Leaving the screen: Restoring in-person relationships

December 5, 2016

As our country continues down an unprecedented and uncertain path, so many of us find our desire to discuss and debate recent events, and their immense significance, growing greatly. Social media conveniently provides a place for such conversations, but it doesn’t come without a cost.

The discourse can quickly become vitriolic when sensitive topics like race and gender, which have filled the headlines in recent weeks, are being debated. I am not here to add another opinion. Instead, I want to humbly propose a suggestion.

I don’t intend to bind anyone’s conscience. The Lord has given each of us a unique stewardship. But recent weeks have led me to take a serious inventory of my social media use. The conclusion: I’ve all but kissed Facebook goodbye. I still have an account, partly for professional reasons, but I’m striving to minimize my usage. I’ve come to believe that posting articles and partaking in debates on this medium is far less profitable than I once thought. I’m seeking a return to more intimate ways to build relationships with friends and family.

I feel foolish devoting an essay to such a trivial decision, but I think it’s merited because of social media’s outsized role in my life, and the lives of many others. This election made me painfully aware of its limitations.

Social media can be a great venue for sharing those vacation photos and pet videos. It’s not the ideal medium for most debates, especially political ones, though. Problems arise when our time spent on social media, regardless of its purpose, comes in lieu of conversation.

The Apostle Paul knew the value of face-to-face conversation. He wasn’t content to simply write letters to his fellow Christians. He expressed his longing to visit the congregations to which he wrote (Rom. 1:11). He sent trusted representatives like Timothy in his absence (1 Cor. 16:10) and encouraged others to visit him (Titus 3:12). He visited both to encourage (Rom. 1:12) and admonish (2 Cor. 13:2).

I’m not calling for complete disengagement from social media. Disengagement is an overreaction the church has been guilty of, and it’s not necessary in this case. Technology, from the printing press to iTunes, has been widely used in the promulgation of the gospel. God’s sovereignty extends to the digital realm, and we’re called to be wise stewards there, as well.

Instead, I am asking people, beginning with myself, to analyze our social media use and determine if we should adjust our habits to make wiser use of the time (Eph. 5:16) in order to better love and serve God and neighbor.

More face-to-face time

The appeal of Facebook is obvious: We can instantly share a photo, article or our own musings with hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Greater numbers do not always mean greater impact, though. A conversation with a handful of people can be exponentially more meaningful than a link posted on our Facebook wall. Marginalized communities need our service, not a self-serving show of support on social media.

Are we engaging more with our online communities than our real-life ones? Would it be wiser to discuss today’s issues over dinner with our co-workers and neighbors, including those with whom we disagree, instead of Facebook friends and Twitter followers? Our Internet use may not impact our church attendance, but does it take away from time that could be spent stirring up one another to love and good works? (Heb. 10:24-25)

I know this isn’t a one-for-one exchange. Less time on Facebook doesn’t guarantee more time in deep conversation. But I think we will be encouraged toward the latter if we slowly begin to disentangle ourselves from the allures of social media. How often do we let social media distract us when friends and family are sitting next to us?

We need conversation more than ever when the discourse becomes complex and emotional, as it has today. Digital conversation reduces our capacity for empathy, an important emotion when engaged in passionate and polarized debate. We can’t see online how our words impact another person. It’s much easier to discern in a face-to-face discussion.

If we are going to make any progress toward healing and act as agents of reconciliation, we need to be able to see the humanity of the other side. The digital screen blocks our view of the Imago Dei in each individual. How easy is it to tear someone down when they are only a picture and words on a screen?

We follow a Savior who, “when he was reviled, he did not revile in return. (1 Pet. 2:23).” We are called to affirm the dignity of each person, even those on the other side of the aisle, and to honor everyone (1 Pet. 2:17). We promote righteousness, but we do so humbly as sinners whose only hope is Christ’s perfect righteousness imputed to us.

We must be mindful of the potential pratfalls of communicating online. Losing sight of each person’s dignity is one way we can go wrong online. The ways in which we form our online communities also can cause problems.

Breaking out of the echo chamber

We have a tendency online to congregate in tribes of like-minded individuals. It is easy to live an online life that always affirms our views and never challenges them. This can puff us up with pride and make it easier to denigrate our opponents. We can begin to view the other side as a homogenous mob, instead of with nuance. Viewing another group as “those people” is always a dangerous seed to harbor in the heart.

Such behavior is easier behind a screen, but not when you meet the individuals who comprise the other side. G.K. Chesterton recognized this tendency decades before the Internet came into existence. The digital world has only exacerbated it.

“The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world,” Chesterton wrote in In Defense of Sanity (I must credit my wife, Abby, for showing me this quote). “He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us.

“Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. . . . A big society exists in order to form cliques. A big society is a society for the promotion of narrowness. It is a machinery for the purpose of guarding the solitary and sensitive individual from all experience of the bitter and bracing human compromises.”

Facebook, which has more than 1.7 billion users, seems to fit that description. We can pick our online friends, and then banish them from our community with the click of a button. Facebook’s algorithms promotes content that appeals to our interests, including our political views. And, in this election in particular, an increasing amount of that content was false information passed off as truth.

In her 2015 book, Reclaiming Conversation, Sherry Turkle wrote: “Life on our new digital landscape challenges us as citizens. Although the web provides incomparable tools and mobilize for action, when we are faced with a social problem that troubles us, we are tempted to retreat to what I would call the ‘online real.’ There, we can choose to see only the people with whom we agree. And to share only the ideas we think our followers want to hear.”

Our online echo chambers can make us proud of our “right” opinions. Humility means listening to our opponents. We must remember that there is good in every person, even our political opponents, because of God’s common grace. We are all sinners, as well, because of our depravity. We should affirm the good in all people while challenging what is evil. We are called to be both salt and light (Matt. 5:13-16).

These complex times may provide the perfect opportunity to rethink how we engage those closest to us. It may be time for us to move out from behind our computer screens and into deeper relationship with the people God has placed in our proximity.

Sean Martin

Sean Martin lives in Jacksonville, Florida, with his wife, Abby, and son, John. Sean has worked in golf media for the past 11 years, and currently serves as the events editor at PGATOUR.COM. He's covered golf tournaments on four continents, including all of the game's major championships. A native Californian, Martin … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24