Electric Circuitry and Too Much Concern

Electric circuitry has overthrown the regime of “time” and “space” and pours upon us instantly and continuously the concerns of all other men.

—Marshall McLuhan1Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, The Medium Is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (Berkeley, CA: Gingko Press, 2001), 16.

The internet is an exhilarating and exhausting place. Depending on your particular point of view and relationship to the law, it can be a place to discover your next favorite recipe, do grocery shopping, learn obscure factoids about Byzantine art, curate your fantasy football team, find memes, read the news, day trade, develop new skills, keep up with friends, watch movies, find a Russian mail-order bride, purchase drugs, rent a botnet for nefarious purposes, or simply waste some time scrolling through a mind-boggling buffet of social media feeds ranging from the highly commoditized (e.g., Facebook, Instagram, et al.) to the ultra-niche (e.g., arcane sub-Reddit threads, private Mastodon servers, etc.).

If you’re looking for something, you’ll probably find it if you do enough digging. And if you don’t find what you’re looking for—hey, maybe there’s a market or an audience to be found. The World Wide Web is your oyster.

And even if you’re not looking for something, you can bet the algorithms have a statistically dialed-in suggestion for what you’re looking for based on your previous search history, previous content engagement, or some aggregation of a billion data points that you unknowingly or knowingly consented to giving up simply by firing up a browser.

These days, when I open up a new tab or scroll through a social media feed, I’m bombarded with content suggesting that I care nothing for the environment because I drove to work this week, that microplastics are killing me at this very moment, and that it’s quite essential for me to become deeply concerned or outraged about some political machination or decontextualized sound byte.

Likewise, my feed is filled to overflowing with ads telling me to “forget what you’ve heard about abc topic” (insinuating that I’m an idiot) and “3 mistakes that xyz persona make when trying to start a business/get fit/etc.” (proposing that there’s a ironclad and foolproof path to success). I also encounter profoundly heartbreaking news of real injustice, famine, death, and devastation worldwide supported by high-resolution photographs with razor sharp focus taken through surgically-precise glass. The World Wide Web is your window to everywhere you want to be in the world.

And everywhere you don’t.

The “regime of ‘space’ and ‘time'” that McLuhan wrote about is the naturally restricted flow of news and information based on geographic separation. In previous eras, it would take news days, weeks, or months to pass from one place to another. Electric circuitry changed that and abolished the impedance of distance once and for all. Now if something happens on the other side of the globe, I can read a polished yet tentative news story within half an hour of the inciting incident, accompanied by on-site photography or something illustrative from the publication’s archive or Getty Images. And if that doesn’t satisfy, there’s always X (née Twitter), where I have been shocked to see some of the most vile and depraved statements published and lauded with impunity.

I’ve become increasingly aware of how limited my capacity is to take in all of this stuff. It’s not callousness or weakness. It’s humanity. As a Christian, I care very much for the welfare of people within my city and across the world. I care about the environment because God called us to steward the Earth, not pillage it. I care about sickness, disease, unjust economics, violence, and death because Jesus cared about those things. He wept over them.

But the truth is that I can’t bear the weight of the world. I can’t suss out every news story to understand the facts, to follow the narrative, to understand the motives behind every act and every sentence that follows. I have finite capacity physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually to engage with the instantaneous concerns of other men. This is not a defect; it’s simply part of being human.

Trading a Heavy Burden for Light

Jesus told us that His “yoke is easy and His burden is light.” (Matthew 11:30) Electric circuitry tends to lay on Pharisee-grade burdens in the form of FOMO, peer pressure, scare tactics, and the plain irrationality of 21st century society.2For context, see Luke 11:37–53 in which Jesus describes the burdens that the Pharisees and lawyers put on people through their warped teachings. There is enough straw to break the backs of many camels.

The logic of media is this: If you are decent human being or at the very least want to be respectable, then you ought to care about this hot topic. And if you don’t, well, you don’t have a heart. This appears to be a zero-sum game. The writer of Ecclesiastes sees it differently:

Do not be overly righteous,
Nor be overly wise:
Why should you destroy yourself?”

—Ecclesiastes 7:16 (NKJV)3The footnote in the Spirit-Filled Life® Bible, Third Edition NKJV for Ecclesiates 7:16–18 puts it this way: “A fanatical zeal for religion or privately defined ‘righteousness’ can lead to an early death, especially if it erupts into physical conflict. On the other hand, a wicked life of sin and debauchery clearly leads to an early death.”

The “righteousness” and “wisdom” of media promises knowledge and insight into what’s happening right now, but it comes at the danger of destroying yourself.

If electric circuitry is the root of the issue, as McLuhan suggests, then the cure is to turn off the tube, throw the black mirror in the trash, and look up from the OLED haze. Here are some of the strategies I employ (imperfectly) to shut off the firehose of concerns:

  1. Recognize whose concerns actually matter. For me, that primarily includes the concerns of my wife and kids, along with self-care and investing in authentic friendships.
  2. Limit media intake. If you don’t want to buy junk food in the grocery store, don’t go down the junk food aisle. Notice I said “media intake” and not “social media intake.” I have made myself sick reading news articles because a Tweet sent me I went down a rabbit hole of information binging.
  3. Curate your feeds. By this I mean unsubscribing, unfollowing, and muting anything that does not profit your soul. I won’t give a prescriptive beyond that because it’s a matter of personal conviction. I’ll just say that I have done a bit of spring cleaning on my feeds to get rid of accounts that do not propel me forward personally, professionally, or spiritually.4Some folks might charge me with creating a personal echo chamber. Perhaps, but I’m less concerned with creating an echo chamber than with consuming content that brings forth death
  4. Prioritize life-giving inputs and practices: For the Christian, that’s Bible reading, prayer, and worship. Sometimes I find myself checking messages and email first thing in the morning, which starts my day on the wrong side of the screen. My day always goes better when I make the main thing the main thing. Beyond that, I try to focus my inputs (reading, podcasts, etc.) on things that help me grow, and my outputs on creative endeavors (writing, coding, etc.)

Ultimately, I think Philippians 4:8 is the litmus test:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Does social media tell the truth? Is the discussion in the digital “public square” honorable? Is it just, pure, lovely, commendable? Does it exhibit excellence? Is it praiseworthy? My experience is that about 95% of the time, the answer is a resounding,”NO.”

I’m certainly not advocating that “ignorance is bliss.” But in my own life, I’m recognizing the vital importance for me to be circumspect about what I choose to enter my mind and ultimately my heart. By turning off the flow of information, I’m recognizing that God is God and I’m not. I’m trading the heavy burden (i.e., the concerns of other men) for a much, much lighter one.

I can’t claim that I have a perfect strategy—I love learning new things, which makes me particularly susceptible to the possibility of discovering something new and interesting in my feed. It’s my intellectual Achille’s heel. I also happen to enjoy research, and like a bloodhound, once I’ve gotten the scent of an idea, it’s hard to break the chase.

But I do know this: When I stop the scroll, I’m less anxious and much happier. When I cut my intake, my creative output increases. The more I focus on God’s word through Scripture reading and meditation, the more I’m able to think clearly. When I turn off the noise, I can tune in to what the Holy Spirit is saying. When I exit the Matrix, I’m able to be present where it matters.

Electric circuitry can be unplugged. And it’s worth it.

Every time.

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