You’re being programmed

You’re being programmed

“You don’t realize it,” states a former Facebook executive, “but you are being programmed.” And the programming is making us more scattered, shallow, angry, and anxious.

That’s from Nicholas Carr’s bestselling book: The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains. I’ve been reading it. The updated edition offers a cache of new data on how exactly our smartphones are transforming us.

Spoiler: it’s mostly bad.

And it raises a question Jesus never answered: Can a person serve two (competing) algorithms? Must he or she love one and hate the other? (Matt 6:24)

INVISIBLE “FORCE FIELDS”

Since I’m a teacher, I found the following studies fascinating.

A 2017 experiment from the University of Arkansas showed that college students who brought their phones to class scored a full letter grade lower on exams. Surprisingly, it didn’t matter whether they looked at the device or not. The mere presence of a smartphone correlated to lower scores.

Another 2017 study, entitled “Brain Drain,” showed similar results.

As the phone’s proximity increased, brainpower decreased. It was as if the smartphones had force fields that sapped their owners’ intelligence.

I’ve sensed this in my own life.

Several years ago, I completed a research PhD in theology, which entailed hours of dense reading. I’m good at it—unlike my abysmal aptitude for math, science, and mechanical tasks.

But even I have noticed how the smartphone has changed my ability to focus. If my iPhone is within reach, it is just too tempting to set down the book every few minutes to scan Facebook or Instagram. It’s like placing a drink in front of an alcoholic.

Studies bear this out. When the elderly are taken out of the statistics, daily reading time (outside of one’s smartphone) has plummeted to an average of six minutes. In Carr’s words,

Curling up with a book is losing its place in the general culture. It’s becoming a quaint pursuit, like ballroom dancing or darts.

The claim reminded me of a troubling observation of the English Professor Alan Jacobs. A colleague asked him, “What are the most influential Christian books of the past decade?” Jacobs responded this way:

the answer to that question is: There aren’t any. In our moment, Christians are not influenced by books at all.

REWIRING OUR BRAINS

The problem is deeper than habit.

Neurologists suggest that our brains are being rewired by technology. The troubling effects are evidenced by the high percentage of Silicon Valley designers who keep their own children FAR away from the very products they create.

Carr’s research shows how complex algorithms have zeroed in on what grabs our attention (a neural system called the “salience network”) in order to bombard us with “supernormal stimuli” that hijack attention.

Sadly, we are far more likely to be “hijacked” by things that aren’t true or good or noble. A 2018 MIT study of Twitter showed that fake or grossly misleading stories were 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than factual ones.

ESTABLISHING GUARDRAILS

Of course, technology has upsides.

My research time—say, when looking up a quotation—has been reduced dramatically. My “memories” feed sends daily reasons to be grateful as I look back at pictures of my children. And platforms like blogging have allowed me to connect with larger groups than I could have otherwise.

“[O]nly a curmudgeon would refuse to see the riches,” Carr writes.

But. But. But.

We need some guardrails. Here are three of mine:

1. Set “App limits”

Under “Settings” and “Screen Time” I’ve been progressively lowering the amount of time my phone will allow me to use Facebook and Instagram (I’m not on Twitter). I’m down to a combined total of thirty minutes per day—but the catch is I have to actually hit “Okay” when it tells me my time is up in the evening.

2. Quarantine the iPhone (periodically)

For awhile, I kept my iPhone nearby in the evenings so I could see the time. (I am on a very strict schedule, like Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rainman.) But I’ve found that this is just too tempting.

Now I’ve started leaving the phone in another room and simply wearing my traditional watch.

3. Give extra credit

Since carrots beat sticks (no pun intended), I’ve started offered extra credit to any students willing to part with their smartphones during class.

(I was going to make a fancy box to put them in, but, you know… coronavirus.)

Rather than rant about how “narcissistic millennials” are addicted to their devices, it seems best to present the research and give them a chance to score some easy points. (Besides, some of the worst phone addicts I’ve known are older Americans, who use their devices to rant narcissistically about “narcissistic millennials.”)

CONCLUSION

If you’re interested in the research, or in making meaningful changes, check out the updated edition of The Shallows (here).

Here’s to rediscovering the deep end.

 

 


 

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When celebrities die

When celebrities die

What exactly is going on within our collective psyche when a very famous person dies under tragic circumstances?

For the past few weeks, I’ve been researching the subject of my next book. Its focus is upon the way “celebrity” and a celebrity-obsessed culture has come to influence American evangelicalism.

