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Andy Bannister
 

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Communications technology, changes culture. And just as the printing press, the telegraph, radio, and television have done, so the internet is changing our culture. And at lightning speed.

SOLAS MAGAZINE AUTHOR Andy Bannister 23 AUGUST 2018 15:25 h GMT+1
Photo: Clique Images (CC0)

Last month, I was hillwalking in the Lake District of the United Kingdom. Halfway up a mountain, I pulled out my phone to snap a picture and then, liking what I’d shot, thought I’d immediately upload it to Instagram. But my iPhone was reporting a problem: no reception.



No reception. That’s rare in our modern, hyper-connected world. Almost everywhere has mobile phone coverage and if not, we’re hunting down WiFi.



That connectivity means we’re rarely alone. Even when it looks like we’re alone, we’re still connected. The internet is no longer constrained to our desk; it’s with us on the road through our laptops, on the couch or in bed through our tablets, and in our pockets as we hike through our smartphone. We are permanently tethered via our connected devices.



Technology is wonderful, but technology also affects us: we make our tools and then they begin remaking us. And some of the ways that our digital devices are affecting us may not always be helpful. For example, how many of you have enquired of a friend “how are you?” and received the answer “I’m so busy”. We live in a 24-7 culture and our digital devices contribute to the rush, to the busyness.



Another effect of the digital age is near-permanent distraction. The internet is a near-perfect distraction technology. Consider email. Most of us have our email on constantly. Our smartphone pings and we reach for it instinctively. Yet once we do, we’re distracted and research shows that when you’re distracted from a task it takes your brain up to 15 minutes to refocus afterwards.



In his book Scrolling Forward, computer scientist David Levy tells the story of a meeting at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Centre in 1970, when an early computer system was demonstrated. The presenter showed how different windows could be opened at once. At one point during the demo an email arrived, and he showed how he could switch to the email programme, type a reply, and then return to what he was doing. One scientist watching the demo immediately interrupted: “Why on earth would I want to be interrupted by email when I’m trying to program?” he asked. Why indeed? As Levy writes: “No doubt all of us in the room that day believed that personal computers, networks, and email would become a vital part of future work practices. But I doubt that anyone could have imagined how email traffic would grow, or how its use, along with cell phones and pagers and other communication technologies, would vie for our attention and further complicate our lives.”



The internet is not just another technology. The internet, the digital world, the screen, is increasingly the medium through which we experience much of life. It’s becoming the place where we live. And where you live effects what you become.



Many voices in our culture are wondering out loud if the internet has taken us too far, too fast, and asking how to regain control. Surprising numbers of young people are expressing concerns, too. In her book Alone Together, social scientist Sherry Turkle tells of one interview with a high school student: “I interview Sanjay, 16. We will talk for an hour between two of his class periods. At the beginning of our conversation, he takes his mobile phone out of his pocket and turns it off. At the end of our conversation, he turns the phone back on. He looks at me ruefully, almost embarrassed. He has received over a hundred messages as we were speaking. Some are from his girlfriend who, he says, ‘is having a meltdown’. Some are from a group of close friends trying to organise a small concert. He feels a lot of pressure to reply and begins to pick up his books and laptop so he can find a quiet place to set himself to the task. As he says goodbye, he adds, not speaking particularly to me but more to himself, as an afterthought to the conversation we just had, ‘I can’t imagine doing this when I get older’. And then, more quietly, ‘How long do I have to continue doing this?’”



How did we get to where we are today? To answer that, we need to begin with a little history.



 



BUILDING THE SUPER-INFORMATION HIGHWAY



One fine spring morning in 1746, French clergyman Jean-Antoine Nollet gathered 200 monks and had them stand in a mile-long line, each connected to his neighbour by a length of wire. Nollet then connected a battery to the line, instantly causing each monk to jump at the electric shock [1].



