Monday, February 2, 2015

Finding God in the HTML

So, here is a picture of me. For two hours, on January 22, this was my new Facebook Profile Picture. I thought I looked distinguished. Unfortunately, within a few minutes of posting it, Facebook Friend Paul responded and said, “C’mon, John, nobody’s going to buy that.”

An overly dignified John Suk 
Now, I have never met Paul. He lives in Southern California. He once wrote me a letter when I was editor of The Banner. It wasn’t an angry letter. It was funny. So I never forgot it. But now Paul did not like my picture.

Ten minutes later, my sister Janet wrote, “Maybe a little too serious bro. Show some of that Suk charm!” So, only two hours later, I took my new Profile Picture down and put up this one instead.

Reaction was immediate. “Nice to see you, my friend,” said Alejandro, a Nashville book editor I used to work with. “Wow, that is awesome,” said Shelly, a Vancouver pastor. She was referring to my grandson, Taps. Within hours forty likes and comments rolled in. I could feel the love.

Taps and Opa Suk
Or could I, really? As I was watching the “likes” pour in, Irene was also in the living room, also on her computer. We spoke to each other, briefly—about whose turn it was to take out the dog and about who would go shopping the next day. Honestly, however, we were not feeling the love from each other. I was too preoccupied with my 600 Facebook friends, many, like Paul, people I haven’t ever met, or like Alejandro, who I haven’t seen in years. Irene was preoccupied with Search Engine Optimization for her business webpage. We sat together in that room for hours, and hardly had a thing to say to each other until we were in bed together. And this happens more often.

But that’s a Snapchat of social media, isn’t it? We’re there, but then, we’re not. We like people we haven’t seen in years, but don’t love the one we’re with. And it isn’t just social media. Who wants to be disturbed when we’re binge watching old episodes of West Wing or Modern Family? And God forbid that we fail to reach the next level of Minecraft or Titanfall because dad wants to know how our day at school was.

You know what I mean. Honestly. The two-year-old whose gaze is fixed on an iPad. The typical cell-phone carrying new mom who spends six hours a day tweeting with one hand while holding the baby in the other—at least according to a recent article in The Psychotherapy Networker, Irene’s professional journal (“The Rise of the Two Dimensional Parent: Are Therapists Seeing a New Kind of Attachment?” By Ron Taffel, Sept/Oct 2014). And there is the co-worker checking Facebook and Kijiji on the firm’s clock. The date who actually pulls out his iPhone at a restaurant table and places it face up beside the lit candle. The busy exec checking email while the car idles at a red light. And the teen who tragically kills two people in an oncoming car while texting and driving.

What’s going on? Have we lost our minds? Well, in a way we have. Neuroscientists have discovered that human brains are plastic. That is, our brains can be shaped by how we use and exercise them. If we consume a lot of social media, our brains rewire themselves to want even more social media. It is a very complex process. It involves growing new neurotransmitters and the expression of brain chemicals like dopamine or oxytocin that give pleasure. One way to think about what happens is that when our brains are on social media they become addicted to social media—not in the exact same way we are addicted to alcohol or drugs, perhaps—but our need to check-in begins to interfere with our normal relationships. If we stop using social media and other screen-based platforms for any length of time, we may suffer from withdrawal--mood swings, distractedness, even depression.

Another concern is that research demonstrates that watching screens, whether it be an iPad or computer monitor—watching screens not only bulks up our new social media neurons, but watching screens starves the very different and complex neural pathways that get used for reading. It’s a little bit like pretty dandelions taking over your lawn.

As a result, people who are preoccupied with social media read less, less deeply, and with less understanding; they have more trouble listening to linear, rationally organized presentations like a (good!) sermon, and they have more trouble thinking slowly, deliberatively and strategically.

Among neuroscientists, such findings are not controversial. Among teachers with long experience, such findings reflect their everyday frustration with today’s students. But let’s be honest—these findings are hard for most of us to accept. We say things like, “well, my daughter loves to read,” or, “we hardly ever watch TV in our house,” or, “my son still does great in school!” At the same time, this defensiveness suggests, I think, that we are pretty shy of really confronting the deeper issues that surround our social media and Internet use. We are primed to ignore the virtual elephant in our homes, because it is sort of scary.

But it isn’t just that we read less, or follow complex arguments with greater difficulty. Along with the new neural pathways, there is something else happening to us, I think—something I can get at best, I think, if I retell the myth of Narcissus.

