FRANTICALLY GRABBING last-minute items, I rush out the door to get my middle-school son to his pregame warm-up. “Oh, don’t rush; it will only take us 25 minutes to get there,” says my son. Surprised, I question where he got that information. Looking up from his phone, he replies, “Google sent a notification on my phone since my calendar has the game with location.” With some marvel in his tone, he remarks, “Every morning Google Assistant tells me how long it will take the bus to get to school.”
Humans have always shared information with each other, but the advance of digital media altered the time and geographic constraints that once shaped our historical patterns of communication. This transition ended the “Gutenberg era,” a period of human communication marked by a dependency on print, authorship, and fixity, and launched us into an era of communication marked by openness, collaboration, and easy access to information.
Despite the rapid pace at which we churn through this information, our new communication styles are also shaped, paradoxically, by permanence. Every share, post, or comment is archived, creating an online trove of information that identifies every person and their connections: where we get our news, what we look like, what sports team or social causes we support, who “likes” our church on Facebook, and, in my son’s case, our current whereabouts, our travel route, and destination points.
The internet is forever
In the world of digital ethics, the “endless memory of the internet” has recently attracted a lot of attention. How do we live in a world that increasingly does not forget?
A COUPLE years ago, when net neutrality (the principle that internet service providers must treat all websites equally) was threatened by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Facebook stood firmly in its defense. Google, Netflix, Amazon, Twitter, and other high-tech giants took the same stand. Companies that make their money providing content or mining data from web users need net neutrality in order to function.
This February, India’s equivalent of the FCC, their Telecom Regulatory Authority, had to decide an important net neutrality test case there. A huge, U.S.-based multinational came into the Indian market offering an internet connection that limited users to the parent company’s own site and a severely limited menu of other pre-selected sites. This company spent millions on an advertising campaign against the principle of net neutrality in India. But finally Indian regulators stood firm and net neutrality was upheld.
The strange twist here is this: The U.S.-based Goliath fighting net neutrality in India was Facebook.
An obvious conclusion here would be that Facebook thinks net neutrality is only good for rich countries. Indians must be too poor, too ill-educated, maybe even too brown to handle the freedom and responsibility that comes with an open internet. That impression was confirmed when a member of Facebook’s board of directors, venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, went on Twitter to proclaim: “Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades. Why stop now?”
Last fall, 16 West Point cadets — none of them Muslim — signed up for an elective on counter-terrorism and created a Facebook page to appeal to young Muslims thinking about joining the so-called Islamic State group. The cadets aimed to convince those tempted by the terrorist cause to see jihad in Islam as a peaceful endeavor. For their project to succeed, the cadets knew, they would have to learn more about the faith, and build a social media platform that reserved judgment even on those who expressed admiration for committed terrorists.
I think the reason why the Christian Internet is so exasperating is because it is filled with so many people. Sensational click baits trend because we love juicy scandals. We share angry articles and judgmental pieces because it satisfies our human desires to point fingers and be in the right. The Internet has exposed the basest of our human fears and aired out our dirtiest laundry with the lure of anonymity and protection from our screens.
The Christian Internet is all of us with our mess, our flaws, our brokenness, our hurts, our mistakes, and our pains. Which means that as hard as it is for us to see through the hazy noise pollution, behind every instigator of a mean meme is a person made in the image of God. And as long as I believe that is true, you can’t pry me away from the Christian Internet because I am not about to miss the astounding beauty that is sure to rise from the squabbling ashes.
Pope Francis has decried the “filth” of online pornography and warned people against wasting time on their computers.
Speaking aboard the papal plane after his visit on June 6 to Bosnia-Herzegovina’s capital of Sarajevo, the pontiff took a two-pronged approach to modern technology.
“There are two different elements here: method and content,” he said, according to Vatican Radio.
“Regarding the method or way of doing things, there is one that is bad for the soul, and that is being too attached to the computer.”
Two years ago, “Max” was a devout Catholic who loved his faith so much he would sometimes cry as he swallowed the Communion wafer.
Then came the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, where 20 schoolchildren and six adults were murdered by a troubled gunman. At that moment, a bell went off in his head, he said, ringing “there is no God, there is no God.”
