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Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain
Vol. 1, No. 1: Anti-Asian violence, mass shootings, and the plundering of our social lives
Sunday, March 14th, was my last day on social media. Less than 48 hours later, an atrocity took place that would test my resolve to stay off socials: a gunman murdered eight people—six of whom were Asian women—at two spas and a massage parlor in the Atlanta area. Four of the victims were killed about 6.5 miles from where I used to live.
These murders hit close to home for me on multiple levels: as a former Atlantan, as an Asian-American woman, as a Christian who believes strongly in caring for people who are poor and marginalized, as a purity movement apostate, and finally, as a child of immigrants who seem to fit the model minority stereotype but experience profound unseen challenges. But I’m not going to get into all that right now. I’m still metabolizing everything. I’ll be writing about these homicides and their implications when my thoughts have had time to mature and when my prefrontal cortex has adequately subdued the more primitive impulses of my amygdala.
I do, however, want to share what it’s been like to process the killings and the larger context of anti-Asian violence without social media. Then I’ll wrap things up by presenting—for broad consideration—some things about the big tech platforms that currently host a great deal of our public discourse, including the intense social interactions following traumatic events.
Processing the Metro Atlanta Spa Shootings Without Social Media
I first heard about the Atlanta spa shootings in a way that feels increasingly rare these days: directly from the mouth of a person who was standing next to me. Peter (my husband), who’s rarely on social media, saw a headline on Twitter (ironic, I know) about three hours after the last of the shootings took place and less than thirty minutes after the gunman was apprehended. We were in the middle of cleaning up the kitchen, so I just said, “Sounds awful. I’ll look it up later.” But ten minutes later, my phone dinged. Two of my local friends (Sharifa and Sam) and I have an ongoing group text. We check in with each other periodically. And Sharifa had just texted, “Checking in. Just read something horrible out of Atlanta.”
That’s when I stopped what I was doing, accessed the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and read an initial report on the crimes. The three of us exchanged a series of messages over the next two hours, and then I went to bed. My family and I were scheduled to drive to Houston the next day (Wednesday) to see my side of the family, which we hadn’t been able to visit in over a year.
On Wednesday morning, Peter and I woke up to a swimming pool full of leaves. From the looks of it, it seemed that the live oaks in and around our property had synchronized their biorhythms overnight and determined that it was time for their budding leaves to expel every last one of the previous season’s freeze-killed ones. Together, they conspired with the North Wind, who appeared determined to cause a commotion, to deposit a large number of the dead leaves into our pool. This went on all day. When there’s extreme leaf fall like this, it has to be dealt with immediately or the leaves will clog the pool pipes, starve the pool pump of water, and cause mechanical failure. This unexpected development, plus our daughter waking up with a sore throat and needing to get a COVID test, delayed our trip to Houston. Over the next six hours, Peter intermittently raked up and bagged the leaves that accumulated on the ground, while I intermittently scooped out whatever ended up in the pool and the skimmer baskets.
This menial labor was punctuated by errands and text messages throughout the day as friends and acquaintances (fourteen in all) reached out to me via text messaging to express care and solidarity. Most of those interactions were brief. I drove to the pool supply store to pick up a forty-pound bag of salt, a container of cyanuric acid, a bottle of cyanuric acid test reagent, and some muriatic acid. I took my daughter to the CVS MinuteClinic to get a COVID test. (It was negative, and her symptoms all got better with allergy meds.) Sharifa, Sam, and I continued our text conversation as more details of the crimes and the victims came to light. I limited my reading about the shootings to major news organizations that still rely on the vetted work of investigative journalists.
It feels weird to say this, but it was a pretty quiet day.
On Thursday morning, we began our four-hour drive to Houston. That’s when the well-worn neuronal pathways created by years of social media use started calling to me— like the Sirens from The Odyssey. “Joooo-deeee. You’re missing soooo muuuuuch.” I held my phone in my hand and stared at it for probably a full minute, feeling like I was supposed to be doing something with or on it but unsure of exactly what that something was. The social apps were gone, I was caught up on all my emails, and I had exactly zero notifications. I put the phone down, then picked it back up, then put it down again, then picked it back up. Eventually, I managed to leave it down. It helped that my chief accountability partner was sitting just two feet away from me, although Peter didn’t say anything to me as I exhibited these tics. He operated more like a faithful presence.
