Tool or Teacher?
The internet is a lot like pornography.
No, that’s not a typo. I did not mean to say that the internet contains a lot of pornography. I mean to say that the internet itself—i.e., its very nature—is like pornography. There’s something about it that is pornographic in its essence.
If this sounds confusing, you’re not alone. It sounds confusing because over the past few decades, the tendency among Christians has been to focus on what the internet provides instead of what it is. Consequently, evangelicals have indeed talked a lot about the scourge of online pornography. But while much attention has been given to how the web can supply us with spiritually dangerous pictures and videos, much less attention has been given to how the very form of the web shapes us in the image of the spirit of the age.
Few Christians would dispute that there is much on the internet that harms us. But by divorcing what the internet presents from what the internet intrinsically is, we are fighting against the symptoms of a more fundamental disease that we are failing to treat. “Staying pure online” is a worthy ambition, but defining purity to mean only one thing—the avoidance of certain content—not only misses the richer biblical ideal of wise living, but it ironically makes us more vulnerable to the allure of godless ideas and rhythms of life. It is entirely possible—in fact, all variables equal, it is likely—to faithfully avoid vulgar or explicit content on the web while simultaneously being shaped by it in a profoundly sub-Christian way.
This may sound incredibly strange. If we are avoiding sinful content online, how in the world can the internet “shape” us in a negative way? We try to avoid articles, podcasts, or videos that undermine Christian belief. Technology is a neutral tool; what matters is how we use it, right? The key (many might say) is to use the web only for good things: to keep up with friends, to consume wholesome content, to be more efficient at our work and school. Resist the allure of pornography or anti-Christian content, and the web is our friend, right?
I’d like to explain why the assumptions in the above paragraph are not quite right. Rather than being a neutral tool, the internet (particularly the social internet) is an epistemological environment1—a spiritual and intellectual habitat—that creates in its members particular ways of thinking, feeling, and believing. It’s true in one sense that the web is a tool that responds to its user’s desires. But the web is not a tool in the same way that a screwdriver or wrench is a tool. The web speaks to us. We talk to the web, and the web talks back, and this dialogue constitutes an ever-growing aspect of life in the digital age.
While pornography certainly existed before the first personal computer ever went online, internet porn is better understood as an altogether different kind of experience than print pornography. The nature of the web forms an astonishingly powerful complement to the function of pornography. It is not just that much pornography can be found online. It is that the web, by virtue of what it is, is intrinsically pornographically shaped.
To see this clearly, we can focus on three characteristics of the web that find particularly sharp expression in online porn: novelty, consumption, and isolation.
Perhaps one of the most profound summaries of life in an online age is comedian Bo Burnham’s song “Everything All of the Time.” Burnham captures, in both lyric and melody, the chaotic nature of the web’s enormity. Whatever you want, you can find it online. As Burnham’s song artfully (even disturbingly) captures, there’s no desire, no psychosis, no far-flung curiosity, or even no antihuman instinct so strange that there’s not some kind of content for it. And what makes Burnham’s song especially insightful is the realization that the web is not simply a passive menu that delivers what we ask for. The chaos itself seems to sink its claws into us, making us curious for things we don’t even really care about, vulnerable to distractions and temptations we’d never come near away from the screen.
Nearly every user of social media has experienced what we might call the “bored scroll” or the “mindless refresh.” This is what happens when we keep scrolling or keep refreshing our feeds for no other reason than finding new content that such purposeless attention might reveal. This type of behavior is not an accident, by the way; it is a product of specific design choices of the web, an example of how technology is always shaping us. “Infinite scroll,” for example, is a neurologically influenced web tool that rewards users as they dive deeper into the feed, guaranteeing new sights and sounds as the page reemerges.2 Such tools are only possible precisely because the web is an endless novelty machine. Whether it’s the ever-expanding borders of YouTube and Wikipedia or the never-ending returns on the most obscure Google searches, the web is inherently designed to deliver “everything, all of the time.”
The web’s nature as a novelty machine, however, is intrinsic to its nature as a pornographic medium. There is a vital connection between aimless immersion in “content” and the spiritual mood that primes a heart to seek out lust. Whereas in film and romance novels, lust is almost always a sin of passion and decisiveness, many who immerse in online pornography do so not because their desires are too strong but because they are too weak. Emotionally numbed by endless scrolling, the human heart tends to become inclined toward that which simply offers a dash of color to an otherwise drab listlessness. In other words, the mindless search for more stuff pushes us toward the temporary thrill and pseudo-connection of online porn. One Christian writer connects pornography addiction to the ancient sin of acedia, a spiritual torpor or boredom that comes from a loss of meaning. “What is to be learned from the testimonies of pornography’s users is the important fact that, contrary to prevailing cultural assumptions, the lust of the eyes is not a ‘hot’ but rather a ‘cold’ vice,” he writes. “It arises from the roaming unrest of the spirit rooted in a spiritual apathy.”3 Like King David wandering the roof of his palace during the season when kings should have been off to war, our modern encounters with online pornography can be a reflection of a much larger immersion in purposelessness—a problem that usually begins not with explicit images but with meaningless scrolls.
It is entirely possible—in fact, all variables equal, it is likely—to faithfully avoid vulgar or explicit content on the web while simultaneously being shaped by it in a profoundly sub-Christian way.
