By / May 15

I’m writing these words from the Seventh Circle of Hell.

Well, that’s what I call it. My kids call it Chuck E. Cheese’s, and they think it is heaven. Right now, they’re running around slapping buttons, whacking moles, spinning wheels, and shooting tiny basketballs into tiny hoops. I’m over here at the corner table eating cheap pizza and trying to write something intelligible. It isn’t easy to do amid the flashing lights, blaring games, and shrieking children. (Oh, and did I mention there’s a guy in a mouse costume running around high-fiving everyone?)

Pray for me in my hour of need.

As I sit here trying to concentrate, a thought occurs to me. The outside world is becoming more and more like this place. No, there aren’t people running around in giant mouse costumes. I’m talking about the distractions, the noise. Life has gotten louder, chaotic, and more disruptive. And just like at Chuck E. Cheese’s, a lot of the cacophony comes via screens.

There are the familiar diversions like TV, which, despite the advent of the Internet, Americans continue to watch on average for more than five hours a day.[1] Advertisements bombard us from every angle, more than at any other time in history. In addition to these distractions, the Internet has spawned a host of tools—like email, apps, social media, and online games—to grab even more of our time and attention. The average American now spends almost 11 hours a day staring at a screen.[2] Throw in eight hours of sleep (which we should be getting, but aren’t), and that leaves a paltry six hours in which we risk making eye contact with another human being.

A different distraction battle

In every generation Christians had to battle distraction, but today the battle is different. It now involves ignoring Internet trolls and not blowing money you don’t have on apps and one-click purchases. It means not frittering away hours scrolling through your Facebook feed or crushing digital candies on your phone. I’m not saying new media are all bad. They can enrich our lives when used properly and in moderation. But we’d be fooling ourselves if we didn’t recognize their drawbacks.

I wish I could lecture you on the dangers of new media from Mount Solitude, where I pass my days in silence and prayerful meditation. But alas, I live in the proverbial valley, immersed in the distracting technology that has become the hallmark of modern life. Recently I saw a report showing the average American house now has seven digitally connected devices.[3] I scoffed at the excess, then started counting the devices in my own home and came to a humbling realization: we have eight.

Every day I sign into three different email accounts, and I check them compulsively. And I usually do so on my smartphone, my ever-present help in times of boredom. It continually dings and buzzes and beeps, assuring me that I’m connected and popular and entertained. The other day I got stuck in line at Chipotle for 20 minutes and made a horrifying discovery: I didn’t have my phone with me. I grew uneasy. My hand kept searching my pockets in vain for the glowing device. I was shocked by just how hard it was for me to stand there with nothing to do. I got so desperate I almost resorted to talking to the people around me!

So how exactly can we fight back against the digital onslaught?

Structure Your Time

I doubt any of us sits down to plan the week and thinks, Hmm . . . I’m going to pencil in 35 hours for staring at my phone, 30 hours of TV, and seven hours of mindlessly surfing the web. Sounds ridiculous, right? We’d never plan to spend our time like this. Yet that’s what many of us do—week after week.

How do we bring sanity back to our schedules? By becoming intentional about the way we spend our time. Of course that doesn’t mean we say no more phones, TV, or computers. For most of us, that isn’t feasible. If I said no to email, I’d lose my job! But it does require applying wisdom to our online habits.

One tool I’ve found helpful comes from the author Brett McCracken. Playing off Maslow’s famous Hierarchy of Needs, McCracken came up with the “Wisdom Pyramid” to give internet-addicted Christians a way to think more fruitfully about the way they spend their time.[4]

McCracken puts social media and the Internet at the pinnacle of his pyramid—not because those are the best uses of your time, but because they’re the least important. He advises prioritizing Scripture-reading and spending time with your church family in order to keep your priorities balanced. This is great advice. When we make sure we’re spending time with God and each other, it helps us rein in our use of isolating technology.

Use Tech to Control Tech

A few months ago, I did something simple that reduced my tendency to waste time on my phone. I turned off all the notifications. Did I really need to be alerted every time someone liked one of my tweets or Facebook posts? Must I know each time CNN.com posts a new political story? Nope. Yet these dings and beeps were continually pulling me away from more important activities and sapping my ability to concentrate deeply. So I went into my settings and disabled all notifications. I haven’t missed them.

The second thing I did: install an app (called Moment) that tracks all the time I spend on my phone. It’s sobering to get an accurate understanding of just how much time you’re spending on your phone. Such tools help you prevent giving too much of your time and attention to the Internet.

There are also small steps you can take to curb your digital dependency. One is to disable color on your smartphone. The former Design Ethicist at Google, Tristan Harris, explains that opting for the “grayscale” option makes the apps on your phone far less addictive.[5]

Draw Bright Lines

Most of us know we have to handle technology better. But often we pursue this goal with vague aspirations, like “I’m going to try to look at my phone less.” Of course, objectives like this rarely work because they’re so ambiguous. “Bright lines” are hard-and-fast rules that help you avoid unwanted behavior. The term came from the legal system to describe clearly defined courtroom rulings, but researchers found the idea helpful for controlling conduct.

