Discipled by Algorithms
Where Is ‘Big Tech’ Leading You?
My wife and I ask each other a routine question about technology — and it may not be what you expect. Yes, we ask if the other heard us, and we ask to put down the phone for a while during family time. We, like most families in the digital age, have a ways to go to instill better technology habits in our homes. But the most frequent question we ask each other is, Did you see this online?
While that may seem like an odd question to ask, it reveals a much deeper issue with technology, one we often fail to consider amid concerns about screen time, app limits, and Internet filters. The question reminds us that we live in a personally curated and expertly crafted world of information, driven by algorithms that often wield significant influence over our lives and our outlook on the social and ethical issues of our day. The world you see online is often very different than what I might see, which in turn makes it difficult to address many of the root problems of our day.
Is Technology Neutral?
In this past year, many Christians are beginning to wake up to the reality that technology is not a neutral tool that we simply choose to use for good or ill.
From the ways that misinformation and conspiracy theories alter our perception of truth and reality, to the massive exposés of major social media companies about how their products are changing our social fabric, it has become clear that technology is not simply a tool; technology is a force that can radically shape our lives, often by pushing us toward specific ends that clash with the goals of the Christian life.
Take, for example, the ways these tools push us to comment on every breaking news story or cultural event the moment they happen. We are encouraged (and often far more than encouraged) to immediately share our opinion, often without context or knowledge of a particular issue. Instead of cultivating wisdom and restraint (James 1:19), technology often pushes us toward gut-level reactions, partisan talking points, and appeals to our tribes, all while we craft and manicure our online identities.
These technological goals and ends can be seen in the writings of the French sociologist and Protestant theologian Jacques Ellul (1912–1994), in which he describes technology as a movement that captures humanity in its grip and transforms everything in the name of efficiency (The Technological Society, 80). We perceive this move toward the technical and this drive toward efficiency in the ways we are constantly encouraged to see technology as only making our lives easier, increasing our productivity, and facilitating our abilities to form connections with others online.
Almost everything in life is touched by technology. And because it has become so ubiquitous, we are losing the ability to think critically about its role in our lives. We often fail to see how these very tools, especially algorithms, are shaping our view of the world, including how we see ourselves and our neighbors.
One of the most prevalent forms of technology that subtly alters how we see the world around us, including our neighbors, is artificial intelligence (AI), or what is popularly referred to as the algorithm. While basic algorithms are a set of coded instructions, AI is a broader term encompassing dynamic systems that allow for a machine to adapt along the way through the use of highly sophisticated algorithms and machine learning. Often in conversation, AI sounds more like an element in the plot of a science-fiction movie than the driver of the common devices of social media platforms that we use each day, sometimes for the better part of the day.
“Whether we realize it or not, algorithms are discipling each of us in very particular ways.”
Whether we realize it or not, algorithms are discipling each of us in very particular ways — by curating the news we see, the things we purchase, the entertainment we enjoy, at times functioning in ways that seem almost human — all feeding the sense that this world is ultimately all about you. While AI may seem innocuous at first, it can also have devastating effects on our relationship with God, our spouse, roommates, those in our local church, and our broader communities as we opt for efficiency over wisdom and the virtual over the embodied.
Assumed and Assimilated
Over the past year, we saw countless calls to rein in “Big Tech,” a term focused on the outsized influence of certain technology companies like Meta’s Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, Google, and others. On both sides of the political aisle, a focused effort began to alter how these companies do business and how much influence they have over the digital public square.
Behind many of these calls for regulation is a sense that these companies, including their algorithms, negatively shape us as a society or censor certain views to increase profit margins. While these issues are obviously complex (and Christians will disagree on the nature and boundaries of various proposals), one reality is increasingly understood: technology is often assumed and assimilated, rather than questioned and examined, in our lives. We need to take a hard look at these tools and seek to navigate them with biblical wisdom and insight.
One of the most effective tools used to keep us constantly connected and online these days is the algorithm. It serves a perfectly curated and personalized world for us each time we log in or scroll through our social media feeds. Many of us have been hooked by these systems that create these intricate and curated online experiences to keep us engaged and constantly connected. While these personalized experiences are beneficial to an extent in terms of convenience, they also run the risk of isolating us from one another and further exacerbating the striking divides we face throughout society.
Impulsive Urge to Check
You know that nagging feeling or impulsive drive to check your phone one last time before you doze off to sleep? Or the seemingly mechanical urge to check what you missed overnight before your feet even hit the ground?
