ON BEING WIRED
Christians should have a spiritual curiosity over the internet; it might enable them to take a lead in establishing values
Beeban Kidron’s documentary, InRealLife (2013), explores the impact of the internet on human life, most especially with teenagers. The digital revolution is proclaimed as the greatest democratising force, empowering people to access information and make informed choices without the hindrance of gatekeepers, yet it does not always liberate people in their quest for self-expression. The insidious addictive effects of some online activity may be imprisoning others in their desires.
The impact of online porn on human society is not easy to quantify. No-one knows the true extent or can readily identify causal links between the viewing of digital pornography and the treatment of women. InRealLife allows teenage boys to speak openly about porn and honestly about its effects on the way they treat girls; it paints an unedifying portrait of contempt and latent violence. The same addictive properties can be found in gambling; betting and pornography, once minority and inaccessible pursuits for the populace, have become commonplace and reachable from the privacy of the home. InRealLife assesses also the sad growth in bullying online; though much coverage has been about the suffering of teenagers, a whole genre of nastiness has emerged which adults partake just as readily in.
Should we be worried? Whether we are or not may depend on whether we are inclined to be cultural optimists or cultural pessimists. Instinctively people line up on either side according to their temperament. Cultural optimists tend to embrace change without anxiety, in the assurance that human society is developing for the better, especially when aided by economic and technological change. Developments are likely to be acclaimed without fear and they tend to be early adopters of new ideas and technology. At the furthest end of this mood is the kind of digital messianism embedded in Silicon Valley, where uncritical prophecies are made about the utopia their software coders will deliver.
Cultural optimists are prone to ignoring the lessons of history; most especially that economic change has always proven a mixed blessing. The digital world was invented and is being shaped by people, which means it carries within it our flawed humanity. Not enough attention is paid to this by digital optimists and in this they share similar failings with some rigid free market proponents who cannot see how systems are shaped by human culture and should respond to our humanity rather than expecting subservience.
By contrast, cultural pessimists temperamentally assume most change is for the worse. They are more astute than optimists in seeing the role human beings play in cultural and economic change, but are inclined to be gloomy about this. The history of the last hundred years is co-opted gleefully to reinforce their pessimism, where stunning gains in science were put to killing people more effectively. They maintain a similar narrative over technology and point, with some persuasion, to the shocking uses to which surveillance is now being put, without much objection from the public.
Christians are often culturally pessimistic, assuming that change is another step away from the ideal setting of Eden. As a result, their witness is often compromised with optimists, who think they are old fashioned. A greater sense of realism is called for by both optimists and pessimists; we should allow evidence to speak for itself and admit the prejudices we bring to cultural change. Christians may be found on both sides of this divide, depending on the relative conservatism or liberalism of their faith and outlook, but we should have a spiritual curiosity over the internet that allows us to take a lead in establishing values.
At present we have not done much together to try and establish Christian perspectives on the digital revolution. The modern world has fewer shared values than previous generations, which often produces an incoherent debate over cultural change. As the digital revolution is all about how people relate to one another, the Church may be missing a calling here to lead a debate from somewhere other than the parochial confines of Silicon Valley.
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