Josh Hawley and the Need for Tech Stigma

Josh Hawley, the junior US Senator from Missouri, is waging a small war against Silicon Valley. Twice this summer Hawley has introduced legislation that targets social media corporations’ out-sized role in the lives of Americans. His latest bill is perhaps the most straightforward legal challenge to the biggest social media firms yet. The SMART Act would tightly regulate social media technology, forcing developers to make specific changes that dilute the addictive and omnipresent qualities of the apps.

In a May lecture that was published by First Things, Hawley lays out his case against Silicon Valley. He warns that Big Tech firms are pocketing obscene profits by maximizing addiction and carefully overseeing a monopoly on news and information. All the while, the American workforce is being populated by users diagnosed with elevated rates of depression, anxiety, and inability to focus.  Hawley concludes by reflecting that the culture being shaped by social media technology is an “economy that does not value the things that matter.”  Hawley: “That, I want to suggest to you, is something that we cannot afford. It is something that we cannot allow, and it is within our power to change it. And that is the great challenge and task of our time.”

David French, an evangelical columnist at National Review for whom I have great respect, dismisses Hawley’s legislative prescriptions as a misguided attempt to control consumer habits from Washington. French believes Hawley’s bills do address real problems, but establish a dangerous precedent for a “Republican Daddy State.” Writing in First Things, Jon Schweppe rebukes French and other conservative critics of Hawley’s proposals: “Historically, our politicians have determined that government should have a role when corporations exploit consumers by putting their physical or psychological health at risk,” he notes. “This is especially true when those consumers happen to be children.”

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It’s hard to resist evaluating Hawley’s proposed laws and the debate over them in light of the larger, intra-conservative kerfuffle (also starring First Things and French!) that’s emerged in the Trump years. On the surface this looks like yet another installment in the “What is the proper role of government in the formation of virtuous citizens” question, an issue that takes on radically different shape depending not just on your politics but on your ecclesiology. Because I think David French is right about justification by faith and the mission of the church, and I think the editors of First Things are mostly wrong about them, I tend to gravitate toward a Frenchian perspective on statism.

But Jon Schweppe is right about something crucial: The question is not whether government will regulate the behavior of the citizenry, the question is how. If a legal minimum age to drink alcohol is an acceptable manifestation of a “daddy state” (and to Schweppe’s point, I don’t think any conservative columnists are arguing otherwise), why not proportionate regulations on a consumer product (social media) arguably even more omnipresent and accessible to children than alcohol?

French is right that overreaching regulation, even to fix a serious cultural malaise, could and probably would have long-term consequences. On the other hand, we’re almost certainly already signed up for long-term consequences from the overabundance of digital technology. Worse, functional monopolies held by Apple and Google make it almost impossible for creative solutions to supplant existing business models. “Digital literacy” programs come with the moral and legal authority of government to the benefit of manufacturers, all the while sites like YouTube, extolled as educational tools, oversee an algorithm-based disaster that targets children with disturbing content.

Though I share French’s view of federal intervention, “Daddy State” is a an epithet that fails to reckon with how consumer habits are conditioned and even constrained by the complex relationship between Silicon Valley and the information age. The latter is an unchangeable revolution; there is no rewinding the clock on the internet, and nostalgia is not a synonym for virtue. The former, however, is nothing more than a corporate culture that should be viewed with no less skepticism than pornography industry. What Hawley understands is that our experience of the information age has become cripplingly dependent on a fistful of companies that use jargon and confused lawmakers to exploit loopholes.  Michael Brendan Doughtery (writing in National Review, no less!) was exactly right to say that Facebook is a media and publishing company, regardless of what its executives say or the exemptions and allowances they request.

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But there is something missing from Hawley’s agenda. The senator is eager to handcuff developers with laws about “infinite scroll” and time limits. This is interesting, but it plays into Big Tech’s hands. The problem with targeting granular technologies is that such technologies are always on the cusp of changing anyway. What does infinite scroll look like in, say, an augmented reality channel? Unless you’re well versed in the psychology and coding of this tech, you probably have no idea, and if there’s one thing Mark Zuckerberg proved, it’s that befuddling aging Congressmen with terminology almost any 13 year old would recognize isn’t that difficult.

