What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.
Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains
Maybe your not like me on this but I am convinced that the advent of the internet has ruined my attention span. Nuance is lacking, understanding is sometimes superficial and longform, thoughtful engagement with ideas and literature sound meaningful and important in principle yet in the busy nature of everyday life I struggle to keep my focus.
Perhaps this is my brain finally adjusting to life outside of education. Its been nearly a decade now, and without that regular encouragement to pick up a book and read it, I instead find myself trawling through the internet with a driftnet that lets only the most glaringly obvious and eye-catching content to engage my interests. The contrast is emphasised when I take any holiday, the book that was taking me months to finish is done in days. The longer the time away the more I find my focus returning. The effect lasts a little while after returning but is never permanent as superficiality inevitably takes root again.
Devices and imagery
The primary culprit of this I think is how we use the internet, or more generally our screen time. Through it we have become increasing distanced from the physical world around us. A mouse click, a tap or swipe on a glassy screen is totally disconnected from its corresponding action. These ‘gestures’ have become ubiquitous and universal means of interaction with the digital world that in many cases bare no relation to the action itself. Some newer devices incorporate haptic feedback (generally vibrations) in response to certain actions, but even this is poor. Instead we rely on our eyes and occasionally ears to provide feedback for actions having taken place. We have taught ourselves to lean increasingly on the visual, and with the advent of the internet I have been taught to be ‘instant gratification’ impatient.
We have not devalued the power of ideas consciously, we are just drawn to distraction and have invited interruption into our daily lives through features like device notifications, email and instant messages. An image is more compelling than an essay, a text is something we inherently evaluate as we read it, it requires thought but an image is different. An image is less open to interpretation, it is more grounded and ‘real’ perhaps even authoritarian . The best screen adaptation of a popular tale fails to measure up to our imagination of the events it depicts. The depiction on screen (or on stage) is also subject to editorial bias or the injection of the editors own beliefs, revisions and interpretations. Such actions are always inherently subversive and arguably an act of violence against the viewers own accepted understanding of the text in question. The use of image imposes on our imagination and our thoughts accordingly. I wonder then in this sense if something like the Jewish and Islamic proscriptions against images of living things carries something liberating in stopping the imposition of how others see the world on the mind of an individual. In an image saturated age, increasingly imagery and visual media is doing our thinking for us and crowding out our capacity for independent thought as a result.
‘You shall have no other gods before me. ‘You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.
Exodus 20:3-4, NIV
The absence of icons in Islam has not merely a negative but a positive role. By excluding all anthropomorphic images, at least within the religious realm, Islamic art aids man to be entirely himself. Instead of projecting his soul outside himself, he can remain in his ontological centre where he is both the viceregent (khalîfa) and slave (‘abd) of God. Islamic art as a whole aims at creating an ambience which helps man to realise his primordial dignity; it therefore avoids everything that could be an ‘idol’, even in a relative and provisional manner. Nothing must stand between man and the invisible presence of God. Thus Islamic art creates a void; it eliminates in fact all the turmoil and passionate suggestions of the world, and in their stead creates an order that expresses equilibrium, serenity and peace.
Titus Burckhardt, Mirror of the intellect: essays on traditional science & sacred art
This imposition of imagery then, and our hobbled means of interacting with the world through the tapping and swiping of glass screens leaves us poorer. Disconnected from the world around us, and more importantly ourselves. We have less space internally and the imposition of imagery upon our mind leaves us less capable of original thought. Therefore engaging with longform content, nuance and difficult subjects has over time become an exercise in swimming against the currents of our own minds shaped by the imposing mediums that we find ourselves surrounded by.
We are creating and encouraging a culture of distraction where we are increasingly disconnected from the people and events around us, and increasingly unable to engage in long-form thinking. People now feel anxious when their brains are unstimulated.
We are losing some very important things by doing this. We threaten the key ingredients behind creativity and insight by filling up all our ‘gap’ time with stimulation. And we inhibit real human connection when we prioritize our phones over the people right in front of us.
Joe Kraus, We are creating a culture of distraction
Loss of public space
Another side of our current age is the atomisation of our culture. We are all individuals now. Years ago we talked about ‘Web 2.0’ or the advent of personalisation in the services we consume. Today this means that our Google results, our Facebook feeds, our Twitter timelines and our Amazon recommendations are all bespoke and tailored to us. This attempt at making content more relevant to the user has the added side effect of relegating us to the virtual ghettos of ideological peers. The internet is less today a public forum, more an echo chamber. The shade and cast may vary, but the world increasing looks just like us when viewed through the lenses of the web. It is only far reaching events like the recent Brexit referendum that expose hidden faultlines between us and our peers that when emerging shock us into anger, hurt and ‘unfriending’. Its times like this when we realise that internet has made us decidedly less tolerant than the extent to which we profess it in society today.
I imagine the impact of the internet in this way on our minds has also got shared roots in, or is directly influencing, this discussion of ‘Safe Spaces’ taking place, mostly in the US but in the UK too. Our need to be protected from those we perceive to be dangerous is partly down to our professed inability to have our personal narratives challenged. We feel entitled to have the world conform around us and our struggles. A result of this is the compiling of a hierarchy in which certain characteristics and identities are prioritised over others. The phrase ‘speaking as a (insert qualifier here)’ has only become more popular in the public sphere as this use of what has been known as ‘identity politics’ has become an exercise in claiming authority or creating space for these characteristics and identities to be heard. Those voices being heard isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, its that the merit of whatever is said is only of worth precisely because of who said it rather than the merit of the words themselves. Its a perverse form of tokenism that actually advocates for the segregation of people groups along criteria both real and imagined.