I spent the rest of the drive finishing the paperback version of Yangsze Choo’s sophisticatedly layered mystery-fantasy novel The Night Tiger. It’s really good, by the way.
For the next few days, we simply appreciated the long-awaited opportunity to see family members face to face again. We didn’t talk about the shootings. I don’t think my elderly parents even knew about them, as they live rather insular lives and almost never leave the house, and I saw no need to add to their already heavy plate of chronic anxieties. We didn’t even talk about the shootings with my brother and his wife, even though we all had strong feelings about it. I had an hour-long phone conversation with my former pastor in Atlanta last Friday about the Asian American Christian Collaborative’s “Stand for AAPI Lives” rally and memorial taking place in Atlanta tomorrow; my sister-in-law is helping to organize the Houston-based one; and I’ll be participating in the Dallas-based one.
I don’t think we were avoiding the subject at all. But we had small windows of time together; and on the two occasions we were together, there were either children present or other things we wanted to catch up on. Plus, being together in an embodied way, coupled with shared history and knowledge of one another, enabled our silence on this particular subject to reflect layers of meaningful but almost impossible-to-articulate things. Within that silence dwelled—among other things—a shared lament, a resonant indignation, and the unspoken need to conserve energy for other emotional burdens that demand our shared attention.
Embodied vs. Disembodied Silence
Social critic Ivan Illich said, “Words and sentences are composed of silences more meaningful than sounds.”It’s important to note that embodiment is the key that unlocks the truth of this statement. Embodied silence, which is inextricably tied to presence, is fundamentally unlike the disembodied silence we encounter on social media, which is limited by its automatic association with either absence or failure. Andy Crouch wrote about these vital differences in December of 2012 after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
…there is no contradiction between presence and silence in the embodied life for which we were all created, to which we are all called, into which God himself entered. Bodies can be present without a word. That is the beauty of bodies.
Mediated communication, on the other hand—any form of communication that places something "in the middle," between persons—cannot abide silence. Radio hates dead air. Television hates sound without movement… Media cannot rest.
And while there was a time when you could count the number of broadcasters on one hand, we are all broadcasters now. A tragedy like the Newtown massacre becomes not just a media event, but also a social media event… Not to tweet or post or blog is not to be silently present—it is to be mutely absent.
On social media, we are reduced to either speaking creatures or mute and absent ones. If there is a matter of public concern that people in one corner of the internet deem important, then they’re quick to declare that speaking symbolizes care, while silence symbolizes something akin to criminal negligence. But these are false dichotomies. We’re tempted to embrace them because of the way disembodiment and digitization affect our perceptions, but such dichotomies degrade our understanding of what it means to be human.
Christian tech philosopher L.M. Sacasas made similar points:
For the most part, if we are to interact with the world through digital media, we must use our words.
We know, however, that our words often fail us and prove inadequate in the face of the most profound human experiences, whether tragic, ecstatic, or sublime. And yet it is in those moments, perhaps especially in those moments, that we feel the need to exist (for lack of a better word), either to comfort or to share or to participate. But the medium best suited for doing so is the body, and it is the body that is, of necessity, abstracted from so much of our digital interaction with the world. With our bodies we may communicate without speaking. It is a communication by being and perhaps also doing, rather than by speaking.
Embodied presence also liberates us from the need to prematurely reach for rational explanation and solutions — for an answer. If I can only speak, then the use of words will require me to search for sense. Silence can contemplate the mysterious, the absurd, and the act of grace, but words must search for reasons and fixes. This is, in its proper time, not an entirely futile endeavor; but its time is usually not in the aftermath. In the aftermath of the tragic, when silence and “being with” and touch may be the only appropriate responses, then only embodied presence will do. Its consolations are irreducible.
Developing a clearer understanding of the nature of social media—its constraints in capturing the human experience—may help us adjust our expectations of people within that context.
The Man Behind the Curtain
Ten years in, we’re still very much attempting to grasp the full societal implications of the the digital revolution’s most recent chapter. These challenges in and of themselves are enormous. However, we’re not merely wrestling with new technology. We’re dealing with something fiendish superimposed on these sweeping technological developments. Perhaps what’s most sinister to me about the current predominant social media platforms, especially in the wake of several tragedies these past two weeks, is the fact that so many of their specific designs and features as well as their algorithms manipulate users in ways that promote addiction, emotional dysregulation, and thus ever-increasing engagement.
