The last few years have seen a global pandemic, civil unrest, and increased political division. These miasmas of polarization, alienation, and apathy have been accompanied by stranger trends, such as declining birth and sex rates, record levels of depression, anxiety, mental health issues, loneliness, spiritual deconstruction, and an overall decline in church attendance and profession of the Christian faith. Not to mention an influx of Facebook messages from your uncle about flat earth conspiracy theories.
In the wake of so many maladies, there is no shortage of theories to explain them or suggestions to fix them. Yet much of this advice sounds too much like what it’s attempting to oppose. No matter how complex an issue, there are increasingly only two sides. And both are increasingly angry.
Instead of adding to this cacophony of opinion, I want to highlight a common denominator in all these movements and phenomena: digital media. Although we need to address messages within prevailing philosophies, theories, and movements, we must also wrestle with the significance of the medium in order to understand the meaning of these at all.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to suggest we abandon our iPhones and social media for butter churning and communes out in the country. But I do truly believe that if we don’t approach digital media with care (and circumspection), then instead of thwarting the messages and attitudes that threaten the church, we may unintentionally perpetuate them.
Listen to the Prophets
For the past 3,500 years of the Western world, the effects of media—whether it’s speech, writing, printing, photography, radio or television—have been systematically overlooked by social observers. —Marshall McLuhan
Digital (and especially social) media is ubiquitous. When we’re bored, exhausted, lonely, or distracted, this is the antidote. The internet, which promises infinite education and knowledge, also runs rampant with mindless distractions, ads, pornography, and more ads. Even now, billions of dollars are being invested into platforms like the metaverse, an immersive iteration of the internet accessed with virtual-reality headsets. The internet is also the place where many Christians get on their soapboxes and publish their complaints—usually against one another. The internet has both created and destroyed countless relationships. It has both built and ruined entire industries. Indeed, digital media is a powerful tool to shape the world around us. But what if this tool we’re using to shape the world is no less powerfully shaping us? As we wrestle with such a question, we necessarily become critics of the media.
Media criticism has long been dominated by the field of media ecology, a mid-twentieth-century philosophical movement that studied media as environments with their own conditions in which persons live and operate. If we look at media ecology—along with its notable figures such as Marshall McLuhan, Neil Postman, Lewis Mumford, Walter Ong, Lance Strate, and Jacques Ellul—we notice a school of thought that’s bent on asking questions that help us become aware of “the psychic and social effects of [our] new technology as a fish of the water it swims in.”
Often dramatic and dour, like all good prophets, media ecologists are eccentric with an important message to deliver that overshadowed everything else for them. As Neil Postman wrote in 1990,
The tie between information and action has been severed. Information is now a commodity that can be bought and sold, or used as a form of entertainment, or worn like a garment to enhance one’s status. It comes indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, disconnected from usefulness; we are glutted with information, drowning in information, have no control over it, don’t know what to do with it.
But you don’t have to be a media ecologist to be sensitive to the profound—and frequently disturbing—effects of digital media. We’re all more anxious nowadays, aren’t we?
In the Gospels, Jesus is often confronted with the urgent questions and anxieties of those around him. In what sometimes feels like a dismissive tone (John 11:23–26), he usually ignores their questions and in turn asks them questions (Matt. 9:14–15; Mark 2:6–8; Luke 10:25–26). In doing so, he reveals to them (and us) what questions we should be asking about God, the world, and ourselves. Similarly, the goal of media ecology is to ask questions that guide us in thinking more clearly about the use of technology. To criticize media is not to look down on the kids these days and their newfangled gadgets. It’s to hold it accountable to its purported promises.
Yes, the Medium Is the Message
Thus the age of anxiety and of electric media is also the age of the unconscious and of apathy. But it is strikingly the age of consciousness of the unconscious, in addition. —Marshall McLuhan
Like many Millennials, I grew up with screens: I watched television two-plus hours every day and played video games into the night. When I was twelve, I joined my first online forum. It was for fans of Christian novelist Frank Peretti; we talked about his books and shared our attempts at writing Christian fiction. It was there that I first felt the dopamine rush brought on by online strangers complimenting my comments and insights. I transitioned to MySpace, then Facebook, Instagram, and now Twitter. These media have been with me for over half my life.
