The Internet Deathtrap and the Need For Wisdom
The more we diminish the role of wisdom in our everyday life, the more inclined we are to unwittingly “delegate tasks that demand wisdom” to the internet, and the less healthy skepticism or suspicion we’ll have as we use it. It is one thing for technology to quicken our typing ability or to optimize some industrial process, it is another thing to absolve us of thinking, reasoning, and relationship opportunities.
Jurassic Park is easily my favorite movie of my early teen years. It was the first scary movie my parents let me see. The symphonic backdrop was awe inspiring, the acting was solid, and the fictitious story line was plausible and, distinctly rooted in real science. The movie has never grown old on me. It seems, at least in my own mind, that the church has entered our own Jurassic Park and I can faintly hear John Hammond uttering a warm welcome, with dramatic irony, “Welcome to Jurassic Park!”
Our dilemma might best be described by one of the greatest philosophers of all time, Dr. Ian Malcolm (yes, he’s also from Jurassic Park). With a bit of foreshadowing and wise premonition, Malcolm, the naysayer of the park uttered these words before everything went off the rails at Jurassic Park. He said, “I’ll tell you the problem with the [scientific] power that you’re using here. It didn’t require any discipline to attain it…You didn’t earn the knowledge for yourselves so you don’t take any responsibility for it…your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think whether they should.”
The internet is meant to be a thrilling, helpful, and revolutionary adventure like nothing we’ve ever experienced before; akin to the original Jurassic Park. However, for God-fearing men and women, the internet has become an inescapable death trap, the bleaker version of the park with the T-rex and the velociraptors on the loose. It’s not hard to understand why; the endless stream of information and experiences provided by the internet do not require any discipline to attain, are free and unearned, and because of the decentralized nature of the internet, there is no good authority asking whether things should be done, only producers and consumers asking whether things could be done. The result, as Malcom points out, is inevitable catastrophe.
The Problem with the internet is simple: It’s easy. Too easy. As Teddy Roosevelt put it, “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty.” There’s something to be said about the correlation between lasting value and effort and this concept demonstrates perfectly the problem with the internet. The internet promises (and seemingly provides) things that are naturally very hard or impossible to obtain, with the quick click of a button. Consider the sexual pleasure that the internet markets to us. This is epitomized by pornography, but it is much broader than this and includes all its corollaries; tabloids, forums, pop-up ads, spam emails, meaningless eye-grabbing articles about lingerie or sex scandals or some strange seductive secret. The internet has identified and freely offered a significant part of the beauty of marriage, with no strings attached and disconnects sex from the life-long process of marital intimacy. The pitch is simple: in 30 seconds anyone and everyone can experience instant gratification. It’s too easy.
Consider the nature of social media. A platform that eliminates the need to meet new people, that abbreviates hard conversations into posts and likes, and that allows like-minded people to self-segregate themselves into echo chambers by interests or political affiliations. It sounds amazing, I know. If not for one problem, it’s too easy. Real relationships with real people develop over time, forged or tested in the best and usually the worst of times. Compassion, empathy, comradery, and shared story are formed through daily experiences. The internet short circuits the whole process. Instead of growing to know a person, their history, family, beliefs, and convictions and then wrestling with them through challenging subjects, we pronounce our opinions in one-line-zingers and we feel a prideful confidence in our bold opinions. Truly being in relationship with others means that we’re always having to measure the relational collateral we have and the cost of pressing upon a hard issue.
And this is not to mention the impact the internet has on our perception of truth, its ability to mold us into consumers, or its impact on our capacity to think and formulate opinions on our own. The beauty of the internet is also its greatest problem: it is designed to relieve the critical work of the mind by allowing it to freely and easily receive and store information without having to do the hard work of evaluating and critiquing what it hears and sees. The internet blunts our power of discernment, and we begin to believe whatever it tells us. In much the same way a powerful drug or drunkenness does, it offers an escape from the rigorous processes of life and markets limitless potential at no obvious cost to us. It’s easy. Too easy.
Through the internet, churches are being divided by each new social issue, destroyed by pervasive access to junk information and junk idolatry, and afforded ample opportunity to back-bite and gossip through each new social media platform. And, as each year passes these things are being handed down to the next generation as normative tools that are easily compatible with Christian living.
