdependent” participants preserving heterogeneity. It is the “object of cooperation” itself which creates the temporary unity. Culturally, P2P is about unity-in-diversity, it is concrete “post-Enlightenment” universalism predicated on common projects; while hierarchy is predicated on creating sameness through identification and exclusion, and is associated with the abstract universalism of the Enlightenment. 11
This model differs from both free-market capitalism and a centrally controlled government-owned economy. The ADHD economy consists of independent, autonomous agents working together for the Commons, motivated neither by money nor allegiance to an ideology.
As a Wired magazine article points out, 12 a future world inspired by Open Source, P2P (peer-to-peer) networks, not to mention Google and Facebook, is one that will likely follow the pattern of “socialist capitalism” or “capitalist socialism.” The term “socialism” is misleading insofar as it brings to mind centralized systems of control and dominance imposing order for the good of the state. It could more accurately be called “collectivism”: networks of independent free agents grouped together into loose, self-organizing networks to get work done. 13
In a world of dwindling natural resources, the capitalist model of unlimited growth and perpetual wealth culled from the natural world is unsustainable. In the collectivist world, peer-networks are more interested in value creation than wealth creation. Peer communities produce music, art, culture, new technologies, and new applications for technologies like Facebook and iPhone by which ADHD culture is sustained. And these applications allow continual remixing, parodying, and critiquing of any objects of culture—music, art, drama, film, literature, and so on—which then produces new objects of culture.
THE PROPHETIC SHIFT
As already noted, “ADHD culture” is often blamed on the emergence of postmodern technologies. We have argued that ADHD culture is characterized not so much by the shortening of attention spans that many cultural critics want it to be as it is by a prophetic sense of how we are becoming intoned with the participatory technology of the popular culture that surrounds us. It marks a prophetic critique of the dominant culture of modernity and shifts attention to the “everydayness” of postmodernity. ADHD culture is the everyday or the emerging everyday that is upon us, which is increasingly abandoning top-down controlled systems and embracing networked, dispersed systems of mutuality and interdependence. It is a culture that encourages us to become co-creators of emerging culture—and of philosophy, theology, and spirituality as well.
Some philosophical and theological ramifications of these dispersed systems are already becoming clear. John Heron, for example, a proponent of P2P “participatory spirituality,” discusses the epistemological status of a theological vision created via such systems:
To say that a theological vision is co-created in a personal and an interpersonal participative relation with being . . . means neither that it is universally absolute, nor that it is an entirely relativistic construction. It means that it is one relative perspective brought forth with what is universal, and calls for other diverse perspectives, grounded in inquiry, to honor the fullness of the mystery. 14
But distributed networking raises the question of religious and theological authority in a particularly acute form: Without authority of some kind that can give opinions and viewpoints a trustworthy stamp of approval, how does one decide to which of the hundreds and thousands of nodes to give credence? If there are no longer easily identifiable authorities—political or religious—then doesn’t the church lose its capacity to speak with power on topics of moral importance as befits its prophetic role? On the other hand, can the church only be prophetic if convinced that she alone has a right to name, teach, and proclaim true doctrines, ideas, and practices?
In A New Kind of Christianity Brian McLaren addresses the “authority” question by looking at how we use the Bible. 15 He identifies the modern impulse to create constitutions—the U.S. constitution, Marx’s manifesto, Luther’s 95 theses, and the Augsburg Confession, and so on—pointing out that the goal of each is to create comprehensive, unambiguous statements of what we are and how we must act. Overagainst this impulse, McLaren proposes that we use the Bible less as a constitution and more as a library of early Christian experience—and as a result he raises serious questions about how we do church, theology, and faith. Considered as a library of Christian experience, the Bible is not a book with absolute answers but a collection of documents containing conversations, questions, and narratives that provoke its readers to form communities in which a process of faith formation begins. Authority emerges when people gather to read and passionately engage and listen to the text; it is not wielded “from above” by a minister, board, or council that dictates how the biblical text is to be read and lived out. 16 When this happens, the church and denomination cease to be institutions defined by theology and doctrine and, instead, become communities that thrive on plurality and diversity.
Indeed, denominations as we know them in the modern age are the products of modernity. They are structured organizations that seek to control what form the Christian life could and should take. The printing press greatly facilitated such control by making possible the codification of regulations and the identification of doctrinal and theological differences in confessions that could be disseminated widely and relatively quickly. In the postmodern age, however, the church, theology, and Christian discipleship in all their diversity are more likely to be conducted on models inspired by Google and Facebook. The Internet allows diverse people to exchange ideas and network in ways that allow the individual nodes in the system to contribute to the greater whole. When it comes to church structures, it means that the gifts of the individual contribute to the greater whole, but the individual can network these gifts along the system without the permission or authority of a bishop, elder, church official, parish council, warden, conference leader, presbytery leader, priest, or pastor.