These rules may sound difficult, but they actually preserve your willpower. You know certain behaviors at certain times are off limits, so you don’t have to wrestle with a decision. You don’t even have to think about it. Bright lines are especially crucial for breaking bad digital habits. Make hard-and-fast rules like “No email after 6:00 p.m.,” or “No Internet on weekends,” or  “No phones at the dinner table.” These bright lines are like levees, strategically placed in your life to guard against the flood of digital distractions that threaten to overwhelm your soul.

Make Your Sabbath Tech-Free

A couple years ago, our family started giving our Sabbath a low-tech twist. We forbade the use of screens. We called it “No Screen Sundays.” It’s a little cheesy, but somehow the alliteration helped it stick. We don’t always observe it in our home (and usually Dad is the weak link), but we try. And when we do, it feels like a little slice of heaven. The kids aren’t zoned out watching cartoons, Mom isn’t texting, and maybe most refreshing of all, Dad isn’t glued to his phone checking email or Twitter. It’s a day to worship God, enjoy our church community, and to be together as a family. Really together. “The Sabbath prefers natural light to artificial light,” writes A. J. Swoboda.[6] We’ve found this to be true in our home. When we power down our devices and step outside into the natural light of God’s creation, our souls are restored.

This is just a sampling of strategies I’ve found useful. You may opt for different ones. The important thing is that we get intentional about freeing our minds from the tyranny of technology. Too much time in front of screens breeds impatience and impulsivity. It leaves us depressed and distracted and discontent. Compare those states of mind with the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and—self-control. The contrast could hardly be sharper. By limiting our time online, we give God the space in our lives to cultivate the virtues he longs for us to have.

This article is adapted from Your Future Self Will Thank You: Secrets to Self-Control from the Bible and Brain Science (Moody, 2019). 

Notes

  1. ^ John Koblin, “How Much Do We Love TV? Let Us Count the Ways,” New York Times, June 30, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/01/business/ media/nielsen-survey-media-viewing.html.
  2. ^ Jacqueline Howard, “Americans Devote More Than 10 Hours a Day to Screen Time, and Growing,” CNN.com, July 29, 2016, http://www.cnn.com /2016/06/30/health/americans-screen-time-nielsen/index.html.
  3. ^ Jayson Maclean, “Households Now Use an Average of Seven Connected Devices Every Day: Report,” August 25, 2016, https://www.cantechletter.com/2016/08/households-now-use-average-seven-connected-devices-every-day-report/.
  4. ^ Brett McCracken, designed by Jeremy Hamann, “The Wisdom Pyramid,” August 13, 2017, https://www.brettmccracken.com/blog/2017/8/3/the- wisdom-pyramid. Used by permission of the author.
  5. ^ Betsy Mikel, “Former Google Designer Says 1 Simple Trick Can Curb
Your Smartphone Addiction,” Inc., January 15, 2018, https://www.inc.com/ betsy-mikel/former-google-designer-says-1-simple-trick-can-curb-your- smartphone-addiction.html.
  6. ^ A. J. Swoboda, Subversive Sabbath: The Surprising Power of Rest in a Nonstop World (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2018), 100.
By / Dec 13

On Tuesday, Google CEO Sundar Pichai appeared before the House Judiciary Committee in a hearing to discuss Google’s practices in privacy, data collection, government projects, anti-trust regulations, and recent security breaches. Google has been under intense scrutiny for a project that has been developing call Project Dragonfly, which is believed to be a censored search engine to debut in China in cooperation with the communist Chinese government. Here is what you should know about the project and how it intersects with human rights:

What is Project Dragonfly?

Project Dragonfly is a project that Google has been working on in cooperation with the Chinese government to provide a new search engine app for China’s over 1.3 billion residents. The Chinese market is a huge area of potential growth for U.S. tech companies, specifically Google, whose main source of revenue is advertising. Google has not released detailed plans for the app and has not publicly acknowledged the project exists, outside of some brief remarks earlier this year from its chief privacy officer, Keith Enright, back in September 2018 before a Senate Commerce Committee hearing. Enright was questioned by Sen. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and said, “My understanding is we are not, in fact, close to launching a search product in China, and whether we would or could at some point in the future remains unclear.”

In September 2018, the Intercept reported that Google executives forced employees to delete an internal memo drafted by an engineer who was asked to work on Project Dragonfly. The memo contained concerns over the company’s involvement with Chinese government on creating a search product that would censor what the government deems sensitive information such as democracy, human rights, and peaceful protest.

Google famously shut down its Google.cn censored search engine in 2010 and rerouted the searches through its normal search engine based out of Hong Kong. It declared then that it was committed to a free and open internet for all.

What happened in the hearing?

Reports indicate that most of the three-and-half-hour hearing touched on an array of issues but mainly focused on how Google’s search algorithms may exhibit bias against conservative policy and politicians. These AI-based algorithms are often seen as “black boxes” because the outputs are usually mysterious and tend to produce results without much explanation to the public. Many committee members claimed in the hearing that Google is intentionally burying conservative content and promoting views that are contrary to conservative policy. Many Democrats defended the company’s search engine while Republicans saw these moves as politically motivated and intentionally biased. It should be noted that most of the information in the United States and the world run through Google’s search algorithms, so this type of bias could lead to misinformation and possibly sway public opinion.