What Hawley’s efforts lack is an element of stigma. Rather than trying to play the developer’s game, legal efforts to help our tech addiction should try to put a social stigma on always looking at your phone, or spending hours on YouTube, or anonymous message-based sites that foster radicalization. There should be a social shame to digital addiction that is comparable to the stigma around pornography, which is mediated through age-gate laws, laws that protect the depiction of minors, and other statutes, as well as practices in the private sector (such as cordoned off “adult” sections).  While of course most of us would say that social stigma around pornography is far too weak, since pornography is still too common and accessible, there is reason to think that promoting a stigma around tech sickness would be better and more effective than targeting the zeroes and ones of software.

In a brilliant essay almost twenty years ago, Roger Scruton pointed out that the contemporary West has introduced law and politics as a replacement stigma and custom. This is decidedly not how societies past operated:

In almost all matters that touched upon the core requirements of social order, they [generations past] believed that the genial pressure of manners, morals, and customs—enforced by the various forms of disapproval, stigma, shame, and reproach—was a more powerful guarantor of civilized and lawful behavior than the laws themselves. Inner sanctions, they argued, more dependably maintain society than such external ones as policemen and courts.

Stigma is not effective at eliminating a social ill. But that’s precisely the point. There are some social ills that cannot be radically destroyed, and efforts to do so may seriously damage the underlying social fabric. Scruton uses sexual morality as an example of a communal virtue that protects the vulnerable when it is enforced from within, but tends to turn abusive and corrupt when such enforcement is outsourced to the governing authorities. Of course, there is no hard and fast dichotomy between social stigma and the law, because the law teaches as well as restricts; thus, men who abandon their families must pay child support under the threat of the law.

Might the same principle work for responding to the crisis of digital addiction? Restricting social media to legal adults, for example, would not eliminate its addictive qualities or even fully prevent children from using the services, but requiring a credit card number or some other age-verification tool would create a “mature audiences only” stigma that highlights social media’s addictiveness and tendencies toward vice. Another stigma would be requiring that smartphones or internet-capable tablets not be sold to anyone under 16, and requiring parents purchasing such equipment for minors to sign informational disclaimers about addiction, psychological development, distracted driving, etc. Without restricting speech, such laws would introduce moderate hurdles to using such tech, making it especially difficult for children to have their own private digital lives.

We need a digital stigma. Rather than assuming that mobile, interactive technology is inherently valuable, we should assume that Silicon Valley’s products are comparable to cigarettes and alcohol: Not for children, not for habitual use, and certainly not for tax exemptions and public school programs. This of course doesn’t solve the problem of distraction sickness, nor does it even guarantee that parents would have the will to protect their kids. But it would strike a blow in the cause of cognitive and emotional flourishing, and puts Silicon Valley billionaires off the pedestal of philosopher kings and in the corner, where they belong.

Faithfulness With a Full Quiver

At 18-years-old, in the midst of goofing off with friends and playing a lot of Call of Duty, I discovered that I wanted to work in ministry. After support and confirmation from pastors, mentors, friends, and family, I decided that I needed to go to seminary. Five years later, my goal was the same, but my circumstances could not have been more different. I was married with a newborn, finishing my undergraduate degree online, working a full time labor job, and I was the youth director at my home church. Before we got married, my wife and I both knew seminary was on the horizon. But even though we were confident in this trajectory of our life, it was not easy. See, I inefficiently made my way through my online undergraduate program. I did fine, but it was time consuming and extremely taxing, and if I was going to put my young family through one of the more difficult seminary curriculum in the country, something had to give regarding productivity.

Thus, my search for productivity hacks began. It wasn’t long however until I ran into a significant but not surprising problem: Most of the “productivity lit” is  curated for the unmarried and childless audience. Some of the advice was just not going to cut it given my position. When I finally entered seminary and began this new stage of life, I happened to find a few work habits that helped my family and I survive what was the most difficult season of our life (thus far). To be sure, no one magic trick makes taking 16-18 units a semester, working part-time, and being a husband and dad to 2 babies easy (yes, we had another one during seminary). However, some methods and habits made it less strenuous.

Early Mornings or Late Nights?