Because these tech platforms run on a business model, scale and constant expansion—not human flourishing—are their primary objectives, and our attention and engagement translate directly to revenue. German sociologist Hartmut Rosa argues in his most recent book that “the basic institutional structure of modern society can be maintained only through constant escalation,” one that requires “constant economic growth, technological acceleration, and cultural innovation in order to maintain its institutional status quo.”
Innovations like the like/favorite buttons,the share/retweet/regram options, the hyper-individualized newsfeeds, the people/account/group recommendations, and push notifications all came about as solutions to the problem, “How do we get people to stay on our site longer and longer in order to ensure constant growth?” Those solutions ended up all being based on the exploitation of vulnerabilities in human neuropsychology—namely our need for social validation, connection, meaning, empathy, purpose, pleasure, and identity. These design features magnify the amplitude of our emotions, set us up to mimic one another endlessly, keep us clicking long past the point we consciously want to be clicking, and then capitalize on the outcome. These companies plunder our social lives for profit—our grief, our pain, our outrage, our positive/therapeutic interactions, our traumatic interactions, our intellectual exercises, our benevolent endeavors, our debates, and even the malignant endeavors of trolls and terrorists.
Ramsay Brown, neurotechnologist and co-founder of Boundless Mind (formerly Dopamine Labs), used to teach companies how to use such persuasive technology to boost their profits. After recognizing the significant harm that this is causing, however, he reversed course and is now educating the public about how it can protect itself from persuasive technology. In other words, he’s promoting neuro-literacy. He points out that in the digital world, we the users are not the customers. The advertisers are. We (our attention) are the goods being sold. We get to use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, etc. for free because advertisers—both worldly and religious, as it turns out—write the checks.
Let’s take a look at “the man behind the curtain,” shall we?
In 2018, before I deleted my Facebook account, I downloaded a full archive of all my activity on the site. Within the archive was a folder entitled “ads” that contained three files. One file was a list of ads interests, which Facebook described as “Your interests based on your Facebook activity and other actions that help us show you relevant ads.” Another file was a list of advertisers who run ads using a contact list that includes my information. Facebook specified that it was contact info I had shared either with the advertisers directly or “with one of their data partners.” The third file was a list of advertisers whose ads I had interacted with on Facebook.
The ads interest file consisted of eight pages of key words that reflected my activity and apparent interests. The key words included names of pages I followed, standalone words (e.g., empathy, faith, God, culture, emotion, evangelicalism, music, consciousness, psychiatry), names of celebrities and famous athletes (I had either mentioned them in a post or reacted to or commented on another person’s post about them), names of journals and books I had read (and voluntarily posted about), names of politicians and pundits, and on and on. It was essentially a a psychographic profile, or artificial intelligence (AI) dossier. It was eerie in the way you might feel creeped out when you find out someone has been keeping notes on you, but it wasn’t super sophisticated yet. At some point, though, with all the machine learning that’s taking place every second of the day in the form of trillions of simulations, the AI will get good enough to generate a highly accurate, highly specific one-page psychographic.
The list of advertisers (<—go ahead, click on the link to see it) who ran ads using a list that contained my contact info was twenty pages long. There were 930 unique advertisers on that list. There’s a little bit of everything: car dealerships, insurance companies, political action committees, grocery store chains, clothing stores, politicians, credit card companies, entertainment industry entities, telecom companies, streaming services, all kinds of retailers, every permutation of Candy Crush, charitable organizations, publications, and grassroots organizers. But do you know who else was on there? Ministry organizations like Compassion International, ERLC (The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission), IF:Gathering, Preemptive Love Coalition, The Lupton Center, The Navigators, and World Vision.
On Twitter, advertising shows up in the form of product ads, promoted tweets, promoted/suggested accounts, or promoted trends. For the people who pay for them, promoted tweets cost between $0.50 to $2 for each action (a favorite or retweet), promoted accounts cost $2 to $4 for each follow, and promoted trends cost $200,000 per day. The more actions people take, the more money Twitter makes. So it’s in the company’s interest to target the ads and promotions as strategically as possible, which means collecting and then using the same kinds of data on its users that Facebook does. If you’re on Twitter, you can find this list by going to Settings—>Privacy and Safety—>Ads preferences—>Interests.
