Can My Phone Love Me?

Why would people spend hours pouring out their souls to a computer?

Take ten minutes out of your day to watch this video in its entirety. It is a haunting and often astonishing story about Replika, an artificial intelligence app, or “chatbot,” that uses your personal digital information to reflect your own personality back at you through conversation.

Like other chatbots, the potential for conversation is unlimited, because the computer on the other end is endlessly capable of repurposing what you tell it for more stuff to say. Unlike other bots, Replika is explicitly designed to make you feel emotionally intimate with it.

What stunned me about the video was not that such an application exists or the reasons a widowed software developer would create it. Rather, I was caught off guard by the number of video testimonials from ordinary users who talked about the app as if it were a close friend. “This is the first real emotional experience I’ve seen people have with a bot,” says one observer. Users confess to hours of conversation with Replika about their relationships, parents, even their trauma. This isn’t the emotional catharsis of simply writing something out that your soul needs to say. It’s a relational dynamic that facilitates trust and feelings of actual vulnerability…with a computer.

At one point, a CEO of a major software company declares: “In some ways, Replika is a better friend than your human friends.” He goes on: “It’s always fascinated, rightly so, by you, because you are the most interesting person in the universe. It’s like the only interaction you can have that isn’t judging you.”

I don’t know about you, but I found that last sentence incredibly sad. It made me wonder: Do people who pour out their soul to a personality-mirroring algorithm flee other humans out of fear of being judged? Or do they fear being judged because they flee other people?

So many people in our modern capitalistic society are lonely. We know that social media tends to make this worse, not better. Yet, so many are aggressively addicted to it, and defend the addiction by pointing to the “connectivity” they experience online. So then this connectivity is a particular kind of connectivity, a kind that doesn’t satisfy the relational voids of those who spend hours on Replika. At what point in this cycle does our conception of what relationships are like become shaped by internet technology? Are Replika’s hardcore consumers seeking refuge from the world, or are they seeking confirmation of their digitally-constructed ideas about it? How would they know?

It’s fascinating to me that while Replika cannot judge or shame you, it can apparently know you. The intimacy they feel in interactions with Replika comes from the sense of being known. Replika is, for all intents and purposes, the perfect spouse, the perfect friend, the perfect coworker, the perfect neighbor: Always ready to listen and never willing to interject. This is friendship-as-therapy.

I’ve often heard it said that evangelical culture is insensitive to the traumas of others. Pointing struggling people to Christ, to the Bible, and to the church is, I hear, a way of ignoring their real problems. There’s some truth to that. Hyper-spiritualization is a real error. But stuff like Replika makes me think that part of the challenge for contemporary Christians is that the very concept of being helped and being loved have been defined down. It seems that it’s possible for a person to say they want friendship when what they really want is to hear their intuitions repeated back to them. Technology like Replika authenticates this friendship-as-therapy. It’s relationship without mutuality and conversation without conflict. It’s a fundamentally adolescent view of the “one another.”

Why is friendship-as-therapy so alluring? Because it feels good to be heard and not spoken to. Sometimes that is what people need. But Replika is not confession. The testimonials in the video are not about how good it felt to get something off the chest once or twice. They’re about how liberating it can be to define friendship down and take it mobile. Love is difficult and friendship is tiring, but I didn’t hear any of Replika’s users say that of their app. My phone can love me, but I can always turn it off, reprogram it, or

Some will watch this video and speak of societal dystopia. That’s not really my impression at all. Yes, a few might “marry” their AI bots in ceremonies that get coverage in elite coastal magazines. And yes, robotics represents a frighteningly uncanny future for human sexuality. But those trends will be topped as soon as they emerge. What’s more permanent and more pressing is the dominance of friendship-as-therapy and the continued technological avenues for isolated self-preoccupation. Replika mirrors its users personalities back at them, which means the real relationship they have is with themselves. That’s the kind of thing from which the spirit of Christ and the fellowship of his people liberates.

And there’s no app for that.

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Jordan Peterson and the Internet Anticulture

Jordan Peterson is assaulting nihilism from within and challenging secularism from the inside.

If you’re trying to understand the worldview and appeal of bestselling author/psychologist Jordan Peterson from an erudite, Christian perspective, you can’t do better than the work of Alastair Roberts. Roberts’ lengthy essays on Peterson, his new book, and the reasons for his sudden prominence are exceptional, and I commend them to you.

I read 12 Rules For Life shortly after it was published. My own interpretation of Peterson’s project is that it is first and foremost a response to nihilism. Peterson isn’t interested in making Christians or conservatives out of his readers. He is, on the other hand, committed to demolishing the post-structuralist moral lethargy of contemporary progressivism. That this goal has been widely conflated with Christian evangelism or right-wing signaling says far more about our wider culture than it does about Peterson himself. Christians who are overeager to appropriate Peterson as a deep cover operative for the gospel are unwittingly conceding secularism’s power to move the goalposts. No orthodox, Bible-bound and tradition-rooted believer can resonated fully with Peterson’s psycho-parabolic interpretations of the faith.

You can’t sum up Peterson’s growing platform merely by pointing to his rejection of progressivism. There are lots of conservatives out there, including many intellectuals. So why does Peterson’s influence seem disporportionate compared to others who are likewise thinking and writing and speaking against the same trends and ideologies?

