It’s a grey and dreary day here in rural Iowa. Overcast, cold, and rainy, not at all the bright and sunny spring I’ve been hoping for, but it is a good day to write a letter. Like a lot of people, I’ve been thinking about current events and technology, and how we (the collective we) have managed to take something as silly and fun as social media and turn it into something unrecognizable. Twitter, Facebook, and the online breaking news sources have created a perpetual outrage machine reverberating in an echo chamber. Like War Games, it seems, the only way to win is not to play. So, I’ve decided to take a step back, but that doesn’t mean I want to lose touch with the people I care about.
I’ve been working with technology since cross-rating to radioman in the Navy in 1998. Back then it was with satcom and radio equipment. We had vacuum tube HF transmitters and receivers, computers that accepted and printed out punched paper tape, and single-line displays for chatting with another radioman over the OTO circuits. The Navy is quite slow to adopt new technology. What we had was mostly WWII era, but it was battle tested.
Over the years I worked with continuously more modern technology, up to where I am now working from home with a distributed company that manages data in the cloud. It’s a good job, but at some point I thought that I might want to do something different with my career. A few years back I went to grad school and earned a masters degree in Human-Computer Interaction. For two years I studied psychology, design, and programming. I studied how the brain worked and how to build interfaces that were optimized to keep the user engaged. It was fascinating. While I ultimately didn’t wind up working in the design field, what I learned has helped me to view what has happened in the past few years in the technology industry in a new light.
Basically, we are all being manipulated.
The aim of any free online service is to keep the user on the site as long as possible. Some news sites repeatedly publish opinion and think pieces, and “breaking news” that hasn’t been appropriately analyzed before release. Other sites create enemies where there are none and incite their viewers to fear or hatred, or both. Other sites, like Facebook, aggregate the content of multiple sources, mix them together with the opinions of like-minded people, and present them all together with the same authority. In Facebook there is no difference between the New York Times and Infowars, a published or shared post is the same as all others. All of these sites capitalize on human emotions. The desires to be safe, connected, and informed. If there is a crisis, we feel we need to know about it, but what happens when everything is a crisis?
We are starting to find out. We start to see people with different opinions not as fellow Americans, or sometimes not even as brothers or sisters in Christ, but they suddenly embody all that is wrong in the world today, the very presence of evil tearing our world apart. Liberals, 2A supporters, environmentalists, climate change skeptics, the list goes on. What’s missing from our conversation is the actual conversation. What’s missing is the mutual respect that must come before a compromise is reached.
If we could each come to the table with the understanding that we both want positive outcomes for everyone involved, if we could base our decisions on a shared understanding of fact and truth, then reasoned debate could start and real progress be made. With each side demonizing and dehumanizing the other, shouting obscenities and insults from the safety of our keyboards, we draw further apart and compromise becomes less and less likely. I pray that cooler heads eventually prevail before anything drastic happens.
Now, some of you reading this, I can hear it now, are saying something to the effect of “it doesn’t matter, Jesus is going to come back any day now and just take care of all this.” To which I respond… well… possibly! No one knows when He’s going to come back. It is a central tenant of the Christian faith that Jesus’ return is imminent, and that we should always be ready for it. The reality is that we’ve been waiting for two-thousand years, and even though our current situation looks dire to us, it’s no more dire than any other inflection points in the past. I will continue to wait for His return, but out of compassion for the unsaved, I pray that he waits just a little while longer.
The other argument I’ve heard is even more pessimistic. It tends to go “the world is just going to get worse and worse, as predicted by the Bible. Nothing we can do about it, so why bother?” I can’t agree with this. I’m an optimist. I think we should strive to build a just and fair society. Furthermore, the statistics just don’t agree with this position. Global poverty is going down, illiteracy levels are going down, education levels are going up, death from widespread diseases is going down, the long term trend is that we are making progress on the big issues that humanity faces. We might never completely get rid of disease, poverty, or famine, but with God’s help we can give it our best shot.
Optimism is good. God told us repeatedly not to worry. Love God, love your neighbor, and love your enemy. If he slaps you, let him slap you again. If he asks you for your coat, give him your coat and your shoes. If he wants you to walk a mile with him, walk two. These are radical ideas, even two-thousand years later. Not really in keeping with the macho Rambo culture a lot of us live in. “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord, I will repay.” The Bible doesn’t actually say “vengeance is Jon’s, he’ll get really mad at some perceived slight and send off an angry subtweet.” My anger does not produce the righteousness of God.
What I’m saying here, in a nutshell, is that we should be mindful of what we are letting into our heads. Recognize when things we are reading or watching are designed to make us angry rather than inform us. Consider turning off the TV news and avoiding the online outrage machine. Personally, I’m thinking about subscribing to my local paper and maybe a well respected magazine like the Economist. Getting just enough news to stay informed without being reactionary and having my blood pressure raised unnecessarily.
Maybe, if you’ve got something to say, you might consider writing a letter to those who mean the most to you.