Google CEO Pichai was asked bluntly by many members of the committee about Google’s supposed bias. The CEO rebutted those claims by insisting that he leads Google “without political bias.” He went on to say, “We are a company that provides platforms for diverse perspectives and opinions—and we have no shortage of them among our own employees."   When asked directly about Project Dragonfly, Pichai repeated that the company has no plans to enter China and would be transparent if it ever does.

When pressed by members of the committee, especially Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI), Pichai confirmed that Google has only undertaken an internal effort on the project but has no plans on entering the Chinese market at this time. The CEO then reiterated Google’s commitment to providing information for its users and that they continue to explore how to best give users access to information.

What comes next? 

Public pressure on Google to not work with Chinese government on the search engine project is mounting, but it may be some time before we learn what impact it might have on Google’s plans. Google has succumbed to internal and external pressures on other projects in the past, such as Project Maven, which was a partnership with the Department of Defense to develop an artificial intelligence program that could be used to process massive amounts of video data captured by drones in the battlefield and report back with potential enemy targets. Google pulled out of a partnership with the DOD on Project Maven in June 2018 by stating the company did not want to be in the business of war. Its infamous company slogan for years was “Don’t Be Evil” before it was changed in 2015 by the new parent company, Alphabet, to “Do the Right Thing.” It remains unclear if Google will proceed with Project Dragonfly, but it should be noted that Google employees are indeed working on the project and that Google has not provided a clear answer as to their future plans for entering the Chinese market.  

What does the Chinese government censor, and why does it matter?

The Intercept reported that Google’s potential search engine for China will comply with the Communist Party’s harsh censorship policies on human rights, democracy, free speech, and religion. This censorship is seen as directly opposed to the freedoms that Americans and members of other democracies enjoy. The Communist Party states that it censors information in order to protect its citizens from outside influences and to protect classified information, but this censorship is seen by the watching world as a ruse to protect its power and authority by intentionally suppressing knowledge for its people. A number of human rights groups and advocates publicly called on Congress to address these violations during the hearing with Pichai.

China has been involved in controversial uses of technology and artificial intelligence for many years, including the use of a massive surveillance network used to control its citizens, assign social value scores, and stamp out any political dissidents. The Economist reported in October about how these surveillance tools are used against Chinese citizens. These human rights violations are directly opposed to the democratic values that affirm the dignity and worth of every human being in principle. But more than democratic values, these abuses of human rights go against the very core of the Christian understanding of every human life having value and worth because we are created in the image of God and have certain God-given rights of liberty and conscience.

How could this be used against the church?

As Chinese officials use the government’s power to suppress information and stamp out dissidents, the Christian community is thriving in China, albeit underground. According to Purdue University scholar Yang Fenggang, there are an estimated 115 million Protestant Christians in China. While China is an officially atheistic nation, the Christian church has grown under the oppressive regime and its policing policies.  

Recently, Fox News reported through the Associated Press that dozens of Christians were detained by the Chinese government during a raid on a Chinese church. This is yet another example of how Christians are being persecuted for their faith in China. Most of the evangelical believers being persecuted are not a part of the Chinese Christian Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), which is a state-sanctioned body of Protestant churches heavily constrained by the Chinese government. TSPM was specifically designed to remove any outside influences on the Chinese people and is the only state-sanctioned church in China. All other churches must be underground in order to be protected from raids, persecution, or risk of being imprisoned.

Read more about the church in China here.

What can be done?

Google has the option of not providing their search services in China based on moral objections to the practices of the Chinese government. Many, including Klon Kitchen from the Heritage Foundation, argue that Google is choosing profits over morality as they continue to work on Project Dragonfly while refusing to work on certain U.S. defense projects like Project Maven. Others point out that cooperation with the Chinese government at this junction may produce some lasting changes to the repressive system of censorship and misinformation.

It remains to be seen what the long game is for Google concerning Project Dragonfly and plans for the search app for China. It is concerning, however, that the U.S.-based tech giant would be openly considering working with the Chinese government to propagate censorship, anti-democratic values, and surveil the Chinese people, while not providing clear answers to Congress about its U.S. practices that are potentially politically biased and contain misinformation.  

By / Mar 29

Imagine overhearing the following conversation:

Company X:I’d like you to give me access to your personal data (email, birthday, address, etc.), a list of a hundred of your friends, family, and acquaintances, and permission to use that information in whatever way I choose”

 Individual Y: “And what do I get in return?”

Company X: “You get to take a quiz that tells you what Lord of Rings character you are.”

Individual Y: “Sounds like a fair trade.”

You might think that no one would be foolish enough to engage in such an exchange. But I have. And if you use Facebook, chances are you have too. But even if you’ve never taken an online quiz or accepted a game request, your friends may have given away your private information.

Last week the New York Times reported that British data analysis firm Cambridge Analytica had “harvested private information from the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users without their permission.” As law professor Andrew Keane Woods explains,

The data that Cambridge Analytica obtained seems to have come from Aleksandr Kogan, a researcher at Cambridge University who convinced hundreds of thousands of Facebook users to take a Facebook-linked personality quiz—thereby granting Kogan access, through Facebook’s developer platform, to a treasure trove of user data. Kogan then shared this information with Cambridge Analytica. . . .

