When my dad bought our first computer with a modem and America Online shortly after Christmas in 1998, my life changed forever. I was in my second year of college, and I’d only used the internet a few times. I acclimated quickly. While my family was at a gathering on New Year’s Day, I spent eight hours online, meeting new friends in chat rooms and on Instant Messenger, devouring movie news, and marveling at my ability to communicate with people from around the world from our living room. I was an introvert making new friends, a lonely, sheltered kid suddenly in the middle of a global, exciting world.
The internet has, obviously, revolutionized our society; it’s also personally affected the course of my life. Had I not started blogging in between calls as a way to keep myself sharp while at a soul-killing call center job, would I be writing today? Had online access not devastated journalism and made it difficult to make a living, would I have switched careers? My kids’ existence partially owes itself to a Facebook friend request I received seven years ago. Today, the internet is how I listen to music, publish my thoughts, keep up with friends, buy groceries and pay bills. Even though I spent nearly 20 years without logging in, I can’t imagine my life without the internet.
But when I wade through the mess of social media or think about how instinctively my finger reaches for the internet browser on my smartphone, I wonder if all this connectivity will be a good thing in the long run.
I recently watched Werner Herzog’s latest documentary, “Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World,” which examines how the internet has changed our planet, for good and for ill. With his typical curiosity, off-kilter humor and tendency to dig into humanity’s fatal flaws, Herzog delivers a thoughtful, funny but sometimes troubling look at how this connectivity has impacted our world.
The internet has obviously been a force for good in many ways. It’s connected us, making it possible to communicate with family in another state and make friends with people around the world. What began in a small, drab lab in California between two computers soon grew into a connected network around the nation; today, more than 3 billion are estimated to use the internet. Herzog examines the origins of the online world and delves into the benefits we’ve seen from it, including advancements in cancer research and enhanced robotics that could lead to safer vehicles.
But about halfway through, the film takes a dark turn. Herzog speaks to the family of a young woman killed in a car accident. Shortly after her death, one of the crime scene workers emailed pictures of the scene to a friend; those photos made their way across the internet, and the family started receiving grisly photos of their dead daughter. It’s an understandably heavy moment, punctuated by a comment from the mother.
“The internet is the manifestation of the Antichrist.”
Don’t worry, this isn’t going to turn into a bizarre end-times screed (you should know by now that I don’t play that). But the comment stuck with me throughout the rest of the film, as Herzog delved into some of the darker aspects of the internet and its implications on our culture. And while I don’t think the internet is the Antichrist as “Left Behind” would depict, I do think that our acceptance of it on the size and scope we use it now could have effects on our world that are, in many ways, anti-Christ, and could have drastic impacts on a world in need of love, community and faith.
And I’m not talking about rancid political posts or Twitter bullies; those targets are too obvious for Herzog.
He examines the way connectivity has created dependence. We use the internet to supply power to our cities, data to our banks and food to our grocery stores. What happens if it stops working? Herzog interviews scientists who study sunspots; would a major one, similar to one experienced in the mid-1850s, be enough to knock out the grid? Would it wipe out all of our financial information? Could broken logistic chains cause a global famine? Would society collapse because we’ve given so much power to automation and depended so much on digital files?
The film has notes of hope regarding that. After all, one of the scientists notes, humans started as a species of less than 1,000 people clustered in the same spot of Africa, and they’ve thrived. I believe that God has graced us with survival instincts, intelligence and ingenuity. I believe we have enough collective knowledge to survive despite the loss of our digital grid, and either revert pack to our pre-internet days or get it back up and running. But as a Christian, I have to look at a situation in which we literally rely on a computer to give us our daily bread. Is this idolatry? Why did I get a twinge of fear when Herzog suggested loss of the internet could lead to the downfall of society? If I believe God is the creator, sustainer and provider of all things, then shouldn’t I be confident that, were we to lose the internet, He would still provide? Is my hope in God or machine?More concerning, however, is what this global connectivity could, ironically, do to human relationships.
It’s far from novel to suggest that while our Facebook and Twitter interactions have connected us with people around the world, our in-person relationships have suffered. But “Lo and Behold” ponders whether human-to-human relationships will even be necessary in the future, as advancements in artificial intelligence begin to appear more human, with the ability to learn, predict and engage. One scientist asks:
Will our children’s children’s children need the companionship of humans? Or will they have evolved in a world where that’s not important?
Through all of our theological pontificating and moralizing, it’s easy to forget that Christianity is a relational faith. Christianity is communal; not a classroom or a volunteer organization — although at times it fills those roles — but described throughout the Bible as a kingdom, a body, a family. The internet has greatly helped my faith. I’ve had the opportunity to learn from teachers and writers through articles and blogs, and Facebook groups have encouraged me and provoked thought. But a Facebook group can’t sit with you at a funeral. A blog can’t pray with and comfort you through dark nights of the soul. A virtual church isn’t going to show up to your kid’s birthday party, and a chat room can’t replace the accountability of a small group. To lose human connection would be to lose much of the essence of Christianity. To build best friendships with a robot is to literally have a relationship where one side is lacking a soul.
The film also suggests that we could eventually see “The internet of me,” a world where the internet is so tuned in to your likes and dislikes that it will only suggest ads for products you’re interested in, turn the temperature in a room to the one you prefer and filter reality to your liking. We’re already seeing much of this today, whether through targeted ads on Facebook, automatic climate control in high-end homes, or the simple filtering of our news feeds to deliver only stories we’re interested in and point of views we agree with.
But isn’t a me-centric reality the essence of sin? If we go back to Genesis 3, isn’t the core problem with humanity that we wanted what was prohibited and the chance to choose what we could and couldn’t do? What if a person walks in a room that sets itself to one temperature and another person walks in who prefers another? Doesn’t a look at our Facebook screeds and social media in-fighting provide a look at the way our selfish, me-centric desires put us at war with each other?
There’s a striking shot in “Lo and Behold” — one the film has been using for many of its promotional images — of a Chicago beach, empty save for a group of monks. They’re all on smartphones. “Have the monks stopped meditating,” Herzog wonders. “They all seem to be Tweeting.”
I’m not an advocate for turning off the internet or calling for abstinence from it, although some people with an internet addiction (also profiled in the film) might find that helpful. As the film shows and as I believe, I think that the internet can be used for good. We can share our beliefs around the globe. The worldwide church can connect in new ways. We can pool our knowledge and resources to fight cancer, increase knowledge and encourage each other. That’s a good thing. But we mustn’t lose meditation and wonder. In our connected world, we can’t shut off connection with God. One subject in the film suggests that advances in artificial intelligence will force us to rethink our theology. And I wonder if we might already need to be developing a theology of the internet to help us navigate our online lives with discernment and caution.
I still love the internet. I encourage its use (especially through clicks on this site). But something that can be used for so much good can also be easily misused. And Christians would be good not to dismiss “Lo and Behold’s” speculation as paranoia or fear-mongering but to see it, possibly, as a chance to evaluate the state of our souls in a connected world.