The Internet Is Pornographically-Shaped
The power to call into existence every fantasy is inherent in our machines.
In his book You Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhuman World, Alan Noble makes the point that internet pornography gives the user an astonishing amount of felt power and significance. Because almost any scenario or flavor or subject of porn is attainable online, the addicted user becomes accustomed to the idea that whatever he can imagine should exist for him:
Today you can find a pornographic depiction of virtually any fantasy. If you can dream it, you can find it. And you can probably find it for free within three minutes. When you inevitably get bored of that fantasy, just dispose of it and find something new—indefinitely. Humans have always been able to imagine all kinds of sexual scenarios, but we haven’t been able to make them exist, unless you happened to be a tremendously powerful despotic ruler. We all have the power of Caligula now.
Alan goes on to observe that recent digital innovations like deepfakes have unlocked an unfathomable potential for bringing wild fantasies to (apparent) life. Virtual reality environments simulate immersive sexual experiences even more realistically. At this point in the history of pornography, just about anything anyone demands to see, feel or participate in can be accommodated. Alan concludes, “We have a godlike freedom to pursue any fantasy we wish.”
This is, I think, a key to understanding something very important. A lot of evangelical writing and counsel about pornography centers on the idea of isolating pornographic content from its digital habitat and attacking it individually. Internet filters can raise alarms and block access to problematic pages. Accountability software and partners can flag bad-looking activity and ask about it. The idea is that if we can take the average Christian who spends nearly five hours every day on his phone and train his conscience and retool his devices to only spend those five hours on “pure” content, we will have defeated the enemy.
Alan’s observation above, however, points much deeper, because the godlike freedom to pursue any far-flung craving is not a pornographic bug in our Internet diet; that freedom is itself what it means to be very online. The sense of an absolute kind of power to immediately satisfy any curiosity, any itch, any impulse is intrinsic not to pornography but to the Web. If at the bottom of all pornography use is a fallen desire to be put at the center of our world, to feel favored and loved without any of the sacrifice or coming out of ourselves that such love demands, then the Internet is a machine that exists in a very real sense for the sole purpose of facilitating this fantasy. The Internet does not merely contain pornography. It is a pornographically-shaped entity.
This is one reason why things like The Wall Street Journal’s investigation into TikTok matter. The Journal’s reporters discovered that TikTok’s algorithm was programmed to capture even momentary pauses of scrolling. If a user is scrolling through a selection of videos, even slowing the scroll on one particular video triggers the algorithm to deliver more of that video’s content. As a result, users are pushed further toward their fringe interests and curiosities by TikTok’s technology. Perhaps you see a video with a gross or ridiculous title; you slow down your scroll out of a kind of morbid, deeply human “don’t think about elephants” instinct. Perhaps the mere description of the video turns you off and you navigate away. But the TikTok algorithm has now learned that you are likely to engage with such content. As a result, whatever was gross, ridiculous, or perhaps immoral about that video is going to become more and more of your regular recommended feed. And that instinct that led you to slow down is almost certainly going to give way at some point.
Limitless ability to summon whatever you feel like seeing at a given moment is an anthropological crisis. We’re simply not created to have that kind of power. Our minds wonder as they wander. The old proverb that “you can’t stop the birds flying over your head, but you can stop them from building a nest there” is true and helpful precisely because there is a distinction between a stray desire and its immediate fulfillment. In the liturgy of the Internet, however, such a distinction is a problem for technology to solve. The gap between our instincts and our power is a gap that digital technology wants to close. It’s evident in our pornography, but it’s also evident in our politics, in our entertainment, and in our online self-disclosure.
If this point were realized en masse within the church, the fight against pornography would look much different. It would look less a reactive containment effort and more like a reformation of how Christians relate to the online space. It would direct the purpose of accountability toward a broader question of how much stuff we are consuming, not just what kind of stuff. And it would likely result in a more uncomfortable but more lasting revolution in our communities. We would rethink the purpose of our machines, the shape of our modern discipleship, and the way we conceive of the future.