My claim is that a fixation on fame and famous people is creating certain problems for the church, despite our claim that only God be worshipped and adored. My argument is that evangelicalism needs to be “de-famed” so Jesus won’t be.

Then, in the midst this research, a helicopter crashed.

AN UNDENIABLE TRAGEDY

Kobe Bryant, his young daughter, and seven others were tragically killed.

The internet exploded.

Like most people, I never met Kobe. I wasn’t a Laker fan. And I wondered (years ago) about the sexual assault charge that was ultimately dropped against him. How do you judge the character of someone you’ve never met?

Still, like everybody else, I was shocked and saddened. A rush emotions followed: His daughter too!? It can’t be. What must his wife and family be enduring!?

I wasn’t alone.

WHAT IS A CELEBRITY?

Then I began to ask another question: How does my strong reaction to Kobe’s death fit with my research into our celebrity culture?

In his book Celebrity Worship, Pete Ward attempts to unpack just what is a “celebrity” and why they matter to us.

A celebrity, Ward says, is a “mediated person.” Celebrities are those persons who have been elevated and magnified by a complex mix of technology, media, industry, and social relationships. Ward’s claim is that our deep connection to celebrities is not actually about them—it’s about us, and the formation of the modern “self.”

To see the young and smiling face of Kobe Bryant, memorialized on CNN, is to be reminded of how fragile our lives are. It is also to be transported back in time to watching basketball with one’s own father or high school friend. It is to place myself in Kobe’s seat in the helicopter (the seat of a father), and to look into my own daughter’s eyes. It is to empathize with a grieving widow and grieving children. It is to relive our own grief and trauma vicariously.

And after that, it is to find a collective outlet for that groan on social media. (This isn’t wrong.)

In Ward’s words, “Celebrities are important, because they are one of the primary resources used in processing the project of the self” (4).

WHEN CELEBRITIES DIE

After the death of Michael Jackson, and in spite of widespread evidence of child molestation, Ward notes how the public reacted with intense grief and deep affection.

MJ’s music had formed the soundtrack for countless lives.

Hence the public was not mourning an accused child molester, or even a phenomenal performer (he was likely both). They were mourning what his music represented in their stories.

A man named Paul put it this way:

“I immediately thought of my brother with whom I held great parties and where we danced like MJ, we were teenagers […] My brother was important to me.”

LISTENING AND LEARNING

These kind of celebrity deaths also provide an opportunity for  us to ask important questions of ourselves. For instance:

1. What am I actually grieving?

Like the young man (Paul) who was thoughtful enough to link the death of Michael Jackson to his past relationship with his own brother—we should ask what our grief over persons we have never met might be trying to teach us.

What are we grieving beyond the individual who has died?

What if the death of Michael Jackson led not to a shrine at his personal amusement park (which, if we are honest, was more a crime scene than a temple), but to conversations with one’s own brother, mother, pastor, friend, or therapist?

We like to run from death and grief. And events like this ask us to connect to the deeper sources of our pain.

2. What about the others?

Here’s another question to be wrestled with: Do I really believe that every person—no matter how famous, beautiful, or powerful—is created equally in the image of God?

Equality is a value in the modern West. But our responses to celebrity raise questions as to how deeply we believe in it.

Is the death of a poor and unnamed Chinese girl every bit as precious in the sight of God as that of Kobe Bryant? Do I actually feel this to be true, despite the fact that the young girl’s death (or that of the unborn baby) will get little personal coverage, in part because a given government has a vested interest in saving face?

Celebrity deaths give us occasion to grapple with these uncomfortable questions about equality and the sanctity of life.

3. Is the ache an echo of a Voice?

The Judeo-Christian tradition has long held that God has placed eternity (or a longing for transcendence) in the human heart.

The ache over mortality is therefore meant to be an echo of a Voice. It is a “dispatch” from transcendence, and even ardent secularists can hear it.

In the words of James K. A. Smith (citing Charles Taylor), the “closed take” on reality (No God, no transcendent meaning, no afterlife)

can’t seem to get rid of a certain haunting, a certain rumbling in our hearts. There is a spectre haunting our secular age, the “spectre of meaninglessness”—which is a dispatch from [divine] fullness.

CONCLUSION

In the end, it is good and right to mourn celebrity deaths. It is good and right because they are people made in God’s image.

