The content we consume can lead us into temptation, suck our attention and prevent us from being challenged by viewpoints different to our own. If we want to grow in spiritual maturity, we need to be wise in our interactions, says Nick Mance
Have you ever looked at your social media feed and thought: “Nothing here interests me”? Probably not, if the algorithms are doing their job.
On any given day, YouTube, having reviewed my search history, will display a menu of videos aligned to my interests. Now and then there’s a wildcard. Recently, I came upon a video that was, let’s just say, unhelpful for someone trying to make a Job 31 “covenant with my eyes”. I didn’t click on it, I merely hovered… but long enough to trigger auto-play. And long enough for the algorithms to notice. The next time I logged onto YouTube, unhelpful videos were scattered everywhere.
We reap what we sow
In Galatians 6:7-8, Paul writes: “A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.”
My hovering cursor had sown a seed, which was absorbed into the complex formulas that sit beneath the glowing pixels on my screen, informing them about the content I may like to view. They responded, and up sprouted a bumper crop of further stumbling blocks. Resisting temptation is made so much harder when temptation is all you see.
Christians are called to influence the world. We don’t abandon this commission when we log into the internet
But algorithms work both ways. To take back control of my browsing, I clicked on about thirty videos of sneezing cats and laughing babies, sowing a very different sort of seed, until all the unhelpful content had been shunted off my homepage, replaced by innocent, adorable amusement.
When we’re struggling to stop sowing to the flesh, we need to double down on sowing to the Spirit. We need to bombard our search engines with requests for the true, pure and admirable content spoken about in Philippians 4:8. Or sneezing cats. That works too.
Shaped by our surroundings
Tailoring our internet experience has all but eliminated boredom, but every interaction has a cost: in shaping the algorithms’ understanding of who we are and what we like to view - and what will hold our attention in view of their advertisers – they are, in turn, beginning to shape us.
Our view of the world is formed by our surroundings. As limited creatures, we need to be very selective in choosing what those surroundings are.
In the internet age, the danger is that we become surrounded not by our immediate location or the people physically present in our lives, but by the virtual world that emerges from our smartphones. As addictive apps suck more and more of our attention into that virtual world, its influence over us grows.
These algorithms are designed to present us with the worldviews we find most appealing, which tend to be the ones we already have. With so much information at our fingertips, we are better equipped than any previous generation to recognise diversity of thought and experience, but algorithms often plaster over contrary points of view, blinkering us and shutting out perspectives that may stretch or grow us.
We must test for and hold onto truth, sifting the wheat from a world wide web of chaff
The author of Proverbs 18:17 writes: “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him,” but algorithms often eliminate that opportunity for cross-examination by pandering to our own biases. Unless our opinions are challenged, we can easily become trapped by them.
On the other hand, the wealth of information on the internet is riddled with rot. A fleeting interest in this conspiracy theory or that fake news item can open the door to more, mounting the pressure to conform. We must be vigilant, applying the 1 Thessalonians 5:21 principle of testing for and holding onto truth, sifting the wheat from a world wide web of chaff.
Even seeking a balanced argument has pitfalls. Wise and nuanced reasoning can be drowned out by more popular extremes. A year ago, my Facebook feed was heaving with politically charged articles roaring vitriol at each other, forming the narrow perception of a world at strife. The anxiety this birthed in me lasted long after I’d torn my eyes away from the screen.
Sowing to the spirit
Demand creates supply. We vote with our search engines, not just for the content was want to find, but for the content we want created.
Christians are called to be salt and light – to influence the world, rather than have it influence us. We don’t abandon this commission when we log into the internet.
The algorithms think they know us and, often, the image they reflect back to us is not pretty. By demanding and creating online content fit for the Kingdom of heaven, perhaps we can persuade them otherwise.