All mortals tend to turn into
the thing they are pretending to be.
I took this thought from C. S. Lewis' book, The Screwtape Letters, a delightful little collection of fictitious letters between Wormwood and Screwtape, who were harassing a poor human in order to keep him in constant state of confusion and rejection of the Gospel.
Now, I'll return to this thought later, but first I need to tell you who I am, and why I'm here.
Many of you may have come to this presentation hoping to "learn how to create a 20-plus page Web site and maintain it in less than one hour per week."
Perhaps you're hoping that "If you can cut and paste, point and click, you can have an effective Web site."
I hate to disappoint an audience, but I must tell you that the efficiency of technology took a step back with this one! This wasn't the blurb I sent in to the convention coordinators, but it's the one you read in the brochure for this session.
What I'm here to talk about is integrity and how it relates to the Internet.
I've been the full-time webmaster and Internet analyst for the Assemblies of God now for almost four years. Before that I served as the founding president of a local Internet users group in Springfield, Missouri, and taught Internet classes at a local cybercafe for about a year. I've only been online since 1993 or so, but my involvement during that time has been extremely intense and I've logged countless thousands of hours surfing the web, preparing web pages, reading and answering e-mail, and learning the technology and culture of the 'Net.
Now, enough about me. I'm going to try to keep this briefbecause I want you to remember what we've discussedand after about 20 minutes or so I'll stop for discussion. If anything I describe is unclear to you, please make a note of it so we can clear things up during Q&A.
C. S. Lewis' idea that "All mortals tend to turn into the thing they are pretending to be" acknowledges that character begins in the heart and mind. In the same way, goodness and sin begin in the mind.
A principle I once discovered and taped on my workspace cubicle read "You will never do what you never imagine doing." The opposite of that is also true: "Imagination always precedes action."
Today I am telling you that the Internet can be a tool used by Satan to entice you, your family members, and the good people of your church to pretend to be people they shouldn't be, to inflame their imaginations, to corrupt their thinking, and lead them to sin.
I am not a Luddite, I don't advocate the abandonment of technology. In fact I make my living using the Internet and learning more about it every day. I use and enjoy technology, but I want to help you understand that technology can have an effect on our lives that we may not always anticipate. Those effects can be good, and they can be bad. The fact that I'm going to warn you about some negative consequences, doesn't mean I think you should abandon the Internet. What it means is that you should use the tool with care, just like you would any powerful tool that can have a profound impact if used thoughtlessly.
Many of read the news stories about Internet porn, and FBI crackdowns in child pornography traded on America Online. Some of you may have decided to avoid the Internet entirely, and to never allow it into your home because of these very real and powerful dangers. Some of you may even feel like you've been taken by surpriseit seems like that the Internet has gone overnight from being like Mayberry RFD to a place where your children's safety is at stake whenever you're not around. And some of you may be wondering if it'll ever be possible to safely use the Internet for good purposes.
The Internet has been around since 1969 and during all that time the tools people use online and the culture surrounding the Internet has grown more and more complex.
The recent surge in Internet popularity is due to the marriage of the plain old text-based Internet with the attractive graphical interface of a web browser surfing the World Wide Web. This marriage of technologies has made the Web wildly popular and first-time vitors can be shocked by the vast and strange world out there when they first go online. What many don't realize is that every Internet tool in use today has a long history behind it, and a large number of people have already experimented with all the variations on how to use and abuse the tools.
For instance, chat rooms seem quite innocent at first, until your wife or daughter enters a chat room and is bombarded with and endless deluge of requests for private chat, cybersex, or phone sex.
The problem escalates when you start receiving e-mail every day bringing hoaxes, chain-letter schemes, get-rich-quick plans, and lurid pornography to your inbox.
And even if you avoid chat rooms, and religiously delete e-mail from anybody you don't recognize without reading it, when you go online you still have to be very careful about where you step.
