Session 4: The Impact of the Internet and Engaging it Faithfully
This is the third part of a now eight-part series on faith in a digital age. It expanded due to the richness of the discussion on the internet and the amount of material I couldn’t cover in this first week. The outline of the series is:
Week one: Advertising in a Digital Age
Week two: Email, Multi-tasking and the blurring of the work/home divide
Week three: The Internet the Backbone of the Digital Age
Week four: The Impact of the Internet and Engaging it faithfully
Week five: Cell phones and a continually connected life
Week six: Social media and the projecting and mining of the digital self
Week seven: Dating and relationships in a digital age
Week eight: The dangers of a digital age
This is a series of classes I’ve been teaching with my congregation that I’ve been attempting to capture digitally so that they could be used by other communities or small groups or for members who are unable to be present in class.
In the previous session we talked about how the internet is the infrastructure or the backbone that makes the digital age possible. We will be focusing in this session on how our interactions with the internet shape our minds and our actions and how we as people of faith can responsibly use this technology to live the lives that we want to live.
The first impact we’ll discuss briefly is what I’ve called the ‘Google effect’ but it has the official title of Cognitive Offloading. This deals with the impact of having information easily available on how our mind stores information. I’m in my mid 40s and if you are my age or older you probably remember having a lot of telephone numbers memorized and this memorization was drilled into your memory by having to manually dial or push buttons to dial the phone number of the person you wanted to talk with. Today the number of phone numbers I have in my memory has decreased dramatically-I can still remember my phone number growing up, but I can’t remember my mom’s current phone number since it is stored in my phone. My memory has used the contacts in my phone as a quickly available alternative to dedicating connections to remembering her new phone number. This appears in several ways: you hear a weather forecast and forget what the weather will be, but you can look it up online or on your phone, you look at your watch and then forget immediately what time it is. Our minds our exposed to a lot of data on a regular day and our memory makes choices about what to store in long term memory and what to purge from our memory and so things that were once remembered from constant use or from limited availability are no longer stored. Perhaps when you were growing up you remember having to learn multiplication tables or the square roots of certain numbers by memorization and were told the reason you had to do this was because you wouldn’t always have a calculator with you. If you carry a smart phone you now do carry a calculator with you all the time, but it doesn’t mean the exercises of committing this type of repetitive information to our brains was not a worthwhile exercise. Cognitive offload works like the pensieve that Professor Dumbledore uses in the Harry Potter novels to store his thoughts: we transfer the responsibility for remembering the information from our memories to some other device so that we can use that device to revisit the information later. The reality is that I use this blog that your reading from in a similar way to store work that I’ve done and processed through for easy access later, I remember much of what I write but it also allows me in a positive way to store more information than my memory may retain.
Connected to this is the way that the ease of information can shortcut the learning process. If you were to wonder, for example, what is the second largest snake in the past you would’ve gone probably to a library book on snakes or and encyclopedia and look through the various species to figure out what this answer was but today you would only have to enter in Google or another search engine, “What is the second largest snake” and you’d have easy access to a list of the largest snakes. But if you do this search, you’ll soon find out that the lists don’t agree: it depends on what you mean by the largest. You can refine your search based on what is the longest or the heaviest snake, but not only have you missed the process of learning more about the snake world as you searched (assuming of course that you are interested in snakes to begin with) but you also don’t necessarily have the background information to interpret the answer you’ve been given. When my son was in high school, he was a part of the STEM program (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) and in his second year he came home with a bridge truss problem like the one below:
Now my undergraduate was in civil engineering so when I saw this problem, I knew exactly what it was, even if I couldn’t remember exactly how to solve it. This is a problem that most engineers encounter in the second year of college in a course called statics. To solve this problem, you do need some background in trigonometry and physics and my son hadn’t taken either course yet. It took me going back to an old text book, teaching myself and then trying to walk my son through the problem that he didn’t have the background for (I also sent a note to the teacher explaining why I found it strange they were introducing a problem like this and not giving the students the tools to adequately solve it). Although this is a non-internet example lets return to the internet and look at something that you may have experienced. Have you ever self-diagnosed your symptoms using a service like WebMD and then later went to a doctor with your diagnosis you quickly realize that the doctor doesn’t automatically assume that your diagnosis is correct? A medical doctor has spent years in learning about the body, diseases, treatments and has experience in seeing people with different symptoms and has tools to diagnose and treat that we, without going through the discipline and training, do not. There is a difference in a web search and a degree in medicine or engineering or even religion-it doesn’t mean that we can’t know things about these disciplines without the degrees or certifications, but that knowledge is without the same amount of context unless you are willing to dedicate years of study to a topic.
