AP 0108

John Piper famously observed: “Books don’t change people. Paragraphs do. Sometimes even sentences.” With the explosion of social media, many seem to be of the view that sound bytes will do the trick. A politician armed with a string of sound bytes need never have to think in a coherent way at all.

Some of the criticisms of this new culture have become so well-known that one is open to the charge of resorting to clichés. One becomes hesitant about citing Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death or Marshall McLuhan’s “The medium is the message”. It is good to remember from Ecclesiastes that nostalgia is out of place. Too many books are wearisome to the flesh (Eccles.12:12) – and make for an untidy study. An adequate supply is still of much benefit, even to a man facing death (2 Tim.4:13).

Nevertheless, something has happened through the onset of social media. It seems to be part of a process where we are becoming nastier, lacking in empathy, and incapable of sustained thought. Shallow thinking rules the roost, protected by slogans that make bumper stickers seem philosophical.

During the January break, some accounts of shark sightings and attacks led to questions about whether there ought to be a shark cull, to lessen the danger to swimmers in the surf. One investigative journalist from a current affairs programme was horrified, and wrote against any such proposal, concluding the counsel for the defence with “The shark’s brain is not hard-wired to hold grudges. What a pity we can’t say that about the human brain.” One lesson might be that journalists raised on sound bytes should not try to sound profound.

We are witnessing the death of news amid wonderful opportunities for greater access to news; the decline in wisdom when information abounds; and alienation when the means of communication are all about us. Something is wrong. It is surely more us than the social media, but there is some connection. The medium is not exactly the message, but the ties are strong.

Peter Barnes

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