The Culture Wars’ Lies about Media:
“We can rely on media/technology to give us an accurate picture of our community/country.”
“Social media makes us more connected.”
“Speed and efficiency are critical to our thriving.”
The Battle Field of the Culture Wars
The Culture Wars invite us to treat media, technology and the speed with which they permit us to move as objective, neutral, and generally good things. But are they? Not all media, of course, is objective and neutral. But “THIS one is objective and neutral and THAT one is bad.” You are familiar with the tropes. “THIS media outlet is totally fair and balanced but all THOSE are biased.” “Social media platforms are completely neutral in and of themselves…it is the people on them that make them biased.” While there may have been a time when this thinking was at least partially true, it is now clear that media and technology form the very battle field where the culture wars (as we have defined them here) are occurring. This is where the fight takes place
It makes sense that it would be that way. If the culture wars are about using political or social or economic power to force people to act a certain way, then media and technology become the weapons of mass destruction in those wars. Social media gives any of us a super power: an ability to reach a virtually limitless number of people with our message. It gives us the ability to extend our reach far beyond the depth of our character. And it gives us the ability to actually measure our social influence almost instantaneously…something God did NOT entrust to us. At some point, don’t we have to ask ourselves if these social super powers are really a good thing?
What is Media?
“Media” is just the plural form of “medium”, which comes from the latin root word for “middle” or “between.” Media, then, are merely the tools which come between the speaker and the hearers or between the doer and the finished task. Think, for example, of electronic distortions of the human voice to make it scarier or louder–something different–than it actually is. That is media. Technology is always a form of media. It takes our efforts and magnifies or otherwise alters them to accomplish something bigger or faster or better. It is magical that way. Perhaps you have heard the famous quote from Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
In his book, The Life We’re Looking For, Andy Crouch argues that using tools or technology to enhance our efforts is one thing, but using them to do all the work for us is another thing altogether…
“For almost all of human history, tools were quite limited. They weren’t everywhere; they were in specific places. Tools were in the field (agricultural tools) or in the kitchen (cooking tools) or in the toolshed (work tools). And while tools helped us do our work, they didn’t work on their own. The dream of a tool that would work by itself was strictly the stuff of magic or fantasy—the sorcerer’s apprentice’s dream of a broom that would clean up by itself.”
The danger, then, with media or technology is when it actually replaces our original message or effort with something else altogether. An important question is: what is the media or technology doing to the message or effort before it arrives at its destination? And, more importantly, why?
The Bible and Media
Jesus used media. In Luke 5 he used surface water to carry the sound of his voice to a gathering crowd. Similarly, in Matthew 5 he used the natural contour of a hillside to do the same thing. In Luke 9, he actually used the disciples as his media to carry his message. For Christ followers, using media is not necessarily a bad thing at all. But Jesus never used media or enhancements that would in any way alter the message, unless the medium was the Spirit of God itself. It seems to me, then, we should be intentional about why we choose to use media and we should be discerning about what we read or hear through media, because all media…ALL MEDIA…has bias.
The ancient story of the people of Israel demonstrates this point. After wandering through the wilderness, they finally arrive at the promised land and send spies out into the land for reconnaissance. Of the 12 spies, 10 of them were frightened by what they saw and their group report caused much consternation among all the people. The other two spies (Joshua and Caleb) tried to calm the crowd and to assure them that they could take the land with God’s help, but the narrative was already cast. The fear-mongering had done its damage. It is a great illustration of the power of fear to shift a culture, and is also a good picture of using political/social power to impose the preferences of the few on everyone else. It was a biased media with a predetermined narrative. And it worked like a charm.
The Problem with Narratives
Narratives have become so ingrained in our public discourse, I sometimes wonder if we even see them anymore for what they really are. We seem to recognize them when they differ from our own narrative, but are much less aware of them when they tend to confirm what we already believe. Our own confirmation bias blinds us that way. Narratives, as a concept, are not complicated. It simply means we take a few established data points and then create a theory (a story) that tends to explain those data points. It is the constellation phenomenon. With literally billions of stars in the sky (data points), we can make almost any picture we want to make by connecting some of them. That is a narrative.
