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Embracing truth in an age of distrust

Jordan J. Ballor | How to deal with the consequences of information overload


Embracing truth in an age of distrust
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We live in an unprecedented age. Never before have so many human beings been living on the planet simultaneously. Never before have people around the world been so connected. Never before have so many people in the world been so wealthy. Even as more and more people are closely linked through trade and technology, we face growing levels of distrust and dissatisfaction.

Social scientist Jonathan Haidt convincingly argues that information technology, particularly the form that social media has taken over the last decade, is driving much of our unrest. Drawing on the Biblical imagery of the Tower of Babel, Haidt contends that our contemporary situation involves “the fragmentation of everything.” This Biblical image, he says, is “a metaphor for what is happening not only between red and blue, but within the left and within the right, as well as within universities, companies, professional associations, museums, and even families.”

Humanity has certainly seen significant upheavals before. The 20th century witnessed the costliest conflicts in human history, arising from revolutionary ideologies of imperialism, fascism, and communism. Five hundred years ago, the advent of the printing press and the Protestant Reformation combined to form a multifaceted revolution with far-reaching implications for law, politics, religion, economics, art, and history. But the proliferation of tracts and pamphlets in the 16th century is a small ripple compared to the tidal wave of information created in our digital age. Growth estimates of data usage project that more than 90 percent of the information that has ever been created by human beings has been produced since 2015. And that number will continue to grow, driven by advances in data technology.

Toward the close of the 20th century, the novelist Saul Bellow wisely wrote that “there is simply too much to think about.” We cannot contain everything within our finite limits. We are starting to discover some of the consequences of too much data. Such a surplus of data seems to produce a deficit of trust. When there is too much to even think about (much less trust or verify), we tend to stop thinking. Too much information makes us numb.

What are we to do when we literally cannot believe what we see, hear, and read?

For the first time, however, data is being created not only by human beings but also by our creations. “Artificial intelligence is close to enabling the limitless spread of highly believable disinformation,” Haidt writes. “The AI program GPT-3 is already so good that you can give it a topic and a tone and it will spit out as many essays as you like, typically with perfect grammar and a surprising level of coherence. In a year or two, when the program is upgraded to GPT-4, it will become far more capable.” Developments in digital video and audio technology, including the refinement of so-called “deep fake” videos, raise new questions about the future of trust and communication.

What about fake poetry? Carmine Starnino argues that, though AI will never be able to create real poetry, humans might stop writing poetry due to a loss of introspection. “Poetry, unlike so much else our species has mastered, cannot be copied,” he wrote. “It’s an artifact of introspection that can only be mastered by our species.” But will we care? Will we even notice?

What are we to do when we literally cannot believe what we see, hear, and read?

For Christians, thankfully, even amidst this uncertainty and upheaval, there are a few things in which we can find solace. We can know, as Job confessed, that our Redeemer lives. We can choose to build our lives and livelihoods on the rock rather than on shifting sands. And rooted and grounded in that foundation, we are empowered to speak and seek the truth in love.

This has to be as true for our digital speech as it is for our intimate conversations. The Apostle Paul implores us to think about “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable” (Philippians 4:8). These are the things we should be clicking on, liking, and sharing on social media, even as we must question the amount of time we spend on our screens.

The social disruption brought about by massive technological change is already here, and it is progressing exponentially. The Christian’s task in this age of uncertainty, however, remains clear: to witness to the unchanging truth, Jesus Christ, who is “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8), and to serve God with everything we are and everything we have: heart, soul, strength, and mind (Luke 10:27).

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of First Liberty Institute, and the associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.


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