This shift has been happening in our churches since the 1980s with various degrees of resistance and acceptance. The difference today is that we have a generation raised in a world of easy access to information and an ability to network and contribute to the greater whole in an immediate way and in a form that has a potentially global reach and impact.
The Progressive Christian Alliance (ProgCA) is a case in point. The ProgCA is a post-denominational network of engaged and concerned Christians. Members include non-denominational Christians who want a network of support in their ministries, denominational clergy who have no theological support for the work they do, and people who find the traditional church unwelcoming.
The ProgCA, which represents churches, ministries, chaplaincies, house churches, and spirituality study groups, functions like a distributed network. By way of Facebook, Twitter, and an email list, members are able to shift resources, provide support for ministries and initiatives, and start new projects. While the ProgCA does have a leadership council, they themselves are distributed over four states with no central office or official head. The council’s job is less to lead a denomination or network than to curate a conversation on what it means to be church in a post-church, post-Christian world.
This is “Church 2.0” 17 in action, an alternative faith community where, rather than building a web presence, it is a web presence meeting online and then moving to the off-line world to continue the experience of church already begun. It is not doing church with technology (though that is a part of it): It is applying thought shaped by emerging technology to the many challenges of church ministry. 18
THE SPIRITUAL COMMONS
“The Commons,” as it is called in Open Source (or P2P or Connectivist) Theory, is the common whole of culture to which all persons contribute as cultural beings. A Commons emerges where, as they share their knowledge and experience, participants are led to a spirit willing to learn from others and create forms of consensus in decision-making. The specifically “spiritual Commons” contains a vision of religion that steps beyond the liberal/conservative theological debates of the last century. This vision recognizes that our traditions and theologies are neither relativistic nor universal but the contributions of various traditions and spiritually and religiously minded persons to the Commons.
As Christians participate in the spiritual Commons, they too help create a cultural space where individual enquiry and community participation are welcomed. Their ministry and mission in this context are aimed less at converting and more at gifting. I engage the world as a Christian person—one who has found his identity in the work and person of Jesus Christ—in ways that gift my neighbor. Likewise, my neighbor’s traditions can be a gift to me, as can the myriad of traditions within various traditions. Insofar as participants take for granted that they all seek what promotes the growth, development, and flourishing of human life in its multiple capacities, the spiritual Commons is worthy of the time, energy, and talents of Christians everywhere. In this way Christian mission retains what has always been, at its core, a desire to be the “salt of the earth” and a “blessing to the nations.”
Christian participation in the spiritual Commons does, however, mean surrendering the certainty of absolutes. Christian identity in this context becomes less a fixed place of knowledge and more a fluid place informed by “ignorance”: There is always more to learn and to know about God and the world, and that knowledge can come to us in unexpected ways. To say we are ignorant is to confess that while we are on the path of Christ and becoming the new creation we are called to be, we can always learn more about what each of these terms means. We are like the disciples who, more often than not, missed the point, while women, children, and foreigners were always the first to clue in to the mission of Jesus.
ADHD DISCIPLESHIP AND MINISTRY
Perhaps ironically, ministry in an ADHD culture will require the deliberate and focused practice of periodically disconnecting, retreating from the wired world. As in the age before the Internet, noise invades and distracts us from the caretaking of our spiritual selves. The information barrage exacerbates the situation. To best do our work in the wired world, we will at times have to withdraw in order to pray, seek, meditate, serve, and listen to the Word of God.
Nevertheless, there is no question that the work of ministry itself will embrace emerging technology as the expression of a generation’s spiritual interest in connection, sharing, openness, and interdependency. More important than the use of technology, however, will be understanding the philosophical shift it brings and how it affects discipleship. A generation steeped in Open Source software and the free sharing of art, knowledge, and information does not value secrets and hierarchy. Instead, it values the self-giving and self-emptying spirit of Christ and the partnership of equals that emerged between Jesus and his disciples.
This truth applies especially to leadership. Leadership in Church 2.0 is not a function of occupying a position but emerges in response to the ground conditions of ministry that call for leadership in a particular context.
Three examples of this type of leadership come to mind: Solomon’s Porch run by emerging church leaders Doug Paggit and Tony Jones, Lutheran Urban Mission Society (LUMS) on Vancouver’s downtown eastside, and the Progressive Christian Alliance. Neither LUMS nor Solomon’s Porch believe in the traditional sermon. While they have trained and ordained clergy present—LUMS in the Lutheran tradition and Solomon’s Porch in the non-denominational tradition—they act more as curators and learned colleagues than strict leaders. The sermon is a presentation of the Scriptures to be read and then an invitation to reflect, comment, and question. As curators and learned colleagues the clergy’s job is to host the space for the conversation and exploration as well as to provide insight from scholarship—always, however, being open to ideas outside their fields and experiences that may shift how we view and understand the text.