Now, Max goes by his online handle “Atheist Max.” A 50-something professional artist from the Northeast, some days he now spends two or more hours online trying to argue people out of their religious beliefs in the comments section of Religion News Service.
Max left more than 3,600 comments in the past 12 months, making him RNS’ top commenter. Many of his remarks can be interpreted as angry, hostile, and provocative, casting him in some minds as an Internet “troll” — a purposely disruptive online activist who delights in creating comment chaos.
He’s written “Jesus is despicable” or its equivalent more than once — red meat to some readers who come back at him with fervor. Other users have called him “mean-spirited” or “angry.”
It was a gathering that would have been unthinkable just five years ago.
On a cool summer evening, in a borrowed classroom overlooking San Francisco Bay, about 150 men and women gathered to screen a short documentary about a Mormon family whose 13-year-old son came out as gay.
The Montgomerys, who accepted their son and his news, were ostracized by church members, some of whom refused to accept Communion distributed by the young man in church. Like many conservative Christian denominations, the 15 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints bans homosexual activity and considers it grounds for exclusion from Mormon rites, rituals and even the afterlife.
The Internet is a wonderful, fascinating, and disturbing place — a petri dish of The Fall characterized by opinion as truth. As the Web Editor of Sojourners, I spend more time than anyone has a right to (or typically, the stomach for) perusing unconscionable clickbait, racism and sexism parading as deeply informed counter-thought, various analyses of others’ public failures, and, obviously, cat and baby memes.
I’m not sure how many times a headline has toyed with my emotions, threatening to “blow my mind” by dropping a “truth bomb” that “no one saw coming!” Invariably, whatever is behind the façade of amazement punctuated with eight exclamation points fails to impress (unless it’s this baby goat jumping for joy set to indie acoustic guitar), and I’m left with a handful of moments of my days I’ll never get back.
In the Christian publication world, we easily fall prey to this trend, and I’ll confess I fail on a fairly regular basis. A colleague and I were discussing how there seems to be a clear trend in Christian blog posts that are aimed at airing the church’s dirty laundry in attempts to prove “yeah, we’re Christians, but …” We’re Christians, but we’re not like them. We’re Christians, but you can probably believe whatever you want to believe and it’ll be fine. We’re Christians, but we’re not going to try to convert you. It goes a little something like:
I was born in 1990. That puts me squarely in the middle of what is referred to as the millennial generation.
It also, apparently, makes me a lazy, entitled, narcissist who still lives with my parents.
But that’s beside the point. What’s more important about the date of my birth is that it places me at a distinct and pivotal point in human history: I grew up with the Internet — what they call a “digital native.”
I (vaguely) remember when the Internet got popular; having slow, dial-up that made lots of crazy noises whenever you wanted to use it; talking to other angsty teens on AOL Instant Messenger (“AIM”); downloading music on Napster and Kazaa; and then, slowly but surely, having the Internet became engrained in my everyday life as if it was there the whole time.
But, like the bratty sibling I grew up with (upon reflection, I was equally, if not more, bratty — #humility #perspective), I’ve recognized that I have a love/hate relationship with the Internet. It’s a game-changer for the human experience, so, like that sibling, I think I’ll always love it. But, for every positive, innovative element of the Internet there is an equal and opposite reaction.
I grew up in the days of the encyclopedia salesman. I clearly remember the day when a clean-cut well-dressed man knocked on our apartment door to sell the 26-volume World Book Encyclopedia.
We were recent immigrants and could not speak English fluently. We had few worldly possessions and the last thing we needed in our house was a 26-volume encyclopedia.
After the hour presentation during which we flipped through the volumes full of exciting information, my dad said no. The salesman looked sad and pitiful as he packed his sales kit. As he exited the door, he gave one last pitch and, suddenly, my dad changed his mind and we bought the whole set.
Either the salesman was good or my parents had this strong desire that their children needed to know “everything there is to know about the world.” Maybe it was a bit of both.
In 2014, long gone are those 26-volume encyclopedias that once filled the bookshelves of many of my childhood friends’ homes. Now we have everything that we need to know at our fingertips through iPads, computers, cell phones, or other gadgets.
A smart professor in Massachusetts noticed recently that religion’s decline in America coincided with the rise of the Internet.
He theorized that the two may be connected. Headline: “Is the Internet bad for religion?”
