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iV

Mark Beuving —  October 28, 2015 — Leave a comment

When I teach my Christianity & the Arts class, the students have to create and present artistic projects. These are always a high point in my semester. We spend weeks talking about art, how it relates to God and the Bible, and the role it plays in the mission God has given us; then the students put their God-given creativity to work. These are some of the richest, most challenging, and most worshipful times I ever spend in our classrooms.

Last night, one of my students, Emily Scheibenpflug, shared a project that “speaks” eloquently to one of the issues I revisit from time to time on this blog: our relationship with technology (here’s a recent one). Without further ado, here is Emily’s drawing, which I have presumptuously entitled iV (the lowercase i is intentional).

iV

I’m sharing the drawing here because I believe it merits contemplation. It forces us to wrestle without offering a simple answer to the dilemma. As I’ve said in past posts, we are rightly uneasy about our relationship with our devices. I’ll leave you to do the actual contemplating, but here are some questions Emily’s drawing raises for me:

  • How digitally connected am I?
  • How digitally connected should I be?
  • Could this be my arm, or is this merely a warning/question for others?
  • Is the iPhone giving or taking from my personhood?
  • What is the iPhone putting into or drawing out of my arm (assuming the image fits me)?
  • Do the suggestions of a hospital setting indicate health or addiction? Is the iPhone there medicinally, or am I needing some sort of amputation?

All of these questions are extremely important for us to consider on a regular basis with respect to our electronic habits. This drawing moved me because it eloquently addresses all of them, without providing any specific answers. And this is the power of art: it suggests, asks, and challenges. What the art “does” to me depends on what is going on in my life at the moment.

So what do you see? And how should you respond?

 

 

I have written several posts in defense of social media (for example, here, here, and here). My basic argument has been that social media is a series of platforms that are not inherently harmful. I have expressed concern over the way that many people use social media—replacing true friendship with “likes,” superficializing relationships, making unhealthy comparisons, etc.—but my argument has been that it comes down to each person’s heart. If you are a committed friend in real life, then social media can only supplement those friendships, giving you an added dimension to help you stay connected.

I still agree with the basic thrust of my arguments, and I still find the common arguments against social media silly. (The most common argument I encounter is that social media is distracting and time consuming, and I still think my arguments in my earlier posts sufficiently address these concerns.)

Imagining the KingdomHowever, I recently read an excellent critique of social media practices in the important work of James K. A. Smith, specifically in Imagining the Kingdom. Smith’s concern throughout the book is that we give much thought to the intellectual ideas we encounter, but few consider the practices that shape us at a preconscious level. And it’s this preconscious element inherent in everyday practices (or liturgies, as Smith likes to call them) that shapes us the most.

Smith contends that as we scroll through friendships and use our touch screens to manipulate whose updates we will see—choosing who to interact with, how to present ourselves, and who to ignore—we are actually being shaped by these seemingly innocent practices. It is absolutely true that your heart matters for the way you interact with Facebook: if you have a superficial approach to friendship, Facebook will aid your superficiality. But Smith’s point is that Facebook itself is not neutral. It orients us to the world in a specific way, and that orientation shapes us deeply, at a preconscious level.

Think of it like a boot camp for life. What sort of training is a person receiving by using Facebook on a regular basis? She is engaging in a world where everything is under her complete control. Friends are accessible at every moment, inconvenient interruptions are non-existent; or, if a friend goes on a political rant, he can be immediately muted or permanently banished. Interactions always happen at her own pace—friends wait patiently to fit into her schedule.

Don’t get this wrong. The point is not that Facebook is evil or that it was designed in an effort to make us into bad friends. The point is simply this: every activity in our world carries an inherent orientation toward the world. I am thankful for the added connectivity that social media adds to my friendships (particularly those who live out of town), but I must take seriously the way in which social media frames my interactions. It’s naive to imagine that Facebook is not training my heart.

Social Media Distraction

At this moment, I still believe that Facebook and other social media are wonderful means of interacting with my friends and the rest of the world. But I must take seriously Smith’s caution that the platform itself plays a significant role in shaping me. I have to keep an eye on my formation, my training. To what extent do I find myself frustrated when my friends don’t fit my schedule? How annoyed do I get when I have to respond to a political rant instead of simply muting it? Do I try to surround myself with only those people I find interesting? If I see these things becoming reality in my life, I’ll know that my training is off base. I agree with Smith that social media is tendentious—it is pushing me in these directions through the effortless power it offers me to manipulate my world. And I agree with Smith that social media is not trying to convince me to view the world in these ways, it is actually training me to do so at a deep level.