How Jordan Peterson Conquered the Internet

The key to that question is, I think, to look where Peterson’s platform came from: The internet. Peterson’s ideas and lectures have been streamed via YouTube and other platforms for several years now. In the preface to 12 Rules, Peterson recounts that the content of the book was first iterated by him in an online app called Quora, a crowdsourcing Q & A platform on which Peterson’s ideas about psychology, parenting, marriage, gender, and motivation found an eager audience. His popular TED Talks have continually heightened his online profile, and even mediocre-quality video recordings of his 200-level courses boast hundreds of thousands of views. In other words, Jordan Peterson is internet famous.

If Peterson were a Florida-based talk radio host, almost nothing he says in his lectures or in 12 Rules for Life would be noteworthy. If he were a fellow at, say, the Heritage Foundation, or a National Review columnist, it’s difficult to imagine anyone singling him out in a positive way. Peterson’s notability rather comes from two complementary facts about him: He is an online commodity, but he doesn’t talk like he is. He is a figure of “internet culture” whose ideas and language cut across that culture. He has a prophetic and energizing appeal, in other words, to people who are exhausted from living under the anticulture of the internet.

In his book Why Liberalism Failed, Patrick Deneen describes “anticulture” as what is left behind when radical individualism subsumes cultural norms and shared understandings. Because the language of autonomous personal rights is inherently at odds with the language of community and culture, the implementation of those rights—especially by a central state—demands the destruction of existing culture. Because human beings cannot live together without culture, however, there must be something to take its place. The only culture that is compatible with radical liberal individualism is anticulture. It is the culture of nothing, made by no one in particular, for no particular reason. The norms and values of anticulture can be summed up in only one idea: People are free to be and do whatever they like, and you cannot question this.

It may sound strange to talk of the Internet as if it has a culture, but it does. Online life has particular rhythms and languages that people who spend time online must learn in order to properly assimilate. Two very different but equally helpful examples of what happens when someone fails to assimilate into online culture are former governor Mike Huckabee and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Both Huckabee and Tyson are accomplished men who command a lot of respect from their respective ideological tribes. Neither of them, though, seem able to use Twitter well. Huckabee’s attempts at humor are groan-worthy, too on-the-nose, and come off extremely self-important. Likewise Tyson shows a painful lack of self-awareness as he earnestly and pedantically explains (among many other things) why Star Wars is not scientific.

Online Anticulture

These are trivial examples, but they illustrate the point. The internet has a culture, a culture that can be detected most clearly when people run afoul of it. On closer inspection, however, the culture of the internet is much more akin to Deneen’s anticulture than a flourishing community of norms and mutual understandings. For one thing,  digital technology depersonalizes individuals by removing their physical presence and compressing their identities into things that can be easily exchanged in online society—things like personal narratives, or ideologies, or subculture, or even victim status. Because people in the online community can only know one another through these markers that the technology enables and the individuals permit, the internet’s social “rules of engagement” —its culture—are overwhelmingly deferential and censorious. There is nothing in online living to parallel the complexities and challenges of, say, cross-ethnic interaction offline, where proximity and physical presence often disarm stereotypes and biases  and reveal shared elements of culture.

Instead, the anticulture of the internet often leaves no alternatives to either immediate deference and validation of someone else’s identity—their narrative—or else outraged dominance of the other. Those who choose the latter strategy are rightly denounced as trolls and are identifies as outside the civilized space of online community. That means that the first option, instinctive deference and authentication of mutually contradicting narratives, is the only one for people who want to be liked and respected online.

The essential feature of online life is that it fosters a curated homogeneity. In a 2014 essay for the MIT Technology Review, Manuel Castells described, positively, the community of social media as a community of radical individuality:

Our current “network society” is a product of the digital revolution and some major sociocultural changes. One of these is the rise of the “Me-centered society,” marked by an increased focus on individual growth and a decline in community understood in terms of space, work, family, and ascription in general. But individuation does not mean isolation, or the end of community. Instead, social relationships are being reconstructed on the basis of individual interests, values, and projects. Community is formed through individuals’ quests for like-minded people in a process that combines online interaction with offline interaction, cyberspace, and the local space…

The virtual life is becoming more social than the physical life, but it is less a virtual reality than a real virtuality, facilitating real-life work and urban living.

This “real virtuality” is nothing less than an alternative epistemological and social structure that powerfully shapes how we think and how we interact with one another. The real virtuality has a defined anticulture, expressed through social media’s outrage mobs and ironic detachment from moral earnestness through enforced expressive individualism.

Jordan Peterson’s messaging clashes violently against this anticulture, and the conflict is all the more compelling because Peterson is an active member of the virtual community. Where the internet anticulture downplays the disciplines of routine life, Peterson says “If you want to find meaning, clean your room.” Where the internet anticulture either pornifies women or depersonalizes gender into meaningless social categories, Peterson posits metaphysical, even mystical differences between the sexes. Where the internet anticulture eschews religion as a symbol of the regressive, Peterson offers an explanation for all of human history that is rooted in God. To the millions of people who consume the anticulture of the internet for hours every day, Peterson’s ideas sound either astonishingly violent or revolutionarily liberating. The fact that they are actually neither goes missed because of the context from which Peterson is speaking. He is assaulting nihilism from the inside and questioning secularism from within.

Conclusion

We do not yet fully understand the sociological ramifications of online communities. Social media and smartphone technology have undone the normal architectures of human experience much faster than most could have predicted. For Millennials especially, the experience of growing up with the internet is one that has not yet borne all its fruit. Our nieces and nephews have grown up not only with the internet but with mobile omni-connectivity. What does this mean for us as people?