Only about 270,000 people took the quiz, so how did Kogan get information from 50 million user profiles? Facebook offers a popular feature called Facebook Login, which lets people simply log in to a website or app using their Facebook account instead of creating new credentials. In 2015, developers who created apps that used Facebook Login were allowed—with Facebook’s permission—to collect some information on the users network of friends. According to the Times, Kogan was able to use the data gleaned from the friends profiles to match users to other records and build psychographic profiles. 

Earlier this week we also learned that for several years Facebook has been collecting call records and text-messaging data from Android devices. The company denies it was collecting the data without permission, that it was an “opt-in” feature, that it “helps you find and stay connected with the people you care about, and provides you with a better experience across Facebook.” Still, the concerns have led the Federal Trade Commission to launch a nonpublic investigation into the Facebook’s privacy practices.

When people think about social media ethics (if they ever think about it at all), we tend to focus solely on the content that is directly posted or shared. We may worry, for instance, whether we are passing along gossip or “fake news.” What we rarely worry about is whether we are breaching the trust of our friends, family, and neighbors by exposing their personal information without their permission.

Here are a few simple suggestions for how you can protect your privacy—and the privacy of your neighbors—when using the world’s most popular social media platform.

Consider limiting who you “Friend”

Have you ever wondered why Facebook and other social media sites publicly display the number of “friends” or “followers” you have? Why isn’t that information that only you can see? The reason is because we humans are competitive, and overly concerned with status ranking.

Online social networks like Facebook often use gamification—the application of game-design elements and game principles in non-game contexts—to increase engagement. A simple example is showing the number of “friends.” When you see your friends have more “friends” than you, it provokes envy and sparks your competitive nature. You become more inclined to accept “friend requests” from strangers or remote acquaintances out of a desire to maintain your own status relative to others.

From Facebook’s perspective, the increase in your number of “friends” is a win-win: You get the minor pleasure of feeling influential, while the company gains major influence by increasing their network effect (i.e., the interconnectedness makes their product more valuable).

Even those who aren’t especially competitive, though, can feel the social pressure to add more “friends.” Many Facebook users (including me) develop the habit of accepting almost every request we receive because it seems rude to reject an offer of online friendship. After all, on the other end of the digital request is an actual human. They might take offense or think we are snobby. We don’t want to be rude and, after all, it just requires us to click “Accept.” What harm could there be in being friendly?

This latest data breach, however, shows the danger. You’re allowing the new person to pass along a wide range of your personal data. As Ben Thompson explains, an old Facebook developer page shows  their API would allow developers to access not only to user account information, but also huge amounts of friend account information, such as their interests, religion, politics, relationship status, etc.

 Why expand our exposure by allowing people we don’t even know to be able to access and share your data simply because we’re trying to be polite?

Recommendation: Consider going through your “Friends” list and de-“friending” any names you do not recognize. If you don’t remember who they are they probably don’t need access to your personal information. 

Next, consider limiting which of your remaining friends can see your posts. To do this click on “Settings” and then “Privacy.” Under “Privacy Settings and Tools” you can restrict who sees such information as your future posts, past posts, friends lists, friends requests, your email address, your phone number, etc.

Be wary of trusting your friend’s “friends”

To increase the effect of social pressure and encourage you to accept friend requests, Facebook also shows how many “mutual friends” you share. Accepting a request a “friend of a friend” seems safer since the person has presumably been vetted by someone we know and trust. Unfortunately, for the reasons listed above, our friends are likely to be accepting numerous random requests, making their associations an unreliable gauge of trustworthiness.

 (About once a month I get a friend request from what appears to be an attractive young women (NB: They’re almost certainly neither women nor young) whose only activity on Facebook is a few recent posts of scantily clothed selfies. It’s the most obvious sort of catfishing, and yet invariably a number of men I know are listed as “mutual friends.”)

Recommendation: Before accepting a request from a “mutual friend,” take a few minutes to read the requestor’s profile and determine whether there is a reason to add them to your social media circle.

Know how third-party apps are using your information

Whenever you use a third-party app on Facebook to play a game or take a quiz you are giving an outside group or company access to your person information. As Facebook clearly explains:

Keep in mind when you install an app, you give it permission to access your public profile, which includes your name, profile pictures, username, user ID (account number), networks and any info you choose to make publicly available. You also give the app other info to personalize your experience, including your friends list, gender, age range and locale.

Recommendation: You can easily revoke access permissions of Facebook apps. To do this go to “Settings” and select “Apps.” You’ll see a list titled “Logged in with Facebook.” If you hover your cursor over each app you’ll see a pencil icon. Click that to edit the settings for that app.

You can also automatically remove access to your account by all those apps in one easy step. Go to “Settings” and select “Apps.” Scroll down until you see “Apps, Websites and Plugins.” Click the “Edit” button and the click “Disable Platform.”

By / Mar 2

Each year, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences offers up nominations for what it believes to be the best work in film from the previous year. This year’s upcoming ceremony looks to be particularly interesting after last year’s debacle in which the film “La La Land” was mistakenly named Best Picture only to have to bow out quickly once it was realized that “Moonlight” was actually the big winner.