As a person who is curious about curiosity, I’ve tried to learn how imagination and curiosity work. One thing I’ve learned is there are two types of curiosity: a quick distraction and the slow and dedicated digging into a craft or subject. The ‘ooh shiny’ effect of a quick distraction causes us to take our attention away from other things for a brief time, but it does not hold enough interest for us to continue to pursue it in any organized way. Real learning of a craft or discipline takes hours, frustration, mistakes and drive. There are ways we can train ourselves to learn but there is no quick way to master any subject. If we continually distracted by the entertainment or the attraction of something that takes us away from the things we are willing to dedicate our time and sweat to learn. This type of “ooh shiny” distraction is easy to find in an internet connected world where the possibilities for distraction are endless. One of the things that is beginning to happen is societies which are less connected to the internet, and less distracted, are the places where many new innovations in science, mathematics and technology are coming from as they continue to be encouraged to learn their disciplines deeply. Even in Silicon Valley where a lot of the technology of the internet emerges from there is a trend of limiting the exposure of their families to the continual connectivity of the internet.
One of the other things that has changed on many internet platforms is the removal of stopping clues. If you’ve ever spent hours watching Netflix or YouTube or continued to scroll of a social media platform like Facebook or Twitter or Instagram it may be helpful to realize that these platforms are designed for you to do this. There are two major models for how sites are funded that use this trick to keep you engaged: either they are a subscription service that wants to ensure that you value their service (and the more you watch the more you probably value it) or they get paid based on advertisement and the more you watch the more ads you see. Stopping clues are things like the end of a chapter in a book or the end of a television episode, they are natural stopping places. At the end of a chapter in a book it is a natural place to consider whether you put in a bookmark and go onto another task or whether you continue onward in the book. When television shows were episodic and weekly the ending of an episode meant you had to wait a week for the next episode to be available. But with Netflix online, for example, when you complete one episode it automatically prepares the next episode to follow it, removing the stopping clue so you stay engaged. YouTube also follows this pattern by automatically launching the next video they anticipate you would want to see. Social media allows you to continue to scroll without any clue to tell you to pause and disconnect. Ultimately all these services are competing for your time, loyalty and directly (through subscription) or indirectly (through advertising) your money and information.
I come at this series and the rest of my life from a faith perspective and as a pastor I do think it is important to give us a way to think about big issues like this in relation to our faith. The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 brings us a lot of helpful discussions to think about our online interactions: We are called to the salt of the earth (that which preserves the earth) and the light of the world in Matthew 5: 13-16. What does it mean to be salt and light in a digital world? I believe that some people believe that their actions in the digital world don’t matter in the same way and that frees them to say things to other people they would never say face to face, but I do believe that in this world our actions are need to preserve and protect and to be a source of light and illumination rather than pain and darkness. The next section of the Sermon of the Mount I want to highlight is where Jesus reinterprets the commandment on murder (Matthew 5: 21-26) and this is extended to if you insult or curse a brother or sister you are liable to judgment. Our words in both the physical world and the digital world matter. Many in my congregation have heard my reinterpretation of the children’s proverb, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will send me to therapy.” The next commandment reinterpreted is on adultery (Matthew 5: 27-30) where “everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her.” The reality is there will always be things we are uncomfortable with and this is a challenging discussion that could take an entire series of classes and this is one of those places where we do need some wisdom. I know it is easy to target pornography, but I think if we are going to consider visual images, we also need to consider things like romance novels which create vivid images in our minds. For me where Jesus’ discussion of this commandment points to when we think of women and men as objects rather than people. If a person is an object, something I don’t consider worthy of my respect then it is easy to think of them as something that is merely for my gratification, but I think one of the critical things the Sermon on the Mount points to is the way we are to rehumanize the way we relate to people. That is why we are called to love our enemies rather than to demonize them (Matthew 38-38) and to be people focused on reconciliation rather than retribution. Finally, in this, and other discussions I think it is important not to place ourselves in the role of judge over other people (Matthew 7: 1-5). To me this invites me to engage people curiously, wanting to understand how they are approaching life rather than condemning them for living and valuing things differently than me.