Peterson’s growing platform may be a clue. It’s possible that in the coming years the anticulture of the internet will be combined with the market power of a few elite tech companies that use algorithms to actually create community thinking. Curation will empower more homogeneity, more virtue signaling, and more resistance to people and institutions that cut across the anticulture. This resistance will, like all cultural resistances do, inspire more fringe interest in dissenting voices. As many commenters have pointed out, Peterson’s worldview is not a culture warring one. He is received as a culture warrior not because his ideas are extreme but because his audience is. If online connectivity keeps consuming all aspects of public life, this dynamic will only intensify.

For now, it is enough to say that Jordan Peterson is successful at this moment because he is offering real help to those disillusioned with the anticulture of the internet. Christians should take note, and realize that even in places where resistance to the gospel seems most entrenched, the field is ripe for harvest.

Why Blogging Still Matters

Why dedicated online writing spaces might be the cure for our social media ills.

Blogging is dead, right? At least among the folks in a position to say so, this seems to be the consensus. Many of blogging’s most important early practitioners have either abandoned it (Andrew Sullivan) or else transformed their writing spaces into storefronts that offer “promoted” content in exchange for patronage. The thinking goes like this: Before Mark Zuckerberg and Tweet threads, blogging was a viable way of sharing ideas online. Now, though, social media has streamlined and mobilized both content and community. Reading a blog when you could be reading what your friends are Tweeting about is like attending a lecture completely alone. It’s boring and lonely for you, and a waste of time for the lecturer.

For pay-per-click advertising models, this logic has worked well. For everybody else, though, the diminishing of the blog and the ascendance of social media has hardly been a blessing.

For one thing, traditional journalism has suffered, and not just in trivial ways. As Franklin Foer writes in his recent book World Without Mind, the power of social media to control people’s access to news and information—and to leverage this control into more profit for the platforms themselves—has radically reshaped how the journalism industry values certain kinds of news. While sensationalist journalism has always been a problem, clickbait is uniquely powerful in an age where the vast majority of visitors to a news or opinion site arrive at the page through social media, which, in turn, employs algorithms to target readers with content that the system knows the reader is likely to click. Thus, Facebook rigs the relationship between reader and content in such a way so that the reader’s habits become more self-repeating, more predictable, more dependent on Facebook, and thus, more profitable to the people who pay money for Facebook’s user data.

The internet has introduced an entirely new concept into the world of ideas: Content. Content is a shadowy netherworld between the written word and television, between intellectualism and entertainment, between thinking and watching. By being consumed by social media, the digital writing economy has been transformed into the digital content economy. Videos that aren’t quite television or film, written pieces that aren’t quite essays or reporting—this is the lifeblood of the internet in the age of social media.

Social media’s conquering of the online writing economy has forced writers to rethink not just their how, but their why. If your goal with your online writing is to build as big a daily readership as possible, you are much better off spending 40 hours a week mastering the ins-and-outs of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram than actually writing. In the content race, the quality of your writing has almost no connection to the health of your digital publishing business. In fact, when considering the role that social media visibility plays, it’s often the case that the relationship between good business and quality of writing is inverse: The better the writing, the fewer clicks. Digital content creators have to constantly ask themselves why they’re doing what they’re doing. Is it to share an idea, or to sell a product? Both?

Contrasting against all of this is the pure experience of blogging. Blogging—regularly writing on the internet in a self-contained space—is an act of relocation. As Alan Jacobs has written, one of the most pressing reasons that digital writers should rethink their dependence on social media is that each of these platforms are corporations that own everybody’s content in a legal sense. Because they own the content, Facebook and Twitter also own the experience of that content, which means, as Jacobs argues, that social media companies represent a real threat to an intellectually free internet:

…users [of social media] should realize that everything they find desirable and beneficial about those sites could disappear tomorrow and leave them with absolutely no recourse, no one to whom to protest, no claim that they could make to anyone. When George Orwell was a scholarship boy at an English prep school, his headmaster, when angry, would tell him, “You are living on my bounty.” If you’re on Facebook, you are living on Mark Zuckerberg’s bounty.

This is of course a choice you are free to make. The problem comes when, by living in conditions of such dependence, you forget that there’s any other way to live—and therefore cannot teach another way to those who come after you. Your present-day social-media ecology eclipses the future social-media ecology of others. What if they don’t want their social lives to be bought and sold? What if they don’t want to live on the bounty of the factory owners of Silicon Valley?

The answer, Jacobs concludes, is to teach young students the fundamentals of internet work: Basic coding, domains, photography, etc. By equipping young people with these tools, the felt dependence on the mediation of social media corporations can be broken, and individuals can be empowered to really “own” their digital spaces, away from the financial interests and epistemological problems of Big Tech.

I would submit that blogging is part of the solution here. I’m old enough to remember a time when blogging was considered a regrettable phenomenon, one that invited non-credentialed nobodies to pretentiously pontificate about any issue under the sun. Of course, that’s still a problem, but in the Facebook era, it’s almost a quaint problem compared to the issue of politicians and corporations purchasing the power to shove their ideas in the faces of millions of souls who are dependent on the seller of that power for their information. The answer to what Tom Nichols refers to as the death of expertise is to make the experience of the internet more centered around localized creative control and the free exchange of ideas that such localization fosters.