So I partially recant of some of my praise of social media. I at least want to add another dimension to the discussion. Perhaps I was right to say that Facebook itself is not the whole problem—it’s more about how we use it. But I need to add Smith’s important recognition that it’s also about how Facebook uses us. Social media is not neutral. Pay attention to the way it orients you to the world, to the way it shapes your desires. All of us are being shaped more often and more deeply than we think.

Social media is a huge blessing. I have not been shy about praising social media platforms like Facebook and Pinterest and also smartphones themselves, which are our primary portal to social media. Many aspects of social media provide us with the opportunity to be better friends, better citizens, better humans.

And yet social media is also a powerful tool for polarization. Social media has a unique ability to increase our arrogance, our self-certainty, and our blood pressure.

Why?

Why does social media make us angry and opinionated? And how can we use social media in a more healthy way?

The biggest problem with social media is also its greatest asset: brevity. We love social media because it gives us snapshots of information about our friends, our interests, and our world.

But while brevity (combined with connectivity) is social media’s greatest strength, it is also social media’s greatest danger. Our world is filled with important and complex issues. Human beings love to discuss everything from the nature of humanity to the President’s foreign policy to the true motivation of terrorist groups to the theological distinctives of celebrity pastors. These conversations need to happen. But these aren’t issues that we can sufficiently grasp in short conversations.

So why do we keep trying to have these discussions in 140 characters or less?

Social Media Distraction

The truth is, the media we use shapes the way we think. Neil Postman famously wrote on the changes in thought processes and social interactions with the advent of the television (in addition to the previous shift that came with Gutenberg’s printing press). While Postman could be a bit alarmist, he was certainly right to warn us of the danger that we might be “amusing ourselves to death.” In the spirit of Postman, author and Los Angeles Times book critic David Ulin recently said, as he reflected on the new year:

“My greatest reservation of 2014 has to do with the sanctimony of social media. Partly, it’s the speed of digital, the incessant necessity to respond. But throughout the year, on a variety of issues, I kept noticing a lockstep consensus, in which to disagree, or to dissent, was to invite the backlash of the crowd. It’s hard to be nuanced in 140 characters, and yet the whole point of reading and writing is to engage.” (article here)

Brevity is a powerful tool for grabbing a person’s attention. It’s a wonderful way to surprise your audience, to catch them off guard, to pique their interest. That’s why headlines work so well: Grab the readers attention, then nuance your position. But with social media, the headline is the content. That’s about all the space you’ve got for content. So you can make a sharp political statement that will grab people’s attention. Some people will love it, because they already agree with you. Others will be furiously offended, because they already disagree with you. But no one is going to change their mind. No one will even be informed. They will simply read your potent statement and become further entrenched in their corner, whether that’s your corner or the opposite one.

As Ulin said, social media also carries a sense of urgency. You only have a few seconds to process all of the information on your feed, so you’ve got to form your opinions quickly. You have very little time to decide who was at fault in the most recent shooting, to evaluate how damning the President’s recent statement really was, to form your opinions on health care, or to determine whether the newest controversial movie is a must-see or a scheme from Satan. In the amount of time it takes you to scroll down your feed, you have to decide.

And that’s not a recipe for healthy opinions. That’s a recipe for an opinionated, arrogant, polarized society. Social media gives us access to limitless information, yet it does not make us informed citizens. Alissa Wilkinson, chief film critic for Christianity Today, recently wrote a great article entitled “In Praise of Slow Opinions.” She argues that everyone is in a rush to give the “hot take” on the latest film or issue. Readers want someone with a strong opinion right off the bat, and writers are eager to offer their “hot take” because it generates clicks. But we ought to be wary of quick opinions.

Life is complicated, and so are films, politics, social issues, and theology. Why are we so eager to get such strong and quickly-formed opinions on everything?

A major culprit is social media. Or more precisely, our misuse of social media. I still believe that social media is a huge blessing, for reasons I’ve already expressed. But when we jettison meaningful conversations in favor of sharp tweets, we’re begging for increased blood pressure and a more polarized society. Social media is a great way to connect and stay “in the loop,” but it’s no replacement for true dialogue. For that we still need books, blogs, articles, lectures, and good old-fashioned conversations—each of these means of communication possessing its own strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and dangers.