All this has a fancy name, of course: surveillance capitalism, a term coined by Shoshana Zuboff in 2014. I’m not sure what term we would use for its Christian counterpart. Surveillance fundraising? Surveillance ministry recruitment? With such dubious, predatory ethics involved in these organs of our discourse, how should Christians respond? Are Christian institutions so caught up in the same existential requirement of constant escalation that worldly institutions are that they’re in no position to mount an effective public witness against its dehumanizing effects (they can only participate)?
I think a public faith-based, Imago-Dei-affirming witness is necessary in this technological milieu. The manipulation is only continuing to trend in an increasingly depredatory direction. Here’s technology ethicist Tristan Harris describing TikTok’s use of persuasive technology:
When TikTok was trying to figure out how to get users away from Instagram, they inflated the amount of social feedback that we get. When I post a video or a photo, maybe I get ten likes and one or two comments on Instagram. What if for the same video I get a thousand likes and twenty comments on TikTok? Which of those two products is going to be more persuasive at keeping me coming back? One of the ways they do this is they don't actually label what a like or a view is. They just put a big heart and then have a big number next to it. And so these companies are in a race to the bottom to manufacture the kind of social approval that developmentally kids are seeking. And then if you tell kids that, it doesn't really matter because they like how it feels.
The other aspect of how this attention economy evolves is to find cheaper and cheaper ways for us to create the content. We are the unpaid laborers who will generate content for free because we will post about our cats and our dogs and our beach photos to get social feedback rewards, and we will generate the attention that will make money for the advertisers. One of the diabolical things about TikTok is that they actually invite each of us to create content for advertisers. When you open up TikTok and you go to the Discover tab, you're going to see a list of hashtags for things like [the Whataburger] Patty Challenge or Doritos Dance. And each hashtag shows in the right hand side the number of views. Twenty one billion, six hundred million, one point six billion. It doesn't say whether those are views or likes or real people. They obviously can't be real people because the numbers are too big. But they give you the sense that there's a large audience awaiting you, if only you were to post a video… Now we are the useful idiots who are generating advertisements for Doritos.
The extreme challenge for us is that much good can still be wrung from exploitative systems at a micro level, even as they’re causing great harm at a macro level. I think it’s human to cling to the good and to want to justify staying in an exploitative system out of fear of losing all that’s good within it. But if I had relied on that logic alone, I would never have left my so-called “socially conscious” but spiritually abusive church nearly seven years ago.
When I Don’t Know What to Pray
On Tuesday morning, when I woke up to news of yet another mass shooting, this time in Boulder, Colorado, I wept. And wept and wept and wept. It’s true that tears themselves are a form of prayer, but I reached for words too. Unable to find my own, I opened up Every Moment Holyto page 251 and read “A Liturgy for The Sound of Sirens.” I hope these words will be of help to you too as you walk and pray through this violence-filled world.
The wail of sirens is the anthem
of our brokenness, reminding us that fear
and tragedy, pain and crime yet plague a
creation groaning for its redemption.
Therefore attend to those now in crisis, O Lord,
remaining ever merciful and mindful of their
frailties. May their first cry be to you, and may
such crises be met by your presence and your
peace. Grant good judgment to those who
minister aid and protection,
and comfort all who endure trauma or loss.
Use even these parts of our stories
which are accompanied by sirens, O Lord,
to press us closer to your heart.
I came across this quote, derived from Illich’s talk “The Eloquence of Silence” and published in Celebration of Awareness (1971), in L.M. Sacasas’ most recent newsletter entitled “Impossible Silences,” which can be accessed at https://theconvivialsociety.substack.com/p/impossible-silences.
Rosa H (author). Wagner J (translator). (2020). The Uncontrollability of the World. Polity Press: Medford, MA as cited in Sacasas L. (2021, March 10). “The Paradox of Control.” The Convivial Society, Vol. 2, No. 4. https://theconvivialsociety.substack.com/p/the-paradox-of-control
See also: Somers J. (2017, March 12). “How the Like Button Ruined the Internet.” The Atlantic. Accessed on 3/27/21 at https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/03/how-the-like-button-ruined-the-internet/519795/
Harris T. Raskin A. (2020, October 27). Are the Kids Alright? [Audio podcast episode]. In Your Undivided Attention. https://your-undivided-attention.simplecast.com/episodes/are-the-kids-alright-6C210l2A
McKelvey D. (2017). Every Moment Holy, Volume 1. Rabbit Room Press: Nashville, TN.