Is the Internet Making us Ungodly?
This is Justin’s Final Post as a Regular Contributor to Many Horizons. We are grateful for the many insightful, stimulating and provocative posts he has written on this blog, and are pleased to share this last offering on thinking theologically about the internet.
What does God think about the internet?
Is Google Making us Stupid? Is Facebook Making us Lonely? Is Your Brain on Mobile like your brain on drugs? Articles skeptical of new technologies are bound to be big hits because they speak to a natural uncertainty we all feel around new things. But they also elicit vigorous and passionate defenses of new technology. A recent comment on the article “This is your brain on Mobile” declares: “I feel like anyone who becomes more of something, given a particular tool that facilitates it, always kind of was… that thing. They just needed their moment to shine, as it were.” This comment illustrates a pervasive assumption our culture makes about technology: That tools serve as an extension of the user’s will and character and does not change the user.
Yet, as Christians have understood for ages that what we do changes us. If you tell a lie often enough you believe it. If you read something enough times you find it to be true. If you watch something enough times you trust it. Combine this understanding with the pervasive practices of the internet and mobile phones and we must ask: How many times do you suppose we need to check facebook before it starts to shape our relationships rather than being shaped by them? How many times do we have to tweet before it starts to change our perceptions of the world rather than being a record of our perceptions of the world? How many times do we need to blog our academic convictions before it determines those convictions rather than presents them?
In case you still believe the internet is morally neutral consider that one quarter of every search engine query is for pornography and 34% of all downloads are pornographic. It is true that all humans are sexual – but that fact does not make us native porn users anymore than our sociability makes us all facebook users. And pornography causes drastic changes in the user, clearly carrying its own moral weight. Psychologists have determined that pornography usage disconnects the emotional and mechanical components of sexuality, warps our expectations of human behavior, and increases sexual dissatisfaction, loneliness, and addiction in its users.
The first step to undermining the moral influence of our technologies is to realize and accept that they do have moral influence on us. Then, in order to mitigate that moral instruction, we have to ask what the underlying moral logic of the device is. So, what is the moral logic underpinning internet and mobile technology?
The primary moral logic of the Internet and mobile technology is the confidence that human relationships can be technologically mediated for personal satisfaction without cost.
The earliest internet chat rooms, AIM, Facebook, Skype, Twitter; through commerce with Ebay, Amazon, craigslist, even Petmeds.com; through marriage EHarmony, ChristianMingle, JustFarmers; the history of the internet can be mapped by the evolution and development of social programs designed to replicate, replace, or punctuate our interpersonal relationships. Even the earliest arguments for the development of the internet surrounded long distance relationships and the sharing of data between distant researchers. One may argue that these are no different in nature than letter writing, catalog orders, or matchmaking. But they do differ. Not only do they differ in sheer pervasiveness and in time consumed but they differ in logic. When writing a letter we cannot hide from the fact that the relationship is truncated – even Paul in his epistles pointed his congregants towards the time when he would return to them. When ordering from a catalog browsing is limited by pages. When submitting to a match maker we have no say in the match – the focus is on submission to the match, not our satisfaction.
The promise of satisfaction without cost lies at the very heart of the internet and mobile design. Why risk rejection and pain when we can use EHarmony to “scientifically” match us with our soul-mates? Why deal with a greasy car salesman when we can browse used cars from the comfort of our living room? Why enter into a self-giving relationship when we can satisfy our sexual inclinations with pornography? There is no need to risk rejection by our peers when we can engage in a little social media performance and get all the gratification we need via likes and comments. Why do we need to be bored or quiet or awkward when we can play Angry Birds? The list is endless. The promise of instant access and satisfaction is the central promise of the internet and it is changing us as we practice it.
But a Trinitarian God with unmediated relationship as his essence may not agree with the mediating influence of technology. And a kenotic God with Creation and the Cross at the heart of his actions may not approve of a costless self-satisfaction. So what does God believe about the internet?
That same God, however, gave us a saving Gospel. It is a gospel with the power to resurrect and redeem anything. But, the process of resurrection will fundamentally change our posture, relationship, and orientation to everything – including the internet. If Christians are going to interact with contemporary technology in a resurrected fashion the nature of resurrection will change, color, and inform that interaction. It will be and look totally different than the way the world interacts with technology. Our discipleship — and our commitment to living Christ’s resurrection out day by day — cannot, must not, and should not stop when we swipe our phones or open our laptops.