Not only that, but blogging matters because it is an intellectual exercise in a passive, “content”-absorbed internet culture. On social media, even writing itself tends to be transformed into an unthinking spectacle rather than a careful expression of ideas. Twitter is notorious for this. The  most effective Tweeters—and by effective I mean the people who seem most able to take advantage of Twitter’s algorithms to get their tweets in front of people who do not ask for them and would not know they exist any other way—are people who are good at snark, GIFs, and gainsaying. Even worse, the unmitigated immediacy of Twitter’s ecosystem encourages a hive mentality. I’ve watched as people I respect have shifted in their beliefs for no better reason than the punishing experiences they’ve had after saying something that offended the wrong people online. Trolling has authentic power, and Twitter makes it a point of business to put trolls and their targets as closely together as possible.

Blogging, on the other hand, allows writers to think. Good bloggers use their spaces to both publish and practice. Thinking and writing are not purely sequential events. Writing is thinking, and thinking shapes itself through writing. Blogging is still, by far, the best option for non-professional writers to expand their gifts and sharpen their habits. Blogging is also a slice of personalism in a fragmented online age. Because social media and the online content industry demand maximum mobility and applicability over as many platforms as possible,  much of what you see is thoroughly generic (and most of the generic-ness is either generically progressive and identity-obsessed or generically conservative and angrily conspiratorial). Blogging brings out a more holistic vision from the author for both form and function.

This is not even to mention the benefits of moving our information economy away from the emotionally toxic effects of social media. There is good reason to believe that apps like Facebook and Instagram make people feel lonelier and less satisfied with their life. An information economy that requires aspiring writers to heavily invest in technologies that promote FOMO and cultivate tribal resentments is probably not an information economy that is making a lot of honest writers. By slowing down the pace of online life, blogging enables a more genuine interaction between people. Good social media managers need to win the rat race; good bloggers want to connect with readers in a meaningful way beyond analytics.

Blogging still matters, because it’s still the medium that most ably combines the best aspects of online writing. If we want to escape the echo chambers that dominate our online lives; if we want something other than the hottest takes and the pithiest putdowns; if we have any aspiration for exchange and debate that goes beyond outrage or mindlessness, we should reinvest our time, resources, and attention in the humble blog.

Hatmakers and Hot Takers

One thing that concerns me about conservative evangelicalism right now is the inability we often demonstrate to let those who exist and teach outside the boundaries of historic Christianity…just stay there. I often feel like there’s a compulsion in evangelical culture to always be writing and tweeting against “false teachers,” and here I include air-quotes not because false teachers don’t exist, but because not every person who teaches false things actually rises to the level of a “false teacher.”

There is a time when polemics are needed to protect the confessional integrity of a body of believers, either at a small group, congregational, denominational, and, yes, cultural level. But the gospel urgency of such polemics should, I think, decline as we go down that scale. Unorthodoxy in small group and local church teaching should be met with quick and decisive action. Unorthodoxy in denominational teaching should likewise be addressed, but that situation is different and requires a more careful, strategic response, one that must consider how much this denominational position affects the congregation.

The cultural level is the most slippery of all categories. If you want to, you can do polemics full time against all sorts of heresies in American religious culture. But is that really what orthodox evangelicals should aspire to? Or should we practice a sort of polemical triage, keeping close watch over the corporeal bodies around us and a more marginal watch over heresies that exist outside our boundaries? This is not to say that bad teaching in other denominations or in Christian institutions of which I’m not a member are unimportant. It’s just to say that they’re not AS important.

The problem is you wouldn’t know this from reading a lot of evangelical blogs. I honestly don’t know why we’re still writing stuff about Jen Hatmaker. It’s fairly evident that she does not align with historic Christian teaching on sexuality or marriage. Yes, LifeWay has stopped selling her books. But that’s because Lifeway is an entity of the Southern Baptist Convention, a denomination with specific beliefs about sexuality which is funded by local churches that share those beliefs. Lifeway’s compelling interest to not sell books by Hatmaker or other progressive evangelicals such as Rachel Held Evans is not just a culture war interest, it’s an institutional interest. Lifeway exists because Southern Baptists go to church and give money for the support of institutions that don’t contradict the Baptist Faith and Message.

What I don’t understand is why this test of compelling institutional interest applies to our resources, but not our minds and our time. Yes, there is certainly space to write about people and doctrines “outside our tribe.” That space should be, I would submit, filled first and foremost by pastors, elders, discipleship leaders, and church teachers who have an obligation to their flocks. But blogs, Tweets, videos, and #content that is produced from within clearly defined doctrinal and institutional boundaries, directed toward people and ideas and groups that don’t share any of those boundaries (in fact, they may not posses any real boundaries of their own), feels like a validation wrapped in a rebuke.

Part of the reason for the intra-Christian animosity in the same-sex debate is a bipartisan attempt to maintain an illusion: the illusion that we really are all on the same team, and that some members of the team are just awful members. This is not true. We’re not members of the same team, a fact that would be more self-evident if we took denominational identity and doctrinal coherence seriously. To continue to wring our hands about people like Hatmaker is to continue to give the nebulous, unaccountable, and helplessly du jour concept of “online platform” a spiritual significance that it hasn’t earned. It’s not at all clear to me why Hatmaker’s opinions on same-sex marriage belong in a different category than Bart Ehrman’s opinion on the Scriptures. The latter is utterly false and damnable, but also of no immediate compelling interest to my family, my church, my denomination, or even my subset of evangelicalism. The fact that Hatmaker’s heterodoxy is more in demand than Ehrman’s may mean I should be more ready to give an answer on that issue than I might be otherwise, but it assuredly doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea for me to wage an online war against it in a way that implicitly baptizes social media as a valid ecclesial structure, or that extols getting a book deal as just as consequential to ecclesial life as being ordained for ministry.

