Advent is God’s time out, his season set aside for us to have ears to hear and eyes to see; to recognize that Jesus Christ is coming—always coming—in every moment, in every encounter, if we are attentive. It’s time to prepare for the celebration of his “God-in-the-flesh” birth among us and to simultaneously become wide awake to his coming again. Advent is patience in a world of impatience.
Advent is also that season in which God has called us to slow down and wait on Jesus Christ with eager expectation and to not miss him.
But the algorithms that drive our cell phones and other instruments of social media have no capacity for slowing down. They have no moral compass, no heart or soul, and no patience. Quite the opposite. They have the increasing ability to measure every click we make, profiling us with ever increasing accuracy to drive us further and further into the engagement of an on-line world that is all consuming, de-humanizing, and rapidly destroying the social fabric of our culture.
This is the message of the Netflix Documentary, The Social Dilemma. Based on interviews with early team leaders, designers, and engineers at Facebook, Apple, Google, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and more, it makes the point that the very technology intended for human good has actually brought out the worst in human nature. About an hour into the documentary, Tristan Harris, a former designer at Google and now the “conscience of Silicon Valley,” observes:
“When technology exceeds and overwhelms human weaknesses… this point being crossed is at the root of addiction, polarization, radicalization, outrage-ification, vanity-ification…this is overpowering human nature and this is checkmate on humanity.”
Algorithms are at the heart of the documentary. An algorithm is a set of instructions designed to perform a specific task. Within the social media platforms we follow, the task of algorithms is to increasingly engage people so that they experience a gradual and almost imperceptible change in their thinking and behavior as a result of that platform and its advertisers. With every click, algorithms improve, adapt, and develop a more comprehensive database of each user which enables more users, more engagement, and more advertising revenue.
But the unintended consequences of this technology include:
• Following the 2009 introduction of virtual approval (FB likes, etc.) on cellphones, incidents of non-fatal self-harm went up 62% among teen females 15-19 and up 189% among pre-teen females ages 10-14;
• The same pattern developed for suicides also up 70% for teen females 15-19 and up and 151% for pre-teen females ages 10-14;
• People become addicted to such virtual approval rather than face-to-face interactions, leaving them increasingly isolated with a “fake, brittle popularity;”
• The dopamine bursts from virtual connection with others on our cellphones and other instruments lead to cravings and increasing addiction to these devices with
• Diminishing returns and more cravings for such affirmation (including requests for plastic surgery to conform to digitally enhanced selfies, aka “Snapchat dystopia”).
And that is only the personal toll. In terms of the social and political fabric of our culture, algorithms have increased incivility, rancor, and alienation in our public conversations. An MIT Study shows that fake news spreads six times faster than real news. As a result,
• The algorithms on social media connect people who have the same profiles and who therefore receive the same newsfeeds, creating a giant ”echo chamber” with no ability to distinguish between what is real and what is fake;
• Personal and political polarization in the US has now reached a 20-year high with increasing percentages in both political parties defining each other as an existential threat to the future of the country;
• The weaponization of social media by individuals and movements incites mob violence and riots, and autocratic governments in places like Myanmar incite violence against religious minorities using social media.
The Psalmist poses the obvious question, “When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Psalm 11:3). So often, we have raised this question in the context of the crisis of false teaching and the much-needed reform within the Church. But surely this “Social Dilemma” is as much or more an existential threat as false teaching in the Church, technology itself magnifying the effects of false teaching and distortions of the gospel.
Let me suggest two responses that followers of Jesus can make in the spirit of this season of Advent—one personal and the other a gospel response.
Personally, take this season of Advent as a time to “un-plug.” Let’s do what we do when we heed the call to repent. First, we face the facts of our own addiction to social media. Mea culpa; I am far too plugged-in to my cell phone and email to the point of distraction and driven-ness! So, I’ve decided to turn off my notifications, get rid of unneeded apps, and turn off anything that buzzes, beeps, and distracts. Recognize the temptation to find fleeting self-worth and identity through social media. Instead, broaden your circles of trust beyond the screen in front of you. Within the limits of social distancing, meet with people in person. Or pick up the phone and call them. Write a handwritten note. Get outside, take a deep breath, walk, and enjoy God’s creation with fresh eyes. Recover those biblical, classical spiritual disciplines and habits of the heart that restore sabbath rhythms and rest. Let’s model the kind of life this Advent that has eyes to see and ears to hear Jesus who is always coming in every encounter we have and in the people we meet.
But may we also recognize the opportunity this “Social Dilemma” presents us to share the gospel of Jesus Christ. Towards the end of this documentary, several of those interviewed shared the short and long-term consequences of failing to address the problems of social media. They ranged from civil-war to the degradation of democracy to the destruction of human civilization. From insiders and designers, their warnings are sobering. But I was especially struck by this admission from Tristan Harris, the “conscience of Silicon Valley”:
“If we don’t agree on what is true, or that there is such a thing as truth, we’re toast. This is the problem beneath all the problems. Because if we can’t agree on what’s true then we can’t navigate out of any of our problems.” (emphasis added)
Amen! What an astonishing admission from a secular authority and spokesperson for humane technology. But this begs the very questions that can lead to gospel conversations: What is truth? Is there such a thing as truth, and if so, where does it come from? Where does conscience come from? The secular culture we live in has no promising answers to these questions. But as followers of Jesus Christ, we know the answers to these questions. Truth and conscience come to us in the person of Jesus Christ, his life, death, and resurrection. Truth and conscience come to us by revelation, conviction, and renovation of our hearts and souls by the Holy Spirit through the inspired word of God, the Bible.
Yes, the “Social Dilemma” is an existential threat. But like all such threats, in God’s sovereign providence it is more than that. Like Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well around the shared need for water (John 4), could the “Social Dilemma” present opportunities for us to engage in gospel conversations around a shared need with people who do not yet know Jesus that will also lead to eternal turning points?