The medium is the message: the spiritual impacts of social media

“With great power comes great responsibility”

(Uncle Ben, Spider-Man)

The internet, smartphones, social media, instant messaging and other related technologies have had a dramatic impact on the way we communicate over the last 20 years, and therefore fundamentally how we relate to one another. Since we are relational beings, made in the image of a relational God, these far-reaching changes have innate spiritual significance. The pervasive nature of communications technologies means it is often hard to gauge their true effects on us, but exploring and understanding the implications for our lives and relationships is vital if their use is to be meaningfully aligned with our faith.

The changing faces of communication

Over the last 20 years a suite of new technologies has enabled instant communication on an unprecedented scale. Back in the early 1990s, international phone calls were expensive, airmail entailed a round trip of several days, and fax machines (which also incurred international long-distance charges) were often awkward to use and prone to hardware failure. Now, we can live-video chat with a group of people scattered around the world, at practically zero cost.

Moreover, the web has enabled a step-change in the nature of communication. Before the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, communication was one-to-one or one-to-few; at best a message could be spoken aloud to a group in the same physical proximity. The ability to print literature in quantity enabled one-to-many communication on a new scale. Radio and TV accelerated but did not essentially change this: the direction of communication was still one way. Social media – platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit and many others – enables many-to-many communication for the first time in human history.

Many Christian treatments of the web focus on a small number of key topics, typically including internet pornography, online gambling, file-sharing and other obvious pitfalls. This paper aims to unpack issues specifically arising from social media, rather than the wider internet, and to argue that these affect us at the very core of what it means to be human.

The ethics and spirituality of technology

Technologies are applications of the properties of the world that God has created. It is therefore tempting to suggest that a given technology is as neutral as the laws of physics and maths on which it is built. Whilst this may arguably be true in its purest, most conceptual form, the reality is more nuanced.

History of technology professor Melvin Kranzberg memorably put it: ‘Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.’ The ethical impact of a technology is always subject to the ends of those who implement it.

By that I mean that technology’s interaction with the social ecology is such that technical developments frequently have environmental, social, and human consequences that go far beyond the immediate purposes of the technical devices and practices themselves, and the same technology can have quite different results when introduced into different contexts or under different circumstances.

The same can be said of the spiritual impact. A technology like a social media platform is implicitly the expression of the spiritual values of its creators and users. Neither is human nature neutral. We are Fallen beings (Genesis 3:6). On the other hand, we were created as relational creatures too, and social media offers us the ability to connect more effectively. Thus it implicitly holds out the promise of making us better communicators, better at relating to one another, and therefore perhaps even more human and more godly. Complicating matters is the way that the web and its associated technologies have permeated everything. Social media has become so much a part of our culture and lives that the full extent of its effects can be hard to spot. Much of the time our use of social media is so assumed or reflexive that we don’t even recognise it consciously. But given the power and widespread adoption of social media, how could it not have any spiritual impact?

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This is an extract from Guy Brandon’s Cambridge paper: ‘The Medium is the message: the social impacts of social media.’ To read more click here.

Guy more comprehensively explores these issues in his new book, Digitally Remastered, available now.

Guy will be introducing the paper at the ‘Cambridge Papers live’ event at the Jubilee Centre, at 12.30pm on 1st December 2016.

Digitally Remastered

£9.99

Communications technologies open up endless possibilities. Yet there is a downside – hours wasted on unproductive online activity, as well as more sinister implications, such as loss of privacy and anonymity. Either we will master technology, or it will master us.
Guy Brandon unpacks the practical and spiritual significance of our technological choices and encourages us to use communications technologies in a way that aligns with our faith and our calling.

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About the Author

Guy Brandon is research director for Jubilee Centre, and holds a degree, MPhil and PhD in Old Testament theology from Cambridge University. His books include Just Sex (IVP) and Votewise (SPCK). As a freelance writer and consultant, Guy has worked with a range of cryptocurrency platforms, communities and businesses, creating articles, white papers and film scripts. Guy is married with two children.

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