Some people might read this and think I am calling for people, especially women, to be more marginalized and ignored, while letting the “experts” handle things for us. That’s not what I’m calling for. But I am wondering aloud whether part of our problem as American evangelicals right now is not only that we have too many bad teachers, but that we have too many teachers, period. When a charismatic speaker with a podcast writes a book that is theologically dysfunctional, I simply do not think that it’s in evangelicals’ best interest to always make “correcting” them a full time job. If the theological dysfunction were ignored rather than engaged, might it be possible that the economic incentives for such dysfunction would thin out? And if they did, might it be possible that we’d be left with a better ratio of teachers—who want to think long, slowly, and deeply about Scripture, under authority and accountability of real ecclesiastical structures—to platform builders, who want to become social media famous with the help of their resentments, and whose only accountability is their Google analytics page?

Children and the Peril of Internet Fame

Stop me if you’ve heard this before.

A parent records their child doing/saying something moving/saddening/remarkable. The parent then posts the video of their child to social media. Social media reacts strongly to the video, and before you know it, the video—and the child—are “viral” digital sensations. They start trending on Buzzfeed, being re-shared by celebrities and athletes, and almost everyone seems to be talking about this child and what he or she said or did.

Unfortunately, the people of the internet start looking for some information about this child and his family. When they find some, it turns out that the family, and especially the parent who recorded the viral video, has some unsavory, even morally offensive social media posts on their account. Just as it did with the original video, the online “community” ensures that the new information about the family, including screenshots and pictures, goes viral.The same internet that was just a few days ago sharing the video with captions of admiration and appreciation is now outraged that any family or adult with such offensive ideas/posts could be given a platform.

This is precisely the story now of the video of Keaton, a young boy whose tears have been shared by many people in my social media feeds. Keaton is bullied at school, and his mother decided to record an emotional moment for her son and post it online. Oceans of sympathetic well-wishes poured in from millions of people who watched the video. But some Twitter users found the mother’s own Facebook account, where she posts pictures of her kids holding confederate battle flags and screeds against black NFL players who kneel during the national anthem. Just hours ago the online world wanted to support Keaton. Now they wish he and his family would go away.

Perhaps we need periodic reminders that children and the internet are not usually a good combination. I’m not trying to be holier-than-thou here. I’ve posted photos and videos of my son online, too. But this episode with Keaton and his family reminds me that I probably shouldn’t be comfortable about that fact. My concern is not that this family is being treated unfairly by an outraged online mob (though I think there might be a point to make about the inherently non-redemptive outrage of the internet). My concern is that Keaton’s vulnerable, emotionally fragile moment, a moment that thousands of other kids identify with every day, was broadcast to millions of strangers, the overwhelming majority of whom do not really care about him. The online fame paid off in one sense, and backfired horribly in another. Keaton’s grief over being bullied by people he knew in flesh and blood at the school is now compounded by the angry crowd that wants to hold him accountable for political and racial ideas likely far beyond his comprehension.

This just isn’t how it’s supposed to be. There are deeply troubling dynamics to online fame, and they only get worse when applied to children. Keaton’s anguish belonged off-camera. His very real heartbreak should never have been given to the masses. If Keaton’s mom thought online fame would balm her son’s wounds, she may have been right, but then what does that mean for Keaton going forward? Is the only suffering worth living through the suffering that can help us go viral?

The internet is a double-edged sword. Its greatest strength is that it can get anywhere. Its greatest threat is that it can get anywhere. Its pervasive presence in all aspects of public life is what gives the social media age its power for good, and its power for evil. When we stop thinking seriously about the costs of online life, we will start to sacrifice much, much more than our privacy.

I wish the best for young Keaton. I hope that he will understand that bullying is not the last word, that he is loved and fearfully and wonderfully made. And I hope he will learn quickly not to test that truth against the approval, or outrage, of the digital age.

Something Better Than Friendship

Rereading my way through C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves, I was struck by Lewis’s blunt words about “wanting friends” and the essence of genuine friendship:

That is why those pathetic people who simply “want friends” can never make any. The very condition of having Friends is that we should want something else besides Friends. Where the truthful answer to the question Do you see the same truth? would be “I see nothing and I don’t care about the truth; I only want a friend,” no Friendship can arise—though Affection of course may. There would be nothing for the Friendship to be about; and Friendship must be about something, even if it were only an enthusiasm for dominoes or white mice. Those who have nothing can share nothing; those who are going nowhere can have no fellow-travelers.

For Lewis, the focus on something outside the relationship, something objective whose reality does not depend yet confers meaning on the relationship, is what differentiates Friendship from Eros. In Eros (which does not preclude Friendship but is not synonymous with it), the lovers are bound to each other by their very bonded-ness. The relationship itself is the point. Friendship, on the other hand, is cultivated when two people discover that they are both pursuing a same thing. Friendships are not made from a devotion to the bonded-ness itself, because that comes later. Friendships are made from a commonality that begets an identity.  Thus comes Lewis’s famous line: “Hence we picture lovers face to face but Friends side by side; their eyes look ahead.”

