Algorithms Made Me Do It?

"Algorithms don’t know the depths of our souls, but they keep us coming back. They keep placing content in front of us that draws out the sinful "old man" we are trying to put to death."

“What in the world is an algorithm?!” If that was your first thought, you’re not alone. More than some geeky tech lingo, algorithms are an important part of your day if you use the internet. In fact, algorithms run the show. That “breaking news!” didn’t come to your phone because it was the only breaking news on the planet. That tear-jerker you just watched wasn’t the most recent or relevant post you could’ve seen in that moment. The hostile comment battle you just won wasn't on the minds of 95% of your friends or the people you follow. 

See what I mean? Algorithms don't take a day off.

Tim Challies suggested that it’s time to break free from the algorithm life. He reminds us that algorithms are “formulas carefully coded to spread some content and to suppress others”. In other words, with so much content out there, “algorithms pre-sort it for us”. Notice the word suppress. This can be beneficial if it suppresses content that would be harmful to us. It can also be destructive if certain content—at the discretion of artificial intelligence or the employees of social media companies—is purposely being suppressed to keep us in a habit loop of swiping or engrossed in that endless comment war that somehow keeps sucking us back in.

Lead Me Not Into Temptation

I’m no conspiracy theorist. I don’t think the final frontier was filmed in a Hollywood basement. I definitely don't think the earth is flat. However, I do believe algorithms can lead us into the very temptation we desire to be freed from. I started writing this post on Good Friday when the majority of my timeline was filled with people commemorating the crucifixion of Jesus. However, amid the hundreds of post referencing the death of Christ, the top post (and several others below it) were about "social justice warriors".  

This seems insignificant, doesn’t it? But imagine if that happens every day for a month. I keep seeing tweets, retweets, and subtweets about a divisive issue until I feel obligated to choose a side. I eventually make up my mind and start to fight viciously against my "opponent". I start to develop such vitriol for those who share a different perspective that I get sick to my stomach when I think of them. Worse, since “those people” are in my church, I can’t imagine worshiping and fellowshipping with them. Do you see how this could spiral out of control quickly?

The cumulative effects of these 280-word statements are massive. Consider Colossians 3:8–9a:

“But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another…”

Algorithms don’t know the depths of our souls, but they keep us coming back. They keep placing content in front of us that draws out the sinful "old man" we are trying to put to death. We know the anger that comes from a snide comment thrown subtly on social media. We’ve been caught up in malicious and slanderous speech only to find out that it was “fake news”, “alternate facts”, or misleading information. We’ve seen (and been a part of) obscene speech. We’ve told the lies. Deep down, we know there is so much more to life, but we can't help but keep clicking and swiping.

We Are Responsible

I imagine some people standing before God on judgment day, holding their smartphones, and proclaiming, “Algorithms made me do it!”. We don’t have this option. Every human being is responsible for their own sin, though there is great wrath coming to those who tempt others (Matthew 18:7). By grace, we can overcome temptation because God has given us His Word, His Spirit, and a way of escape every time.

This doesn’t exempt us from using wisdom to limit our exposure to temptations. Christians must strive to navigate this world of algorithms in a God-glorifying way. Here are at least three helpful ways:

1. Ditch digital media altogether. Some of us need to abandon social media forever. Yes, maybe you. Maybe me too. People have lived millennia without staring into backlit glass and arguing with human beings who seem more like avatars with real names attached to them. For thousands of years, people waited to hear the news from people they knew personally or through a well-edited and reviewed newspaper. We can all survive. Even if we don't choose to ditch digital media altogether, it would be wise to consider a digital fast for a month or two.

2. Choose curated digital media.  Tim Challies recommends either curating our own digital media or finding trusted curators of our own. In fact, he’s one of my trusted curators with his daily a la carte posts. Even better, we have public access to the 200+ blogs he reads to curate it! The key to this choice is that we are in control of who and what we see when we interact with the digital world we live in. While this has issues of its own, it gives us more responsibility for what we see. 

3. Keep your digital media as is, but with caution. Most of us will probably choose this option. I don’t blame you! I’m not ready to ditch digital media, and curating sounds like a lot of hard work! Even if you don’t choose to change anything about your digital media, you must be aware of the algorithms and their impacts on your life. We have real spiritual enemies and they will make use of everything available to devour us. We all have to strive to be more watchful as we navigate the complex world of digital media.

Almost Almost Amish

Andy Crouch, author of The Tech-Wise Familyis right when he says we probably have to become "closer to Amish" than we think. In other words, we don't have to outright reject technology or all that it offers us, but we do have to be much more intentional with how we use the world. We are in the world but not of it and we deal with the world as those who have no dealings with it because it is passing away.

How will you take control of your digital media?

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