The Shallows - A Review

Recently several news outlets have reported that humans have begun to have skeletal adaptions based on our modern lives. Although the exact cause may not be clear, it appears the people that use smartphones and other digital devices regularly may begin to see biological changes due to looking down more than any previous generation. A humoristic vision of the human future might have people with extremely well-developed thumbs and hunched shoulders several hundred years in the future.

Whether our physical bodies are indeed changing will likely be explored more fully in the years to come, but it appears that the internet is indeed changing how people think, reason, and learn. That thesis is the subject of Nicholas Carr’s seminal book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.

Published in 2010, Carr’s book has been oft cited, including in more recent books like Andy Crouch’s Techwise Family and Jacob Shatzer’s Transhumanism and the Image of God. At the time, Carr’s book sounded an alarm about the changes to the human mind caused by the easy access to information that was always available.

Though it has been nearly a decade since Carr wrote, his ideas have been proven to be more correct than he likely could have imagined. When his book was published, the iPhone was only a few years old and smartphones were just beginning to exist at the price point where the majority of the population in the developed world could have access to them. Now it is only the rare individual that does not have a smartphone.

As internet memes remind us, the smartphone would have ruined a large number of movie plots recorded through history. Is there a bomb in the building? No need to rush through traffic to warn those inside, simply text, call, or instant message those threatened by disaster. This wonder of technology in the form of a quarter pound of silicon and heavy metals promises a world where communication is easy and instantaneous. That sounded like a promise of lower stress and a simpler life.

The reality has not lived up to the promise. Surveys continue to indicate that people are more stressed now than in decades past. There seems to be good evidence that the internet, and particularly constant access to it, are increasing the feelings of stress and disconnection.

Additionally, human learning habits have changed. While I served on the administration of Oklahoma Baptist University, I would overhear students complaining about closed book exams. Their reasoning was that “in the real world” they would be able to do an internet search for all of the answers. They could see no need to know historical facts or even how to do mathematics. When the information or process was really needed, it would only be few keystrokes away. This was not a particular trait of students at my university, but a general trend in how the population values knowledge and skill. The pervasiveness of this attitude has been reinforced by the recent graduates that I have worked with who have little cultural awareness (outside of the memes and hot-button issues they have been inundated with) and lack the ability to learn.

One of the key changes Carr highlights is the shift from deep reading to skimming. The internet fuels this, as people spend less and less time on a given website. Our brains reward us for changing the source and nature of the stimulation we receive with a little hit of dopamine. This is why many kids’ shows and even recent, popular movies change camera angles at a nausea-inducing rate. This is why when I see people outside at a scenic destination, they are less overwhelmed with the grandeur of the sights and more concerned with posting their selfies and checking to see who has affirmed them for sharing.

The change in the ability to read has become apparent in my own life. Since I have adopted a smartphone and the internet is only a click away wherever I am I have a harder time focusing on deep reading. Even when my phone is across the room, my eyes wander off the page periodically as I begin to wonder what is going on outside of my immediate vicinity. There is a constant pull to be stimulated that I was less subject to before I spent my day at an internet-connected computer with a supercomputer in my pocket.

It is not clear what changes will evolve in humans and in society in the coming years, but there is a case to be made that many of them will be a net negative. As Christians we need to think carefully about what technology is doing to us and, more significantly, what technology is for. It seems as if easy access to the internet is making us shallower as individuals. If that is the case, then we must find ways to resist the deleterious effects that may limit our ability to meditate on Christ and become more like him.

The Fake Web is Ruining the Internet

Something is amiss in the futuristic, digital wonderland that is the internet.

Among the most obvious problems are the incessant arguments including those caused by trolls and those perpetuated by sea lions. Add that to the sheer magnitude of bots online, and we have a real problem that can lead to misery, confusion, and misdirection away from facts.

The possible paradise of the internet is turning out to be a myth. The democratization of information has made it nearly possible to discern what is true.