In doing research for this presentation I constantly had to avert my eyes at AltaVista's popular search engine because my search requests were triggering sexually explicit advertisements to appear on the results. One of our users in our Internet Training Class where I work was trying to follow instructions on how to access a popular search engine called "HotBot." An embarrassed silence filled then room when her misspelled attempt brought up a pornographic web page called "Hot Bod."
But despite all this, the majority of these bad experiences can be avoided. We need to keep our eyes open, step carefully around the potholes and learn how to cope with problems as they come.
So, if there are strategies to avoid the seamier parts of the Web, how does the Internet challenge our Integrity? If somebody gets caught up in sin on the Internet wouldn't they have done that anywayregardless of whether they had access to a modem or not?
That dependsand that's why I want to talk to you about Integrity.
We often hear a lot of people talk about Integrity, but we rarely hear anyone tell us what it is. So, I owe a lot to Stephen L. Carter for clarifying the matter for us and for providing a helpful definition. Stephen Carter is a Christian and a Professor of Law at Yale University. In his book, Integrity, Carter says integrity must have three components to be intact:
First of all, integrity requires that you discern what is right and what is wrong. This absolutely requires that we sit down and think about thingsis this a good thing to do? Is this a bad thing? This is also called "moral reflectiveness."
Second, integrity requires personal commitment to act on what you have learned through reflection, even at personal cost.
Third, integrity public ownership of that commitment. After all, integrity is not a private thingand one cannot be ashamed of doing the right.
These three elements are critical to my understanding of integrity, but there's an old cliché about character that still rings true to me, and I think it applies here:
"Character is what you do when think nobody's looking."
The truth, of course, is that somebody (God) is always lookingand sometimes there's a whole crowd watching us and we don't know it.
HOW THE INTERNET CORRUPTS
There are three principle ways the Internet culture erodes at these three pillars of Integrity: Superficiality, Inconsequentiality, and Anonymity. I will deal with them in that order.
How many of you have ever felt overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information available online? This is called information overload. In the face of daily information overload from the TV, the radio, the newspaper, magazines, and now e-mail and the web, it's no wonder that we are burning out on data.
Rather than reducing the flow of information, or delegating it to someone else to handle, there are a few basic ways people tend to deal with this: The surfer will skim what he finds trying to catch as many highlights as possible; The packrat will ignore what he finds and tucks it away for future reference (like many people do with Bookmarks or Favorite Places in their web browsers), and the
dilettante will dabble in little bits here or there and flit about, never really completely absorbing anything. The dilettante will open up their web browser to find out something about tree frogs and will wind up researching everything but tree frogs before the night is over.
This overwhelming glut of information forces us to adopt an"information strategy" that makes us favor shallowness over depth. We become superficial in our approach to reading and learning. One tragic consequence of this is that, as "People of the Book" we may approach the Bible in the same way, preferring a hyper-text version that we can skim through and perform searches on, but never really stop to mediate one.
Relationships and conversations can tend to be shallow online as well. When I join a "listserv" of a hundred or more people I can instantly broaden my social horizon by about 10 times what it normally is. Within days I can be on a first name basis with two or three people on this list group, and every e-mail I send to the groups can be skimmed by a captive audience and immediately responded to by a reply e-mail, or ignored. Of course, even though I can force one hundred listserv participants to read my thoughts, it doesn't mean any of them care about either me or my thoughts. For the most part, the members of the listservs I am on do not know me, and will not sacrifice anything for me, much less their lives.
If love and sacrifice show the true depth of relationships then true loving and deep relationships are rarely found in the superficiality of the online world.
When easily made relationships become shallow from their beginning to end, we must be careful to reflect on how we treat those people even though we may sense the superficiality. As C. S. Lewis wrote again:
"It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all law, all politics."
It's easy to forget that, online.
The Internet is also a culture of inconsequentiality. Someone once quipped that on the Internet "There's no there there." It's easy for some to dismiss cyberspace as harmless because, after all, it's not real.