From time to time, articles will circulate on social media that illustrate the evils of social media. Get off of Facebook and start living. Step outdoors and look around. Talk to a stranger on a train. Play with your kids.

That’s a great message. Don’t allow social media to keep you indoors. Don’t let it steal the attention that your kids need. Don’t sit in a room full of real-life friends and stare at your phones. If your screens keep you from seeing the world around you, then you need to take immediate action.

However, these anti-social-media articles bug me. If you’re convicted by them, then you probably do need to make some adjustments. But I also believe these articles are missing the mark, at least with many of us. For one thing, there’s an irony in using social media to badmouth social media. With many of my friends, I would have no idea they were wrestling with appropriate technology usage were it not for technology.

Does social media take our eyes off of the real world?

There are other, bigger problems with the arguments against social media. It’s true that smart phones can keep us indoors and keep our eyes off of nature. But when I see photos of the sunsets my friends are witnessing, the hikes they’re taking, and the roads they’re travelling, I’m often inspired to look up and around. Social media gives me an opportunity to appreciate nature through the eyes of my friends. Rather than distracting me from the real world, social media often draws my attention to the real world.

Does social media make us anti-social?

It’s also true that if you’re standing in line at Starbucks (or anywhere), everyone in line is staring at their phones rather than chatting with each other. But how chatty were retail lines before smart phones anyway? I’m not the type to small talk with strangers just because we’re both waiting to order coffee. So I’m not upset that they’re all looking at their phones while we wait. Personally, I’m glad I can use those few minutes to see what my friends are up to, to read a quick article or blog post (are you reading this in line somewhere?), or to knock out an email or two during a few spare minutes that would otherwise be wasted. In some contexts, you need to put down your phone and be social. I’m not sure that sitting on a bus or standing in a line qualify.

Does social media take our attention off of our families?

Being distracted from your family is probably the most serious accusation against social media. I don’t want to minimize this. I sometimes have to fight the urge to pull the phone out of my pocket when I’m at home with my family. When God has given you an opportunity to be with friends and family, don’t choose that moment to nose around the internet. But many of my friends use social media in a family-centered way. They’re posting photos of their family doing fun things because (this will blow your mind) they’re doing fun things with their family! Social media allows them to preserve and share memories—real memories that they’re really making with their real family. In my opinion, there’s a valuable place for social media, even in family life.

Do we pretend to be happy and perfect on social media?

I’ve also heard social media attacked on the grounds that people try to make themselves look good. All of these superficial Facebook users post their happy times but conveniently pass over their embarrassing or tragic life events. I’m sure some of that goes on, but I think the critique is misguided on two counts. First, I see people posting unhappy content all the time. The loss of loved ones. Requests for prayers in the midst of trials. Stories about their failures in parenting. So I’m not sure that critique is even valid much of the time. But secondly, isn’t that more of a human issue than a social media issue? How many of us go around telling people about what makes us sad when we’re chatting after church on Sunday mornings? In my experience, not many people answer the casual “how are you?” by saying “depressed” or “angry” or something equally unflattering. We know there’s a time and a place to go deeper. And in my view, social media is not the place to work through deep, sad, tragic issues. Call me old fashioned, but I’d rather do that face to face. Maybe people aren’t pretending to live perfect lives; maybe they’re using social media appropriately.
 

__________

 
Here’s the thing. Social media doesn’t ruin lives. We ruin our own lives. Social media doesn’t force us to neglect our kids. It’s there when we want to stop interacting with our kids, but so are books, television, phone conversations, etc. Social media is not to blame; it always comes down to the heart.

Technology is an excellent tool if you use it well. But if you find yourself dehumanized through your use of social media, it’s time to check your heart. Deleting your Facebook app might help, but there are probably deeper issues in your heart that need to be addressed. If you’re not using your time sacrificially for good things, then the time you spent on social media will simply go towards some other non-essential pursuit.

We should be intent on living fully, and maybe social media can help us do it.