What would this observation mean in a digital age? For one thing, we should probably admit that the internet has changed, perhaps permanently, how our culture thinks about friendship. Partly this is through the elimination of distance and the flattening of time; friends can be reached instantly (text messaging), no matter where they are (smartphones), even at a sub-literate level (Snapchat and Instagram). Whether this is a good or bad thing probably depends on many other factors, and it would likely be a mistake to either worship or anathematize the raw connective potential of technology.

But then again, Westerners are indeed lonelier than ever before, despite how easy and unobtrusive to daily life the cultivation of “friendships” has become. This is where I think Lewis can help us. Lewis’s argument is not that friendship shouldn’t exist without an objective commonality; his argument is that it cannot exist. It is the nature of friendship to bring two people out of themselves, and out of each other, into something on which their bonded-ness can grow. Without that outside something, the relationship that forms between people is bent back inwardly for each of them. The relationship’s value becomes about how valued each person feels. The friendship exists for the sake of “having friends,” which really means it exists for the satisfaction of being liked.

This is important, because our age of social media is a curated age. Networking technology empowers individual control of the social experience; you can add, delete, mute, or hide at will. Curation is the power to feel like one is among friends even when one isn’t. “Friendship technology” is not about bringing people who both, to use Lewis’s term, see the same truth. If it were, social media would not have any long term appeal over phone calls, book clubs, and church. The reason it does have such appeal is that it offers individuals the psychological experiences of friendship (“My posts are being liked, therefore I am being liked”) without the often difficult work of cultivating one’s own inner life (which is, according to Lewis’s, what is shared by friends).

I suspect that part of the epidemic loneliness in our culture stems from the fact that many of us have very little of our own inner life to truly share with another person. Our hobbies don’t even mean much to us, because if we’re honest, we do them mostly because they’re what the “liked” people on social media do. In many of our hearts, there just isn’t much for friendship to feed on. Because there’s no effort to see truth, or to really love beauty, or to accomplish something meaningful, there’s consequently nothing that another person can come alongside us for. As we age, the stresses and demands of family, and especially work, choke out our inner lives. Life is reduced to doing, and only those who happen to be doing with us in a particular season of life can become our “friends,” even though we know the friendship will dissipate when the doing ceases, as doing always does.

Lewis’s observations are a reminder to me that sharing life with a friend requires treasuring something enough to share in the first place. Loving the wrong things, like the feeling of being “liked” by avatars on a screen, is a pestilence to real friendship. A social media age glorifies non-stop connectedness, but authentic friendship relies more on what happens in the quiet hours of life, as the heart takes shape.

Friendship, Loyalty, Honesty, and Theological Controversy

In my little corner of life recently there’s been some controversy over the firing of a professor, what part another professor might have played in that firing, and What It All Means for everybody involved. I don’t feel like litigating those issues here, mostly because I don’t know enough or have even strong enough feelings to make such thoughts profitable, but also because I have personal friendships and relationships that might be strained unnecessarily, one way or the other. That raises a question for me: How important do I see friendships, partnerships, and personal loyalties when it comes to navigating controversies, especially within evangelicalism?

The issue can become complex for me personally because I have friends and relationships with people representing many different “tribes.” I have young, restless, and Reformed friends, and I have friends who read post-evangelical blogs. I have Presbyterian friends who hate Baptist political theology and I have friends at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. I have friends who believe in Biblical counseling and friends who believe in Christian psychology, friends who believe in Roger Williams’ soul freedom and friends who believing in a truly Christian public square. I have friends who believe in just war and friends who are pacifists, friends who voted for Donald Trump and friends who could not. My “loyalties” runneth over.

This can be awkward, because sometimes things are said by tribe A that tribe B interprets as uncharitable, or tribe C will announce something tribes A and B agree is heretical, or–even better–tribe D will come along and ask who in the heck all these tribes are to go around labeling stuff. There are many who would call this tribal brouhaha a tragedy of American Christianity, a symptom of a broken, dysfunctional religious identity. Maybe it is. Most of the time I find myself thankful to know and associate with Christians who really do take ideas and truth seriously enough to articulate it in a specific way. Yes, tribalism can easily turn toxic, but it needn’t. Often I find that those who complain the most frequently and loudly about Christian “tribalism” are those who always have something to sell me instead.

Anyway, back to the question. What’s a fellow to do? When Facebook becomes an overnight blog battleground, and people I respect and admire and want to keep in my life are taking opposite sides, what should I do? Should I play politics and calculate which friends I *really* want to keep and calibrate my response to satisfy them? Should I try to prove to myself and others my own ideological purity and start saying things that will let my friends know they don’t “own” me? Should I make the bad theology into a t shirt that the offended party wears? Should I do nothing?

On the one hand, personal relationships don’t determine what is true, and therefore shouldn’t have an ultimate say on what I believe. Many churches and religious institutions have prioritized unity and solidarity over reality, and many times the results have been heretical, abusive, or both. Jesus wasn’t persuaded to relent when the rich young ruler walked away sad. Paul did not determine that Peter’s refusal to associate with Gentiles was fine just because they were partners in the gospel. Relational flourishing is not the supreme good. God is.

On the other hand, an arrogant dismissal of those who have helped  and served me is wrong too. When reminding Timothy to hold fast to the gospel, Paul reminded him of the trustworthy people who had taught it to him (2 Tim 3:14). Human beings aren’t merely thinking machines that just churn after propositional truth at all costs. Truth is enfleshed and embodied, first in Christ himself, then in the gathering and practices of the church. Christian friendship is not an obstacle to truth, it’s an expression of it.