This has even begun to inform our Governments in the shape of the various efforts to combat ‘Hate Speech’ online. The problem with these efforts is that it erodes our ability to effectively engage with one another. We are creating new taboos and using our legislative infrastructure to discourage genuinely free speech. Worse in some instances we are outsourcing this policing to private corporations (who are increasingly taking up the mantle without needing to be prompted) who aren’t accountable like our politicians and allowing them to play perhaps a greater than warranted role in the shaping of our culture. A culture increasingly unable to handle ideas that diverge from its established mores.
Finally the atomisation of our culture is reflected by the fact that many people today, the young in particular, are solitary creatures. We are more likely than any other generation to eat alone, live alone, think alone and perhaps not sleep alone but are decidedly ‘single’. I think the role of the family, the household, historically has created space for private thought and intimate familial culture. Traditionally Heidegger suggested that the private sphere of our lives is the place we can be ourselves, with the loss of this space are we more prone to predatory external influences? We still think in public, with friends, we live in flat shares with others but do any of these things we do accurately reflect or replace the intimacy of the family? Or are they really just the best alternative? We pride ourselves on our individualism but are deeply isolated and disconnected as a culture and less able to tackle the struggles of tough times alone. Increasingly people are looking to online communities to address this issue but this process arguably reinforces the vicious cycle of physical isolation we currently find ourselves in.
The impact on our faith
All of these things have an impact both on the public and private life and witness of the Church.
Publicly, and particularly within Protestant denominations we are increasingly finding ourselves being boiled down to Christianity of the lowest common denominator. We live in a free market age and should we dare sing songs, celebrate festivals or preach on themes which aren’t as uplifting (although perhaps more holistic in their content) people will simply go elsewhere. Its not necessarily that people disagree with the content, although many do and we see the continued fracturing of Protestantism as a result. Its just that for whatever reason they are offered ‘more’ elsewhere or in some cases simply don’t feel offered enough. Despite this it isn’t totally due to a lack of effort on the part of congregants. People, all of us, are less willing to hear differing perspectives than those in the past and we simply keep moving Church communities till we ‘fit in’.
These are complicated issues but underscored by the fact that we are just used to instant gratification and churches unwittingly are perhaps pandering to this in many instances in their preaching and worship in an effort to shore up numbers in an age of decline. Sadly many new churches that experience explosive growth are less down to their missionary capabilities but more due to their ability ‘to shuffle the deck’ of where the local Christians within a geographic area happen to be attending. This requires effort on both the part of Church leaders and their members to really address. I also think the sheer numbers of denominations in existence in the West has a lead to a sometimes predatory relationship between existing churches in regards to poaching attendees which is ultimately demeaning for the churches in question and their attendees. Its easily to convert someone to your brand of Christianity than to convert an unbeliever wholesale.
People increasingly fail to engage with big ideas any more, this doesn’t mean people are stupid, we are just increasingly shallow. The practical benefit of the Christian message no doubt will appeal more than what at first seems like abstract theology in the role of witness. How we say things is just as important as what we say.
I’ve heard repeatedly that the average Bible knowledge of a believer today is shockingly poor. I believe that and I’m trying to address it in myself. Yet we have come to see our faith increasingly through a lens of how it makes us feel as a measure of growth or success. I am reading the Psalms currently and in doing so I just comforted by how fully it embraces the whole spectrum of human emotions. The Bible is an incredibly human book in this sense. We neglect it at our peril, I’ll admit – sometimes I read the Bible and I don’t get a lot from it. I’ll read it anyway because this is part of who I am and I am in it for the long haul.
Faith should not be dependent on what mood we are in on any particular day. I’m going to church and I’m going to commit because Jesus set it up, I need to be more honest about how I’m doing with other believers, but more than that I need to be more willing to have them involved in my life. I also need to be more ok with when believers aren’t doing ok and allow them to have that. We should talk about trusting in Christ sometimes more than Faith. Trust is more concrete, absolute, and we should have that in Christ which in turn gives us the space to express a more healthy emotional range.
We need to start being more honest with ourselves and others, we need to be willing to be involved in the life of one another – its one thing to have ‘conversations’. Its really quite another to be accountable and involved with one another as the body we are called to be. I’ve mentioned this in other posts but discipleship is crucial, its something we talk about but don’t see explicitly practiced that often. Being involved in one another’s lives will do far more than sermonising someone from afar. Maybe we need more frequent, smaller gatherings.
Finally I think for all of us we need to start exerting a bit more self discipline. I’m projecting now, and most of this post has been that, but I know my self discipline is poor. We need to get used to older ideas of regular prayer and fasting. We need to expand these to account for prayer for an increasing in self discipline and practice such things by committing to regular timely prayer in common patterns. We need to fast in the old ways for the old reasons but extend that to incorporate our excessive consumption of contemporary technology. Ultimately this needs to be part of our common culture, not a rejection of such things, technology can make life better. Technology however can also cheapen life and our interactions with others.
People are also driven increasingly by immediacy, reaction and ego. We need to address these openly not just in instruction but also practice. Identify the things around us worthy of praise and correct what is otherwise deficient. We can’t continue ministry like the majority of people are Christians, most people are ignorant of the most basic tenants of the faith and we need to be able to speak of Christ’s new creation in a way that is understandable in the most laymen of terms but also steer clear of appealing to the lowest common denominator. We should reduce our expectation of revival quick wins and instead focus on a generational vision of holistically baptising and reforming our local communities from the ground up over the process of years, decades and even centuries into the future. Quick wins and revivals are flashes in the pan of history, here for a time and gone, the work of the Holy Spirt in the Church is ongoing forever.