The Church’s Algorithm

  • Ian Sutton
    • a day ago
    • 4 min read

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.

Church pews sealed with barrier tape during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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.

Excessive consumption of alcohol was one consequence of the industrial revolution. The image is of Hogarth’s Gin Lane.

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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2021: The Church as a Leader

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This post is based on the material at the site Faith in a Changing Climate and Technology for a Changing Climate.

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To say the least, the year 2020 has had its challenges. More than a million people have lost their lives to the COVID-19 disease which is not yet under control, millions more are unexpectedly out of work, many others cannot make the rent or the mortgage, thousands of small businesses have closed their doors, and many industries, such as tourism, have been decimated.

Bad as the situation is, it does provide an opportunity for people of faith, and for the church overall, to provide much-needed leadership. After all, the church’s message never has been about material prosperity. We see that our secular leaders have all too often failed to respond to the events of 2020 — in fact, they have not actually been leaders in most cases. Maybe now is the time for people of faith to step up to the plate.

Direction for the Church

Ugo Bardi (1952- )

A blogger whom I follow is Ugo Bardi, a professor of chemistry at the University of Florence in Italy. In an earlier set of posts Bardi showed how Augustine of Hippo developed a successful theology that successfully provided the intellectual basis for the medieval church. (The need for a new theology for our times is discussed toward the end of this post.)

But Bardi’s latest post 2020: The Collapse of the Christian Church suggests a different outcome for the church. He argues that the church has been mostly quiescent during the pandemic, and that church leaders have meekly followed instructions from the civil authorities. I agree with him on that point, but this does not mean that the church cannot provide leadership from this point forward. However, if the church is to provide leadership in a post-pandemic world, what form can that leadership take? I suggest that we consider three issues as a starting point.

1. What the Virus Has Taught Us
2. The Need for Ritual
3. The Need for Theology

What the Virus Has Taught Us

Organizations of all types have learned that they don’t need physical office space as much as they once thought. Most managerial and back-office functions can be carried out remotely. The same goes for the church. Virtually all of our activities are now, well, virtual.

There was already a trend to a model where the church has a small number of central buildings (cathedrals and large churches) and a large number of home-based congregations, with not much in between. It is likely that this trend will be speeded up. The large central church will mostly communicate with the smaller units through Zoom and other electronic media.

This model is fine for business activities such as vestry or finance committee meetings. But this model is not so good for those activities which call for worshippers to gather together in community. Which brings us to . . .

The Need for Ritual

Credit: Unsplash

Bardi claims that Zoom has had the effect of making both Universities and Churches irrelevant because they have lost their fundamental ritual — the purpose for which they were created. In both cases that ritual revolves around people gathering together and sharing in certain activities as a group.

We need not go as far as Bardi in his gloomy assessment as to the future of the church to realize that he makes a good point. As we enter the post-pandemic world it will be important for the church to emphasize the importance of ritual, rules and discipline. Two-dimensional windows on a computer screen are not going to be sufficient.

These challenges mean that we need a new way of thinking, which brings us to . . .

The Need for Theology

A theme of this series is that we need to develop a theology that is appropriate for our times. An example is Methodism and the Industrial Revolution. There is nothing in the Bible that tells us to completely avoid the consumption of alcohol (there are many admonitions about drinking too much alcohol, which is not quite the same thing). Yet 250 years ago reformers such as John Wesley preached that we should not drink at all. They were responding to the widespread drunkenness and degradation brought about by the Industrial Revolution. Belief in abstinence became a foundation stone of their faith system.

In future posts we will consider what a theology for a world that has been transformed by climate change may look like. How will we respond to resource shortages, destruction of ecosystems, gross pollution and climate change? The church needs to work on a response. It could be that, in future years, the church will consider it sinful to drive a vehicle powered by gasoline or diesel, just as earlier reformers considered that it was sinful to drink alcoholic beverages. Or maybe it will be a sin to use Facebook.

We will see.

Conclusions

The year 2020 has been one that we are all glad to see the back of. But, bad as it may have been in so many ways, 2020 has offered us some ideas as to how we may have to live in a world of climate change. In particular, 2020 has provided people of faith, and the church overall, a sense of mission and opportunity for leadership.

Of one thing we can be sure — there is no going back to the ‘Old Normal’, nor should we even want to return to those times.