The Uniqueness of Man

Mark Beuving —  September 29, 2014 — 2 Comments

Julian HuxleyI recently read a very old article because I was intrigued by the title: “The Uniqueness of Man” by Julian Huxley. Huxley (1887–1975) was an evolutionary biologist who received many awards for many things and headed many prestigious societies. He even came from a famous family—his father was a respected writer, his grandfather was pals with Charles Darwin, and his brother was the Aldous Huxley who wrote Brave New World.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about humanity—who we are, what our purpose is, and why we matter—these are all questions I’ve been contemplating. So when I happened upon this outdated article (originally published in 1941) by such an interesting figure, I was drawn in.

According to Huxley, humanity is unique because we are “the culmination of that process of organic evolution which has been proceeding on this planet for over a thousand million years.” We are the accidental product of chance, the unintentionally personal mistake of an impersonal universe. Do human beings have dignity? There is no dignity in our origins, but Huxley sees dignity in our current standing: “After Darwin, man could no longer avoid considering himself as an animal; but he is beginning to see himself as a very peculiar and in many ways a unique animal.”

Huxley spells out some of the features that make humanity unique. We are unique because we have developed the ability to think conceptually, we have learned to draw upon the learning of previous generations, we have learned to domesticate the animal kingdom, we have developed great diversity within the human race, and a few other features. Primarily, humanity is unique because of our unparalleled capacity for gaining and processing knowledge.

In Christian theology, humanity is significant because God made humanity in his image (Gen. 1:26–28). And Huxley agrees that humanity is unique, but this uniqueness is not theological; it is biological: “Biology thus reinstates man in a position analogous to that conferred on him as Lord of Creation by theology. There are, however, differences, and differences of some importance for our general outlook.”

Vitruvian ManWhere does this leave us? According to Huxley, “the goal of the evolutionary maze…is not a central chamber, but a road which will lead definitely onwards.” Evolution leads to progress. But there’s no specific goal (how could an impersonal process have a goal?)—we’re simply headed onward, whatever that might entail. All we can be sure of is that changes will continue to happen.

Yet humanity’s uniqueness will play a major role in where we go from here. For Huxley, we have wasted too much time by failing to embrace our unique status. Instead of taking our proper seat at the pinnacle of the universe, we have instead “projected personality into the cosmic scheme.” Instead of valuing our own greatness, we have turned aside and attributed greatness that is duly ours to a non-existent God, we have attributed a personal will to the impersonal forces and matter that alone govern this world.

Huxley’s solution is to take the evolutionary bull by the horns: “progress has hitherto been a rare and fitful byproduct of evolution. Man has the possibility of making it the main feature of his own future evolution, and of guiding its course in relation to a deliberate aim.” In other words, our accidentally achieved greatness has granted us the capacity to choose where we go from here.

Huxley waxes eloquent as he closes the article:

“Let us not put off our responsibilities onto the shoulders of mythical gods or philosophical absolutes, but shoulder them in the hopefulness of tempered pride.”

It’s significant that Huxley was a member of the British Eugenics Society, whose goal was to encourage reproduction amongst people with more desirable genetic traits and discourage reproduction amongst people with undesirable genetic traits. Huxley advocated taking the next phase of evolution upon our own shoulders: the impersonal universe has placed us on the throne, let’s recreate this world according to our ideals.

To be clear, Julian Huxley’s article is now 73 years old and should not be taken as a cutting edge statement on anything. What I find fascinating about it, however, is the acknowledgement that humanity is unique. In the naturalist, Darwinist scheme, humanity is simply the biggest accident in an infinite string of accidents. We’re not meant to be here. No one invited us. No one fashioned us. We simply showed up—uninvited, unannounced, unwelcome. Yet Huxley, like Darwin before him, still saw humanity as significant. Unique. Dignified.

You will have to be the judge of whether or not we should be proud of our significance as presented by Julian Huxley. But there is a point of continuity between Huxley and the Christian tradition: humanity matters. We are unique. Yet, as Huxley said, there are differences, “and differences of some importance for our general outlook.”

Michelangelo - God and Man

Biblically speaking, we matter in the universe because we matter to God. He crafted us in his image, “crowned us with glory and honor” (Ps. 8:5), and gave us a mission to fulfill. God further dignified the human race by taking on flesh and blood, becoming fully human. Our significance will carry on when he raises our bodies from the grave to reign forever over the recreated earth.

We may well ask with David, “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” But we do indeed recognize our significance. And unlike Darwin and Huxley, we acknowledge that our significance comes not in spite of our origins, but precisely because of them.