But while there's no geography or real estate in cyberspace, let me assure you, it is real. When personal e-mail vendettas flood you inbox with hate-filled e-mails called "flames," when downloaded games with viruses crash your hard-drive, when freshmen in college fail their courses because of 80-100 hour weeks spent in online role playing games, when marriages break up due to love affairs carried out online, when gambling addicts lose their shirt to online casinos, when adult men and women experiment with "Gender Bending" or virtual cross-dressing, when teenage boys get hooked on cyber pornography and when children are lured out of their protective homes into the clutches of a pedophile, let me repeatit is real.
This particular danger of the Internet is to dismiss it because there is "Real Life" and there is "Virtual Life" and we may think that never the twain shall meet. We tend to think that actions taken online have little or no consequence, and that if there are consequences, they will never intrude on the real world.
But I've already personally met, in Springfield, Missouri, two families broken up by online pornography and affairs. Every week men and women call our minister's hotline broken over sexual addictions the stumbled into while exploring the exotic corners of the net.
This diminishing of consequences has been happening for years thanks to the ever increasing realism of violence and immorality in entertainment media such as television, movies, and interactive video games. Some cultural critics say this divorce of consequences from behavior is a factor in the high crime rates in our cities today
We must remember that all our communications have consequences, just as all our actions do.
ANONYMITY and PSEUDONYMITY
The third dangerous element of Internet culture is Anonymity. The Internet culture actually encourages anonymity for the sake of privacy and in some situations, I do too. But there's an extremely dangerous side of anonymity that is made worse by superficiality and inconsequentiality.
For many people their integrity is bolstered by the community around them and the people who know them. In fact, Promise Keepers studies have shown that the point of greatest sexual and pornographic temptation for most men comes when they are on business trips, traveling alone. Why? It's because they're out of their normal environment of recognitionand nobody knows them.
When I can hide behind an anonymous or pseudonymous façade, then I can dabble in whatever behavior I want because consequences don't exist when nobody knows me. That means I can "flame" people if they irritate mesomething I would never do face-to-face, or I can pretend to be from a different background, I can even pretend to be a different gender. If I participate in cybersex as a pseudonymous character, then I can so and do whatever I want, because nobody will know it's really me!
But that's a myth. Oh, it's true as far as it goes...the people you're interacting with won't know who you are unless you reveal it to them, but the truth is, we're never totally anonymous online. Not only does God watch, and not only will our words be measured in the end, our electronic identities leave trails wherever we go. The men and women who run the ISP or Online Service we use to access the 'Net can monitor what we are doingand sometimes they do it for purely voyeuristic reasons.
But this kind of anonymity not only degrades your character and integrity because you can avoid consequences and are tempted to sin, but it denies the God-given character and qualities he created you with. There is no doubt that role playing games can be therapeutic in certain clinical settings, but total immersion for dozens or even hundreds of hours on end fractures one's identity. We can forget who we are, and the online world can seem more "real" than the real world.
Author Mark Slouka tells of a friend, whom he calls Avram, who "fell in love" online.... Avram, a graduate student in political science, a husband and a father, was infatuated with a MOO where he assumed the identity of "Allison." Avram allowed Slouka to join his MOO and interact for a few moments with "Janine," a long-term friend of Allison's Janine related that she had met the "love of her life" online, who she contacted every day. Slouka asked if it was difficult to move from VR to RL. The answer: "We've never met in RL.... I don't expect we ever will. It would be too "hard." At this Avram became distraught and took back the keyboard from Slouka. Later Avram confessed to Slouka that he (As Allison) had been having an online affair with Janine. They had met in VR five times a week for two years. Avram, then, was a man pretending to be a woman who was in love with a woman who thought Avram was a woman. For Janine the affair was lesbian; but not for Avram. They had even "had sex" in VR"sex" without contiguity, without physicality, without honesty, without matrimony, and without fixed identity.... Avram would not drop his online identity as Allison and he would not forsake Janine. What about Avram's real-life wife? She knew nothing of it; although Avram would, according to Slouka, periodically "space out for five or ten minutes at a time... because he wasn't here, in his actual living room, say, but rather with Janine, in cyberspace."