In that same way, the 12 spies of Israel in the book of Numbers is the story of social media today. Those spies had their own narrative. And like lawyers with a case to make, if they had social media at their disposal, they would have posted only those pictures and stories that supported their narrative. We all do it. Because we all have our narratives. We log onto Facebook or Twitter or Instagram and it scares us what we see or read. And we are shaped by that fear. Thirty years or so ago, it was talk radio or talk shows like Jerry Springer. But in those cases, we could simply recognize the craziness of the narratives and weren’t quite so bothered by them. Now, it is all so pervasive, it begins to have the appearance of reality. And that scares us.
The Cool Kids and Their Rules
Media also has a way of playing to some of our biggest insecurities. We watch cable news or log onto social media and we see an accepted “way of being” that everyone else seems to have agreed upon. I can either join the conversation or feel “otherized” and on the outside. We don’t necessarily understand the vocabulary (or even the topic of conversation) but we are determined to learn it and be a part of it. Because the “cool kids” have said so. And those cool kids have set the rules and have created their own vocabulary and now hold all the social power. Like the 10 spies of Israel, they have leveraged that fear and those rules for their own power. And the fix is in. In a way, social media is like middle school all over again.
Group think is a powerful thing. On social media, we all gravitate toward our own tribes and we create our own vocabulary as a means of easily identifying outsiders. We create our own culture of what everyone should be talking about and then we humiliate people who clumsily try to join the conversation from the outside. The expectation is that everyone who wants to be in our tribe should be posting about the same things and saying all the right things in support of the narrative. And we are ruthless in our humiliation of those who get it wrong. We are mean that way. We are those kids at that table in the middle school cafeteria.
In Real Life
But what is happening on social media is not real life. And, in most cases, what we watch on cable news is not our life…it is something going on half way around the world (or across the country) with people I have never met in places I have never been. That is not my reality. And neither is social media.
Take Twitter as an example. It is a gathering place for self-proclaimed thought leaders in our culture. But according to Twitter’s own analytics, only 20%-30% of American adults even have a Twitter account, and the vast majority of those who do never even post anything. Approximately 97% of the posts on Twitter come from approximately 20% of the accounts. And many of those accounts are not even real people, but are AI bots. With all of these statistics in mind, then, it is important that as I pore over my Twitter feed, I remind myself of just how small this slice of population is. It is not reality. It is not where I live, and it is not at all representative of real life.
Worshipping at the Altar of Speed and Efficiency
Lastly, we cannot talk about our obsession with media and technology without talking about our obsession with speed and efficiency. Media has shaped our expectations to tell our stories and cast our narratives with break-neck speed and as utterly efficiently as we can imagine. My smartphone gives me the ability to show and tell the entire world what I am thinking or feeling at this moment with just a few clicks. Likewise, it enables me to know things that happened 1 minute ago in Sri Lanka or South Africa or Ukraine…long before the actual facts of those events have even been investigated or vetted. By the time that happens, I already have my opinion formed and perhaps even posted for the world to see.
But it is worth asking whether that is how we were created to live and to be. I am intrigued by the speed of Jesus’ ministry.
“Love has its speed. It is a spiritual speed. It is a different kind of speed from the technological speed to which we are accustomed. It goes on in the depth of our life, whether we notice or not, at three miles an hour. It is the speed we walk and therefore the speed the love of God walks.”Kosuke Koyama, Three Mile an Hour God: Biblical Reflections
Think about the miracle of Jesus feeding the 5,000 (Matthew 14, Mark 6, Luke 9). It took time. It was not necessarily efficient. But efficiency was never the goal. Jesus’ goal was to meet the needs of the people and to give his disciples a life-changing experience of meeting those needs. The inefficiency and the slowness of it all was part of the experience. Media and technology are amazing and helpful tools, to be sure. But the speed and efficiency which they afford us are often not the speed at which we were created to thrive.
So much to think about.
The Corresponding Truths
So, in contrast to the culture wars’ lies about media and technology listed at the top of this post, here are the corresponding truths for Christ followers:
Virtually all media has an element of distortion of reality, either from bias or from systemic flaws.
Social media gives us the perception of connectivity without any of the hard work of actual relationships.
The love of Christ has its own speed and is filled with inefficiencies. Jesus ministered at 3 mph.