On top of that, many high-profile Hollywood men have recently fallen from grace as the #MeToo movement has gained momentum, and women are more empowered than ever to speak out against abuse. It will be very interesting to see how both of these issues are addressed at the ceremony.

That said, you’ll have to judge whether watching the awards is worth your time. But the films being celebrated are worth interacting with, even if it means just knowing what they are about, simply because they are well-told stories. And good or bad, stories give us a way to understand the world around us, revealing the wrestlings of our day and age.

So, here are the nine Best Picture Oscar-nominated films and their synopses.

  1. “Call Me By Your Name” offers a coming-of-age story of a 17-year-old boy who engages in a same-sex relationship with an older man.
  2. “Darkest Hour” tells the true story of Winston Churchill at a crucial moment in world history as he is forced to choose whether to negotiate or fight.
  3. “Dunkirk” uses a fascinating story structure to tell of a massive Allied evacuation in an intense battle during World War II.
  4. “Get Out” takes a genre story and offers up insightful social commentary on racism when a young black man goes to meet his white girlfriend’s family at a secluded estate for the weekend.
  5. “Lady Bird” drops us into the coming-of-age story of a dramatic high school senior who faces off against her loving but overbearing mother.
  6. “Phantom Thread” shows a famous London dressmaker whose life is complicated by the arrival of a beautiful woman who will both irritate and inspire him.
  7. “The Post” tells the true story of a female newspaper publisher in the 1970s who risks it all to speak truth to power as a major U.S. cover-up is unearthed.
  8. “The Shape of Water” is a fable telling the story of a mute janitor and her relationship with an amphibious creature that is held captive and studied at a secret research facility.
  9. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” follows a heartbroken and angry mother who seeks justice after her daughter is raped and murdered in a small town.

And as long as sin remains we will continue to long instinctually for love, peace, justice, racial reconciliation, truth, hope, and ultimately, for a Savior.

While I don’t recommend many of the top films from 2017, the reality is that they all seem to express longing. Indeed many of the best stories we hear, read, or watch express this notion of a desire that remains unmet. Whether it is the longing for truth to have its day in “The Post,” a longing for salvation in “Dunkirk,” or the longing for justice in “Three Billboards,” these films voice something that dwells within all of humanity. This is fitting because of the broken world in which we live.

And as long as sin remains we will continue to long instinctually for love, peace, justice, racial reconciliation, truth, hope, and ultimately, for a Savior.

By / Mar 1

Note: This is the fourth and final article in a series on how should Christians think about ‘the news.’ You can find part one here, part two here, and part three here.

In the last article in this series, we looked at why news product destroys wisdom and understanding. To counteract this effect, there are certain things we can do and certain ways we can engage the news so that it doesn’t make us “dumber.” Here are a few suggestions for how to get the most out of your consumption of the news.

Consume less news product

Most news product is the mental and spiritual equivalent of junk food. By consuming less of it we won’t necessarily improve our health, but we can limit its negative effects on us. But what if we miss something? What if we miss out on the conversation everyone is having on Twitter and Facebook? As Neil Postman, the greatest media theorist of the modern age, once said,

[I]f you are concerned that cutting down your viewing time will cause you to “miss” important news, keep this in mind: each day’s TV news consists for the most part, of fifteen examples of the Seven Deadly Sins, with which you are already quite familiar. There may be a couple of stories exemplifying lust, usually four about murder, occasionally one about gluttony, another about envy, and so on. It cannot possibly do you any harm to excuse yourself each week from thirty or forty of these examples. Remember: TV news does not reflect normal, everyday life.

 Postman was talking about TV news in particular, but his claim also holds true for the “news” we get from other sources. How much of it is important and worthy of our attention?

Most news product is the mental and spiritual equivalent of junk food.

In 2004, Steve Rubel, a blogger and public relations executive, conducted a news experiment in which he gave up his regular media habits and learned what was going on in the world solely by checking blogs. Rubel claims that he “definitely lacked the depth of knowledge of current events” gained in a normal week. “I felt a little naked,” he says, “having received the basics of the week’s news from blogs, but not getting the real meat.”

 What was this “real meat” Rubel missed out on? A friend of his gave him a quiz,

While knowing why President Bush hired a criminal lawyer last week, and the official reasons cited for George Tenet’s resignation from the CIA, Rubel missed actor Daniel Radcliffe’s statement that he thinks his Harry Potter character will die at the end of the J.K. Rowling book series. He didn’t catch ex-Beatle Paul McCartney’s admission that he tried heroin and was a cocaine user. And he missed more obscure stories, such as one of Seattle’s famed monorail trains catching fire.

If you were around in 2004, you probably heard about one or more of the “real meat” stories Rubel missed out on. Would you consider any of them important today? Probably not, because they weren’t all that important when they were reported.

 Now think about how much news you consumed that is no longer relevant. We don’t need to go back 14 years to find out. Look back to the news that commanded your attention 14 days ago. How much is still relevant, or even essential to your understanding of the world? Since the useful lifespan of news is so brief, why do we waste so much time on news product?

 Never watch cable “reality” shows

 Many Christians would be appalled to hear their neighbors spend most of their leisure time watching reality television shows like The Bachelor, Big Brother, or Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Yet we often make an exception for people who spend their evenings watching the cable news equivalent of reality TV, shows like The Rachel Maddow Show, The Ingraham Angle, Last Word With Lawrence O'Donnell, Tucker Carlson Tonight, etc.