"This strange yarn about Allison and Janine illustrates and reinforces a postmodernist theme. Taking on various identities in varying circumstances is sanctioned by this new movement, for it exemplifies the death of belief in the unitary self, the hard ego, the irreducible center of personal identity. Identity is not fixed, but fluid; not singular, but multiple; not prescribed, but protean; not defined, but diffused.... The accusation of being "double-minded" or "duplicitous"as when the Apostle James cautions us not to be double-minded and thus unstable in all our waysmay not longer be taken as an insult. Rather it is seen as part of being a walking, talking multitude of contradictions."
(Quoted from Groothuis' The Soul in Cyberspace)
Or take the story of Doug:
Doug is a midwestern college junior. He plays four characters distributed across three different MUDs. One is a seductive woman. One is a macho, cowboy type whose self-description stresses that he is a "Marlboros rolled in the T-shirt kind of guy." The third is a rabbit of unspecified gender who wanders its MUD introducing people to each other, a character he calls Carrot.... Doug's fourth character is one that he plays only on a MUD in which all the characters are furry animals. "I'd rather not even talk about that character because my anonymity there is very important to me," Doug says. "Let's just say that on FurryMUDs I feel like a sexual tourist." Doug talks about playing his characters in windows and says that using windows has made it possible for him to "turn pieces of my mind on and off."
I split my mind. I'm getting better at it. I can see myself as being two or three or more. And I just turn on one part of my mind and then another when I go from window to window. I'm in some kind of argument in one window and trying to come on to a girl in a MUD in another, and another window might be running a spreadsheet program or some other technical thing for school.... And then I'll get a real-time message [that flashes on the screen as soon as it is sent from another system user], and I guess that's RL. It's just one more window.
"RL is just one more window," he repeats, "and it's not usually my best one." (From Turkle)
Just in case it's not obvious how these elements of Internet culture can erode the three pillars of integrity we talked about earlier, let me summarize each of the three pillars:
Remember that integrity requires that we discern what is right and what is wrong? The Internet's culture of Shallowness can distract us from this imperative and lull us into thinking that we've gained knowledge or wisdom when we've only skimmed facts.
Also, integrity requires personal commitment to act on what we have learned through reflection. But in a virtual world, we can be easily deceived into thinking there are no consequences to online behavior.
Finally integrity requires public ownership of our commitment to do the right thing. Unfortunately, when it's so easy to hide behind the mask of anonymity and be anyone we can imagine being, then this most public aspect of integrity is destroyed.
What can we do then?
I challenge you to write these things down in your heart and think about them. Reflect on them and ask God to give you wisdom. After all, true wisdom will not be found in random bits and bytes flying through modem wires and flashing on cathode ray tubes. True wisdom comes from God and he gives it to those who ask.
Embrace the considered life. Think about how the tools around you influence and shape the way you do your work and the way you communicate. Think about how the easy conveniences have taught you to avoid some hard exercises, both physical and mental, that could make you a better person if you didn't avoid them. Resist the allure of anonymity and remind yourself constantly that you shall be judged for your careless words, and that every word that slips from your keyboard has the possibility of affecting a sinner for Christfor good or bad.
If you are struggling in any of these areasor if you want your family to avoid struggling: I urge you to consider doing the following:
- Put your computer with the Internet connection in a public, easily viewed place in your home or church. This reminds the computer user that there are consequences, that they are not anonymous.
- Share your passwords with your boss, wife, or husband and encourage them to explore your online accounts. Be proactively open and honest, build trust, and you will learn to tremble at the thought of violating that trust.
