• Ian Sutton

The Church's Algorithm

In a recent post Ugo Bardi suggested that we live in a time when central governments are losing control of the narrative. Power is shifting to those in charge of the new forms of communication — particularly the social media platforms. He argues that, as society becomes decentralized and power has become increasingly localized, so the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter, Google and amazon become modern versions of feudal barons.

The recent events at the United States capitol would seem to support his thesis. The events themselves have received plenty of publicity; there is no need to rehash them here. But what has been particularly interesting is the way in which the narrative has been not so much about what happened, as it has been about who controls that narrative. The media barons have indeed become increasingly important and powerful. For example, as I write these words, I see the following headline on a Google news feed.

Twitter Bans Over 70000 QAnon Accounts in Conspiracy Crackdown.

In other words, private corporations are making political decisions while the elected government debates what to do. (We saw a similar response in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic — the companies that supply health-related equipment were taking action while government agencies were figuring out what their response should be.)

Scott Galloway makes a similar point regarding the power of the social media executives.

The FBI, voters, our laws … all of them sit secondary to thirty-something innovators who hold the real power: algorithms that decide who sees what, how often, and from whom.

Galloway is suggesting that control is moving not just to the social media barons, but toward the artificial intelligence systems that they have created, but which are, to some degree, out of their control.

If governments have lost control of the narrative to the Zuckerberg/Dorsey algorithms then what about the church? After all, its central form of communication, the Sunday morning worship meeting has been shut down for almost a year. In its place most churches have handed over control of their messaging system to Facebook and YouTube. The church has also had to largely stop its traditional ceremonial functions such as weddings, funerals and baptisms, another important communications channel.

In another of his posts, 2020: The Collapse of the Christian Church, Bardi says,

I already noted how some institutions have been shattered at their foundations by the COVID crisis of 2020. One was the university, destroyed by the sudden discovery that it is an expensive machine that produces nothing useful for the state. Another illustrious victim is starting to crumble: it is the Church. Primarily, the Catholic Church in its claims of universality, but all Christian Churches have been affected by a crisis that left them stunned, suddenly realizing that they had nothing to say and nothing to do about a disaster that seemed to affect everybody.

Bardi is, I hope, exaggerating to make a point. But the point is real: when it comes to the major events of the last twelve months — the pandemic, the drum beat of climate crises, and the collapse of large sections of the economy — the church all too often has had little to say to the world at large. We meekly place barrier tape on our pews and ensure “both-sidesism” in everything we say.

Hogarth’s Gin Lane

Some time ago I wrote a post entitled Gin Lane and Social Media. In it I compared the impact of social media now to that of alcohol during the industrial revolution in the 18th century. The industrial revolution resulted in increase in prosperity for many people — indeed, it led to the creation of what we now refer to as the ‘middle class’. But that revolution also led to appalling working conditions for many of the people of that time, including children working in factories. The result was a drastic rise in the consumption of alcohol and its associated dissipation, a crisis made famous by Hogarth’s famous picture of Gin Lane.

We can see an analogy with social media. They have offered many important benefits, particularly during a pandemic. People can keep in touch with family and friends in a manner that they could not have done before, and they can have healthy discussions on all kinds to topics. These media have also allowed church services to continue, albeit in an unsatisfactory manner. But there is a downside. People now live in social bubbles and echo chambers and are largely insulated from hearing different points of view. That is bad enough, but the commercial model followed by the platforms exacerbates the problem. The platforms make money through advertising so they need increase the time that people spend on the site; they need to maximize the number of clicks. The way to do this is to publish increasingly outrageous and controversial information — whether such information is factually correct is immaterial.

The ethics to do with all this are still being worked out. The church needs to be in the middle of that work. The church also needs to consider how it is can best convey its message. For example, should the church react in the way it did 250 years ago when faced with the problems of alcohol abuse, and declare a total abstinence? If not, what are the boundaries to do with our use of social media? The church could develop its own platform, but that would reduce the degree to which it can communicate with those outside the church.

None of this is easy. The only thing that we can be sure of is that we should not leave it to the social media barons and their algorithms to tell us how to communicate.

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