I’ve focused on some of the more challenging aspects of the internet above, but it also gives us a lot of possibilities of how we communicate and live out our practices that are central to our faith. This technology can be used to help us connect. My children are both living in Oklahoma while I live in Texas and I can each week communicate with them by video using Skype as a free service. Twenty years ago, this would have been a long-distance phone call that was both expensive and lost the visual component. Later this week I will have a meeting with several colleagues on a platform called Zoom so that we can meet without having to drive across the city of the state to discuss the topics we need to discuss. I know many churches use email for prayer and some create a virtual prayer wall where people can place prayers for others in the congregation to pray about. If you are reading this or watching the video, you are seeing some of my experimentation with using the technology for teaching. It allows me to reach a much wider audience, yet it does have some limitations in facilitating a discussion. Most digital technology is designed to be consumed rather than interacted with, and while I’m comfortable with teaching in a more lecture like format I’m intrigued by some of the streaming and discussions coming out of the gaming world. Ideally worship would be with a community but for various reasons that is not always possible. For example, I have a colleague whose church live streams their worship and there was a week where the live stream was not available, and they received a call from a small group of people in Wyoming wondering where the live stream was. He discovered that this group was gathering together on Sundays and watching the live stream to be church. I also think it is a way that people who are physically unable to leave home or the hospital can feel like they are also participating in worship.
Finally, I want to talk about our virtual identity. We construct our identity throughout our lives: the education we pursue, the jobs we hold, how we dress in various situations, music we listen to, etc. We also project a digital identity out into the internet, and it is worth wondering how that digital identity matches with our personal identity. One of the topics up for debate currently is whether control of our digital identity is a fundamental human right or whether corporations and governments freely have access to it. Ultimately, we may not be able to control what corporations or governments do but we do have some control about what we broadcast of our identity. If a person from my congregation showed up at my house, they wouldn’t be surprised by the person they encounter there, and even for those who only know me from online who I am there is reflective of who I am as a person. Do I share everything about myself, no and nobody should. There are parts of us that we share only with those who have earned our trust but who say we are should reflect our values and be authentic to the person we are attempting to be. I know when I’ve interviewed with congregations in the past, I’ve invited them to investigate what I write, what I show of myself online as a window to get to know who I am as they discern whether I might be their pastor.
If you are hearing or reading this, you use the internet and most of us use it daily. Hopefully this helps you think about how you want to use the internet. What pieces of our memory are we OK with committing to our electronic devises and what do we want to maintain? How do we use the internet to learn and when do need to dig deeply to learn a master a skill or topic? How do we set our own boundaries and limits to the time we spend online and how do we create clues for us to stop and transfer our energies elsewhere? How does our faith inform not only our virtual identity but also our day to day interactions with others?
What things do you rely on internet connected devices to remember for you?
Have you ever spent what you felt was wasted time online? Why did you stay online when you felt like the time was wasted?
Do you have any boundaries you set to limit the time or ways you or members of your family utilize the internet?
What is something you are genuinely curious about and would be willing to invest time and energy in learning or mastering?
How does our faith inform our interactions online? What are some areas online that you consider dangerous?
Reflect on what makes you who you are (your identity). List things that you think are important to defining your identity. What do you share online and what do you keep private?