Marketplace Distortion

Consider the validity of marketplace ratings. While there are examples of faux reviews that are exceedingly humorous, like the ones for the Hutzler 571 Banana Slicer on Amazon, fake reviews make buying decisions harder. And that’s not the way it is supposed to work.

The ideal of online reviews is for people who have used the product to honestly review them. However, anyone who has tried to sort through the reviews on products in a major online marketplace will know that amid the real, honest reviews are dozens that appear to be made up. These often are very high or very low ratings (depending on whether the company or their competitor funded the reviewers) and include gratuitous typos, insufficient information, and information designed to mislead. So, a product may have hundreds of reviews, but the real ones with important criticism may have been diluted by fake reviews.

The prevalence of fake reviews in the online marketplace makes using reviews nearly worthless sometimes. Add that to the ability for sellers to revise listings of old products to newer ones, while bringing along their reviews, and you have a recipe for unhelpful confusion.

Another trend that is unhelpful with the democratization of information is the volume of websites that seem to indicate they are dedicated to product reviews, but which are really dedicated to trying to acquire revenue through affiliate traffic. For example, do an internet search on “best gifts for a 10-year-old boy, you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about. Someone trying to get suggestions for Christmas or birthday may want a blogger’s suggestions that their kids liked, but may only be able to find suggestions in click-through format designed to rake in money from another online marketplace.

Sometimes these offerings are helpful, but they accomplish the opposite of the intended purpose. When someone does a search online for creative suggestions, they are usually looking for something off the beaten path. However, these dozens of “product review” or “product suggestion” websites tend to all “recommend” the same dozen or so products, none of which they have any real knowledge of. (Full disclosure: I use affiliate links at the bottom of my book reviews and sometimes get a little money from them, but that is secondary to the actual review.)

The reality of the internet is turning out to be something less than the promise.

The Web Is Mostly Fake

According to a recent article from New York Magazine, we’ve passed the point where, by some measures, more than half of internet traffic is fake. Given that the next video you watch or next widget you buy may be recommended based on the programmed habits of a bot, this matters significantly. For those, like me, who spend time creating real content online—especially those who depend of traffic from YouTube or other traffic sites—that distortion can be disheartening and financially debilitating.

Because traffic generates traffic as we all chase the next cool thing, this fake traffic is distorting our culture. Is someone’s video really viral, or did they create or finance a bot army to give them clicks, help them trend, and push a somewhat novel but largely inane product into everyone’s feeds? The world may never know.

Given that a fair amount of news reporting—both traditional media and various internet outlets—is now mind-numbing reporting about trends on social media, the power of faking on the internet may have significant social implications. Is anyone really mad about the latest controversy? Or, was some minor infraction by a local official magnified by thousands of bots financed by someone who is either making money off of the clicks or gaining power by fracturing society? This is a powerful question that I don’t have an easy answer to.

One Proposed Solution

I do think, however, that we have the potential to curb some of the worst excesses in our own control by using self-control and changing our habits.

Perhaps the best solution to the problem is to use the internet in an old-fashioned way, with sustained patronage, long time relationships, and word of mouth recommendations. Major branded websites for news and information will likely remain significant, but to some extent we need to rely more on pseudo-social connections rather than search algorithms.

Used by CC 2.0 License. Photo by londonista_londonist.

Used by CC 2.0 License. Photo by londonista_londonist.

For example, as a blogger well after the heyday of blogging, I think we need to bring back the blogroll. If someone likes my website, there is a decent chance that they will like the blogs I like, so I can let them know what and who I follow. That also means that I am vouching that I’ve watched/read enough of the content to know that it is real and not bot-generated.

In a world of depersonalized identities, we need to reorient toward personal connections, even if it is only virtually. The possibilities for deception are still higher, but bots are generally identifiable through their patterns of activity, real people are both more predictable and more erratic.