 If Christians are going to watch trashy reality television, they are better off spending their time watching Top Chef or Pawn Stars than Hannity or All In With Chris Hayes because they’re less likely to be fooled into thinking they’re engaged in useful activity. To quote Postman once again,

The best things on television are its junk, and no one and nothing is seriously threatened by it. Besides, we do not measure a culture by its output of undisguised trivialities but by what it claims as significant. Therein is our problem, for television is at its most trivial and, therefore, most dangerous when its aspirations are high, when it presents itself as a carrier of important cultural conversations. The irony here is that this is what intellectuals and critics are constantly urging television to do.

If you truly want to learn about the world, turn off the talking heads at Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC and go read a book on history or current events (and one that isn’t written by a cable TV host at Fox News, CNN, or MSNBC).

Seek out actionable news

 Much of the news we consume either has no direct effect on our lives or is information that we will not act on. While there are some news items we should know because they affect our neighbors, the bulk of our interest should be focused on news information that is actionable, that we can use our input and influence to directly affect. This is why local news is often more important than national news, since there is a greater likelihood that it will be something we can directly engage with.

 When you consume local news, think of ways you can turn the news items into practical tasks. Use the local news to uncover the needs and problems in your community so that you can help alleviate suffering or promote worthwhile change. At a minimum, we can take action by praying about the people and events we encounter in the news.

 Ask the “eternal question”

 A fully developed Christian worldview will lead us to have an eternal perspective, viewing events not only in their historical but also in their eschatological context (i.e., that which will last after the old creation passes away).

 Not much news will be of long-term consequence, yet we should frequently seek out news that will matter for all of eternity. This means we can ignore much of the daily news since events that are truly important are rarely those captured on the front page of a daily paper.

 Consider what you believe about the news

 Which do we consider to be more important for our lives, God’s Word or the news? As Christians, we would say the answer is obvious. But what if someone were asked to determine that answer by observing our habits? What would they conclude?

 The uncomfortable reality is that we often spend far more time reading newspapers than reading the Bible, and more time watching cable news than in wisdom-acquiring activities. How would your life differ if you changed your news consumption habits to reflect what you wanted to believe about the value of news in developing wisdom and understanding?

By / Feb 8

Note: This is the third article in a series on how should Christians think about ‘the news.’ You can find part one here and part two here.

“Everybody complains about the weather,” said the writer Charles Dudley Warner, “but nobody does anything about it.” We could say the same about the media. Everyone complains about the media—of which, as we’ve noted, everyone takes part—but nobody does anything about it. Maybe it’s time we finally did something.

Before we can change our media habits, though, we need to find the motivation to change. So let’s start by reflecting on three basic questions to understand our relationship with news product: Why is the “news’” important? What is the purpose of the news to individuals? What distinguishes news from mere gossip, ephemera, or trivia?

Of these three questions, the first is the most difficult to answer, since no one seems to have an answer. Consider the fact that the New York Times publishes 150 articles a day (Monday-Saturday), and 250 articles on Sunday. On a planet of 7.6 billion people, there are surely more than 150 important events occurring every day, yet news outlets like the Times are the ones that determine what is “newsworthy” and hence important enough to constitute the days “news.”

What distinguishes news from mere gossip, ephemera, or trivia?

Is Princess Adelaide’s whooping cough newsworthy?

In 1854, Henry David Thoreau pondered in his most famous book, Walden, why we were so eager to find ways to bring us news from afar:

We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate . . . We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.

How much of what you consume as “news” is the equivalent of hearing about Princess Adelaide’s whooping cough?

Over the next few days, spend a few moments actively pondering this question. After reading or watching any news story ask yourself why it matters to you personally and whether it was worth your time.

What is the purpose of the news to individuals? What distinguishes news from mere gossip, ephemera, or trivia? The answer to these questions is likely not what you’d think. Most people would say the purpose of the news is to keep the average person informed. But few people are even aware, much less read, the 1,150 news items produced by the Times each week. And that’s just the current events considered newsworthy by a single media outlet.

How the news destroys context

One aspect of any answer would have to include an explanation of how the story fits into a broader narrative or has an air of permanence. But news, especially daily news, is often presented in a way that strips it of its context. As C. John Sommerville explained in an article titled “Why the News Makes Us Dumb”:

What happens when you sell information on a daily basis? You have to make each day's report seem important, and you do this primarily by reducing the importance of its context. What you are selling is change, and if readers were aware of the bigger story, that would tend to diminish today's contribution. The industry has to convince its consumers of the significance of today's News, and it has to make them want to come back tomorrow for more News—more change. The implication will then be that today's report can now be forgotten. So News involves a radical devaluation of the past, and short-circuits any kind of debate.

In the book based on the article, Sommerville also points out:

The product of the news business is change, not wisdom. Wisdom has to do with seeing things in their largest context, whereas news is structured in a way that destroys the larger context. You have to do certain things to information if you want to sell it on a daily basis. You have to make each day's report seem important. And you do that by reducing the importance of its context.

The late media critic Neil Postman once wrote that the media has given us the conjunction, “Now . . . this,” which “does not connect anything to anything but does the opposite: separates everything from everything.”

