When my daughter was young, she would often be asked, not usually by fellow homeschoolers, why she kept reading "The Lord of the Rings". I told her to reply, "Because I want to know what's going on in the world." - Anthony Esolen, Sex and the Unreal City
In The Return of the King, Tolkien introduces an interesting plot device called a palantir. A palantir is an indestructible crystal ball into which a person could gaze. By gazing into the ball, someone could communicate with others who possessed another palantir, and could see events taking place both near and far. It was difficult, though, for the person gazing into the ball to tell whether the events they were seeing were from the past or yet to come. But there were very real downsides to gazing into a palantir. Not least was that most of the people who gazed into it were very susceptible to being deceived by what they saw or heard. And beyond mere deception, they were even inclined toward being emotionally overwhelmed by the experience. The events in The Return of the King revealed that only the king himself possessed the strength of character, and of will, to master the palantir.
Which brings me to the Internet in general, and to social media in particular.
I watch in wonder at several things I see on social media. First is the continuous stream of dissatisfaction and outrage. It feels like some of my friends experience social media primarily as a series of things to be angry about. Not that there aren't things about the world that are corrupt and wrong. But I wonder about the effect of such non-stop consumption and distribution of things that make people mad. Before social media, the cadence and velocity of outrage-inducing information was more sporadic, more disjointed. Now, we can see entire continuous and coherent thematic streams to feed our outrage and disaffection.
The second thing I wonder about is the migration of my friends to either of two extremes. Friends I have known for 40 years have started saying things, and behaving in ways, that would never have characterized their point of view 10, or even 5 years ago. It feels like social media is driving people inexorably toward more extreme views at both ends of the spectrum. I think this is actually happening and, to a certain extent, is intentional on the part of social media companies. Their business model depends on being able to characterize and target ads, and manipulate behaviors, within user communities. Users holding more extreme views are easier to characterize, and thus to target with ads they will likely respond to.
Social media algorithms that determine what to show individual users seem to induce migration toward extremes. It reminds me of those old science experiments about the surface tension of water we used to do. When someone stuck their finger in the water, everything was driven to the edges. In our case, society is the water, and social media is the finger driving everything to the edge.
The idea adhering to Tolkien's palantir was that there are some sources of knowledge that are too powerful and influential for a person's own good. There are, Tolkien suggests, things we cannot handle – streams of knowledge that can overwhelm and destroy us.
Was this not, at least in part, the very theme and point made in Genesis regarding the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden of Eden? Tolkien was not the first to conceive of this phenomenon. Genesis suggests that human beings were created with an outward facing purpose and task. Working the earth, reigning over it, producing children and raising families. Making and building and cultivating things is, according to Genesis, consistent with our design. But the temptation presented in the garden was for the man and woman to divert their attention from their actual purpose and to grasp at things too weighty for them to handle.
I wonder if we are merely compounding the sins of Adam and Eve by continually gazing into the social media palantir?
My own experience has lead me to make the dreary observation that many of the social pathologies that have long exhibited themselves in crowded urban centers now show up, in their various digital forms, on social media. And, more than that, they have started escaping the bounds and bits of cyberspace and are increasingly manifest in the flesh-and-blood world of families, schools, workplaces, and churches.
If my own observations and experiences are representative of the norm, then in a perverse way, the increased social upheaval of our time reflects the end-game and triumph of the social media business model.
Perhaps the solution is to return our gaze to things more consistent with our Genesis design. To build more. Create more. Love and raise more children. Grow more things.
And perhaps we should, in humility, at least consider the possibility that there are things that can be known, even in this present age, that only a king can handle.
Maybe, if we tear our gaze away from the sinister palantir, we will make and create more things full of life.