The internet has gone a bit bonkers recently, with lots of things previously thought ‘safe’ now not really seeming to be very safe at all. And a lot of it seems to be to do with seeing pictures of people they never wanted us to see.
I’ve been an advocate of the internet for a while, encouraging Christians in particular to use it for good. It’s also the major thrust of my role as a pastor at present. But should this ever-increasing dark side of the internet call that into question? I’ve certainly heard a few people suggest these things show we—especially as Christians—should avoid the internet altogether.
A number of female celebrities have had explicit pictures they took of themselves on mobile devices hacked and posted online. (While I question the wisdom of taking those sorts of pictures of yourself, I do not sympathise with people who say ‘it’s their fault for taking them’. If you disagree with me on that, feel free to comment below and we can chat about it!)
More recently—and perhaps more disturbingly—a little under 100,000 images originally taken on Snapchat have now been leaked onto the web. Some of these are explicit in nature, but by no means all of them. You can read a little more here.
My personal views on Snapchat have always been pretty clear, and I’ve never used it. To my mind, an app designed around the premise of sending a picture you do not want people to be able to store for very long is just a very bad idea. It encourages people to take and send images that aren’t a good idea because it promises the safety of a limited shelf-life. It has been the root of countless ‘sexting’ problems in schools, and actively feeds into the desire to do things in hidden and secretive ways. Of course people use it for harmless fun, but the premise on which it’s built is—in my view—not harmless at all.
The real problem
But I believe these recent events are just symptoms. So what’s the real problem, the real cause? On one level, it would be easy to say the root of all this is the internet itself. If it didn’t exist, hacking scandals like these would never have happened. Right?
I don’t think so.
Do you remember a year or so back when that picture of Kate Middleton sunbathing topless in a very secluded and private place in France was big news? That picture was taken using a camera with a massive lens and then printed in a magazine. No hacking required at all. Just a desire to take that picture by some people and a desire to see that picture by more people.
My point is simply that the real problem isn’t the internet, but broken, sinful people who find ways to use it to do all the things that broken, sinful people want to do anyway.
We don’t blame the printing press because it was used to spread Nazi propaganda. We don’t blame photography for pornography. We don’t blame farming for obesity.
The tools and technologies humans create reflect their human creators. The good and the bad. I believe the internet is a mirror, a reflection, of ourselves. At its best, it shows us our capacity for relationship, dialogue, pursuit of good causes, creativity, passion—at its best it reveals those parts of us which are the image of God. At its worst, it shows our self-centredness, gossip, lust, shallow ways of thinking, apathy—at its worst it reveals those parts of us which are fallen and sinful.
What to do?
So, is the internet just awful now? No, I don’t think so. We are sometimes, but not the internet itself. In my view it’s neutral.
That isn’t to say every part of it is neutral. I don’t believe pornography websites are neutral. I don’t believe secret forums which are used to plot and plan acts of violence are neutral. I don’t believe certain apps are neutral (as I said above). Some things, in their DNA, in the purpose they set out to achieve or the principles by which they work, feed into our darker side. And I think they should be treated with extreme caution. They might not be as safe or benign as they are branded to be.
But while exercising caution, we mustn’t forget to celebrate the good parts of our online world. There are fantastic things going on, and great blessings in this world because of what people are doing online. We should embrace these good bits, seek to be part of them, let them be part of us.
The internet, like us, has dark and light. And we should—as with ourselves—let the light shine brightly into the dark.