Nollet wasn’t some monastic masochist. Rather, he was conducting (pardon the pun) an important experiment: to see how far electricity could be transmitted. Some scientists believed that electricity was the key to building a long-distance communication device. The work of Nollet and others led directly to the telegraph: until its invention, information could only travel at the speed of train, ship or horse. The telegraph revolutionised the world; indeed, it helped make the modern world.



 



Photo: Bence Boros (CC0)



Technology, especially communications technology, changes culture. And just as the printing press, the telegraph, radio, and television have done, so the internet is changing our culture. And at lightning speed.



It’s easy to forget how new the internet is. From just a few dozen users in the late 1970s when it began as a military projected called ARPANET, internet usage has doubled each year since. Now over 2.4 billion people – 34 per cent of the world’s population - are online [2]. In 1993, 1 per cent of the world’s telecommunication traffic passed through the internet. By 2007, it was 97 per cent. Internet traffic is predicted to grow 13-fold in the next four years [3].



Given the newness of the internet, it’s helpful to mentally divide people into two types: “digital migrants”, who have had to learn the net’s ways; and “digital natives”, those under the age of about 25, who have grown up with it. For example, schoolchildren today are as likely to use a tablet as a book, while some educationalists argue things like this: “We live in a digital era. Children do not need to be carriers of information any more. Everything is available on the internet at the click of a button.” [4]



Digital natives and digital migrants. Some of us straddle that divide, myself included. My first contact with computers came early. My father was a high school maths teacher. One day circa 1980, a parent gave a computer to the school; every other teacher dismissed it as a gimmick, my father looked at it, thought “this is the future” and took every course available, ending up a few years later as head of the new computer studies department. He would bring computers home for us kids to play with and I remember the glowing green screens, simple games, and computers the size of a suitcase.



The early computers were quite different in approach from those today. They were based on a one-to-one relationship: there was the user, and there was the computer. The internet fundamentally changed that and now the relationship is one-to-many. There is you, and then, connected to you through your digital device, there are millions of people. The world is just a click away.



Sometime about age 10, I grew bored of computer games and discovered something more exciting - computer programming. Computer magazines back in the mid-1980s would often include programme listings that you could carefully type into your computer. Hours later, you’d have a programme that played chess or simulated a moon landing. One could easily make tweaks to these programmes, learning as you went.



Programming represents a major way that computers changed culture: programming gave the world numbers that weren’t merely inert symbols, but numbers that did things. The first computers were built for military purposes - cracking enemy codes, or modelling the results of nuclear tests. Since then, the capability of computers has grown rapidly and they now control vast amounts of our world.



In the early 1990s, I began my first job, working for the psychiatry department at a major London teaching hospital. I quickly got a reputation as the departmental expert on computers – indeed, my first teaching assignment was giving a seminar to a group of psychiatrists on how to use email, which was just coming into vogue.



 



Markus Spiske (CC0)



Email was a major workplace revolution. No longer was it necessary to talk to a colleague, one could email them. This sounded great at first, but quickly the traffic grew and people discovered that a conversation via email takes three times as long as actually talking to somebody. Emails also don’t convey nuance well and are often misunderstood. But email changed the way we relate - first to our colleagues, then to our friends and family.



But an even bigger revolution was brewing. In the mid-1980s, a scientist called Tim Berners-Lee was working at the CERN laboratory in Geneva and hit upon the idea of using hypertext to link documents together. A few years later, in 1989, Berners-Lee realised that he could connect his hypertext software to the internet and a few months of programming later, he had built the first web browser.



The World Wide Web was born and it spread like wildfire. In December 1990, there was just one website in the entire world. By 2012, there were 634 million websites and over 48 billion pages in Google’s index of web pages.