The myth is told and retold in many versions from both ancient Greece and Rome. It basically goes like this. Narcissus was an extremely handsome and athletic hunter. One of his parents was an Olympic God, so he was half-divine. Anyway, one day, while hunting, he leaned down to drink water from a pool. Doing so, he caught a glimpse of his face. It was, as I said, beautiful. He stopped drinking, so that the water would stop rippling, and he looked at himself again. Absolutely drop dead gorgeous. And as he looked, and looked, he found he could not tear himself away from his reflection. He stayed there, on his knees, for days, totally in love with that image of himself, absolutely taken by how his beauty made him feel, unable to respond to the love overtures of the beautiful nymph Echo who sat by and watched. He stayed there, by the pool, gazing at his face, until he died of hunger and thirst.

Of course, we get our word Narcissism from this story. Narcissism is defined as an unnatural preoccupation with our self and our image, a preoccupation troubling because it interferes with our relationships to those nearest to us.

The reason it kills us to be interrupted while we’re lost in our laptops or monitors is that Social Media—the texts, the tweets, the emails, the likes, the selfies we endlessly post—all of it is a way of focussing attention not on our neighbours, but on our own inner need for fleeting affirmation. We get a little high every time someone suggests, electronically, that we are pretty special, handsome, beautiful, funny or whatever. We enter into an implicit pact with our electronic friends—I’ll notice you if you like me. We may lose ourselves, and lose track of our neighbours, and the families we live with under the same roof, all because we cannot tear ourselves away from the electronic mirror we gaze into, hoping without even realizing it, that the mirror will tell us just how special we are.

Look. Many theologians and philosophers, including the philosopher I’m reading now, Joseph Needleman (What Is God), make a big point out of the fact that one of the greatest ills that humans suffer through—often without realizing it—is that we never actually wake up to who we really are and the shocking gift of a life to actually live. Instead, we live our lives half in a daze. We go along to get along. We are swept away by cultural fads and wants and ads and artificially induced needs and passions. We are running like crazy in a rat cage, never getting anywhere, just trying to stay even with the bill collectors and responsibilities and obligations. And our preoccupation with social media satisfies our need for affirmation just enough so that we slumber on, focussed on our nagging little need for a ping or a poke; we never step forward, seize real life, or real learning, or real commitments on behalf of people that might matter to us if we did. So even as our brains are changed, our souls slowly waste away, and we and our neighbours become shades of the person we could or should be. We have found god in the HTML and it is us.

I know. There is an important other side of the story. And I don’t want to totally loose track of that. The truth is, few of us can live without engaging social media or the Internet. I would be wrong to fault people here for spending the odd evening learning how to play a new video game. And sure, there’s nothing wrong with answering a few texts during the course of a day or checking your status update at lunch. My life, for example, is truly enriched by hearing regularly from colleagues and friends around the world, as we discuss things like faith and music and worship and writing books.

So, I don’t want to be heard here as someone who says, “no, this social media and Internet stuff is no good, you should stop it.” Not at all. But I am saying that there is a body of scientific research—and our own experience, if we’re honest with ourselves—that teaches us that social media is like fire. There is a place for it, in the hearth. Only then—only when it is controlled, properly contained, and behind an ember screen—only then can a fire offer warmth and serve as a gathering place for family and friends. We need both fire and social media—contained and thoughtfully controlled.

But I also confess that in my own life it is sometimes hard to contain that fire and to leave it where it belongs. I know my own struggles to read as much as I really want, to stay focussed on writing a sermon, and to not be distracted by my various social media accounts.

In Romans 14, the apostle Paul says that followers of Jesus ought not conform themselves to the world. That is, we ought not mindlessly and soullessly live for and do what everyone else is doing, just because they’re doing it. Instead, says Paul, we ought to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. And what I think is true for me, as it is probably true for many of us, is that when it comes to the grip that social media and electronic entertainment are always trying to exert on us and our neurons, we could all use a little less conforming, and a bit more transformation. We could, and should, really choose to live in the world rather than settle for the pixel lands.

One more thing. The people most affected by social media are children. They suffer when we engage in distracted parenting—a growing problem, according to the same Psychotherapy Networker article I mentioned above. And their young brains are at greatest risk of not learning to read deeply and with pleasure by overexposure or much too early exposure to social media, or to its older cousin, the TV screen.

So parents, parent. Take control not only of your own consumption of Internet entertainment, TV, and social media, but of your children’s. Neil Postman once said, “With the Second Commandment, Moses was the first person who ever said, more or less, 'Don’t watch TV; go do your homework.'” His words could easily be applied to Internet and social media use as well. Similarly, that high priestess of contemporary pagan culture, Camille Paglia, once called for “the enlightened repression of our children,” by which she means rigorous word-centered education to the near total exclusion of electronic media, if we want our kids to become all they can be—if we want them to wake up to real life, rather than live in the shadow land of virtual reality.


What do you think?