“Increasingly, we live in a world where nothing makes any sense, events come and go like waves of a fever leaving us confused and uncertain. Those in power tell us stories to help us make sense of the complexities of reality…” Bitter Lake, the latest documentary offering from filmmaker, Adam Curtis.
For all the names that have been posited to describe this current era of history, I think we live in something of an information age. We now have access to an abundance of data, tweets, news, articles, videos and perspectives from around the world at our fingertips. And what’s wrong with that? Surely, the more information we have access to and are able to analyse, the more informed we are, right? And the more informed we are, the better decisions we make. And the better decisions we make, the better our world becomes?
I’m not so sure.
The beauty of social media platforms like Twitter their addictive quality. Every time a tweet comes in, whether it be an opinion, piece of information, link to a news item or article, we get a hit of dopamine, which fuels our desire for more of the same. Twitter not only allows users to be reactive, receiving information at the drop of a hat, but also proactive in allowing users to shape information. As such, our tweets can be retweeted and spread by others around the globe at rapid speed. Charlie Brooker is right, Twitter acts like a video game where we get ‘points’ by getting retweeted and favorited by other users. Make no mistake then, Twitter – and social media more generally – is an addictive beast, and it has changed the way we digest information, perhaps forever.
While I think a great deal of good has come from Twitter and social media, it’s also the case that having such an abundance of information can have negative and harmful consequences.
Depending on how many people one follows, information can come at us at a really hectic pace. I currently follow 1,170 accounts. Now, in just two minutes on a mid-week lunchtime, I could be presented with around 30 to 50 new tweets. I’m now faced with all this potentially interesting and crucial information all at once. These strings, although interesting, aren’t especially deep and usually – due to the 140 character length – can’t contain the nuance required to convey complex arguments properly. Like a can of coke, a tweet might give me a quick and satisfying sugar hit, but a diet of multiple cans of coke will lead to a whole range of problems. Twitter then enables and tacitly encourages us, time and time again, to choose the lazy, shallow and bitesize option over more nuanced articles and other forms of media which require effort, time and reflection; resources which for many today arein increasingly short reply. What’s more, this cycle continues over and over until this becomes the default way we consume information and information overload ensues.
Our inability to process all this information means we are unable to properly think through the ideas we are presented and come up with properly thought out conclusions. This effects the decisions we make and the way we see the world, leaving us confused, uncertain and anxious. And even if we do go further and read an article, I wonder whether we allow ourselves the required time to properly dwell on the arguments made before our brains craving the next dopamine hit, telling us it’s time to move onto the next piece of media demanding our attention. How many of us even finish reading an article before getting bored and moving onto the next exciting thing? Has our desire for entertainment and controversy overtaken the need for depth, nuance and perseverance?
It won’t come as any surprise to you that I believe we need to change the way we consume and process information. We need to ask ourselves whether relying on soundbites in the form of tweets is an ideal way to acquire knowledge. Why allow the ideas to mull in the back of our minds for a while after reading an article? We’ll have to resist the alluring instant urges of Twitter, but I think a move towards this way of consuming information could be much more rewarding.
This might look like limiting ourselves to a set amount of time on Twitter and social media per day, or having tech-free days altogether. It’s not for me to be overly prescriptive. This will look different depending on what you’re like, but the point is that slow and steady can be better than quick and instant.
Moving on, in a time of increasing uncertainty, where the notion of truth is more contested than ever, it’s worth reminding ourselves of a sure foundation – God and His word.
God himself is described as being a God of truth here, here and here whilst Jesus said of himself: “I am … the truth” (John 14:6). Above anything else then, we as Christians should be putting our trust in God and the gospel of Jesus Christ. In a world that increasingly disregards God, this reminder should encourage us not to put our fundamental trust in Twitter and information – although these things are of course of value – but in God, the author of truth.
Further still, Jesus also said that the written word of God is truth: “Sanctify them by your truth. Your word is truth.” (John 17:17). In light of this amazing truth, we should get our priorities right. Our time in God’s word and in prayer should come before any time on Twitter.
Given the powers of Twitter and social media generally to command our attention, let’s not treat it as an idol, but instead as a useful medium which can be used to serve useful ends. Social media should serve us, not the other way around.