Friday, June 3, 2022

Christians, online warfare, attention and the Algorithm

A machine from 'Mortal Engines' (2018)
1. Cannibalism

What is our attention focused on? Jesus knew how to focus our attention. He said trusting him was like being a cannibal, eating and drinking Jesus' body and blood (John 6). If that didn't make you wonder, the Holy Spirit said, through the Apostle Paul, that belonging to God is like the sexual union of a marriage (Eph 5)! There are all sorts of theological reasons for these metaphors, but getting and keeping our attention is part of it. God also used more ordinary metaphors for belonging to him: a branch in a tree (Romans 11) or a stone in a wall (1 Peter 2). If Jesus had said trusting him was like being a business colleague, that wouldn't have focused our attention in the same way, wouldn't have conveyed the full impact and depth of committment that comes with being a follower of Jesus. 

2. Attention

John Vervaeke is a professor of cognitive science at the University of Toronto and is studying how attention works. Attention is part of existing as a human being. When you drive, you focus on certain movements, signs, sounds and patterns. When you talk to someone or complete a task you focus on some things and not others. What's just above the screen you're reading this on? (That's a clumsy gimmick, but illustrates practically the power and pervasiveness of attention.) Vervaeke is particularly interested in how our attention copes with the information rich modern world. Science is a useful way of getting things done, but can't provide an overall organising structure for why we focus on certain things and, perhaps even more importantly, which things we *should* focus our attention on. Vervaeke describes this awareness, that anticobotics, electricity and the printing press can't in themselves explain why there are things to think about, as "the meaning crisis."

3. The Algorithm

Paul Kingsnorth, an evironmental activist who has become a Christian, observes how our modern industrial world is a type of giant machine, producing and consuming. Global supply chains connect eveything, the wireless and the telegraph rely news from around the world instantly into our laps, companies and governments are an interconnected web. BJ Campbell of the Handwaving Freakoutery substack observes the patterns of social outrage, particularly in connection to gun violence. The name of his blog is an attempt to summarise the way in which we get outraged, freak out regularly about events or topics. Which brings us to the Alogrithm, capital A. Non-Christians like BJ Campbell describe the way outrage and alogrithm shifts around, bringing certain news stories or topics to our attention and not others, as an egregore, a type of emergent secular spirtual force that our collective attention creates. In other words the Algorithm is the sum of our personal attention, a magnified version of the way we pay attention. Dutch Reformed Pastor Paul VanderKlay, adjusts BJ Campbell's egregore model, correctly noting that the spirtual world is both bottom up (emergent) and top down (emanation). Principalities and powers exist in this world, some good and some bad, and as Christians we have a better opportunity to consider and organise the whole thing, because God has revealed a sketch of how the whole thing works. 

4. Online warfare

OK, one more idea to throw into the mix before I tie the threads together. Venkatesh Rao wrote this fantastic longform article about how we fight online; 'The Internet of Beefs'Rao's thesis is that the internet (social media, websites, comments, messages, all electronic communication) is a battleground. There are "knights" of varying importance who write articles or make videos, and the rest of us the "mooks", the soldiers of their armies. Each interaction online is a little conflict that adds up to giant internet wars. We feel passionately about our little battle but it gets lost in the bigger battles and the relentless tide of time. Tangentially, it's worth noting this how the 2nd Wave Atheists (Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens & Dennett) would view the Algorithm; not in Kingsnorth's, Pageau's or VanderKlay's spiritual terms but as a giant chaotic internet conflict without any final coherent rhyme or reason. However the "Meaning Crisis" is more than a big social media mess, it is the spiritual product of the massive attention management industrial machine we live inside. 

5. Where should my focus be then? 

There are so many things to pay attention to! New technology, ethical dilemmas, politics, history, injustice, cat videos and other people's personal joys and troubles. Let alone the process of learning and thinking about things. Christians add theology to this list as well. Because we can only be responsible for a few things and can only be upset about a few things, what then should we be outraged about? Who decides that? Well in a way the Algorithm already has, it gathers and sorts and presents us a steady stream of items. I keep returning and linking to the article by Rao, because I want people to think about how internet conflict works. But why should they give some of their attention to that? Which problem needs solving, who needs helping, how do we decide? 

6. The Christian Dilema 

The "Meaning Crisis" is especially acute for Christians, because we already have a frame to see and organise the whole problem, we have an attention guide. God, and his words both written and Incarnated. The tricky bit is filtering our attention through that guide. This is where the Algorithm connects back up to the larger industrial machine. Some publications have time and people to research and present things. Other publications operate on a much smaller footprint, and rely more on power of outrage. Since finding out about it, I'm still outraged by the Armenian Genocide. Hitler aparently said "no one remembered the Armenian Genocide". I think more people should know about it and be upset about it. If I use the word "Hitler" it drags a tiny fraction of your attention over to the topic. But you are your own person, with limited time and energy, you simply cannot correct every injustice or even give every single topic even part of your attention. 

This is where gatekeepers come in. (But don't forget the "knights and mooks" from a couple of paragraphs back.) We rely on institutional gatekeepers to keep our society running, doctors registered and flight controllers regulated. But even Christians use them to control the flow of information. Pastors need them, I can't read every commentary or monograph, I need a frame to sort and focus my attention. (John Frame's existential-situational-normative schema comes to mind.) Although because we are broken creatures, often sucombing to the corrption of sin, even our gatekeeping becomes skewed. Additionally some gatekeepers are part of the mainstream orthodoxy and others on the hetrodox fringe, or an insitution changes hands and so a new frames of meaning becomes dominate. 

7. Alcoholic Anonymous

What's the bottom line? Being self-aware. The first step of Alcoholic Anonymous is admitting you have a problem. The second step is realising you need a higher power outside your own attention. Sometimes it's good to be outraged about something, but we can't be outraged about everything. We need trusted gatekeepers to help us process our "combinatorial explosion". (John Vervake's term for the amount of information before us at any given moment.) The Algorithm isn't a conspiracy of globalists, it's our collective attention, channelled, pushed and pulled. But we were warned they'd be "principalities and powers" vying for our attention. The first step is to see the big picture, know how our individual attention and reactions are marshalled and distributed - and if not properly understood and interacted with, is a spiritual danger. The next step is to relate to each other as human beings, to have conversations (on and offline) that help us organise information and meaning without being manipulated by the Algorithmic machine. Thanks for your attention. 

[1st wave Atheism = Nietzsche, Dewey, Heidegger & Satre etc (1869-11 Sept 2001), 2nd wave Atheism = Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens & Dennett etc (2001-2016) 3rd wave Atheism = Alain de Botton, Haidt, Scott Alexander & Alasdair Macintyre etc (2016-present)]