Ethics

By Kara Slade

I remember well my early days on the internet. I was an undergraduate in engineering from 1990 to 1994, just at the time when students in general had access to it. Much of the interface was text-based, and I recall my wonder as I scrolled through the catalog of Cambridge University Library on a black-and-white terminal window.

No matter that there was very little to do with the information. I could see amazing things across the ocean. I remember too the first browser, NCSA Mosaic, and the first web pages I saw. The very first one I found, if I recall correctly, was some guy’s rock collection in Switzerland. It all seemed so new and so thrilling. It all seemed so safe. It was a walled garden full of everyday wonders and quotidian pleasures. It promised limitless collaboration and free sharing of information. It promised a utopia.

Like all utopias, its reality was different. Thirty years later, I watched with horror as a mob, many of them adherents of a conspiracy theory spread on the internet, stormed the U.S. Capitol. We were promised a garden of limitless community, but instead we got propaganda and PornHub, QAnon, and mob rule on Twitter. Christians, above all, should be unsurprised by this development. Eden, after all, never lasts.

As we endure these new self-inflicted wounds, one temptation is to take recourse in nostalgia. There are always golden ages that present themselves to our memories, polished so that their disasters and evils are burnished away. Whether we look to pre-Reformation catholicity or the Episcopal Church of the 1950s, golden ages are never as golden as they appear. We cannot go back. At the same time, however, we cannot pitch ourselves headlong into a fantasy of the future. While the promise of progress is attended by the allure of leaving the sins and regrets of our past behind, we find that it never quite works that way. It is true for individuals, and it is true for societies as well.

In his Church Dogmatics, Karl Barth reminds us that while the retreat into history is an idolatry of memory, faith in progress is a flight into oblivion. Here, he writes, “we start from the opposite end,” as “we flee from the cathedrals, prisons, inns and catacombs where we were yesterday, into the light of to-day with its promise of even greater light to-morrow.” When we cannot understand how we arrived at our present, “a whole generation finds it impossible to make sense of the past, it glories all the more readily in the ‘spirit of the age,’ that is, of its own age, and succumbs to the belief in progress.”

If we cannot go back to a pristine pre-internet past, and we cannot hope that progress will solve the problems of an online society, then we are left to grapple with the realities of the technology we have created. We cannot undo it, just as we cannot hope that the future will improve the ways it amplifies human moral failings. Instead, we are left to think about how to live with it, and in particular to think Christianly about it.

I am finishing this essay on Shrove Tuesday, which we celebrated as Mardi Gras on the Gulf Coast where I was raised. Wherever I have lived after leaving home, I have felt tremendous affection for this particular form of pre-Lent blowout, with its parades, masks, Moon Pies, and slightly threatening undercurrent. Here, one vaguely suspects, anything might happen amid the masks and costumes. This is the reign of misrule.

What if we think of the internet, and social media in particular, as a secular version of Mardi Gras or Carnival, in which some features become permanent and others are undone? I propose, following Charles Taylor in part, that these technologies make permanent the masks of Carnival that remove consequences from society, just as they follow the secularization of Carnival into a humorless spectacle of moralizing that amplifies other consequences to an extreme. The masks are obvious, of course, when they make anonymous harassment, threats, and the speaking of unspeakable hatred and conspiracies an everyday occurrence. They are also obvious in the case of pornography, in which technology that allows users to hide has made its use almost ubiquitous — and has made it accessible to an ever-younger audience. When everything goes, all the time, the rails that safeguard our life together are wrenched away.

The problem of anonymity is easy to identify and to decry in many cases, even as we may also admit that there are times and particular communities where support can only be found within that anonymity. No one would want the members of online support groups, especially in a time when most support groups are online, to be forced to use their full name. At the same time, it is clear that the public side of the internet suffers from the lack of intervention and content moderation when it is put to nefarious use. It is also clear that as long as social media remain wholly under the control of corporations, which treat humans as mere products to be marketed, the problem of trolls, threats, and bots will be a Gordian knot.

What of the other side of the coin, that easily identifiable users of social media target other users for particular actions or statements? I am hesitant to associate myself with conservative complaints about cancel culture, but they point to a very real phenomenon. In A Secular Age, Taylor argues that without traditional rites like Carnival that function as a yearly, time-limited practice of “the world upside down,” societies lose both a “safety valve” and “a recognition of the depth and many-sidedness of human life.”

Now, he writes, “the world upside down is the one we daily live in, in which sin has upset all order.” A “humorless … denial of ambiguity and complexity” gives rise to a spirit of “unmixed condemnation” in which sin is identified and policed in an anxiety to separate the sinners from the virtuous.

As Christians, we know that there is no separation of the sinners from the sinless. The beauty and the ambiguity of the human condition in Christ is that we are both justified and sinful, completely both. There is no standpoint from which to judge without beginning from the knowledge that we all stand before the cross equally judged, equally with “no power in ourselves to help ourselves,” equally needing protection against “all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul.” Human beings are judged as sinful; human beings have received the free gift of grace. I wish I could solve the problems of the internet in this essay, but I cannot. I can only suggest that this knowledge of ourselves, in all our complexity and ambiguity, must be our starting place.

The Rev. Canon Dr. Kara N. Slade is associate rector of Trinity Church, associate chaplain of the Episcopal Church at Princeton, and canon theologian of the Diocese of New Jersey.