The latest incarnation of the internet has been termed ‘Web 2.0’. On the old internet, you consumed web pages. With Web 2.0, you produce the content. This began with services like MySpace, launched in 2003. Then came YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. One feature of these services is worth noticing: over time, their format has become more rigid. In the pre-Web 2.0 days, your website (if you had one) was a largely individual creation. Then came MySpace, offering you greater simplicity, but within set boundaries. Now Facebook flattens your identity to a series of choices - gender, relationship status, politics - after which your profile looks much like every other user. Twitter limits you to just 280 characters and a picture for your profile. The technology has improved while the possibilities of self-expression have shrunk.



Social media like Facebook and Instagram, have also brought a new pressure: maintaining your profile. As journalist Stephen Marche put it: “Curating the exhibition of the self has become a 24/7 occupation.”



At the same time as social media has exploded, the ultimate Web 2.0 technology has also emerged - virtual worlds. In the virtual world of Second Life, an immersive 3D environment with several million users, the player can build a whole life for themselves - designing their character, building a home, launching a business. There’s even an economy, with an exchange rate between “game dollars” and “real world dollars”. I actually ran a Second Life business for five years, earning several hundred thousand dollars that paid for my PhD studies.



Consider the questions that all this raises: identity, for example. Are you your Facebook profile? Your Instagram timeline? Your Second Life avatar?



The internet, however, is only part of our story. Another part is how we access it.



 



THE INTERNET BREAKS FREE OF THE DESKTOP



In the mid-1990s, cyborgs strode the campus hallways at MIT. A group of researchers were experimenting with being permanently connected and so, computers and radio transmitters on their backs (this was pre WiFi), keyboards in their pockets, and digital displays clipped to their heads, they lived permanently wired, always on. Many thought them weird; others thought this was the future.[5]



What looked exotic in 1996 became mainstream in the mid-2000s. Now with our smartphones, we too, like the MIT cyborgs, can live full-time on the net. Before us, a myriad worlds open up, just a click away. We can be sitting in a room or apparently having a conversation, yet be somewhere else entirely too. And with the advent of wearable computing, with technologies like smartwatches, Google Glass and more, technology is set to embed itself even further into our lives.



We’ve come a long way in 30 years and all this raises many questions. I’d like to consider five issues the internet and the digital age generates.



 



Progress



We live in an age of faith. Not simply religious faith, but secular faith too. Arguably the most pervasive secular faith is faith in progress: the belief that science and technology can build a better world. But science and technology are not value neutral; with them comes a philosophy. So what philosophies are attached to the digital world? William Powers writes: “We’ve effectively been living by a philosophy, albeit an unconscious one. It holds that (1) connecting via screens is good and (2) the more you connect, the better. I call it Digital Maximalism, because the goal is maximum screen time. Few of us have decided that this is a wise approach to life, but let’s face it, this is how we’ve been living.”



Has the internet become an end, not just a means? What does the ‘good life’ look like in the digital age?



Digital maximalism quickly leads to profound apologetic areas when people start asking questions. Life is so busy, for many of us our days saturated with emails, texts, tweets, alerts, comments, links, posts, photos, videos, blogs, searches, downloads, uploads, files, folders, feeds, filters, walls, widgets, clouds, and pop-ups. But what happens when you stop and reflect? Powers again: “When you start wondering about your own busyness, pretty soon you’re pondering much deeper questions, such as, ‘Is this the kind of life I really want?’ From there it’s just a short hop to the big-league existential stumpers: ‘Why are we here? And who am I?’”



And what about for Christians? Over the centuries, the church has shown a tendency to fall into opposite errors when it comes to culture and technology, either ignoring them entirely or uncritically embracing them. But shouldn’t the Christian worldview give us an alternative place to stand to observe and reflect? Yet how often do we do so?



 



Personhood



In 1996, then-world chess champion Gary Kasparov played an unusual tournament, taking on a computer called Deep Blue, designed by a team at IBM. Although Kasparov won the match, Deep Blue took one game, the first time a computer had beaten a grandmaster in tournament conditions. One year later, Kasparov played an upgraded Deep Blue, a computer capable of considering 200 million chess positions every second. Deep Blue won the tournament.