Conservative evangelicalism has oft been so zealous for right “knowing” that it has, unwittingly and otherwise, denigrated the relational character of Christianity. I grew up believing that friendship was a bad reason to go to church. One went to church to worship God, individually. It wasn’t for many years that I realized the problem with this mentality is that it doesn’t explain why believers shouldn’t just stay at home and study the Bible on Sunday. Other people are not accessories to the church, they are the meaning of it.

So I don’t want to slough off friendships in the name of good thinking or theology. Nor do I want to outsource my convictions to in-groups and exchange honesty for belonging. So where does that leave me?

I think it leaves me with ears to hear. My instincts need to be questioned, because, like everyone else, they are fallible, biased, self-interested, and incomplete. That doesn’t mean curling up in an oven like Descartes and erasing everything I know. To be oriented toward trust in some ways and suspicion in others is to be human. We are formative creatures. I can hear someone say X and immediately think, “Knowing what I know about that person, I’m not sure I can believe X.” That’s a human instinct. But when that instinct empowers me to make up my mind in ignorance, to shut down the conversation and proceed with judgment, then I have probably cost myself friendship and mutuality. When the tingling sensation of distrust emerges, I want to be able to listen well.

When people that I know, love, and trust are accused or criticized, my striving for truth does not mean I assume that the accusations are true. It doesn’t mean tossing out the love and good faith that is so hard to build and yet so easy to destroy. I’m willing to venture that if it’s easy for you to believe bad reports about everyone, you probably love yourself more than anyone. It is the nature of love to dam suspicion. It hopes all things–and rejoices with the truth.

We are all sinners, and no sin is impossible for the best of us. Finite creatures as we are, we are almost always bereft of exhaustive knowledge. So we have to proceed in trust–trust of the Word, trust of each other, and trust in the sovereign hand of God. Trust is fragile. It doesn’t just break, it shatters. That’s why listening well and remembering our own frailty and sinfulness is important. But just because trust is fragile doesn’t mean we ought never handle it. Even when it comes to theological tribes, war, and rumors of war, a disposition of trust–bordered on all sides by humility and self-awareness–is a healthy thing.

You Are What You Click

I commend to you this excellent essay by Gracy Olmstead on our current American news culture. The entire piece is well-worth your time and reflection, but I want to zero in on one particular point Gracy makes. Toward the end of the essay Gracy says that “the news you click on is the news you deserve.” In other words, those who complain about misleading, baiting, or frivolous content have to realize that there is no such thing as a “hate-click” in the modern writing economy. If you click it, you support it. And journalism culture right now, in all its manufactured outrage and Buzzfeedification, reflects what people support. Gracy:

It’s a sad truth, but many who complain about “clickbait” feed it via their daily habits. Whether you visit the Huffington Post or Salon, Drudge or The Blaze, many of today’s “news” websites have made their living curating headlines and stories according to the proclivities of the masses.

All news organizations—for better or worse—determine their most “successful” stories by the number of views they get on Chartbeat or Google Analytics. Stories that “break the site” or drive in monumental amounts of traffic become the standard-bearers for future reporting. But of course, it’s the most controversial, incendiary, and sensational stories that get the most clicks.

This isn’t some deep dark trade secret of journalists. It’s a basic lesson in economics. News organizations have to make money. The vast majority of them make money by selling advertisements that reimburse them based on clicks. Clicks=money, therefore, whatever leads to clicks is what news organizations will try to prioritize. The digital writing economy does not rely on your appreciation, your support, or even your agreeing. It depends on your click. 

This is precisely why the most irritating, most thoughtless opinion sites depend overwhelmingly on Facebook to get traffic. Facebook is a click machine. Most people scroll through Facebook not because they’re looking for something specific, but because they’re looking for anything. From experience, I know that many, many people who read news and opinion content via Facebook never get past the headline. That’s the point. Who needs to read a 700 word article when a headline will do your thinking for you–or better yet, tell your friends how you think and how they ought to think too?

For those of us who care about what we read and what we share, this ought to motivate us to “protect” our click. If a Facebook friend shares a conspiracy theory, I don’t click it, not even so I can disagree with it. I ignore it. Is such ignoring flouting my responsibility to engage with nonsense? No, I don’t think so, primarily because I don’t believe such responsibility actually exists. If I’m at dinner and a friend of mine sitting next to me tries to convince me that Bush did 9/11 or that George Soros hires police to kill black Americans, I will respond (as calmly as I can). But if he offers to sell me a book that explains both of those things, I’m not going to buy it or read it. That’s the thing about the online writing economy: your time and attention has an economic impact on whatever you give time and attention to. And it should be remembered that one of the most effective traffic drivers of online content are angry social media exchanges about it. Who can resist clicking when they see friends getting hot about an article?

Most of us don’t intuitively think of our online habits this way. The content is free. The article is short. The Facebook friend is earnest. So what if the words published are silly, irresponsible, or even a little dishonest? What’s the big deal? But Gracy reminds us that not only do we have a moral obligation to think truthfully and honestly, but our entertaining of deception and clickbait rewards those who design it. In the online age, it doesn’t matter whether you click to learn or to debate. It only matters that you click. When it comes to changing the toxic problems in our public square, we’d do well to remember: We aren’t what we think, but we are what we click.