Perhaps the most important and famous tenet of media ecology is Marshall McLuhan’s maxim, “The medium is the message.” In recent years, this has become a pithy catchphrase that advertisers and marketers use to highlight how important branding is for a company’s content or products. But McLuhan meant it much more literally. One reviewer wrote that McLuhan’s maxim was originally meant “to be opposite of Bill Gates’ slogan that ‘content is king.’ Content, thought McLuhan, was merely window dressing for the psychic and social consequences imprinted by the instruments that broadcast the information, whether it be radio, telegraph, telephone, or television.” L. M. Sacasas has noted that McLuhan was primarily concerned with the idea that “all technology . . . alters perception.” That is, all technology mediates reality to its user in some way, “because it is that through which we perceive the content.”
When we receive communication through any sort of media, our reception of the content is thoroughly influenced by the communicating medium. Consider Neil Postman’s description of children’s educational television: “As a television show, and a good one, Sesame Street does not encourage children to love school or anything about school. It encourages them to love television.” If you keep reading books, you’ll not only love or hate the specific books you read, but you’ll be shaped more and more into a book reader.
Digital media shape us in the same way, and its always-connected interactivity makes it all the more effective at doing so. As Nicholas Carr says in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Shallows, “The very way my brain worked seemed to be changing. . . . It was hungry. It was demanding to be fed the way the Net fed it—and the more it was fed, the hungrier it became. Even when I was away from my computer, I yearned to check email, click links, do some googling. I wanted to be connected.” I’ve felt its impulse—its craving, prodding presence—within my mind since childhood. No matter how wholesome the content is that I consume, this gnawing feeling to consume doesn’t discriminate between good and bad content. It doesn’t want certain content, but content in a certain way.
When human communication is transferred online, where it’s supposed to connect us, the results are quite the opposite. In 2021, certain Facebook employees leaked internal research to the Wall Street Journal, carrying headlines like, “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls.” Additional research shows that social media forces the brain to either flood the nervous system with dopamine, searching for a “like,” or release chemicals associated with sentiments, such as rejection and disappointment (if there is a lack of engagement from friends or followers).
Before any of this research—before there was any Facebook—Marshall McLuhan predicted that digital media would stoke anxiety and apathy. From McLuhan’s perspective, all technology is an extension of the human person. The pen is an extension of one’s thought, the hammer is an extension of one’s hand, fashion is an extension of one’s skin, and media—books, radio, television, and so on—is an extension of one’s nervous system. Digital media in the internet era has expanded our nervous system to a “global embrace, abolishing both space and time.”
Whether we’re stopped at a red light, standing in line at Starbucks, or lying in bed, digital media has extended our nervous system beyond all proportion. We feel the pull of “refreshing” and logging on. Our brains are overstimulated from the news and content we encounter online—everything from cute puppies to reports of mass shootings—while our bodies remain largely stationary. We stream cooking shows instead of cooking with our families. We fight on Twitter instead of meeting our neighbors.
So many of our relationships are no longer mediated through in-person presence with all its givenness (which sometimes involves awkwardness). We’ve replaced this admittedly slow and messy life with carefully curated profiles, controlled connections, and preferred experiences. This seems ideal. But in neglecting the body, we also neglect the soul. As Andy Crouch wrote in his recent work on technology,
The soul is the plane of human existence that our technological age neglects most of all. Jesus asked whether it was worth gaining the whole world at the cost of losing one’s soul. But in the era of superpowers, we have not only lost a great deal of our souls—we have lost much of the world as well. We are rarely overwhelmed by wind or rain or snow. We rarely see, let alone name, the stars. We have lost the sense that we are both at home and on a pilgrimage in the vast, mysterious cosmos, anchored in a rich reality beyond ourselves. We have lost our souls without even gaining the world. . . . It is no wonder that the defining condition of our time is a sense of loneliness and alienation. For if human flourishing requires us to love with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength, what happens when nothing in our lives develops those capacities? With what, exactly, will we love?
It makes sense that after a pandemic and increased social unrest and polarization many Millennials and Gen Z are retreating from real life to digital life. Our generations were not raised in gathered communal institutions like churches and social clubs. We, along with an ever-increasing proportion of older generations, try to find common places and spaces within the scope of our typical experience. Yet too often, these are the things that give us whatever we want while buffering us from so much of what we truly want and need: a billion backlit screens, but no stars in sight.
