Insights from ‘The Social Dilemma’ documentary on Netflix
This article originally appeared on MissioAlliance.org and is reposted here by permission.
“There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software.” —Edward Tufte
I recently sat down to take in the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, ironically recommended to me through various social media channels over the course of several weeks both by pastor friends and friends from high school. I’m no stranger to social media and the world of technology, especially when it comes to the church. I serve as online pastor at my church, write content and record videos regularly for online use, and lead and moderate five Facebook pages and groups. The documentary’s premise didn’t surprise me, that not only is our technology having negative impact on everything from mental health to politicization, but it is out of the control of its creators. It’s no secret that these companies are aiming toward profit, and that their intent is that you view more, click more, watch more, and share more, playing on basic human psychology and brain physiology so that picking up your phone, checking email and engrossing yourself in an online world becomes a part of who you are. In the words of Justin Rosenstein, former engineer at Facebook and Google and co-founder of Asana, “We’re the product.”
However, while the dramatized “Command Central” scenes interspersed in the show as malicious personified forces trying to get a young man to return to his phone after accepting a challenge to be rid of it for a week, what stood out to me the most was the overall nonmalicious intent behind the major social media and technology firms’ actions. Sure, consumerism drives what they do and how they operate, but nobody is going to work saying, “Let’s cause addictions, spawn depression among young people and divide families.”
It’s the unintentional, unplanned and often unknown side effects that have the greatest potential to turn a helpful thing into a harmful thing. At the end of the film, I sat silent. But then it hit me. A question seeped into my soul. As I stared into the credits, I asked myself and the empty room, Is the church feeding this dilemma too?
A confession: By the end of the film, I realized I had picked up my phone no fewer than 30 times.
I knew I was guilty.
A CRITICAL ASSESSMENT
I thought of the possible ways I have been involved:
• A conversation with a church about turning a live-worship campus into a video venue
• A meeting about creating more social media content that can result in more “shares” and “likes”
• A choice to opt for the passive broadcast of Facebook Live and Instagram Live over Zoom and other real-time face-to-face and voice-to-voice interactions
• An ease at sending emails over making phone calls
• An adrenaline rush after watching something you (or your church) produced or been a part of going viral
• A need to respond to messages and emails and receive responses an hour or less after sending
• A pivot to engage teenagers primarily through social media and text, since “that’s where they are already” and it’s “comfortable for them”
In an era of COVID-19, when many of us have been forced into online platforms, livestreaming, social media, webhosting and app after app, it can be easy to shrug this off, say we don’t have a choice and claim that things either will be back to our “normal” analog selves in the near future, or that we just have to embrace “the way it is” and immerse ourselves digitally in everything we touch. We can jump into marketing our webinars and producing our own ministry-oriented clickbait. But as followers of Jesus, the question about what we do must always be about the message we are proclaiming, the people with whom we are connecting and who we are becoming.
SUBSTITUTION, SUPPLEMENT OR SOMETHING ELSE?
One of the greatest challenges the church has always faced is its tension between being different from yet connected to the world. Social media and technology are sources of many of our postmodern connections. Clearly, Christ offers a way of life now and into eternity whose narrow road diverges from that of those who choose other directions. But at the same time, our effectiveness as being salt and light requires immersion, not separation. The mission of Christ is central to who we are as the “sent ones” and must always be brought to the table as we decide on the means of engagement with one another and our neighbors. This also means digging deeper into our church’s view of engagement with the culture.
Niebuhr’s famous work Christ and Culture proposes five paths we might take in our striving to be “in the world but not of the world”:
• Christ against culture
• Christ of culture
• Christ above culture
• Christ and culture in paradox
• Christ transforming culture
This is where the decision point occurs. We don’t make decisions based on what “works,” boosts numbers, fosters more staring at screens, or gets people to give to the church so we can stay alive. In the latter two models, “Christ and culture in paradox” and “Christ transforming culture,” we can view this technology as simultaneously broken and good at the same time.
One of the most powerful statements in the documentary is that of former design ethicist at Google, Tristan Harris:
“If something is a tool, it genuinely is just sitting there, waiting patiently [to be used]. If something is not a tool, it’s demanding things from you, it’s seducing you, it’s manipulating you. It wants things from you. We’ve moved away from a tools-based technology environment to an addiction- and manipulation-used technology environment. Social media isn’t a tool waiting to be used. It has its own goals, and it has its own means of pursuing them by using your psychology against you.”
If we are honest, the church can consciously or subconsciously participate in this addictive and manipulative environment by what we aim for, what we seek after. The key to connecting with the culture and participating in Christ’s transformation of it lies in making sure it is a tool in the hands of the church.
WHAT DO TECHNOLOGY AND SOCIAL MEDIA LOOK LIKE WHEN USED AS TOOLS?
1. It Leads Somewhere in Real Life.
A tool helps you get somewhere—it isn’t the “somewhere.” The way we use social media and online platforms as a tool leads someone toward a face-to-face encounter, next step in their discipleship, or action—not to another view, read, or scroll. What are you counting every week? What is your goal? Are you posting things that are meant to be consumed or intentionally lead somewhere, offline? Are you connecting digitally to avoid connecting IRL—in real life?
2. It’s a Supplement, Not a Substitute.
Gone are the days of handing someone a Bible—you just help them download an app. When a tool, technology is useful and can put people in touch and things at our fingertips that can help our growth in Christ. But while many would agree “the church is not the building,” would we also agree “the church is not the platform?” Just as COVID exiled us from our buildings, if we were exiled from social media and digital platforms, would we still be able to do ministry and share the love of Christ? One of the facades of a digital presence is to appear connected but be more isolated than ever. Do we know our neighbors and have real relationships with people in our vicinity, our schools, community services and businesses? Or have Facebook events and broadcasts actually cut us off from our neighbors?
3. It Helps Us Draw Boundaries.
Social media and technology beckon our attention 24/7. During the film credits, numerous individuals give tips on how to keep it in the toolbox, including turning off notifications, deleting apps and not giving kids smartphones until high school. We can help our congregations and neighbors by creating waves of positive influence in these areas. We can include fasting from social media as part of the fasts of the church calendar and church life. What are some creative ways your church could help families and individuals keep technology in the toolbox?
4. It Challenges Where We Think Real Life Is.
Scripture teaches us how human beings have always been in search of transcendence. Instead of looking toward the gifts created by our own hands as a way of pointing us toward our Creator, we get stuck in our fascination with the creation. And immersing ourselves in that “thing” leads to corruption of the “thing,” using the creation for that which it was never intended to do. Where is your real life? Where is your children’s real lives? Where is your church’s real life? And what is it you may be trying to escape from?
The problems brought up in The Social Dilemma are not just for our families and communities—it’s a dilemma for the church and for us as Christians. In this day and age when we are even more reliant on technology and social media, we must harness the opportunity to assess where we are; to use the tool, but maintain our identity. It’s a hard road to walk, and I’m not sure any of us have it all figured out, but awareness is the best starting point.
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