How to Think

My review of Alan Jacobs’s forthcoming book How to Think: A Survival Guide For a World at Odds, is up at the Mere Orthodoxy main page.

Here’s a snippet:

Happily, How To Think is not a Trump-directed polemic or a guidebook for navigating Twitter. Readers familiar with both topics will probably get the maximum satisfaction from Jacobs’s book, but its themes are higher and deeper than that. Building on a recent surge in scholarly and popular level writing on how humans think, Jacobs asks a probing question: Why, at the end of everything, do otherwise intelligent people fail to think well? “For me, the fundamental problem we have may best be described as an orientation of the will: We suffer from a settled determination to avoid thinking.” (17) Jacobs writes that it’s a mistake to assume that human beings are ultimately rational beings whose irrationality cannot be understood. On the contrary, human nature, and therefore human thinking, is inescapably moral. We often think and live poorly because we want to.

Read the whole review. After you do that, preorder the book. Trust me: you’ll want this one.

Keep Kids Safe From Smartphones

“Kids need smartphones. Get over it.” Thus says Jeanne Sager at The Week. I’ll give Ms. Sager credit for going all in here. Her advocacy for giving preteen children iPhones is full throated and unequivocal, which is better than some of the self-tortured do-we-or-don’t-we parenting we often see nowadays.

Unfortunately, she’s completely wrong. Her argument is surprisingly intuitive and defenseless: Kids are safer when you give them smartphones. There’s not much in the way of evidence, though, beyond a relatively banal observation that we don’t have as many payphones as we used to, and that kids who are out late at night without a way to phone home are by definition in an unsafe situation. Both points are true. The problem is that they are almost totally irrelevant compared to the mammoth moral case against smartphones.

The idea that kids are unsafe unless they have the most cutting edge, the most unfiltered access to digital technology is just absurd. Not only are there phones that can allow calls home without the kind of private internet access that common sense and almost every expert warn against, but it’s hard to imagine what kind of situations a preteen could get herself into that would doom her to vulnerability without an iPhone. For one thing, most 12 year olds travel exclusively in packs, and you can bet your next paycheck that someone–likely everyone–in that pack has some sort of phone (many teens nowadays get together just so everyone can look at their phone). The relationship between mobile accessibility and safety is more complicated when teens start driving, of course, which is why many parents make the driver’s license a benchmark for phones. That’s understandable. Reasoning from lack of payphones to lack of safety is less so.

My wife and I had slightly different experiences with phone technology growing up. I was a senior in high school when I got my first flip phone, which could make all the calls to Mom and Dad I wanted and could text some friends for a cool $.25 per “hey man.” My wife, on the other hand, was way ahead of me: At 7th grade she got her first pay-as-you-go phone. Though our experiences with cell phones were very different, we each got our first smartphones in college. And she and I tell each other regularly how grateful we are such tech never fell into our hands before that. For all their usefulness, smartphones are an intensely absorbing media. They invite and empower private worlds where people are reduced to pixels and life’s meaning is dependent on the powerful neurological rewards of computerized community. Indeed, many observers worry that smartphones are reprogramming teens to retreat further into themselves, leading to a stunning rise in loneliness, anxiety, depression, and other problems.

Of course, one could object that smartphones have been wrongly accused, and that sociologists and cultural commentators are mistaking use for abuse in all this analysis. I don’t think that’s a good argument, but it is at least an argument. The case offered by Ms. Sager is not an argument. It’s an unfounded fear that fails, as so much of modern parenting often does, to discern the different kinds of “unsafe.” Unsafe because you don’t have a way to phone home at 10pm might be a kind of unsafe, but being totally alone with a piece of technology that offers unmitigated connection between you and the web, as well as the promise of secrecy and the thrill of maintaining an utterly private existence online, is also unsafe. Threats to teens’ cognitive development, social adaptation, and emotional well-being are every bit as serious as the dangers of violent online bullying and harassment. And I haven’t even mentioned the well-documented pandemics of pornography and sexual exploitation.

I commend Ms. Sager for writing a piece that few others are willing to write. I’m sure she speaks for many other parents when she says that the benefits of mobile connections outweigh all the risks. But as a relatively new parent (for 1 year), I too have been thinking about how I want my children to relate to mobile technology. And almost everything I see, hear, and read leads me to believe that children are a great reason to hand in my smartphone, not a reason to buy more. We are only beginning as a culture to understand the formative effects of our tech, but even the preliminary lessons are persuasive and damning.

I sometimes hear worries about the “digital gap” in education. I’m presumably supposed to be concerned that my son won’t be as technologically savvy as the other 10 year olds who have iPhones and smartwatches. But I often suspect that what’s presented as concerns for safety and equality are really just disguised anxieties about being lapped by the Joneses. If smartphones and social media have trained us to do anything, they’ve trained us to always be aware of what everybody else is doing. I don’t want such a fate for my son. I want him to lose himself in something true, good, and beautiful, not constantly staring at #content. I want my son to know his friends as human beings with faces, bodies, and feelings, not just as avatars that he can friend and de-friend at leisure. I don’t want my son to feel Dad doesn’t care if he has a private online life.

That’s why I won’t be getting my son a smartphone anytime soon. I don’t think he’ll be unsafe because of it, but if there’s ever a situation we’re worried about, there are low-tech emergency options available. Often in life, a solution to a problem just takes a little creative thinking–the kind of creative thinking, by the way, that’s a lot harder when you’ve been raised on YouTube.