Conclusion

Much of the internet has become, for all intents and purposes, worthless. People are fake. Reviews are fake. Facts are fake. As we try to live life in a virtual age, taking advantage of the real benefits of the internet, we need to begin to reestablish habits that will make our experiences online more benefit than curse.

Why Churches Should Have Websites

Used in original by creative commons license: http://ow.ly/SxKG4 

Used in original by creative commons license: http://ow.ly/SxKG4 

My recent relocation to a new city has driven me to a fundamental belief that a church that does not have a digital footprint is failing the community. In other words, in the American context, a church without a website is in error.

To some a website seems superfluous. What does it matter if we are preaching the Word and doing ordinances correctly? A few years ago I might have argued the same thing. However, from the perspective of someone looking for a church home, the lack of a website is a significant failure on the part of a church.

Three reasons to have a website

The first reason it is important for churches in the digital age to have a website is because without a digital footprint it is nearly impossible to find a church. As a newcomer to town I have no idea where some of these small churches are located. I don’t have a phone book and a phone book is insufficient for getting information out in this day and age anyway.

If churches want to be found by anyone who doesn’t live right next door, they need to communicate their presence. The most efficient way to do that is with a simple website.

The second reason for a church to have a website is to provide helpful information. For example, what time does the church meet? Unless the congregation takes out an ad in the phone book (which will likely cost more than a simple website), then having the only marker of the church’s existence be the name and seven digits of phone number in the yellow pages is not very helpful.

Additionally, a website can simply convey what the church believes. Are you a moderate SBC church that refuses to affirm the Baptist Faith and Message 2000? This is good to know so that people can skip over to a biblically-faithful congregation. Also, how does your pastor preach? A visitor shouldn’t have to spend several hours to visit just to find that the pastor uses a text as a springboard for a ramble through a self-help lecture. That time could be better invested looking for a congregation where Scripture is valued and there is opportunity to serve.

It doesn’t take much time or money these days to create a simple website that presents the basic facts and links in some sermon samples (even if they are the best ones). The result is that people know what to expect, where to be there, and you are more likely to get visitors that are more likely to join the fellowship.

A third reason for a church to have a website is to meet the needs of the community. How will the person in the midst of a divorce find out you have a care group to minister to that situation unless you put it online? Maybe through word of mouth, but most people depend on a web search.

How about the ways that your congregation provides emergency aid to the community? Or, if the church does job training or a clothing closet, it is insufficient to expect work conversations to really communicate the resources to those in need. When technology is so inexpensive and ubiquitous, the failure to use it should lead others to question whether the aid programs are intended to be effective.

Stewardship

Although recently someone attempted to tie the existence of church websites to the decline in SBC missions, that tie is tenuous. Perhaps it applies to churches that spend large amounts of money on top of the line sites. That isn’t the point of this discussion.

A failure to have a website is a marker that you really don’t want to have people visit. Whatever your rhetoric is, you don’t want visitors if you won’t provide information about your congregation. This is not just new move-ins to the community, this applies to those in your community that suddenly have a need that drives them to seek out a church.

When a church fails to provide a digital footprint with basic information, it puts the onus on the visitor to figure everything out. As a believer who is required by my contract to join a church, I am forced to do the legwork to find a church. However, if I did not have that driving force, it would be much easier to stay in bed on a Sunday morning than to make phone calls, visit around, and potentially miss the beginning of your service because the church didn’t publish a schedule.

A church without a website is still a church. This isn’t a question of orthodoxy. However, a church without at least a simple website is not stewarding the available technology and resources well. While this isn’t essential to the gospel, it is a gospel issue because it undermines the effectiveness of a congregation in serving the community.

Guy on a Buffalo

Sometimes the internet is the bane of human existence, demonstrating how low we as a race have stooped. Meme's relating to the defense of Brittany Spears' public breakdowns, grumpy cat pictures, and defiant babies keep our social media news-feeds full. The occasional misquote of Abraham Lincoln gets thrown in just to keep us on our toes.