“Now . . . this” is commonly used on radio and television newscasts to indicate that what one has just heard or seen has no relevance to what one is about to hear or see, or possibly to anything one is ever likely to hear or see. The phrase is a means of acknowledging the fact that the world as mapped by the speeded-up electronic media has no order or meaning and is not to be taken seriously. There is no murder so brutal, no earthquake so devastating, no political blunder so costly—for that matter, no ball score so tantalizing or weather report so threatening—that it cannot be erased from our minds by a newscaster saying, “Now . . . this.”

This focus on change, devoid of context and connection to a greater reality, makes daily news an impediment to the acquisition of two things Christians should be seeking: wisdom and understanding (Prov. 4:5).

As Sommerville says, the news industry has to do certain things to information to sell it to us on a daily basis. We therefore also have to do certain things to information to ensure that the news doesn’t make us “dumber” but that it can help us seek wisdom and understanding. In the next article in this series, we’ll consider some of the ways we can do that by changing our media habits.

By / Feb 1

Note: This is the second article in a series on how should Christians think about ‘the news.’ You can find part one here.

Fake news—the term—seems to be everywhere these days. The phrase has become so ubiquitous that world leaders are even using it.

From December 2016 to July 2017, President Trump used the term fake news 66 times on his Twitter feed. And Pope Francis said the first fake news is found in the book of Genesis, when the “crafty serpent” tempted the woman “by pretending to be her friend,” to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. In a recent speech titled “The truth will set you free’ (Jn 8:32). Fake news and journalism for peace,” the pontiff called on Catholics to denounce “snake-tactics” employed by fake news writers who can “strike at any time.”

Some people are even considering fake news justification for violence. Earlier this month a Michigan man was arrested by the FBI after allegedly threatening to shoot and kill employees at CNN. “Fake news,” the man told a CNN operator. “I'm coming to gun you all down.”

Almost everyone in America agrees fake news is a problem. A new study by Gallup and the Knight Foundation found that 73 percent of Americans say the spread of inaccurate information on the internet is a major problem with news coverage today, more than any other potential type of news bias. But there is less agreement on what the term means. A majority of Americans believe people knowingly portraying false information as if it were true “always” constitutes fake news. Yet 40 percent of Republicans say accurate news stories that cast a politician or political group in a negative light should “always” be considered fake news.

The reason fake news has become so common is there is a strong demand for fake news.

Because there is no agreement on the meaning let me offer my own definition.

How to understand fake news

Thirteen years ago the philosopher Harry Frankfurt wrote an influential essay called “On [BS]” (I’ll refrain from posting the full scatological title) in which he posits that “BS” is speech intended to persuade without regard for truth. As Wikipedia summarizes his view, “The liar cares about the truth and attempts to hide it; the [BSer] doesn't care if what they say is true or false, but rather only cares whether or not their listener is persuaded.”

Fake news is a particular form of Frankfurt’s BS: information about current events that is distributed as news but has no concern for the truth; its purpose is only to motivate a particular form of acceptable thought.

The reason fake news has become so common is there is a strong demand for fake news. It isn’t the “fake news” of those we disagree with that we should be worried about but the news from those on “our side.” Many of us want at least a small portion of fake news in our media diet because we want to have our opinions confirmed, not challenged (40 percent of Republicans tacitly admit that in the Gallup/Knight survey).

We tend to think the problem with news outlets and media consumers is that they are “biased.” This is rather facile understanding of what is really going on (as we’ll consider in a future article). Instead, we should think of the media environment (including our place in it) as being everywhere influenced by motivated reasoning.

The motivation behind fake news

Motivated reasoning, as Dan Kahan explains, refers to the unconscious tendency of individuals to fit their processing of information to conclusions that suit some end or goal. Kahan provides a classic example:

In the 1950s, psychologists asked experimental subjects, students from two Ivy League colleges, to watch a film that featured a set of controversial officiating calls made during a football game between teams from their respective schools. The students from each school were more likely to see the referees’ calls as correct when it favored their school than when it favored their rival. The researchers concluded that the emotional stake the students had in affirming their loyalty to their respective institutions shaped what they saw on the tape.

The end or goal (wanting their team to win) motivated the reasoning process in a way that directed their mental operations (in this case, sensory perceptions) to find what they wanted to come to a specific conclusion—even if their interpretation didn’t match reality. Sound familiar?

Commitment to truth as protection against fake news

We all want to believe, especially when it comes to politics, that our preferred ideas, policies, and politicians are so obviously superior as to be above reproach. But for Christians, the priority must always be the truth. Truth must even take precedence over our political objectives. As Francis Schaeffer once wrote, “Christian values . . . cannot be accepted as a superior utilitarianism, just as a means to an end. The biblical message is truth and it demands a commitment to truth.”

Here’s a simple exercise to determine how protected you are from fake news. Over the next few days set aside all conceptions about the motives of the news industry and focus solely on your own reaction. Whenever you encounter a specific news item think about your reaction to the news. Do you want it to be true or false? Are you more inclined to believe the news (or its source) if you want it to be true or disbelieve it if you want it to be false? How is motivated reasoning affecting what agendas you accept from the news industry?