Yet these tragedies may also serve as reminders of important truths (or falsehoods) that we would like to ignore.

All life is sacred. All human death is an intrusion into God’s good world. And this mortal ache—while painful—may form a trail of breadcrumbs leading to a Table where we hear the same truths Kobe did at his last worship service, just hours before his death:

This is my body.

This is my blood.

Do this in remembrance of the Christ who conquered death, and who alone is worthy to be worshipped.


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Justice without mercy

Justice without mercy

“Excessive zeal for justice always becomes satanic.”

That line comes from Walter Wink’s landmark study of the demonic: Unmasking the Powers. His point is not to disparage our need for justice but to season it with mercy, lest “Lady J” transform into, simply, “the accuser” (ha satan).

“Justice” often turns, like sour milk, to vengeance.

A similar theme exists in this provocative claim by Alan Jacobs:

When a society rejects the Christian account of who we are, it doesn’t become less moralistic but far more so, because it retains an inchoate sense of justice but has no means of offering and receiving forgiveness.

The great moral crisis of our time is not, as many of my fellow Christians believe, sexual licentiousness, but rather vindictiveness.

Social media serve as crack for moralists: there’s no high like the high you get from punishing malefactors. But like every addiction, this one suffers from the inexorable law of diminishing returns. The mania for punishment will therefore get worse before it gets better.

I’ve written on this before (here); but a similar point has now been made by a third and final figure: the famous atheist/neuroscientist, Sam Harris.

In reference to a recent spate of social media mobs that have called for the names, addresses, and (practically) the firstborn children of perceived offenders, Harris laments the fact that our modern culture has lost its ability to forgive (or even hear the evidence) amid its fervor for “justice.”

“We have to have a way back,” said Harris in a recent interview, regarding how the social media mob descends on certain persons with seemingly no mercy and no possibility of repentance or forgiveness.

Is there a lesson here from these three statements?

If anything, it is that a thirst for “justice” is not always an unalloyed good. We need mercy too. And humility (Mic 6:8).

 


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Prophet or punk? (pt 2)

Prophet or punk? (pt 2)

“Cynics smirk, pundits rant, prophets weep.”

Thanks to The Wesleyan Church for posting part two of my series examining the difference between prophetic boldness and dogmatic shrillness.

This one examines the importance of receiving the language of “lament” over and above lambasting opponents.

Access here.


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Prophet or punk? (pt. 1)

Prophet or punk? (pt. 1)

Separating boldness from shrillness in the age of outrage.

Thanks to The Wesleyan Church for asking me to be part of their new “Voices” blog.

Here is the first installment in a multi-part series I’ll be doing on how to differentiate “prophetic boldness” from “dogmatic shrillness” in the age of outrage.

Read here.

Part two to come!


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But I deleted it

But I deleted it

I’ve been on a blogging hiatus lately as I’m been under a deadline to get a book manuscript polished up and sent back to the editor (Yes, Katya, I am working on it!).

But I took time last week to type up what I thought was a pithy response to a particular hot-button cultural issue that had been nagging me.

I wrote it; I rewrote it; and I even had some friends weigh in.

Then, after all that work, I deleted the whole thing. (Which was really hard because it had a corny joke about a “salvation” that is seen as coming sola Twittera–by social media alone.)

I won’t go into the details, but suffice it to say I had an inkling of discernment (which is all I ever have…) that the last thing the world needed was one more pontification on something that I actually don’t know very much about.

On that note, I’ve found the following eight insights helpful for those times that I am tempted to think that I must always open my mouth/keyboard.

These come from the evangelical-Anglican and Baylor English professor, Alan Jacobs.

In his words:

Going off half-cocked is now widely perceived as a virtue, and the disinclination to do so as a vice.

What ‘s more:

that poorly informed and probably inflammatory statement of [My] Incontrovertibly Correct Position must be on the internet . . . or it doesn’t count towards your treasury of merit.

But must I always weigh in on every hot-button issue?

As Jacobs reminds himself:

  1. I don’t have to say something just because everyone around me is.
  2. I don’t have to speak about things I know little or nothing about.
  3. I don’t have to speak about issues that will be totally forgotten in a few weeks or months by the people who at this moment are most strenuously demanding a response.
  4. I don’t have to spend my time in environments that press me to speak without knowledge.
  5. If I can bring to an issue heat, but no light, it is probably best that I remain silent.
  6. Private communication can be more valuable than public.
  7. Delayed communication, made when people have had time to think and to calm their emotions, is almost always more valuable than immediate reaction.
  8. Some conversations are be more meaningful and effective in living rooms, or at dinner tables, than in the middle of Main Street.

