Early September is one of a handful of “new years” that many of us use to orient or mark time. The beginning of another academic year is experienced as a new beginning for many, particularly those with kids. January 1 is another, obviously. For Christians, the First Sunday of Advent would be yet another, as we mark the beginning of another year lived according to the story of Jesus. These are logical points on our calendars and in our lives for us to recalibrate, reorient, recommit, or remind ourselves of important truths.
The beginning of this “new year” is an interesting one for me. Both of my kids started college this year, one in British Columbia and the other locally. “Back to school” looks and certainly feels different when you are the parent of adults who are increasingly taking responsibility for themselves instead of younger kids who need a lot more direction. I find myself in a reflective space these days. All the usual clichés come to mind. Where did the time go? How did my kids grow up so fast? What fresh parenting agonies and exaltations await this next season of life? Who am I now that these two creatures whose care dominated the better part of the past two decades are becoming more independent?
But even beyond the reflections that come along with transitioning into a new stage of parenting, there are other more general themes that I’ve been ruminating on lately. I am increasingly finding within myself a hunger for simplicity, for meaningful connection, for decluttering my life and my head. I’m wondering what habits of the heart and mind will be necessary to live well in this next stage of life. What practices will make me less prone to worry and more attentive to others? What rhythms of life will sustain me in my vocation and in the relationships God has given me to tend? How will I maintain sanity and strength amidst the cacophonous noise of digital life and the ugly polarizing forms of discourse that seem to be the lingua franca of our time?
Alan Jacobs recently wrote a brief piece about how Facebook is toying with the idea of removing “likes” from its posts. Instagram has already done something like this in obscuring the number of likes we can see. The idea, presumably, is to save us from ourselves. We cannot help but obsess over numbers and to associate our personal worth with them, so we must be shielded from this information. The irony is rich, of course, and Jacobs notes it well. Having subjected their users to a decade or more of operant conditioning and training us to pant after the tasty morsels of affirmation that social media delivers, fiddling a bit with the presentation while leaving a vast digital architecture that feeds upon human social need unchanged seems like a rather half-hearted gesture. These companies know very well where and how their billions are made. It is not exactly in their best interests for human beings to disengage from their products.
At any rate, one line caught my attention at the end of Jacobs’ post:
It’s hard enough for people to leave Facebook or Instagram or Twitter behind; what’s almost impossible to leave behind is the person that those sites’ algorithmic behaviorism turned you into.
Yes, that last section rings true. And this is what I worry about. Nearly a decade and a half of immersion in the world of blogging and even the limited engagement I have on social media (I’m on Facebook, I have a mostly-neglected Instagram account that I use to spy on my kids, and I’m not on Twitter) has without question had an effect on me. It probably has on you, too. I can’t speak for everyone, but I am almost certain that it has made me more reactive and defensive, more hungry for social affirmation, more prone to evaluate the worth of my writing based on likes and statistics, more likely to write for a desired reaction rather than what I think is true or valuable. The list could go on, but I think I am feeling sufficiently humbled. In my more honest moments, I know that the “algorithmic behaviorism” that I have subjected myself to over the last decade or so has not contributed much to any of the aspirations mentioned above.
I’ve come close to pulling the plug on Facebook many times over the past summer. There is nothing unique about my reasons: concern over how my data is being harvested and sold, the ubiquity of advertising, the maddening impenetrability of Facebook’s algorithms, my inability to figure out how to make “latest news” the default on my feed instead of “most popular.” Beyond that, I regularly wonder why I willingly allow my attention to be coopted by a never-ending stream of what matters to other people. In my more lucid moments, the whole package seems like sheer madness and I wonder why any of us perpetuate it. But then I see a few pictures of people I love, I visit memories from the past, and I dissolve into a puddle of irresolute nostalgia. And Mark Zuckerberg keeps me shackled for a few more months.
But I do plan on simplifying and restricting my digital life this year. I don’t always like who I’m becoming on social media and I need to spend more time becoming someone better somewhere else.
Having said all this, I do want to thank those of you who drop by periodically and offer a kind word of encouragement or, yes, even a needed word of challenge. I am something of a dinosaur in the blogging world in that I’ve been doing this for over twelve years now. Most people have, I suspect, moved on to less wordy and more rewarding pastures by now. Maybe I’m slow to take a hint, but I do still find value in reflecting theologically in this space and will keep writing here for as long as I do. Thanks for reading. I wish you all the best in the year ahead.