In our digital age, we also regularly feel an urge to check these devices even without any notification or sign of something we may have missed. From “phantom vibration syndrome,” where we feel like our device is vibrating even if it isn’t, to our proclivity to see everything around us as a potential status update, we are being profoundly shaped by technology every day.
“We have been conditioned to relentlessly check our devices, and many of us struggle to simply disconnect.”
This point is aptly illustrated in the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, where one expert interviewee stated that the question isn’t if you check Twitter in the morning after waking, but whether you check it before or while you use the bathroom each morning. We have been conditioned to relentlessly check our devices, and many of us struggle to simply disconnect. In the digital age, it’s far too easy to begin to see others as mere cogs in a giant machine rather than as individual and embodied souls with moral agency and accountability.
How Is Technology Shaping You?
While technology has obvious benefits and can be harnessed to love God and love our neighbor (Matthew 22:37–39), it has become increasingly difficult to step back and evaluate these tools with ethical clarity and biblical insight.
Amid the good of technology, Christians need to recognize the ways that algorithms are constantly expanding our moral horizons by opening options we never thought possible and allowing our sinful hearts to use these technologies to exploit others, manipulate truth, and stoke division. While common vices like anger, greed, lust, and arrogance are not new, they are nevertheless exacerbated in a digital-first world where we have new opportunities to indulge them and in turn abuse these technologies in ways that treat our neighbors as nothing more than a means to an end.
One of the dangerous tendencies is to shift our moral responsibility with these tools to others by refusing to acknowledge our roles, not only in their development, but also in how we use them. Wisdom calls us to evaluate the design and the goal of the tools we interact with each day because of the profound ways that we are being shaped and formed with each use.
True change won’t come until we admit these technologies did not arise, and do not operate, in a morally neutral vacuum — but within a pervasive environment of sin and a society-wide desire for complete moral and personal autonomy. While there is some truth to the view that technology mediates much of our experience online, we simply can’t abdicate our moral responsibility and blame the rise of fake news, polarization, and other social maladies solely on these technologies, without acknowledging that these tools function like jet fuel poured on a society already aflame with self-seeking sin and pride.
Two Steps Forward
What are we to do in this age of algorithmic influence? First, knowledge may be half the battle. Often, we simply fail to understand how these tools are shaping us and how they are conditioning us toward their end goals of higher engagement and time spent glued to our devices. Having a biblical view of technology can help retrain our minds to question these advances before simply assuming that they will always align with our values and goals for life.
There is a growing library of resources to aid you in this battle ranging from classic authors like Jacques Ellul, George Grant, and Neil Postman to contemporary thinkers such as Andy Crouch, O. Alan Noble, Jeffrey Bilbro, John Dyer, and Tony Reinke. While each engages these issues with different perspectives, they can each help us expand how we think about the role of technology in our lives as well as how we use technology wisely and responsibly.
Second, by recognizing how we are being formed, we can seek to counter that transformation through cultivating realistic and healthy habits with technology. Technology isn’t going away, and so bold claims of ridding our lives of these tools may not be the most effective long-term solution. As Paul reminds us in Ephesians 4:17–24, the Christian life involves more than putting off old habits; it also involves putting on new habits directed at forming us to be more like Christ.
These habits will range from family to family and person to person, but the goal is to shape our mind and heart to become more like Christ, who is the very wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24). A one-size-fits-all checklist may seem efficient in the short term, but it does not take into account different personalities and maturity levels. Our goal is to become wiser and more mature, not just better rule followers.
Algorithms Do Not Rule
Being trained in wisdom may mean limiting screens, turning off recommendation algorithms and notifications, taking regular sabbaths from social media apps, or even removing some digital distractions from your life — for a season or entirely. Wisdom may mean different practices for different people, but in an age like ours, it will always mean focus and restraint.
While it’s true that algorithmic technologies have the power to not only respond to our behavior but to modify it, conditioning us to act in troubling ways to greater and greater degrees, we are not powerless pawns, and our behavior online is not a foregone conclusion, no matter how subtle and powerful the algorithms may become.
Under God, humans chose to develop these tools, and we can choose how to use them — or not. Indeed, the biggest question for Christians in this algorithmic age — given what we know of the nature of our sin and our vulnerability to temptation — is not if these tools are shaping us, but rather if these technologies are transforming us to be more like Christ, or if we are being discipled into conformity to this world (Romans 12:2).