The Progressive Christian Alliance is a post-denominational network that works in a similar fashion. It too is wrestling with the question of whether it is a denomination or not. As it engages in that conversation, the organization utilizes emerging technology to leverage conversation and connections to empower people to do ministry. The ProgCA has no central committee and no office of formation. It does have spontaneously forming groups, organizations, and impulses within its organization. Ministry, then, is viewed as an open platform. There is no conference, presbytery, diocese, or synod meeting that must vote on the formation of an Office of Youth Ministry or the like. When ministry is an open platform, individuals can contribute materials and resources across a varied and distributed network.
The gospel is no less inherently alien to ADHD culture than it is to any other. But like mission workers in a foreign land, we must learn the language and customs of a new culture and risk being changed by it for the sake of the Good News. Ministry and mission both will be diverse in an ADHD world because existing structures will integrate its ideas in a variety of ways. New structures will emerge naturally as the present ADHD generation answers the questions of how the new technologies and the ideas they embody affect the way we do church and mission. Faithful people—with all their diversity—are invited to engage the question of faith in the stunning new world now coming into being.
- Rush Limbaugh, “Is It Conservatism’s Finest Hour?” http://www.rushlimbaugh.com/home/daily/site_040510/content/01125110.guest.html.
- Ryan Paulsen, “Politics In An ADHD Culture” http://www.barrysbaythisweek.com/ArticleDisplay.aspx?archive=true&e=2483226.
- Steven Walker, “Batman Triumphant” http://www.flamingheart.org/Reviews/TheDarkKnight.html.
- Motoyoshi, Michelle. “Was Jesus Rich or Poor?” http://open.salon.com/blog/michelle_motoyoshi_phd/2010/01/07/was_jesus_rich_or_poor.
- Susan Price, “Designing Experiences in an ADHD Culture,” http://panelpicker.sxsw.com/ideas/view/777.
- Edward M. Hallowell and John J. Ratey, Delivered from Distraction (New York: Ballantine, 2005), xxxii.
- Lara Honos-Webb, “Psychotherapy Revolution: Translating Symptoms into Gifts,” Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy 39 (March 2009): 66. Honos-Webb is the author of The Gift of Adult ADHD (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger, 2008).
- Gordon Lynch, Understanding Theology and Popular Culture (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005), 3.
- Remi Sussan and the P2P Foundation, http://p2pfoundation.net/Chapter_1 (P2P Foundation, 2005).
- On Integral Theory, see the Wikipedia article at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Integral_Theory. On holons, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holon_(philosophy).
- Ibid., http://p2pfoundation.net/2._P2P_as_the_Technological_Framework_of_Cognitive_Capitalism.
- Kevin Kelly, “The New Socialism: Global Collectivist Society is Coming Online,” Wired Magazine http://www.wired.com/culture/culturereviews/magazine/17-06/nep_newsocialism#ixzz0rtmwxB1G.
- For example, whereas major corporations have been striving to build supercomputers, NASA has been using its SETI@HOME program to use the downtime on personal computers to create a supercomputer that functions across distributed networks and rivals most corporate supercomputers. Another example is NASA’s decision to open up Mars data to hundreds of distributed users across the Internet who were able to process and interpret data and crunch numbers—and did it all faster and more efficiently than a team of Ph.Ds. Linux, for example, is a computer operating system that is created, maintained and updated by thousands of volunteers who get no profit from the process. The base code was created by a team of free agents working together across a distributed network. That code is now free for other developers to expand on, remix, and reuse, and it appears in thousands of programs across the globe.
- John Heron, Participatory Spirituality: A Farewell to Authoritarian Religion (Morrisville, NC: LuLu, 2006), 23.
- A New Kind of Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 2010).
- Of course, there remains the risk that “unsupervised” reading and engagement with the Bible will produce less than desirable results (confusion, lack of depth). Strong hierarchical authority, however, comes with risks of its own that yield results just as undesirable (slavish obedience, little independence of thought).
- “Church 2.0” is a common term for a decentralized church that exists as a network with emergent hierarchies dictated by need and situation. It is deliberately vague. When we talk about the church of the future we are talking about the churches of the future, plural. Furthermore, the shape Church 2.0 will take among the ProgCA, the Emerging Church movement, and others will vary greatly from the form it takes in Anglican, Lutheran, Pentecostal, and Mennonite groups.
- TallSkinnyKiwi, http://tallskinnykiwi.typepad.com/tallskinnykiwi/2005/11/church_20.html: “. . . emerging churches that are shaped by new media values rather than old media . . . write blog posts rather than articles, PDFs rather than books, start churches without buildings, and lack a vertically hierarchical leadership structure. Hierarchy is modular and dynamic, rather than vertical and static. I am not talking about cyberchurches that migrate to the web. I am talking about alternative faith communities that emerge online and then seek physical meetings, new aggregations of believers that connect with each other and the world through the complex networks that make up their World 2.0.”