It’s been the usual quiet Monday morning routine of easing into a day off with a pot of coffee and a tour through a handful of blogs and news sites. But for whatever reason, today is a day when I have been struck by the uncomfortable absurdity of life in the digital age. Across the top of one major newspaper’s site is a large red arrow with an ever-rotating banner that informs me of what is “Trending” today. Conveniently arrayed for me are the stories and photo galleries and surveys and videos and articles that are being the most greedily devoured by the denizens of the twenty-first century with our insatiable online appetites, always in search of the next interesting cyber-morsel to pin or share or tweet. This is what the cool kids are looking at today and, presumably, this is what I should be interested in and clicking on as well.
How laughably ridiculous. How utterly and tragically absurd. “Israel and Gaza” right beside “Bieber fever and the American Music Awards.” “Mitt Romney” beside “NHL Lockout.” “David Petraeus” beside “Blue Jays trade.” They’re all lined up in nice neat row for us in order of their popularity. We’re free to take our pick. Precious human lives being ripped apart by bombs and rockets and inhumane policies… or a spoiled, meagerly talented Canadian pop star and what he wore at an awards show? The political machinations of the most powerful nation on earth… or the juicy intrigue produced by a bunch of squabbling millionaires trying to figure out how to split up the goodies they get from playing a child’s game? A powerful military man who couldn’t behave himself in the bedroom… or yet more news about those who has gotten stupidly rich playing games to distract the rest of us on TV?
It’s all popular, after all. It’s all passed through our collective filter to sift out the boring, the irrelevant, the tedious, the complicated, or the just plain depressing. The work has already been done for you. The most attractive options are already laid out. Right there at the top of the screen—you don’t even have to waste precious time onerously scrolling down the page! Just take your pick. And don’t worry, if you don’t like what you choose, another tasty option is only a convenient click away.
Every day, in newspapers and blogs around the world, we the people render our collective verdict about what we like, about what has caught our precarious and fleeting attention, about what we have been entertained and distracted and desensitized by. We roam around, absently pointing and clicking, making our judgments, boosting someone’s numbers. And around and around it goes. It matters not if we understand what we read or watch or if it leads to any action on our part. It doesn’t make a difference if our online consumption improves us in any way, or makes us more knowledgeable citizens or anything like that. The only thing that matters is how many pairs of eyes cross the screen, how many clicks, how much traffic.
Marshall McLuhan’s famous words resound from the deep, dark corners of pre-internet history (1964): “The medium is the message.” The medium is the message.
What fearful message, I wonder, does the media we embrace and participate in communicate? What damning truth about us does the phenomenon of “trending” lay bare? What does it say about us that we are daily led around by the nose by the popular and the titillating, the outlandish and the spectacular? That we can tolerate going back and forth between stories of war and peace and suffering and sorrow and the mindless triviality of the entertainment empire? What does it say about us that the questions that animate and inspire us are no longer, “Is it true?” “Is it important?” “Is it worthy?” Increasingly, the only question that seems to matter to us is, “Is it popular?” What does it say about us that we (seem to) deem popularity more important than truth? God help us all…
Yes, God help us.
As I write this post, I am listening to Canadian singer-songwriter Steve Bell’s new album, Keening for the Dawn. From a beautiful song called “Descent” come these words (penned by poet Malcolm Guite):
For lofty pride aspires to rise But you came down For lofty pride aspires to rise But you came down… Born to these burdens, borne by all Born with us all ‘astride the grave’ Weak, to be with us when we fall And strong to save
How we need this God who “came down” to remind us of the futility of our “lofty pride” that always “aspires to rise,” that slavishly chases after what is popular, what is attractive, what will make us stand out, what is “trending.” How we need this God who is “weak, to be with us when we fall,” as we inevitably do. How we need this God who is “strong to save” us from ourselves, and to save us for a life spent in pursuit of more worthy things.