- Tell a close friend your struggles and ask them to check up on you occasionally, face-to-face (not via e-mail or over the phone) and ask how you're doing.
- Purchase and install one of the many site-blocking tools that will help you avoid the obvious "bad" places online. Give somebody else the password to the software. Alternatively, sign up for service on one of the growing number of server-filtered ISPs available.
- Log off the Internet and use a free e-mail service like Juno to remain connected through e-mail until you are strong enough to resist the more difficult online temptations.
- Disconnect the computer from the Internet entirely and only access the Internet in public places, or at friends' houses.
- Set up house rules for the whole family to follow when online, including (and especially) children. Warn them not to divulge any personal information, never to send strangers pictures of themselves, never to agree to meet anybody anywhere without your permission and to promise to talk to you about anything they encounter online that made them feel uncomfortable.
- Practice information hygiene. If you stumble across tempting material online, wash your mind out and establish accountability by telling your spouse or boss about it. Make a commitment to purposely avoid doing whatever it was that caused you to stumble into the tempting area in the first place. If the temptation grows too strong, simply walk away from the computer. Nothing is so important that you can't spare a few minutes to clear your mind.
- If you need prayer, call 1 (800) 4-Prayer. This is not a counseling line, but if you are struggling with temptations and thought-addictions, prayer is the best place to start.
GOOD USES OF THE INTERNET
The Internet can be an excellent place to communicate the gospel to people who are hurting and seeking, but we must take care to pay attention to the online culture when doing so. Make sure you understand each group's online "etiquette" before posting your messages, and be sure to communicate personal interest rather than an interest in adding another notch to your spiritual gun belt. Keep your online relationships rooted in reality.
The Internet is, of course, an extremely powerful tool for the self-directed student. The vast array of information "out there" is mind bogglingeven to professionals who work with it every day. However, do not make the mistake of thinking that easy access to data and information is the same as having acquired knowledge, understanding, or wisdom. Remember the superficiality of the Internet and take everything at "interface" value. Until you can confirm the validity of something from a trust source, be careful of your online research.
And as a tool to augment personal communications, nothing is better than the Internet. When I was in Boston for a week of technology training, it was very convenient and, indeed, heartwarming to keep a window up on my classroom computer that allowed my wife and I to chat any time we wanted to. We sent each other e-mail messages while we were apart, and by the time I had returned home we had communicated several times via the Internetand for almost no cost. On the other hand, phone bills prevent that kind of daily long-distance interaction and US Mail is too slow to enable that kind of daily interaction. The Internet had it beat hands-down. But then, there was no danger of the Internet causing our relationship to go shallow in a weeks' time, so the tool was used as an augmentation to communicationit never replaced real face-to-face talking and listening.
The Internet was originally designed as an aid for scientific collaboration and that spirit of collaboration continues today. There are many times I've shared documents with friends over the Internet, asking for critique and idea sharing. I'm working right now with a programmer outside of headquarters on a major web development project. I can test something on the website, and send my detailed observations to our programmer via e-mail. When he's ready he can open his mail and incorporate my suggestions into the designor not. And he can write back with ideas of his own. Again, collaborate becomes an extension of something naturally done face-to-face, and it need not become disconnected from reality.
The Internet is a tool, and like any powerful tool, there are dangers to using it poorly and benefits to using it wisely. There is no doubt that like the printing press, the Internet will change the way we seek out and store knowledge. And like the telephone, the Internet will change the way we communicate with each other. And like the television the Internet will change the way entertain ourselves and pass the time. It may even change the way we think about ourselves and our communities.
But whatever the case, let us not let ourselves be made in it's image, but rather, let us respond to the Apostle Paul's challenge to the Romans:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to Godthis is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will ishis good, pleasing and perfect will.... Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
And to the Philippians:
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirableif anything is excellent or praiseworthythink about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in meput it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
"All mortals tend to turn into the thing they are pretending to be."