Social media builds a counterfeit community

Barney Zwartz reflects on the promises and disappointments of technology and social media in our modern lives.

Social media has been the most transformative influence on the social order this century, for good and ill. The good has been the potential for connecting people, and the bad has been much the same.

Social researcher Jonathan Haidt this year identified the bad as amplifying political polarisation, fomenting populism, the spread of misinformation, and radicalising algorithms (by which interested viewers are drawn deeper towards extremes).

Haidt concluded that these malign effects have been exaggerated, but so have the good ones too. A new book by Andy Crouch, The Life We’re Looking For, looks underneath the effects to ask a deeper question: why does technology promise so much, but never quite deliver?

The modern dream is that technology can build a utopia of ease and enjoyment, but somehow the ideal always stays out of reach.

Crouch, an American scholar and journalist who is giving a public lecture for the Centre for Public Christianity in Melbourne next month, questions why technology’s benefits are so uneven. So many people, when they feel lonely or anxious, pick up their phone and scroll, but it seems to lead to regret more than relief.

The modern dream is that technology can build a utopia of ease and enjoyment, but somehow the ideal always stays out of reach. That may be because, in the ancient Christian wisdom, humans are complicated beings: hearts, souls and minds, created for serious relationships, which screen relationships mostly can only parody.

Take the traditional hearth – sacred to the ancient Romans – where families over the centuries gathered to cook, commune and worship. Today we heat our homes by touching a button, at the price of people spending more time alone in their rooms absorbed by glowing screens. That is an important loss.

When Christians talk about humans being made in the image of God, they mean in particular rational and moral agency and the ability/need to relate to God and each other. Community, utterly central to civilisation, is at the heart of all established religions – the word religion itself comes from the Latin etymological root “to bind together”, via “duty and reverence”.

Humans – embodied, spiritual, emotional, and longing for connection – can never be the same as machines. Consider the difference between a mother’s gaze, tender and personal, and that of an iPhone’s facial recognition. Social media can be educational, entertaining and many good things but what it builds is counterfeit community.

The Prophet Isaiah asked more than two and a half millennia ago: “Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labour on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.” Or, in St Augustine’s memorable saying, “Our hearts are restless, O Lord, until they rest in you.”

Barney Zwartz is a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.

This article first appeared in The Age.