The story sent shockwaves around the world, with many newspapers opining that human uniqueness had been disproven, that computers were now our equals - even our superiors. But think about it for a moment: all that had actually happened was a group of computer scientists, using human intelligence, had built a very fast computer and programmed it to evaluate chess moves.



Notice that I said ‘fast’ computer. When I first typed that sentence I typed ‘clever computer’. It’s frighteningly easy to anthropomorphise, to assume that computers are actually thinking, believing, even feeling. Underlying much of the computer industry and effecting how the media reports anything to do with computers is another philosophy, one Jaron Lanier has called “the philosophy of computationalism”: the idea that the world is just a computational process and human beings are subprocesses. With enough computing power, computers will take on personal qualities, such as consciousness[6]. In 2007, at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual conference, Google co-founder Larry Page said: “[I]f you look at your programming, your DNA, it’s about 600 megabytes compressed, smaller than any modern operating system, smaller than Linux or Windows … and that includes booting up your brain. So your programme algorithms probably aren’t that complicated; [intelligence] is probably more about overall computation.”



The problem with this is it represents a deeply reductionist view of humans: people are being reduced to what a computer could represent. Whenever anything is digitised, you lose something. For example, consider a digital image of a mountain. Photorealistic, maybe, But what is missing is the sound of the wind, the warmth of the sun on your skin, the smell of the grass, the ache of your muscles after having climbed the mountain. The digital is a ‘flat’ representation of reality. And digital technology encourages us to flatten our view of humanity.



A good example of such flattening occurs on Facebook. There you can find many people who claim to have 1000 or more friends. But a moment’s thought will tell you that it’s not possible to have this many ‘friends’ unless you first significantly reduce what ‘friendship’ means. Facebook and other social media have ‘flattened’ human relationships.



So what does it mean to be human in the digital age? Are you merely the sum of your social network connections, your browsing history, your collection of Instagram photos? Theologically, we can also ask if the digital world is encouraging a new Gnosticism, where humans become just information, pieces of data, points on the social graph. Some futurists, like Ray Kurzweil, think we are and that a time is coming when computers and people will merge, allowing us to live forever in the cloud. [7]



As Christians, we must ask questions here. The Christian worldview says you are not merely your thoughts, or a disembodied mind. You are a person - mind, body and soul. The physical is essential because God designed us that way and called it “very good”. And when God stepped into the world, Jesus became a person, not a book.



 



Creativity



One of the wonders of the digital age is how easy it has become to create and to share. Shoot a photograph on your smartphone and click, it’s on Instagram. Video your cat doing something amusing and minutes later, it’s on YouTube. The internet has democratised content production.



 



Micaela Parente (CC0)



Is this a good thing? The answer is both yes and no. One problem is the deluge of content we’re now faced with. Consider blogging. When blogging began in the mid-1990s, it was hailed as an opportunity for anybody to become a writer, a journalist. But there are now over 181 million blogs online [8]. How do you find the gold amidst the dross? Do you follow the numbers and assume the wisdom of crowds?



Another problem when it comes to the internet and creativity is the idea that things online should be free. For years, the music and movie industries have fought a battle against online piracy of their content. When content is genuinely free, the result is often simply staleness and repetition. How many YouTube videos consist of amusing pets? How many blogs are nearly identical? With this increasing pressure that everything should be free, only one way is really left to make money online: advertising. Google earns over $50 billion a year through online ads. Jaron Lanier raises a profound question: “If money is flowing to advertising instead of musicians, journalists and artists, then [does that mean] society is more concerned with manipulation than truth or beauty?”



How should we respond? Christians believe that creativity is part of being made in God’s image, a reflection of the imago dei. We believe beauty is not subjective and cannot be reduced to numbers: quantity or advertising revenue. Given that a powerful apologetic is that beauty is a signifier of the transcendent, a pointer towards the God of all beauty, how do we help people make that connection in a digital culture in which beauty is more easily available but harder to find than ever?



