23 May 2017

Three ways "internet culture" trains us

I stand by the "right tool for the job" adage.  There's nothing worse than stripping a bolt because you're using the wrong wrench.  I've removed plenty of license plates that way and regretted it.

I also believe in progressively replacing old tools with new ones, because new needs require new methods.  Outside of a "green" agenda and nostalgia, no one can earnestly advocate that we go back to pulling carts rather than driving automobiles, because the tool matches the pace and demands of life.

The internet is a modern tool.  It is the access point for information, for communication, for entertainment, and more.  However, unlike a more conventional tool like a car or a hammer, the internet brings with it some detrimental side-effects -- not just because of the morally compromising content it can supply (though that is certainly a factor), but primarily due to the ways in which its accessibility and pervasiveness can negatively influence our thinking and priorities.  Briefly, here are some subtelties of internet culture impacting our lives.

First, internet culture trains us to require instant gratification.  This is the big one, so I'll get it out of the way.  Thanks to the immediacy of the digital age, I demand service and entertainment at every second.  Whether I'm concerned about my megabits-per-second downloads, or I'm annoyed that the e-mail someone sent me seconds ago hasn't yet appeared on my screen, or Netflix is just lagging, I am in some way expressing a desire for instant gratification.  In fact, the digital age is all about removing the need to be patient, as it seeks faster processers, more reliable cell signal, quicker load screens, better transportation, faster checkout lines, instant downloads.  Furthermore, these things should be accessible wherever you are, and the same philosophy should apply to to needs that aren't digital -- anything in life for which you are required to wait should be reconstructed to deliver a more immediate payoff.

I don't know about you, but whether I'm waiting in the checkout line at Shoprite or sitting in standstill traffic, my immediate urge in any moment of pause is to reach for my phone -- even though I just checked to see if I had any messages, even though I know the notification didn't chime.  We don't know how to be still in the digital age, to be alone with our thoughts, or to enjoy human interaction in a public setting, because internet connectivity demands constant stimulation, constant interaction.  We require titillation at all times.  This is an underlying motivation for replacing percolators with K-Cups, for raging when 2-day shipping isn't a free option, and for trading the genuine intimacy of marriage in favor of casual sex.  Because there should be a way to get what you want faster, without the time, the effort, or the commitment.  Because anything worth having later is better had now.  Because waiting sucks.  Because you should never have to be bored.

Internet culture also trains us to prefer fake interaction to real interaction.  I'm not the only one I know who hates talking on the phone -- I'd much rather text or e-mail because I like having the time to think through what I'm saying.  Only part of this is excusable on the basis of wanting to express my thoughts clearly: the rest falls under the prideful desire to leave a good impression.  It's the same reason we crop and edit and filter our profile pictures, and nitpick the details of our bios.  We prefer texting to talking because we don't have to stammer, we can reply at our leisure, and we can disguise whatever emotion our body language might reveal in an in-person conversation.  We want people to perceive us as intelligent and attractive.

Ultimately, we fear what they think.

In fact, the common defense of "I'm socially awkward" or "I'm introverted," given by people who are absorbed in their phones when they are in public places, is often just a coverup for the idol of boredom.  People are boring and awkward and uncomfortable -- unless we're viewing them through Facbeook, Instagram, or Snapchat, where we can select what, when, and how we want to view their content.  Furthermore, those same individuals who struggle to have a simple conversation face-to-face with a person they know will spew volumes of heated speech to any person they don't know in an online comment thread, at the drop of a hat.

Internet culture provides a false intimacy, an artificial flavor, and we've come to prefer its accessibility and anonymity to the real thing.  The root of this tendency is undeniably pride itself, but sin seizes opportunity wherever it might arise, and the internet left that back window wide open.

Lastly, internet culture trains us by groupthink to believe the worst of people.  By "groupthink," I mean modern witch-hunting: casting topics in extremes, as EITHER supremely righteous OR completely egregious, and rallying troops to share in these voracious opinions.

Groupthink is what inflates the most heated political issues to enormous headlines, and is a major source of the increasing polarization of conservative and liberal peoples.  Groupthink is also why words like "awesome," "awful," "love," and "hate" are commonly applied to pizza, because authenticity in internet culture is measured in exuberance.  Ultimately, groupthink relies on biased, unsourced, and negatively skewed information to demonize those who think differently and glorify "the cause" by uniting its disciples under a crusading banner.

Groupthink is particularly rampant via internet news and other media-based communications.  Those of us who use these tools as platforms for written communication recognize them as powerful vehicles for self-expression, and certainly for sharing particular viewpoints.  And therefore, if we aren't careful, we'll discover that we too are falling into this tendency to draw battle lines, to attack, rather than rationally stating our point of view after carefully considering the other side(s) of the issue.  The internet is a megaphone.  Its booming declarations create radical divisions of EVIL vs. GOOD, training us to think the best of those who share our opinions and the absolute worst of those who don't.

As stated, I don't believe the internet is inherently evil.  It's an incredible resource that fuels society's forward momentum.  But like all things man-made, we must be increasingly aware of our own motivations for using it, and the ways in which we allow it to shape our thinking and our self-discipline.  In fact, it is internet culture, not the internet itself, that I'm seeking to challenge -- that is, the priorities and worldview of a demographic that clings to the internet-fueled priorities outlined above.

Paul cautioned believers to be actively filled with the Spirit rather than wine, because drunken living is a form of debauchery (Eph 5.18).  Rather than simply being a critique of alcohol, this passage communicates a much bigger principle: the only thing that should control a believer should be the Holy Spirit Himself, not any sort of sensual desire.  Instant gratification, false intimacy, and hateful speech are all underlined by such.

Therefore, as a Christian, I must be active, taking responsibility for sin and making God-honoring choices; I must not be passive, allowing cultural trends to shape my thinking and behavior.  In fact, the Spirit's influence should press out any worldliness that might threaten to compromise my testimony as a follower of Jesus.

The priorities of internet culture have the dangerous capacity to do just that.

The next time you're in the check-out line at Shoprite, rather than pull out your phone, force yourself to make eye-contact with the cashier as you say hello, and maybe even think of something kind or encouraging to say.  Maybe the window for gospel truth might even open.  Who knows what God might do when we stop browsing Facebook and pay attention!