Still, there have been few items of high culture shared with the internet population. Of those few items of high brow culture, there are none to rival the "Guy on a Buffalo" videos that came out a few years ago.

I've embedded each of the five videos below for your viewing pleasure. Also, this makes for a quick way to find them again in the future. They are really worth watching repeatedly, much like fine movies such as "The Princess Bride" and "The Three Amigos." I might throw "Goonies" into that mix, too, though something really was lost when the octopus scene didn't make it through the final cut.

In any case, if you missed Guy on a Buffalo years ago I will explain the basic premise to you. First, there is a guy who rides a buffalo. Then a folksy singer provides a musical narration of the events in the short videos. Guy on a Buffalo gets chased by a bear, chases a bear, finds a baby, wrestles a cougar and such like.

I've heard these are authentic videos from early nineteenth century American frontier life, which truly represent how things were. They are, according to some, authentic representations of historical realities known only to some that are experiencing lasting effects of 1970's drug usage. (cough, cough)

Whatever your understanding of their historicity, I hope you find these videos entertaining and will share them with your friends. As a caution, don't consume any beverages while watching these videos, unless you are prepared to have it come out your nose.

Contrary to my tongue in cheek comments above, these edited videos with the humorous songs over the top are made from a 1978 movie called "Buffalo Rider." The premise that a man rescues a buffalo that was going to be eaten by coyotes, raises it and tames it. The movie has, apparently, passed into the public domain. It has made its way to the Internet Archive, a repository for much of our cultural sludge.

The movie itself is poorly made, relies on a narrator, and appears to have actually harmed animals in the making. (This last is really not a good thing.) That being said, the movie is made and I post it here more so you can see where the humorous videos above came from than with hope that anyone will celebrate anything about the original film (which is awful based on the 15 minutes that I was able to watch). 

Here is a link to the original movie at the Internet Archive.

Communicating Truth in a Digital Age

Used by CC license. Original: https://www.flickr.com/photos/seanbonner/2086934736

Used by CC license. Original: https://www.flickr.com/photos/seanbonner/2086934736

The greatest thing about the internet is that democratizes the exchange of information. We are no longer dependent on curators choosing which parts of the story we get to hear.

The worst thing about the internet is that it democratizes the exchange of information. We no longer have people filtering the stories we hear to help us get an accurate understanding of issues.

Carl Trueman wrote a critique of the problem the democratization of the internet a few years ago:

Then there was the case of a young guy who wanted to engage in email banter about something I’d written. What fascinated me was the way this person referred to himself at one point in our exchange as a scholar. Yet he had no higher degree, no track record of publications which had passed muster with peers in the field. Indeed, he’s still a student, not yet even beginning a doctoral program. Indeed, he’s a long way from possessing that most basic of academic union cards: a PhD. Now, I guess I’m old fashioned but the category of scholar is one which should be reserved for those who have established themselves in their chosen field by actual scholarly achievement, not by simply talking a good game. This credibility is achieved by consistent, careful and scholarly contributions to a field in terms of refereed publications which then enjoy currency among qualified peers outside the person’s immediate circle of epigonous friends.

Trueman may be a bit stodgy when it comes to academic qualifications. Sometimes people without the guild card of a terminal degree can make outstanding contributions to fields of study. However, those people are usually put forward by an expert who knows the field and recognizes the contribution made by an individual. Rarely do they self-identify as an expert. And rarely do they rise to the top of the field by merely reading and writing blogs.

Additionally, sometimes people that have academic qualifications are not as well informed as they believe themselves to be. This is particularly true when people are qualified in one area and speak out in another.

Overreaching by assuming authority in another discipline is a common trap for smart people to fall into. They assume that because they are highly qualified in one field, that ability bleeds over to other fields. Thus, an excellent civil engineer may feel herself to be an expert in evolutionary theory, too. The potential for that expertise may exist, but, as we all know, potential and actuality are two vastly different things.