Media Isn’t Merely a Tool
My argument is limited to saying that a major new medium changes the structure of discourse; it does so by encouraging certain uses of the intellect, by favoring certain definitions of intelligence and wisdom, and by demanding a certain kind of content—in a phrase, by creating new forms of truth-telling. —Neil Postman
Okay, you may be thinking, but what if we just use digital media responsibly? What if we implement healthy practices and boundaries and avoid letting all those algorithms get the best of us? Can’t we subvert these powerful technologies to our advantage? I suspect many media ecologists would answer the way Elrond responded to Boromir in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring when Boromir suggested they use the one ring against their powerful enemy Sauron: “Its strength, Boromir, is too great for anyone to wield at will. . . . The very desire of it corrupts the heart.” But the argument of media ecologists is not bent on the abolition of the use of digital media. They are merely helping us ask questions about how media is changing us as individuals and as a society. What we do with their insights is up to us.
Postman—who did not wholly agree with McLuhan and described some of his theories as “wild and crazy”—did, however, agree with the essence of his famous maxim about the medium being the message. In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman writes, “Each medium, like language itself, makes possible a unique mode of discourse by providing a new orientation for thought, for expression, for sensibility.” Postman speculates that this is why, for example, celebrity fundamentalists who reject liturgy and theological nuance dominate TV preaching:
I think it both fair and obvious to say that on television, God is a vague and subordinate character. Though His name is invoked repeatedly, the concreteness and persistence of the image of the preacher carries the clear message that it is he, not He, who must be worshipped.
Certain media naturally cultivate a culture of celebrity and performance and chafe against slow, quiet things like humility and nuance. So, while we should ask ourselves what content will help others, we should also filter it through the inevitable scenarios of how and when the media determine how that content is received (and often distorted) beyond our intended purposes. When we think of addressing the decadent milieu of our day by fighting fire with fire, we should pause to ask what content we might create to share on social media to inform and bless others. But as newly minted media critics, we inevitably will ask some hard questions. Will our good intentions be thwarted by using unsuitable means? Might we be displacing some other institution or practice that is even more impactful?
[In] the real world, it’s possible that Western society is really leaning back in an easy chair, hooked up to a drip of something soothing, playing and replaying an ideological greatest-hits tape from its wild and crazy youth, all riled up in its own imagination and yet, in reality, comfortably numb. —Ross Douthat
The ubiquity of digital media may lead us to believe that its power is near unstoppable, or even invincible. Significant as it may be, its oversaturation also reveals its weakness. Even with digital media’s ever-present and constant content, we might ask why isn’t it more powerful? Why are important messages online so quickly ignored while banal ones reach virality? With the amount of information online, both profound and disturbing, why does it yield anything less than a kind of revolution?
I believe one reason is that digital media, as a means and an activity, is largely self-referential. No matter how earnestly we use it and no matter how heartfelt our words, they become content for the platform. Deep down, most of us know that it’s all closer to a video game than a town hall. We can feel as though we are fighting for reform, as if we’re involved in political organization and activism, as if we are a part of the good fight—but, in reality, media rarely inspires us to act beyond itself because it makes us believe we have already acted. When we engage online, we feel as though we’re participating in and doing something. In some ways, we are: it’s not as though our words online don’t matter and we’ll escape having to give an account for them (Matt. 12:36). Yet in another sense, we’re merely logging on and playing our parts, using our time in a way uncomfortably like playing solitaire on Windows 98.
Philosophers have long thought that our minds must be guarded from such artificial pastimes. Plato decried the arts (and even blue-collar work) as trivialities; practices that were too fraught with the material, noneternal things of the world. More of a Platonist than a Puritan, the eighteenth-century Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau warned that cultural and political stagnation would result from going to the theater. The theater is the place in which human compassion (pitié), the thing that separates us from the animals, is unnaturally depleted. This results in a kind of fatigue that leaves us incapable of fulfilling our actual political duties.
The elitist and world-denying strains of thought from these philosophers aren’t helping anyone. Plato would hate Instagram for some of the same reasons he would hate carpentry or oil painting. And in a world where our political duties are less clear and it’s easier than ever to be sequestered into our own preferred groups, the stories we find through media can awaken much-needed empathy in us. The average American is not familiar with impoverishment in India, but those who stream the film Lion on Amazon Prime Video can’t help but be moved by the story of an orphan finding his mother after decades apart. We should be thankful for the social consciousness that digital media seems to invoke on us. It has exposed many of us to the plight of others that we might not have known about. The viral footage of George Floyd’s murder is one example, and the leaked footage of the Uyghur Muslims in China is another.
