“Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,” Dorothy perceptively said to her little dog in The Wizard of Oz. Everything was familiar, yet somehow different. Dorothy found herself in the same world and a new world all at once.
The world we currently live in is fundamentally different from any other time in human history. In fact, it’s fundamentally different from the world we lived in just 20 years ago, even 10 years ago.
You Are the Product
The short answer is that humanity has perfected the art of sinning with the proficiencies afforded by unprecedented technological advancements. By both order of magnitude and sheer engineering exactitude, evil is now a precise science. Literally everything imaginable is at our fingertips and can be accessed by the senses through technology. Ours is a time of hyper stimulation, simulation, and assimilation. We are experiencing a state of sensory overload and sensual intake so pervasive and powerful that it has the potential to reduce humanity to a race of addicts.
“You are the product.”
Those are the chilling words that operate as the central thesis of the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma.
Each online act you perform is captured and commodified. As you scroll and click, a “map” of your personality is composed, called an algorithm, which then informs paying corporations how best to target you with their products and services. Companies pay social media platforms for your attention. Every time you click, you are monetized. Everything is for sale, including you. We’re all prostitutes being pimped to the highest bidder, unless we’re intentionally not.
One of the interviewees for the Social Dilemma documentary is Jaron Lanier, the famed virtual reality pioneer who is currently an interdisciplinary scientist at Microsoft. Getting at the diabolical bottom line, Lanier says:
“We’ve created a world in which online connection has become primary. Especially for younger generations. And yet, in that world, anytime two people connect, the only way it’s financed is through a sneaky third person who’s paying to manipulate those two people. So we’ve created an entire global generation of people who were raised within a context in which the very meaning of communication, the very meaning of culture, is manipulation.”
The Wall Street Journal recently ran an explosive article titled, “Facebook Knows Instagram Is Toxic for Teen Girls, Company Documents Show,” and the still more bracing subtitle, “Its own in-depth research shows a significant teen mental-health issue that Facebook plays down in public.”[i]
The article draws upon leaked internal research from Facebook to highlight the fact that Facebook, the owner of Instagram, is fully aware of the destructive impact the app is having on users, especially young girls. But it is also fully aware that to alter the app in ways that would mitigate the harmful effects would result in less clicking and therefore less revenue to the company. Thus far, Facebook has chosen to act in its own financial interest over human well-being, knowing that its platform is significantly contributing to an increase in depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and suicidal thoughts, especially among teenagers.
While Mark Zuckerberg and other Facebook executives are well aware of the harmful effects its platforms are having, they have chosen to evade and downplay the issue in congressional hearings and public comments. When asked by U.S. senators to provide their internal research regarding the harmful effects of their platforms on youth, Facebook executives essentially refused by stating that its research is “kept confidential to promote frank and open dialogue and brainstorming internally.” Senator Richard Blumenthal said in an email, “Facebook seems to be taking a page from the textbook of Big Tobacco—targeting teens with potentially dangerous products while masking the science in public.” Not only are Facebook executives fully aware of the harm their platforms are causing in their current configuration—they initially indicated they planned on plowing forward to produce an Instagram app for children 13 years of age and younger, even in the face of objections by state attorneys general. Facing withering criticism from the U.S. Congress and other media platforms, Facebook announced in late September a plan to “pause” development of an Instagram version intended for kids.
With the Instagram app, Facebook is in a race against other apps, such as Snapchat and TikTok, to capture and hold the attention of teenagers and quickly expand to “onboard” even more children. And the only way to do that is to make Instagram more and more addicting and therefore more and more harmful. The goal is to make money, not to do the right thing for the well-being of our children. The Wall Street Journal article characterizes Facebook as the new Philip Morris, the massive tobacco company that concealed its own scientific research revealing the harmful effects of smoking and kept pushing its products for its own financial gain regardless of the obvious destruction to human lives.
Just as Victor Frankenstein, in Mary Shelley's 1818 novel, created a creature more powerful than himself and thus beyond his control, it would seem that humanity, in creating the Internet, has created a technological monster quite literally beyond our control. And why can’t we control it? Well, that question points us to the underlying problem:
Our moral maturity is no match for the technology we’ve created.
