Since the dawn of what some scholars have called the modern Internet in the 1990s, the lives of millions have been inundated with “new media”.
Technopedia defines new media as “a catch-all term used for various kinds of electronic communications that are conceivable due to innovation in computer technology”. It helpfully adds:
In contrast to “old” media, which includes newspapers, magazines, books, television and other such non-interactive media, new media is comprised of [sic] websites, online video/ audio streams, email, online social platforms, online communities, online forums, blogs, Internet telephony, Web advertisements, online education and much more.1
The ubiquitous nature of digital media has not only created in modern society a subtle and almost slavish dependence. It has also augmented the way we relate to one another and the way we work and play. Most importantly, it has changed how we understand ourselves and our world.
We must disabuse ourselves from thinking that technology is a neutral tool that we use and control. As Robert Woods and Paul Patton have rightly pointed out, “Computers indeed consist of soulless microchips and motherboards, but the values they nurture still affect human life and consciousness in positive and negative ways.”2
One consequence of “new media” is information overload. Delfina Forstmann describes this phenomenon as “a in which you receive too much information at one time and cannot think about it in a clear way”.3 This in turn has generated public confusion and even news fatigue.
There is, however, an even darker side to this endless barrage of information.
The new media have become the ideal tool for nefarious actors—at state and private levels—to fabricate and spread fake news, disinformation and propaganda.
We witnessed the proliferation of disinformation during the 2020 US presidential election, in the confusion surrounding Covid-19 vaccines, and, more recently, in the war in Ukraine.
The purveyors of fake news take advantage of the primordial human appetite for knowledge. Centuries ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC) took note of this pervasive human desire when he wrote: “All men by nature desire to know.”4
The English-born American theologian, Paul Griffiths, explains that at the very basic level, appetite is merely the desire to make something that is absent present.5 Human beings have appetites for material things (food, drink, clothing, etc.) as well as non-material goods such as truth, love, goodness and knowledge.
The Christian faith teaches that appetites are never indiscriminately good. This applies to intellectual appetites as well, because, as the story of our first parents in the Garden of Eden clearly shows, they can be just as sinful.
Christian moral theology makes a distinction between two kinds of intellectual appetites: curiositas, which is its sinful form, and studiositas, which is a godly approach to the quest for knowledge.
Space does not allow me to discuss the many differences between these two kinds of intellectual appetite. I would like to highlight briefly just one important distinction between them that is pertinent to users of the new media.
“Curiosity,” Griffiths explains, “is concerned with novelty: curious people want to know what they don’t yet know, ideally what no one yet knows.”6 Thus, they tend to pursue whatever “news” no one yet possesses in order to satisfy their inordinate desire to always be the first to know. Griffith adds that the “curious need not only to know, but to be known as knowers”.7
Studiositas, by contrast, has a very different orientation to knowledge. “Studious people,” Griffiths points out, “seek knowledge with the awareness that novelty is not what counts…” They are not concerned with the fleeting and the sensational, but solely with the truth.
All this means that Christians inhabiting the complex and confusing world of the new media must always exercise technological prudence.
This has to do not only with the judicious selection of the technologies we use and how we use them. It also has to do with being acutely aware of the lure of curiositas, and with making a conscious effort to nurture the right habits and to discipline the appetite for the right kind of knowledge.
1 Technopedia, “What Does New Media Mean?”, https://www.techopedia.com/definition/416/newmedia.
2 Robert H. Woods and Paul D. Patton, “Faithful Criticism of Popular Media Technologies”, Virtual Lives, edited by Robert B. Kruschwitz (Waco, Tx: Baylor University, 2011), 30.
3 Delfina Forstmann, “Information Overload in Our Digital Age”, The Medium, Feb 27, 2019. https://medium.com/@goboldfish/information-overload-inour-digital-age-90cbe93bb530.
4 Aristotle, Metaphysics, translated by W.D. Ross, in The Complete Works of Aristotle, edited by Jonathan Barnes (Princeton, HJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), 980a20.
5 Paul Griffiths, Intellectual Appetite: A Theological Grammar (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2009), 94.
6 Ibid., 22.
7 Ibid., 218.