The ninth topic on my list of resources for basic discipleship of the mind is the Internet. This is the classic good news/bad news situation. I’ll save the good for another post, coming soon. I’ll raise the cautions first, beginning with two contrasting experiences I had today.
Today I had time finally to catch up on a long list of web pages I had set aside to read when I had more time. Most of these came through my feed reader. A few days ago I wrote about using a feed reader to subscribe and keep up with headlines from multiple websites, including this one. Maybe I got too much of it in one day it has something to do with a couple articles I read (see below), or maybe it has to do with the other reading I’m about to describe. Anyway, I have a new piece of advice to offer, specifically to Christians, and who want to grow in discipleship of the mind. If this or any other blog is helping you with that, by all means stay on top of it. If not, then take it off your list now. Because if it’s not helping, it’s hurting.
This afternoon I finished a book I’ve been working on for a week or two: Answering Islam: The Crescent in Light of the Cross by Geisler and Saleeb. I’ll be blogging it soon, but that’s not the point for now. When I laid it down, I thought back on how helpful it had been to take an extensive and unified tour of a single topic. I realized how much it provoked thoughtful reflection in me—and how different that is from my usual experience on the Internet.
The web fosters a grab-and-go mentality. The analogy to junk food is almost too obvious to mention. Here’s this snippet, there’s that interesting little nugget, and oh! man that writer missed a detail there. We bloggers are on the lookout for things to write about, and it’s a lot easier to find something to react to than it is to come up with fresh thinking of our own.
Blogger or not, the web reinforces a reactive mindset. To come to the web just in that way, though, is to come for shallow, surface stimulus, not for depth of insight. At best, it’s an entertainment-seeking approach, an almost mindless flicking-about for diversion we can justify in “Christian” terms by the occasional pearl of insight we might find. At worst, seeking stimulus for stimulus’s sake runs one down the road of stimulus-adaptation and partial random reinforcement, which together feed a harmful spiral of potentially addictive behavior.
That’s the worst case, but it’s not unusual. I suspect a lot of Internet pornography use starts with perfectly innocuous, entertainment-oriented clicking with the hope of finding something intriguing, a hope that often as not falls short. What comes next is, “but there must be something here that could pique my interest,” and then, “well, I know something that will do the trick!” (In the end pornography’s promised satisfaction turns out to be one of the biggest deceptions of all.)
Well, I started off writing about using the Internet for discipleship of the mind, and look where that led. I told you it was a good news/bad news situation. Let me exhort you with this. When you come to the Internet, are you looking for a vague sort of “something interesting”? Or do you have a more focused purpose? Here’s a good test: how many web pages do you read with real care, and how many do you just skim? If you’re not reading with care, you’re developing surface habits. Even if there’s nothing one would call wrong with those web pages, they’re fostering bad patterns in you anyway. The water isn’t deep enough to be worth swimming in.
As I said, today I was catching up on web pages I had set aside for later. These were pages whose headlines I had flagged in my RSS reader as being potential gems, worthy of more serious reflection later on. Some of them turned out that way. I’m certainly not suggesting we all unplug from the Internet. But it was interesting to see what two of those gems had to say. One was titled “‘The Shallows’ by Nicholas Carr: The Internet Warps You.”
“What can science tell us about the actual effects that Internet use is having on the way our minds work?” he [Nicholas Carr] asks. His answer, iterated throughout this often repetitive but otherwise excellent book: “The news is even more disturbing than I had suspected. Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, educators and Web designers point to the same conclusion: When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking and superficial learning. It’s possible to think deeply while surfing the Net, just like it’s possible to think shallowly while reading a book, but that’s not the type of thinking the technology encourages and rewards.”
Something similar just came up today from Tim Challies: “Infobesity,” including this John Naish quote on rebelling against information overload:
It involves fighting—and here’s my own new word—infobesity, by restricting one’s data diet. There are compelling reasons. The glut of information is not only causing stress and confusion; it also makes us do irrational things such as ignore crucial health information…. Catherine Collins, of the British Dietetic Association, says that info-overload is often to blame for this food-choice paradox: “We are so informed that we can’t be bothered.” That’s a fantastic slogan for the twenty-first century. We are so wired to gather information that often we no longer do anything useful with it. Instead of pausing to sift our intake for relevance and quality, the daily diet of prurient, profound, confusing and conflict information gets chucked on to a mental ash-heap of things vaguely comprehended. Then we rush to try to make sense of it all…by getting more.
The last two sentences are reminiscent of the stimulus spiral I described a few paragraphs up from here.
I’m going on a diet. I have unsubscribed from about half of my Internet news feeds. I’m holding on to subscriptions from friends, some that are directly connected to my work, and a limited few that keep me informed on essential news on a broad variety of topics. In addition to that, there are a few bloggers who have consistently helped me to think more deeply about God and life. I’m keeping them on the list. But I’m more inclined to pare down my list than to add to it—so that I don’t build up my own “mental ash-heap of things vaguely comprehended.”
I emphasize again, the Internet is both a good news and a bad news environment. If this blog is helping you in your discipleship, then stick around, and I’ll share with you several other websites that will probably help too.
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