None of this means, of course, that I will stop writing on issues that matter–even when they’re considered controversial.  I come, after all, from a theological tradition (Wesleyanism) that refused to shut up on things like slavery and women’s rights, even they had been dubbed “too radical” for respectable Christians to weigh-in on.

So once I’m not buried under a book manuscript (which should be sometime in the next decade) I plan to keep thinking in public with what I hope is a mix of grace and truth–or at the least “grammar.”

And I hope other thoughtful people do too.

Still, it is freeing to recall occasionally that the world’s salvation does not come sola Twittera.  Or in my more long-winded case: sola blogos. 


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Beyond outrage

Beyond outrage

It is by now cliche to note that we live in an “outrage culture.”

And there are obvious drivers:

  • partisan politics,
  • social media (see here),
  • the satisfaction I receive from virtue signaling,
  • And (of course) the financial incentives that some have to keep us in a constant state of amygdala agitation.

On that last point, see below for a humorous look at how Facebook in particular makes a fortune this way (warning: some profanity).

 

In light of all this, I’m considering drafting an illustrated children’s book in which tiny, anthropomorphized logos of Twitter, CNN, and Fox News hold a frenzied footrace to the bottom of the brainstem.

Working titles include: “3, 2, 1… Civil War” and “The fast and the furious-er.”

(It will be a sequel to my classic children’s tale on bias: “Everybody skews” [see here].)

THE RIGHT KIND OF OUTRAGE

But there is also another reason for outrage, and we must not forget it.

That is, some things are genuinely outrageous.

Some things are simply wrong.

And if those things fail to bother us, then the problem is not an “outrage culture” or “the social media mob,” but our own callousness, and the fact that our allegiances have been coopted by rival kings and rival kingdoms.

THE PHOTO BY THE WINDOW

Perhaps the ultimate example of such callous compartmentalization is relayed by the British spy, John Weitz (here), who helped liberate the Nazi death camp at Dachau.

Upon approaching the gas chamber where countless families had been slaughtered, Weitz noticed a photograph of young German children taped next to the window that looked in upon the death room.

A Nazi father had apparently taped the photo there, by his “work station,” so he could gaze fondly on his own children while remaining unmoved by the wanton evil being done to “theirs.”

He was a loving dad – no outrage here.

THIS PAST WEEK

So this past week, I added my own voice to thousands of others (Republicans, Democrats, Independents) calling for a halt to using kids as pawns in a dispute regarding immigration—especially by way of out-of-context Bible verses.

Then, to my surprise, something happened: it worked. Kind of.

Public outcry brought a change (Thank God!), albeit an incomplete one since many children remain separated from their parents and there is some question over if and when they will ever be reunited. Apparently the whole process was pretty chaotic [*resists further comment and keeps moving].

Nonetheless, this good change raises an important question:

What next?

What comes after an initial spike in outrage achieves a portion of its goal?

BEYOND OUTRAGE

My interest here is not just with this particular issue (though it is important), but with a “meta-phenomenon” — that is, what outrage does well and what it does more poorly.

Here then is my tentative conclusion:

In some cases, the same traits that are needed in a crisis can be counterproductive to crafting long-term solutions.

I say this because long-term solutions require compromise, listening, and the ability to ratchet down the rhetoric in search of common ground.

Hence the problem is not that outrage is unwarranted, but that it is incomplete on its own. We need more. In the aftermath of crisis, we need to transfer some energy from the amygdala to the other parts of the brain.

We all know this in other areas, I think.

  • The person you want next to you in the Zombie apocalypse may not be the one you want running your company, chairing the school board, or leading your marriage counseling.
  • The skills needed to facedown Hitler may not be the ones that make for a successful peacetime leader (Read a Churchill biography; or a Stalin one).
  • And the recipe for alerting the masses (amygdala!) may not be the same as that required to solve complex problems with the prefrontal cortex.

My fear, however, is that we are far better at the former than the latter — I know I am.

So here’s to wisdom on how to translate righteous zeal into Christian justice, and on how to going beyond outrage to thoughtful long-term solutions.

 


On the subject of immigration reform and border security in particular, I am particularly thankful for the statement set forth recently by my own denomination, The Wesleyan Church (see here).


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