Even still, when compiled with McLuhan’s description of the overextended nervous system and the onslaught of content on the internet, Rousseau’s concerns, no matter how curmudgeonly, can’t be entirely dismissed. If we consult McLuhan and Postman on our digital doings, they are going to point out that every like, comment, tweet, share, stream, and impression of engagement, no matter how it impacts our nervous system, is a replacement for something else. Technology extends one aspect of humanity while replacing and disrupting our reliance on others.
Our online actions are satiating various aspects of our real lives without taking much real-life action. While some radical revolutionaries do act on their online manifestos, thousands more are merely playing one on Twitter. As our rhetoric and language change to fit the online-fantasy genre of digital discourse, it’s no wonder that real ecclesial and political organizations have been replaced with viral clips, memes, tweets, and comments. With digital media, we can be everywhere and yet nowhere at the same time, no longer bound by our place and context, but no longer grounded either.
Meet Me at the Pub
While it’s imprudent to divest the digital environment of all theological content, pastors and church leaders would do well to temper its importance. We may want our pastors to tailor their sermons to confront the pundits we don’t like, to weigh in on spats within online discourse, and we may judge other pastors for their lack of using social media to address the “current thing.” But if media ecologists are right, then we should do a double-take at our anxiety and apathy and ask if it’s a bug or a feature of the mediums we can hardly stand to be away from.
All of this might seem ironic (even hypocritical) coming from someone who has made a career out of being a media producer. I had the privilege of working with Michael Horton at White Horse Inn for several years and have seen firsthand the good fruit of these labors. That doesn’t mean that in some way White Horse Inn isn’t subject to some of the dangers mentioned (even though Postman did refer to radio as the medium most “well suited to the transmission of rational, complex language”). Indeed, there’s something embedded in WHI we ought to recover far and wide. The radio show is named after the White Horse Inn in Cambridge, England, which is where the Reformation first came to the English-speaking world—that is, it’s a public house. A pub is an embodied environment where folks come after a long day’s work with their anxieties, burdens, and brash personalities and hash life out over a pint of ale or a glass of lemonade.
I wonder whether it would be better for the church’s imagination to be taken up less with the efficiency and reach of digital media and communication for sharing our message, and taken up more with the heart and good cheer of in-person discussion and debate. Perhaps we should consider attending and helping build institutions that want to cultivate such intimate gatherings. Investing our time and finances in such personal ways may offer less maximum reach than digital media, but its meekness and commitment to a creaturely, deeply human discourse may be one of the surest ways to counter the decadence and maladies of our day without becoming too similar to what we oppose.
2. McLuhan, 1969 interview with Playboy magazine. A text-only archival version of the interview is available at https://web.cs.ucdavis.edu/~rogaway/classes/188/spring07/mcluhan.pdf.
3. McLuhan, 1969 interview.
4. Neil Postman, “Informing Ourselves to Death,” Speech to the German Informatics Society, Stuttgart, October 11, 1990, https://web.williams.edu/HistSci/curriculum/101/informing.html.
5. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (repr., Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1994), 47.
6. Ryan Zickgraf, “Review: The Medium Is the Message,” Freddie deBoer (Substack), January 9, 2022, https://freddiedeboer.substack.com/p/review-the-medium-is-the-message.
7. L. M. Sacasas, “Technology and Perception: That by Which We See Remains Unseen,” L. M. Sacasas: Technology, Culture, and Ethics (Blog), June 24, 2012, https://thefrailestthing.com/2012/06/24/technology-and-perception-that-by-which-we-see-remains-unseen/.
8. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin, 1986), 144.
9. Georgia Wells, Jeff Horwitz, and Deepa Seetharaman, “Facebook Knows Instagram Is Toxic for Teen Girls, Company Documents Show,” The Wall Street Journal, September 14, 2021.
10. Daria J. Kuss and Mark D. Griffiths, “Online Social Networking and Addiction—A Review of the Psychological Literature,” National Library of Medicine, August 29, 2011, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3194102/.
11. McLuhan, Understanding Media, 4.
12. Andy Crouch, The Life We Are Looking For: Reclaiming Relationship in a Technological World (New York: Convergent Books, 2022), 58–59.
13. Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, 27.
14. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring: Being the First Part of The Lord of the Rings, Book II, Chapter 2 (repr., New York: Clarion Books, 2020).
15. Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, 8.
16. Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, 55–56.
17. Ross Douthat, The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success (New York: Avid Reader Press, 2020), 136.
18. In Steven B. Smith, ed., Modernity and Its Discontents: Making and Unmaking the Bourgeois from Machiavelli to Bellow (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 187.