 



Space and solitude



The other week, I was queuing in Starbucks. There were eight of us in line and every single person was on their smartphone - browsing, emailing, texting, tweeting. There was once a time when the Starbucks queue was ‘dead-time’, down time for your brain. Now, one can cram every spare moment of the day with digital activity.



There’s something about the very nature of the internet, especially coupled with digital devices like smartphones and tablets, that is compulsive, demanding our attention. If you don’t check the web now, you might miss something. If you don’t check your email hourly, somebody might be annoyed that you’re slow responding.



Digital technology has delivered us a world in which we never need to be out of contact for a second, but this brings consequences. Stephen Marche writes: “Solitude used to be good for self-reflection and self-reinvention. But now we are left thinking about who we are all the time, without thinking about who we are.”[9]



Those of us who are Christians must again ask critical questions. “Be still and know that I am God,” says Psalm 46:10. But what does stillness look like in the digital age? There are apologetic issues, too. I remember as a young Christian, keen to evangelise, becoming convinced that if I could just persuade people to think about the deeper questions, surely they would take the gospel seriously. Naïve, maybe, but along the right lines. Yet encouraging people to think deeply is increasingly difficult as the internet becomes more pervasive. If Google Glass and wearable computing takes off, if more people have the web in their field of view almost every waking moment, what impact will that have?



 



Depth



Living as many of us do, vicariously through our screens, ever plugged into the internet, our attention is constantly in demand. How do we think deeply when so many ideas jostle for our attention? The internet now delivers so much information so successfully that our problem is managing it. Google has now indexed over 100 petabytes of data (that’s a 1 with 18 zeros after it. Reading at 250 words a minute, it would take you 4 x 1013 years to read it - longer than the age of the universe).



Theologically, of course, that causes us wonder at the mind of God, for who even that much data is miniscule. But for us mere mortals, how do we process so much information? Larry Page once said that when Google can perfectly answer any question, we would have achieved artificial intelligence. But intelligence isn’t simply knowing ‘the answer’, but knowing the framework into which that answer fits.



How do we do evangelism in such a culture? One need, I believe, is to avoid presenting God as one more fact among a galaxy of facts. Yet are we at times guilty of living this way - God becomes just somebody we read blogs about, tweet about - yet what Jesus seeks is not fans or Facebook friends, but disciples. Likewise, I believe people are seeking depth amidst the ‘data smog’. So how do we help them find it?



There’s a scene at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, where astronaut Dave Bowman, having survived attempts by the super-computer HAL to kill him, reaches HAL’s memory banks and begins disconnecting them. “Dave, stop. Stop, Dave? Will you stop? Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it.” In his book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, journalist Nicholas Carr says he identifies with HAL: “I can feel it too. Over the last few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going … but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think … I lose concentration easily, I get fidgety, lose the thread.”



A few years ago, I drew similar conclusions. Since the early 1990s, I’ve spent much of my life online, designed web pages, run an internet software company, blogged, tweeted and emailed and the result is a distracted mind. The internet trains us to be surfing, clicking, looking for the next thing - and such a mind finds it hard to focus, or be still. How do we help ourselves - and others - learn to enjoy the benefits the internet offers, without sinking beneath the digital waves?



Sherry Turkle tells of another interview she conducted: “Diane, 36, is a curator at a large Midwestern museum and is struggling to keep up with her technology. She says: ‘I suppose I do my job better, but my job is my whole life. Or my whole life is my job. When I move from calendar, to address book, to email, to text messages, I feel like a master of the universe; everything is so efficient. I am a maximising machine. I am on my BlackBerry until two in the morning. I don’t sleep well, but I still can’t keep up with what is sent to me … now for work, I’m expected to have a Twitter feed and a Facebook presence about the museum. And do a blog on museum happenings. That means me in all these places. I have a voice condition. I keep losing my voice. It’s not from talking too much. All I do is type, but it has hit me at my voice. The doctor says it’s a nervous thing.’”