The near-infinite novelties of the internet do not exist simply to hide. They are made, of course, to be consumed. Consumption is arguably the core ethos of the online age. It is revealed in the contemporary lingo that’s used to describe human activity online. We “binge” TV shows on our streaming services. We “stalk” others on social media. The singular word “content” is now used to describe any-and-everything that is published on the internet, a word that suggests not something definite that demands a particular response (an essay to be read, a photograph to be admired, etc.), but a morass of generic attention-soaking material. Anything can be content because anything can be consumed.
One of the more vivid examples of this is YouTube. While many of us go to YouTube for quick access to big cultural artifacts, like music videos or movie trailers, the heartbeat of YouTube’s business is its “content creators.” What is most astonishing about the content of YouTube is how seemingly all-encompassing it is. If you can imagine someone doing something (something that won’t get them arrested, at least), you can almost certainly find a YouTube video of that very thing. Gone are the days where the most watched videos were always the best amateur singers or athletes. Now, one of the biggest genres of YouTube “content” is the reaction video, which usually features ordinary, everyday people doing exactly what the term suggests: reacting. They’re reacting to anything and everything from movies, to surgeries, to police dashcam footage, and just about anything else you can dream up. Fifteen years ago, it would have been almost impossible to convince people that they could make real money by recording their facial reactions and letting other people watch them. Today, though, even basic human interaction is a valuable commodity, consumable at will.
The web’s ethos of consumption is a fitting vehicle for the pornography industry. Pornography is, after all, fundamentally a consumptive act, a transformation of human persons into soulless objects of spectacle. Porn and the web go together so efficiently precisely because they are both instruments of commodification, a way to turn the most intimate or even most elementary stuff of human life into consumable content. Consider how the term porn has even been repurposed to refer to images that make something desirable. There are now entire sections of the web dedicated to “food porn,” meaning photos of delicious dishes. In the world of “food porn,” it’s the image that’s meant to be consumed, not the food depicted. There are also communities dedicated to “earth porn,” meaning pictures and videos of beautiful scenery. Pornography’s function as a way to turn the transcendent into the consumable has become so embedded into our online lives that it is now literally what we can call any of the content we consume. It’s almost as if, in at least a real sense, everything on the internet is a kind of porn.
It turns out that the most efficient way to consume the web’s novelties is not as a member of a thick community of meaningful relationships but as an isolated individual. Internet technology’s trajectory over the past decade has been inarguably bent toward the solitary individual, reachable at any point for any reason.
Consider three major phases of how civilization has logged online. We could consider these as three distinct chapters in the life of the web: the lab, the living room, and the pocket. What we know as the modern internet began in the mid-twentieth century as a sophisticated and highly technical attempt to link computer systems for scientific, government, and military purposes. Like the massive, room-filling supercomputers used by NASA that were depicted in the film Hidden Figures, the early states of internet technology were overwhelming in their scope and prowess. It took exceptionally well-educated people long hours and much effort to even maintain the simplest of networks.
But the emergence of the personal computer and the modem transformed the internet’s relationship to the world and gave birth eventually to what we now know as the web. As personal computers became cheaper, faster, and more important to work and recreation, the web eventually became a part of people’s homes. A computer and a phone line were all that were required to connect a living room to a seemingly infinite world. But, importantly, even in this phase, the computer and the phone line were required. Experiencing the internet was an experience that entailed being at a particular place and doing particular things. To this day, “computer labs” at universities testify to how the web was experienced for several years.
Eventually, however, the web entered its third, current, and most revolutionary state: the smartphone. With the smartphone, the importance of place in experiencing the web is nearly obliterated. No longer must you seek out a dedicated space, with a particular set of wires plugged into a particular set of ports. Now, thanks to mobile technology, you are the place. Whether in the car or in the airplane, at the school or at church, the web is with you, accessible as quickly as you can reach into your pocket.
The net effect has been that the web is now primarily experienced in isolation. We don’t huddle around the family PC to see the new photos from NASA’s telescope; by the time we assemble for dinner, we’ve all seen the pictures on our own curated newsfeeds. Streaming apps offer multiple profiles so that each person can stream individually. With this great individualism, however, has come a palpable sense of aloneness. Though we are more entertained and curated than ever before, many modern people report stunning levels of loneliness and inability to meaningfully relate to others. Connectivity has undermined connection.
Again, I should make clear what I am not saying. I’m not saying that everything on the web is pornographic, nor am I saying that everyone who spends a significant amount of time online is secretly looking at pornography or will soon. To say that the web is pornographically shaped is not to say that it is inherently explicit or sinful. Rather, the point is that the digital liturgies of endless novelty, constant consumption, and limitless power make pornography more plausible to our hearts and our habits. Within the web’s spiritual habitat, looking at pornography makes sense and feels natural. This not only has implications for how we think about our relationship to digital technology as a whole; it means very important things for how we disciple each other in the fight against lust, a fight that for many Christians feels incredibly hopeless and permanent.
- Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that asks about knowledge: how we can know things, what it means to believe correctly, etc.
- See Hal Koss, “Infinite Scroll: What Is It Good For?,” BuiltIn, January 7, 2021, https://builtin.com/.
- Reinhard Hutter, “Pornography and Acedia,” First Things, April 2012, https://www.firstthings.com/.
This article is adapted from Digital Liturgies: Rediscovering Christian Wisdom in an Online Age by Samuel D. James.
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