It’s utter nonsense, of course. The decline of mainline churches began in 1965, not in the 1990s when the Internet became commercially available. It would be more accurate, from a timing standpoint, to say that the American League’s designated hitter rule (1973) caused religion’s decline. Or maybe the “British invasion” in rock ‘n’ roll (1964).
A post making the Facebook rounds claims that “a mix of honey and cinnamon cures most diseases.” Mix honey and cinnamon together and your arthritis pain will vanish, your lost hearing will be restored, the flu virus ravaging your body will be killed, and your eczema and ringworm will disappear!
I know I should ignore this stuff. But I can’t. Every outrageous health claim I come across online (and there are many) cuts me to the quick, because of what they say about me as a person with a disability, and about us as God’s beloved creatures.
The Internet fosters a populist environment in which regular folks’ life wisdom, assumed to be more valuable than professional or conventional wisdom, is rarely questioned, despite obvious logical fallacies. For example, while many foods, including honey and cinnamon, indeed have therapeutic potential for reducing inflammation and boosting immunity, that’s a far cry from curing arthritis or hearing loss. Yet people click and share, apparently without pausing to consider how outlandish it is to claim that two common foods can cure — not ameliorate, but cure — a long list of health problems that have affected people for all of human history.
Like lots of college students, Lauren has a smartphone loaded with some of the most popular apps around — Facebook, Twitter, and eBay. And like a lot of unbelievers, she asked to not use her full name because her family doesn’t know about her closet atheism.
One of the apps she uses most regularly is YouVersion, a free Bible app that puts a library’s worth of translations — more than 700 — in the palm of her hand. Close to 115 million people have downloaded YouVersion, making it among the most popular apps of all time.
But Lauren, a 22-year-old chemistry major from Colorado, is not interested in the app’s mission to deepen faith and biblical literacy. A newly minted atheist, she uses her YouVersion Bible app to try to persuade people away from the Christianity she grew up in.
“I know of a lot of atheists who have come to their nonbelief by actually reading the Bible rather than just the fluffy stories they choose to tell you about in church,” she said. “Reading the full story with all its contradictions and violence and sexism, it should make you think, ‘Is this really what I believe in?’ At least it did for me.”
Lauren is not alone. No one knows how many atheists have downloaded YouVersion and other smartphone and tablet Bible apps, but it is enough that word of the phenomenon has reached the Edmond, Okla., headquarters of LifeChurch.tv, the evangelical megachurch that created the app.
A tech writer’s obituary for PCWorld’s print magazine — part tongue-in-cheek, part nostalgia riff — reminded me that I once devoured that magazine, now kaput.
It was an early lens into the fascinating world of personal computing. Its ads and articles stoked dreams of power and speed.
I soon became part of PCWorld’s dilemma. I dropped the print mag and began seeking tech news on the Internet. It was faster and fresher, had clickable links to other sites, great art, and brevity. PCWorld itself went online.
Much of my world has switched to the Internet. I do most of my banking and bill paying online, shop online, order lunch online, learn choir music online, teach classes online, use email and text messaging extensively, and read the news online.
Nothing unusual in any of that. Such web-centered behavior has become the new normal. Any enterprise that isn’t considering ways to move its operations online is losing its future.
In my world, more and more churches are going web. Electronic newsletters replace mailed paper. Clergy use email to communicate, as do staff and volunteers. Tweets, Facebook posts, e-blasts, and text messages carry word of emergencies. Constituents make donations online.
There’s more. Classes are moving online, as are interviews with job candidates and opinion surveys. Some congregations are experimenting with worship online and small groups. Every Sunday morning, some 600,000 people a minute access Bible verses online using one app.
On Slate, Emily Bazelon laments her colleagues’ lack of outrage at the revelations of the National Security Agency’s vacuuming up of data on what all of us are doing. In the New York Times, Ross Douthat explains it in terms of an internet motto: “abandon all privacy, ye who enter here.”
Privacy is soooo 20th century, no?
Yes. We now live in a world where we are constantly making choices that trade our privacy for convenience, from Easy Pass to global positioning to, of course, all the on-line services and commerce that we indulge in. No wonder the collective yawn at news that the federal government is doing what we assume Google is doing, in the (presumed) interest of public safety.