How do we help people like Diane? How many of us, if we’re honest, are like her, glued to our smartphones, overloaded, over-connected. “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” promises Jesus. How do we unpack that promise, that hope, that rest in a world in which everybody is “busy, busy”? The internet can be tool and a master: but nobody, said Jesus, can serve two masters.



 



How do we regain control?



First, to quote Jarod Lanier, “Stop calling yourself a user. You are being used.” The danger of a tool as powerful as the internet, is its power blindsides us and we don’t ask critical questions. Apologetics, however, teaches us to ask good questions. Start asking them of the internet and its effects.



 



Photo: Raw Pixel (CC0)



Second, create distance between yourself and the internet. Take a walk without a phone. Go on vacation and leave every digital device at home. Have staff meetings to which nobody brings their smartphone. Ban phones from the family meal table. Prioritise real relationships over virtual ones.



Third, take control of your tools. Email, for example, is fantastic, but it’s also a blight of the modern age. Wrestle back control. Try checking your email just three or four times, at set times. Start doing your email, rather than it doing you.



Fourth, create internet-free space in your life. We’re working on this in our home by trying to banish all screens - laptops, tablets, TVs, phones - from our lounge, thus creating a zone of peace, calm and silence. A place to be - with oneself, with family, with God.



I realise some of this sounds like something from a self-help book, but I think when it comes to the internet, that’s what many of us - and our friends, family, and colleagues - need. Help. Space. Distance. Calm. Strategies not just to survive but to thrive.



Whenever changes in communication technology come, they change culture profoundly. Christians have been at their best when they have not just used technology, but also helped people think reflectively about it. The internet has changed culture faster than any invention to date and so we must think hard - theologically, philosophically, and apologetically. Not just to use the technology well and communicate clearly in the digital age, but also to ask good questions - and to answer the questions that people are asking.



There are no simple answers when it comes to the internet, nor to the issues it raises of busyness, depth, personhood, distractedness, focus, space, and stillness. But these are great themes to start conversations. Some of that conversation might centre on what the ‘good life’ looks like. If we are living in a digital culture that does not support the things we value and treasure, then it’s vital that all of us - but especially Christians, whom God has called to be about kingdom values - begin to ask how culture can be rebuilt and reshaped.



Andy Bannister is the Director of Solas Centre for Public Christianity.



 



NOTES





       [1] Nollet’s story is told in Tom Standage, The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-Line Pioneers (New York: Walker Publishing Co., 1998) 1-4.





       [2] Source: Internet World Stats, http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm (Accessed 21 May 2013).





       [3]Source: Cisco Visual Networking Index, http://www.cisco.com/en/US/netsol/ns827/networking_solutions_sub_ solution.html#~forecast (accessed 21 May 2013).





       [4]Graeme Paton, ‘Pupils ‘should not be taught lists of kings and queens’’. The Telegraph (London), 31 March 2013 (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/9963732/Pupils-should-not-be-taught-lists-of-kings-and-queens.html; accessed 21 May 2013)





       [5] Scott Kirsner, ‘Former MIT ‘borgs’ still back wearable technology’. The Boston Globe (Boston), 15 July 2012 (http://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2012/07/14/former-mit-borgs-still-back-wearable-technology/2EL5NgdbQ5VzjoBUGFZk4I/story.html; accessed 21 May 2013). See also Turkle, Alone Together, , 152.





       [6] Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget (New York: Random House, 2011), 153-157.





       [7] Holman W. Jenkins Jr., ‘Will Google's Ray Kurzweil Live Forever?’. The Wall Street Journal 12 April 2013 (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324504704578412581386515510.html; accessed 3 June 2013)





       [8] Source: NM Incite, reported at http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/newswire/2012/buzz-in-the-blogosphere-millions-more-bloggers-and-blog-readers.html (accessed 3 June 2013).





       [9] Marche, ‘Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?’. 69.




 

 


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