Well, hello there! It is the end of 2019. 2020 is upon us!
First things first: thank you to every last one of you who has followed along with this newsletter. Especially given it’s been a bit more sporadic than I hoped when I started it at the beginning of the year. “Weekly” is hard. I have ever-more admiration for folks who manage it.
Second: I haven’t made up my mind, as of the time I’m drafting this, what I want to do with this space in the next year. I’m pretty sure I want to keep writing it, though, because it’s hands down the best source of conversations I have on the general internet. That’s down to all of you, and therefore my second thank you: for the thoughtful replies off and on through the course of the year. You have been not only readers but also conversation partners.
I started an essay a few weeks ago—one I’m still hoping to finish by the end of the year, though we’ll see—which I’ve tentatively titled “Against the Broadcast.” The gist is: Facebook and Twitter and Snapchat and TikTok, and before them blogging and, yes, email newsletters, have trained us to broadcast all our thoughts to the world. Six months away from Twitter, and I still catch myself missing: that way of shouting whatever thought happens to flit across my mind into the listening aether, that promise of a response if I snark just right, that constant hope of attention to my thoughts.
public social media in any form is bad for my soul and my mental life and my discipline—at least where I am now. Maybe it’ll be better after I detox, when I’ve been off social media for as long as I’ve been on. So, you know: I’ll reevaluate in another 15 years.
I don’t know if it’ll actually be 15 years, but I’m increasingly serious about the need for that kind of detoxing.
That right there is the biggest hesitation I have right now about all of my public writing, though. How much, I have to ask, is this newsletter just another way of feeding that same need for attention and response when I broadcast my thoughts into the world? I cannot say the answer is not at all. I hope the answer is only a little. At its best I would like to think that this is encouraging you all who read, and provoking further thought on these subjects which are near and dear to me and also at the fore of many conversations going on around us. I would like to think that my voice, quiet though it be, is a helpful entry in some of those conversations. That if nothing else both my blog and this newsletter can magnify others who are doing really great work on tech and ethics.
But I still hesitate—still I must hesitate.
Never stopping to check our motives, never asking what the knock-on effects might be, never wondering whether even the best motives might be outweighed by those knock-on effects, never hesitating: that’s what got us here. That’s everything wrong with Google and Facebook and Twitter and Amazon and Apple. It’s folly.
I had a conversation with friends a few years ago at a gathering of theologically conservative evangelicals. The topic of Christian publishing came up, and in particular the quality of Christian publishing. Several of the folks around our little table had published books, so this was not a disinterested or merely academic argument. (They were good books, helpful books, in their way—one of them a real and helpful turning point in my own thinking a year ago.) But both I and a friend (the author of that particularly helpful book!) had doubts about the goodness of the publishing world as it stands. About the degree to which it runs on the urgent need to turn another dime just to keep afloat, and the degree to which it therefore pushes out dreck.
My friend and I argued: maybe it’s not worth the cost. Maybe fewer, better books would fail as a marketing strategy, but also: maybe so be it. Particularly when people’s souls are on the line, “We needed to make budget this year” isn’t really a great line. Neither is “Well, it couldn’t hurt to have another decent book on the subject!” Maybe what we need isn’t yet another book on the same topic at a minimally viable level of theological accuracy, but something genuinely good, that can benefit the church longer and more deeply. (If you’re not a Christian, you can no doubt identify similar examples. Certainly the tech press exemplifies this same dynamic!)
The rejoinder, from our friends on the side of moar publishing! was that these books were helpful. Helpful to someone is good enough, right?
I wasn’t persuaded then, and I’m not persuaded now. In a context where we suffer from a glut of information—where we are overwhelmed with choice in what to take in—more may be much worse. That goes double when the more is also just okay or fairly okay or mostly helpful-ish. One of the ways we can serve each other in the internet era is by just shutting up. That goes for books, the subject of our discussion a few years ago. It also goes for newsletters and blogs, though.
Yet—and here’s the rub—if those of us most careful and most thoughtful about these things all take that tack… we leave the floor to the least careful and least thoughtful about these things. How much of the dysfunction among white evangelical Christians on politics is a function of the absence of good leaders and sound teaching? To what extent are we where we are today because the voices my brothers and sisters listen to are so often explicitly or implicitly not only a- but even anti-theological, not only a- but anti-historical, not only an- but anti-intellectual? To what extent, therefore, do those of us with platforms (however small) and education (however insufficient it feels for the task) and gifts (however meager) have a responsibility to speak, to provide a better alternative to the nonsense floating around?
I couch this in terms of white evangelicals because it is a group near and dear to my heart, and one of the places I am considering this tension most tenderly at the moment. But it goes for many, many areas of our public discourse. It goes no less for the tech press.
These are not questions with cut-and-dried answers. There is no equivalent to “Thou shalt not murder” when it comes to the amount of writing and publishing we do. (“Thou shalt not bear false witness” is a command that anyone publishing on the internet would do well to internalize, though!) The question is one of wisdom, of personal and communal context. I cannot tell you what you ought to do. I cannot even say for myself what I ought to do—not without having a lot of serious conversations with the people in my communities and hearing from them.
…which means, in a very real sense, hearing from you. I’d really appreciate your thoughts on these matters as I come into 2020, wrestling hard with what I ought to do in these spheres where I have some small influence.
Happy New Year! May we all choose more wisely on tech ethics in particular in the 2020s than we did in the 2010s.