On the one hand, Scripture tells us that the human heart is the problem and not the things outside of us (Mark 7:15). It’s an important observation that keeps us away from legalism. However, as Tony Reinke points out, referencing the historian Melvin Kransberg on a recent Mortification of Spin podcast, “Technology is neither good, nor bad, nor neutral.” Affirming the wickedness and the deception of the heart should not prevent us from evaluating the things around us that move us toward or away from righteousness, holiness, and God Himself. The internet is technically amoral, it is neither good nor bad. It is just a collection of codes and algorithms. But can we honestly say that it is neutral? Does it feel neutral to you? Has the easy availability of pornography been a neutral development? Has the spread of disinformation or the watering down of friendships and relationships through social media been a neutral development? Has the dulling of our reasoning and critical thinking been a neutral development? I’ll let you answer these questions for yourself.
The Answer is maybe as simple as the problem and it’s all about wisdom. I first spent time thinking about the inverse relationship between wisdom and technology while reading Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows.” Carr, an expert in the relationship between technology and psychology says, “The great danger…is that we’ll begin to lose our humanness, to sacrifice the very qualities that separate us from machines. The only way to avoid that fate…is to have the self-awareness and the courage to refuse to delegate to computers the most human of our mental activities and intellectual pursuits, particularly ‘tasks that demand wisdom.’” Curiously, this got me thinking, “What are the tasks that demand wisdom?” And more importantly, “Is there such a thing as a task that does not demand wisdom?” From a biblical perspective the answers to these questions are pretty clear: all of life requires some degree of wisdom. Thus we read, “The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life, that one may turn away from the snares of death” (Proverbs 13:14). Or as the preacher put it, “A man’s wisdom makes his face shine” (Ecclesiastes 8:1).
Everything we do requires wisdom. Everything. And, while wisdom is a gift from God it is also a curated development of character. That is, it ordinarily takes time and experience to develop deep meaningful wisdom. This is why Job will describe wisdom as being something found by the aged and learned (Job 12:12), or James will connect wisdom in James 1:5 with the long and arduous process of trials and testing in James 1:2-4. It is also why we are told that wisdom is costly, and yet that we should pursue it at all costs (Proverbs 4:7), and why discipline, correction, and training are so closely tied together with wisdom (Proverbs 29:15). Wisdom is associated with things like patience, endurance, suffering, fortitude, and perseverance while the internet is associated with things like results, ease, immediacy, promptness, and instant gratification.
The more we diminish the role of wisdom in our everyday life, the more inclined we are to unwittingly “delegate tasks that demand wisdom” to the internet, and the less healthy skepticism or suspicion we’ll have as we use it. It is one thing for technology to quicken our typing ability or to optimize some industrial process, it is another thing to absolve us of thinking, reasoning, and relationship opportunities. Because these are the processes in which wisdom develops, the internet gives us the illusion of having wisdom (with all knowledge at our fingertips) while simultaneously stripping us of the real, genuine wisdom we actually need. Since both the fruit of the Spirit and many basic human characteristics are governed by wisdom and cultivated in the basic activities of life, the easy and immediate nature of the internet slowly and methodically dulls these qualities. And so, through the eroding of wisdom, we see the cornucopia of problems described above.
What’s the answer? I would propose the church’s hope to endure the internet age begins and ends with wisdom. We need more wisdom. We need to want more wisdom. We need more preaching on wisdom from pulpits on Sunday mornings. We need more wise discussion and correction in our homes and at dinner tables. We must spend more time in the wisdom literature of Scripture and meditate upon it every chance we are able. And, when it comes to entrusting ourselves or our children with the internet, we have to remember that the internet is not neutral. It can be useful but it also can be (and according to the statistics, likely will be) dangerous for us and a hindrance to our sanctification.
We should measure our ability to safely use and maintain such a risky tool through the window of wisdom. Do we have enough wisdom to surf the web? Can we exercise enough wise restraint to be able to browse the internet on our phones? Does maintaining a social media presence increase our wisdom or does it fuel discontent, division, and angst? How can we wisely discern the flow of information available on the internet and validate its truthfulness and goodness? Do our children have the wisdom they need to have access to the internet in any capacity and what are we doing to defend them from the subtle seductions, ideologies, and patterns of thinking imputed through the internet? And finally, how are we exercising and pursuing godly wisdom to prepare ourselves for the temptations and stumbling blocks that we will inevitably encounter on the internet? The more I read and the more destruction I see being facilitated by the internet, the more I am convinced the answers to these questions are a lot more restrictive and inhibitive than we suspect. We must hold ourselves to a higher standard. Because when everything is said and done, as we’ve learned from all the Jurassic movies, there’s only one sure way to endure Jurassic Park: never to go in the first place.
Bryan Rigg is a Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is pastor of Mercy PCA in Lynchburg, VA.