 You might be surprised by what you find. But once you know the truth, the truth will set you free—free from the allure of fake news.

By / Jan 25

What exactly is the “news”? Who decides what constitutes news? What makes it important? What distinguishes news from mere gossip, ephemera, or trivia? What it’s purpose for the individual? How should Christians relate to news?

These questions have significant implications for how we engage with our world, and yet Christians rarely—if ever—stop to consider them or question our habits of consuming the news. In a brief series of articles, I want to consider such questions and examine such issues as how we deal with the scourge of “fake news,” why we should (almost) never watch cable news, how we address bias, and other ways to better engage the news as Christians.

The news is a product—and so are you

Let’s start with the easiest question by defining the term “news.” For our purposes, we’ll use the term “news” in the way that is it most commonly used in our daily lives: information about current events that is delivered to the general public by the news industry. The news industry is often referred to as the “media,” but using the term in that way is misleading and narrow. The media should be thought of as a particular type of environment, which is an aggregate of social and cultural conditions that influence the life of an individual or community. The news industry is merely a particular subset of the media environment.

What makes the news industry unique within the media environment is that they produce one product but sell two: they produce news content that they sell to news consumers (i.e., you), and they package the attention of news consumers (again, you) that they sell to others (usually advertisers but sometimes non-profit donors).          

To the news industry you are both the consumer and a product.

For the news industry, you are both a consumer and a product. But in the age of social media you have also become a distributor. When I was a boy I was paid to deliver newspapers to the homes of my neighbors. But thanks to social media, most of us distribute the product of the news industry without any compensation at all. Your friend who daily shares the content of cable news show on Twitter and Facebook is essentially an unpaid intern working for Fox News or MSNBC.

The agenda-setting function of the news industry

The news industry directly produces two main products—news content and your attention. But they also create and sell a service—agenda-setting.

The idea that the news industry sets the public agenda is as old as news itself. But agenda-setting theory became a topic of study around the 1960s, and gained prominence in 1972 with the publication of a paper titled, “The Agenda-Setting Function of Mass Media.” In the abstract to that article Maxwell E. Mccombs and Donald L. Shaw write,

In choosing and displaying news, editors, newsroom staff, and broadcasters play an important part in shaping political reality. Readers learn not only about a given issue, but also how much importance to attach to that issue from the amount of information in a news story and its position. In reflecting what candidates are saying during a campaign, the mass media may well determine the important issues—that is, the media may set the “agenda” of the campaign.

This agenda-setting function was easier to notice in the 1970s when there were fewer influential news industry outlets. At the time, whatever was written in the New York Times on Monday morning would be on the television news that evening and in every other regional newspaper in the country on Tuesday. But even today it’s not difficult to recognize which news industry outlets are setting a particular agenda. Tell me what news stories you consider most important and I can likely tell you which outlets you get your “news” from. (This is even true for the current president of the United States, who apparently allows one particular cable news show to set the agenda for what he thinks and tweets about.)

Determining what we ‘think about’

To say that the news industry sets the public agenda is not the same as saying the news industry controls what we think. As the political scientist Bernard Cohen explained in 1963,

The press may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about. The world will look different to different people, depending . . . on the map that is drawn for them by writers, editors, and publishers of the papers they read.

As the philosopher Alfred Korzybski wrote in 1933, “A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness” [emphasis in original]. The map of reality drawn by the news industry may be similar to the structure of reality. But how can we know if we don’t even recognize that we are looking at a map? And how can we know if the map is leaving off essential features and drawing our attention to others that are trivial?

You may consider yourself an “independent thinker,” but if you are a news consumer you’re conditioned to “think about” whatever issues the news industry has decided you will think about that day. This is especially true if you engage on social media outlets like Twitter, where a recurring joke is to ask, “What are we upset about today?” Most of us, if we are honest with ourselves, turn to outlets like Twitter precisely because we want to be told what everyone else has already been told to think about. We use it as a shortcut to find out what agenda the news industry has set for the day.

Christians don’t need to believe the news industry has nefarious motives to find this agenda-setting function troubling. Whether we are getting our news from Fox News or NPR, the fact is the map drawn by the news industry is not likely to match the map of reality produced by its Creator. The Bible commands us to set our “minds on things above, not on earthly things (Col. 3:2), which is impossible to do when we’re tuned into around-the-clock “headline news.” As the former news reporter Malcolm Muggeridge admitted,

I’ve often thought that if I’d been a journalist in the Holy Land at the time of our Lord’s ministry, I should have spent my time looking into what was happening in Herod’s court. I’d be wanting to sign Salome for her exclusive memoirs, and finding out what Pilate was up to, and—I would have missed completely the most important event there ever was.

What are you missing out in life because you’ve allowed the news industry set the daily agenda for what you think about?

By / Aug 25

Lindsay Schwartz moderates a panel discussion on parenting in areas where Christians are called to be on the margins of society. Crawford Loritts, Jamie Ivey, Todd Wagner, and Jen Wilkin discuss issues such as pornography, media, and technology.

By / Aug 25

How can parents make informed decisions on complex issues such as school, sports, media, and technology? Daniel Patterson sits down with panelists Nicole Lino, Tony Reinke, and David Prince to share some practical advice for parents navigating these issues.