The Value of Experts

Trueman’s criticism is generally valid because the process of earning a PhD in any subject trains an individual to recognize their own ignorance. The practice of careful scholarship and the fear of academic hubris that is generated during higher academics should improve a person’s ability to reason and explain a position.

There is an old aphorism, “The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.” I heard professors spout that over the years, but it never really sunk home until I started working toward a PhD.

When I was reading introductory books and sitting in classes as an MDiv student, I was able to gain much of the information rapidly. Sometimes I felt like I knew it all. Then I started doing independent, academic research and realized how little I knew. I also realized how many of the opinions that I held so strongly had more potential criticisms that I had imagined.

This doesn't mean that my positions were not correct. I held to and still hold to a robust orthodoxy. However, sometimes I’ve had to rephrase my understanding of my positions. At other times, I’ve maintained my position and recognized that I’ve held it for the wrong reasons. And, still other times, I’ve come to the recognition there are a broader range of valid options than I had initially allowed.

Used by CC license. See Original: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tedxcalgary/15917692961

Used by CC license. See Original: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tedxcalgary/15917692961

None of this means there isn’t an absolute truth, which can be objectively known. Neither does it mean that all ideas are fair game and we can’t know anything. However, it does mean that a bit more humility is in order than I originally allowed, particularly when I am dealing with differing ideas within the bounded set of orthodoxy.

This is where the democratization of expertise comes back into this discussion. The internet is the Wild West of information and opinions. Anyone with a little time can start up a blog and make it look official.

As a result, the internet gets flooded with content that is ill-reasoned, ill-informed, and often caustic toward people that hold different opinions. You won’t go far on the internet before you run into someone being denounced because he holds a different position than another person.

Debate is a good thing, but in the wilderness of the internet there is a great deal more bloviating than debate. This is true on the left and the right. Part of this is that things look black and white when considered at an elementary level. This means that the subtleties of positions are generally not understood. It makes debate difficult, but being an insulting troll very easy.

So what’s the point?

The point is that we all need to engage in online conversations with grace and humility. We need to appreciate our own limitations. The handful of blogs and few books we’ve read don’t necessarily qualify us to comment on every social or theological debate.

We need to be clear, but gracious, where Scripture speaks clearly. In places Scripture doesn't specifically speak we need to be especially gracious and humble in how we approach the issue. We also need to recognize the complexity of our views and the opposing views.

No one believes they are a bad guy. Everyone thinks they are doing good, except for a few psychotically selfish people. Most of the time the place the discussion needs to begin is much deeper than the actual issue in question. The problem is not in the particular position, but at a deeper theological level.

For instance, the debate about abortion is more about an appropriate understanding of the value of human life than it is about individual rights. When we hold the debate in rights language instead of dealing with the deeper theological issue, we will make little progress. Unfortunately, the popular debate is nearly always couched in rights language.

Worse still, when we insult and impute motives to the people that disagree with us we merely galvanize their position. As William Blake wrote in the Proverbs of Hell, “Damn braces. Bless relaxes.” It’s hard to convince someone of your position when you’ve insulted them. More significantly, it’s hard to show the light of the gospel to someone you’ve verbally assaulted.

Christians, as people who claim to have access to objective truth through God’s special revelation, need to be especially careful about engaging in conversations well. We need to be purveyors of truth who seek to make our case well, but never compromising on both the meaning and the tone of our message.

On Being Discipled in an Internet Age

It is easy to focus on the negative aspects of technology and the Christian man: distraction, access to pornography, isolation, etc. Discussing the dangers of technology is important, but we should not forget to celebrate the positive contributions of technology.

One example of a hugely positive contribution that technology has brought to men in the 21st century is the ability to find amazing quantities of high quality discipleship material. Among the dangerous websites, sources of distraction and bad doctrines, there are brilliant examples of phenomenal Christian content available and ready. It really eliminates any excuse that a modern man has of not being discipled.

Certainly sermons, podcasts, blogs, and e-books will never replace person-on-person accountability. However, never before have so many excellent resources been made available, often at no cost.

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