The Palantír Effect

I’m almost finished with a re-read of The Lord of the Rings. Wow, what an amazing novel! (I’ll call it a ‘novel’, singular, because Tolkien really wrote it as a single book, which his publisher later split into three.) I’ve seen so much more in the books as an adult than I did as a high schooler. One of those things I’ve gained is a name—a name for an effect of communication technology that I’ve talked about for years with my students.

To explain the effect, here’s a little quiz. Can you name:

  1. Your city’s mayor?
  2. Your representative to your state legislature?
  3. The important news stories in your local area?
  4. Your next door neighbors?

Maybe you’re one of the few that knows a lot about each of these. But that’s not most of us. Although I don’t have statistics to back this up, my guess is that the average person knows more about the president than they do their own mayor (I mean, at least they can name the president!), and more about their Facebook friends than they do about their neighbors.

This is the effect: communication technology shifts our attention from the local to the distant. I now call it the palantír effect.

What is a palantír (plural palantíri)? In The Lord of the Rings, it is a magical sphere. The person who looks into one can see things far away and communicate with someone who holds another palantír. In Middle-earth, only seven palantíri exist. In our earth, I think we each carry a little palantír in our purse or pocket.

Yes, part of the reason I like this metaphor is because I am a fantasy/sci-fi geek at heart… I can’t deny that. I also like the moral complexity of the metaphor. In Tolkien’s work, we see both good and bad effects of the use of palantíri. Regarding good, Aragorn used a palantír to see a dangerous military attack from the sea and took action to defeat it. He also used it to distract Sauron from Frodo’s quest. Earlier in the history of Middle-earth, a kingdom used the palantirí to facilitate communication and control across a vast territory. Likewise, communication technology allows us to coordinate activities across a distance. Anyone who’s ever had to ask a significant other what they were supposed to pick up at the grocery store knows this to be true.

On the other hand, communication technology may also focus our attention away from local matters we can address toward distant but fascinating problems we can do nothing about. (Have you heard anything about Ferguson, MO recently? Can you actually *do* anything about problems in Ferguson, MO? Yeah, me neither.) In Lord of the Rings, Denethor, the steward of the kingdom of Gondor, serves as the most potent example of this. Disturbed by images of distant armies, he despairs and concedes defeat, even to the point of ignoring the simple things he can do to protect his people and save his only living son.

Let me be clear that I’m not talking about time; I’m talking about attention. Some scholarship has argued that technology harms relationships because we spend time online that we could spend with local friends and family. That may happen (although research supporting that view has been weak).

However, technology may dominate our attention even when we spend a short amount of time with it. I’ve been guilty of glancing at a game of Words with Friends for a second, and then turning possible moves over and over in my mind for the next hour while I do other non-tech things. Likewise, Denethor didn’t spend much time using his palantír, but it controlled his emotions and decisions during every moment of the day.

This semester, as I teach my course on social media and personal relationships, I curious what my students will think: when does the palantír effect occur, when is it good, when is it bad, and who is most susceptible to it? Not easy questions, but perhaps important ones. In Middle-earth, the ability to harness the power of the palantíri for good helped save the day, whereas misuse of them nearly brought utter ruin.

Yes, Tolkien wrote decades before the age of Twitter and texting, But my re-read has taught me that, in the regard and others, perhaps his Middle-earth isn’t so different from our world after all.