As the Harvard sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson has observed: “The real problem of humanity is the following: We have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology. And it is terrifically dangerous, and it is now approaching a point of crisis overall.”[ii]
Said another way, the Internet is a powerful tool the human race shouldn’t possess at its current level of emotional development. It’s like giving a 5-year-old a bottle of whiskey and a pistol and expecting things to go well. And yet here we are in just such a predicament, and with no way back to simpler and less dangerous times.
For my fellow Seventh-day Adventists, I’d like to offer a biblical perspective—first an eschatological analysis, and then a practical theological prescription.
According to Jesus, the final phase of human history will be characterized by an increase of evil and a corresponding decline in love:
“Because lawlessness will abound (plēthynō), the love of many will grow cold” (Matt. 24:12).
The New Century Bible renders plēthynō “more and more.” Exponential escalation is the idea conveyed.
The apostle Paul issued the same ominous warning:
“In the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Tim. 3:1-5).
That is to say, the last days will be perilous precisely because of hyper-selfishness, most notably manifested as the love of money and of pleasure. When companies prioritize financial profits over people, the result will be exploitation to the point of inflicting harm. Because there is so much money to be made by capitalizing on the insecure and addictive tendencies of the human mind, we are experiencing a full-on sensory assault via technology, and there is likely no way to stop it. The apostle John informs us that evil will, indeed, exponentially escalate until supernatural demonic forces have complete control of large swaths of the human population:
“Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and has become a dwelling place of demons, a prison for every foul spirit, and a cage for every unclean and hated bird! For all the nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication, the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth have become rich through the abundance of her luxury” (Rev. 18:2, 3).
Under the compulsive lust for financial gain, the corporate titans of Babylon, greedy for “abundance” and “luxury,” are harnessing data and algorithms for a full-on sensory assault of the human mind. We are being mentally ravaged, raped, and razed by technological forces that are acting as the unwitting vehicle through which supernatural forces are playing out their endgame against humanity. The world is becoming “a dwelling place of demons,” and the demons are finding access to our senses through sophisticated technologies.
Once we’ve gotten our bearings on the eschatological landscape, the pressing and practical question becomes What are we supposed to do about it? The question can be asked another way: How can we successfully wage war against the powers of darkness and resist the overwhelming allure of evil?
Ellen White offers this answer:
“The way to dispel darkness is to admit light. The best way to deal with error is to present truth. It is the revelation of God’s love that makes manifest the deformity and sin of the heart centered in self.”[iii]
Those who spend too much time cursing the darkness will be swallowed up by it. To simply point out wrong and tell people to stop doing it is an approach that is bankrupt of moral power. It merely serves to leave people in a heightened state of guilt, but impotent to do anything about it. And it is inevitable—perhaps even a law of human nature—that a person who feels simultaneously guilty and powerless will take refuge from their guilt by plunging deeper into the forbidden behavior. The only way to break the allure of sin is to present a more alluring attraction.
While I am all for having serious restrictions on the access children have to our world’s media platforms, before you know it those children are going to be teenagers. At that point, it is highly unlikely that you will be able to maintain your restrictions. For this reason, I think Christian parents should take a far more proactive approach that aims at instilling in our children the principle of self-regulation so that they end up making good choices once they find themselves free to do whatever they want. And the best way to do that is to consistently hold before them the superior attraction of God’s love.
Saying no, no matter how authoritative and insistent we are, is a weak strategy for keeping our kids, and even ourselves, free from evil influences. Externally imposed authority can produce temporary compliance and pretense, but not authentic and deep-seated victory.
In Romans 7 the apostle Paul delves into the self-defeating psychology of negative imperative:
“When we were in the flesh, the sinful passions which were aroused by the law were at work in our members to bear fruit to death” (verse 5).
“For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it killed me” (verse 11).
“For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice” (verse 19).
No need to quibble over whether Paul is here describing a converted or an unconverted person. He’s not endeavoring to answer that question. He is simply describing the psychological reality of sin in relation to the law in relation to human nature in its fallen condition. He is explaining that the law, while it is good, says “no” to certain behaviors to which human nature is inclined to say “yes.” And the “no” that the law imposes, Paul explains, actually has the effect of increasing the desire for the thing that is forbidden. The law stimulates more sin, not less, according to Paul. The most effective way to cause an action is to forbid it.
In a parallel passage to Romans 7 Paul writes, “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6). Religion is made lethal to one’s experience with God when it is imposed from the outside in and used as a behavior-control mechanism that bypasses the formation of love in the heart. Ellen White states the point this way:
“The plan of beginning outside and trying to work inward has always failed, and always will fail.”[iv]
This single insight explains to a great extent why the church loses so many people, especially our young people. The outside-in approach “kills” personal, voluntary attraction to God. By contrast, the inside-out approach is what Paul calls “the new covenant,” which “gives life” (2 Cor 3:6). People run from control, but run to love. The problem with the old covenant approach is that it specializes in merely identifying and forbidding wrong behaviors and thereby, inadvertently, perpetuates the wrong behaviors.
Adventism has spent more than 100 years operating on the premise of the negative imperative approach to sin. We tend to identify things that are bad and then tell people—especially our young people—not to do those things. The result of this approach is obvious. We leave people feeling guilty and impotent by essentially insisting that they make promises to God that inevitably end up being like “ropes of sand.” This, then, drives them to either hypocrisy or despair. One way or another—either by generating pretentious pharisaism or by driving people to give up and leave the church—“the letter kills.” The “old covenant,” by virtue of the fact that it imposes moral requirements while keeping God’s love hidden from view, does not work.
Parents often ask, “How can I stop my kids from playing video games, watching movies, and spending hours on social media?” We are eager for help in telling our children “no” to bad things. And that certainly is understandable. The situation is staggeringly difficult to deal with, and super-scary, too. We love our children, and we want what's best for them, and yet harmful influences are so pervasive that it seems impossible to protect them. So we are strongly tempted to resort to the negative imperative approach, which will work as long as our children are young and under our authority. But we need to ask ourselves, What is our goal? Is it merely to keep our children from doing bad as long as we can? Of course not! Our goal is to grow our children into responsible, self-governing adults who are personally in love with Jesus. And that means we must prioritize teaching our children, and our church members in general, the glorious and powerful and transformative gospel of Christ.
“I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself” (John 12:32).
“Love is power. Intellectual and moral strength are involved in this principle, and cannot be separated from it. . . . Love cannot live without action, and every act increases, strengthens and extends it. Love will gain the victory.”[v]
“The contemplation of the love of God manifested in His Son will stir the heart and arouse the powers of the soul as nothing else can.”[vi]
“Nothing reaches so fully down to the deepest motives of conduct as a sense of the pardoning love of Christ.”[vii]
“The theme that attracts the heart of the sinner is Christ, and Him crucified. On the cross of Calvary, Jesus stands revealed to the world in unparalleled love. Present Him thus to the hungering multitudes, and the light of His love will win men from darkness to light, from transgression to obedience and true holiness.”[viii]
As a church, we need to prioritize developing discipleship curriculums that cultivate God's love in the hearts and minds of our children, as well as our members in general. As a matter of emergency, old covenant orientations need to give way to new covenant orientations. Adventism desperately needs the gospel—the good news of God’s unmerited favor, by which the powers of the soul are aroused to live for God, not because we have to, but because we want to.
Sin attracts. There is no doubt about that fact. But in Christ we encounter a far superior attraction. The beauty of His love is the only power powerful enough to break the power of sin over our souls.
[iii]Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages [Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898, 1940] p. 498.
[iv]Ellen G. White, Temperance [Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1949], p. 102.
[v]Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church [Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948], vol. 2, p. 135.
[vi]E. G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 478.
[vii]E. G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 493.
[viii]Ellen G. White, in Review and Herald, Nov. 22, 1892.
BIO: Ty Gibson is an author, speaker and director of Light Bearers, a literature ministry based in Collegedale, Tennessee