Whether you are working on a side project, or pursuing higher education, an inevitable choice to make is whether you will do your work early in the morning or late at night. While the option is up to you, I believe early mornings are the preferred choice. Here are three reasons why:

  • You can look forward to ending the day with family. If you know you have a significant amount of work to get to after the kids get to bed, you will be distracted all through your dinner and the kid’s bedtime routine. This is unavoidable at times, sure, but you do not want to give your already distracted mind anymore excuses to be absentminded. An increased workload will inevitably effect your entire family, but you are the one who should bear the most inconvenient schedule, not your family. This was honestly the least I could do given the circumstances, but in all of life, if it comes down to your family spending and exhausting themselves for your efficiency, or you doign that for them, the choice is obvious. Plus, if the work you would typically do at night is out of the way before the day begins, then you can look forward to your time with your family as the capstone to your day.
  • You can start your work fresh, rather than tired. Albeit, you will be tired and groggy if you wake up at 4am, but this does not last long. The opposite is true if you stay up late, where you only grow more tired. The full range of experiences through a day is taxing, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally. Moreover, with kids and a spouse, their day’s experiences, good and bad, become things you bear as well. If you practice rejoicing with and weeping with your family, this is difficult to shut off only to focus on tedious or technical work.
  • You need Scripture and prayer. Perhaps you think early mornings will allow you the extra time to write a blog post a day, get ahead in school assignments, or get through a week’s worth of email, or whatever. That may be, but in this life, our workload is never-ending. Your work will not naturally mitigate itself; it will take over your life if you let it. As long as there is extra time in the morning for work, there is extra time (even if it’s a small amount) for focused and intentional time spent in prayer and hearing from God’s word. I have many regrets during my time in seminary, allowing my work to overrun this part of my life more often than I care to admit is at the very top.

For myself, early mornings amount to waking up at 4am. While in seminary, this gave me at least 2-3 hours of uninterrupted work every day. The main reason, however, that I maintained this routine through seminary was that I was not willing to sacrifice Saturdays for studying. When I did study on the weekend, it was minimal. My wife and I did not look at weekends as “free time,” but a time that we needed to especially strengthen ourselves and our little ones through rest and creativity. Part and parcel to weekends is time without mandatory obligations; for the most part, there is no work, no class, no meetings, etc. I suggest taking full advantage of days like these, not to get extra work done, but to cultivate memorable and meaningful times with your kids and spouse.

Think in time, not assignments or projects.

Suffice it to say; time is of the essence when you have a young family. If you think of all you have to do to merely get through the day, from breakfast to bath and bedtime, not to mention additional work or projects, it can all feel overwhelming. What works against parents with young kids is when our work and goals are ambiguous. For instance, if our to-do list looks like this: “write paper for class,” “lose weight,” “workout,” “build dining room table,” etc., chances are when we look at this, it will feel overwhelming.

A friend in seminary helped me find a solution to the problem of ambiguity. His advice was that you want to see every single thing you have to do in one place, namely, your calendar. What this looked like was, instead of carrying around six different syllabi, I merged them all into one master list. Now that I had a master list of everything I needed to do each week to complete the entire semester, I evaluated each assignment in terms of minutes/hours. When I saw a 120-page reading assignment, I translated that to 4 hours of reading, and then I scheduled those hours in my calendar. This is easier said than done because depending on the master list of your project; this can take a day’s work by itself. While we might think we do this in our heads naturally, I advise against that. When you put something on paper, you begin to see what it’s going to take to accomplish it. An equivalent to this would be a reminder on your calendar that, instead of saying, “go to the gym,” it should contain the entire regiment of your workout over the span of 13 weeks. If you know what you need to accomplish in a specific amount of time to achieve goal or project x, it alleviates a significant amount of the stress around each task in your schedule.

The opposite of this is seen in TV shows and movies, where a character is struck with inspiration over goal or project x, and they stay up all night working on it to finish at sunrise. That’s a convenient way to move the story forward, but it is nothing to be modeled. If we wait for a sudden burst of inspiration to climb our proverbial Mt. Everest, we will get nowhere. By all means, strike when the iron is hot, but do not depend on those creative bursts of energy to propel you through our work.

Keeping a detailed and broken down to-do list also gives you feedback on your performance. If you had an hour to read 25 pages and you only read 18, you can chalk it up to being distracted or less than diligent with your time.

I cannot stress how beneficial this is for your spouse, as well. Ambiguity in your schedule equates to ambiguity and frustration in the life of your marriage. Seminary was extremely hard on my wife and I, and the hardest days were those that my wife was not qued in on what I needed to accomplish that day. While my vocation changed as a student, my wife’s work changed as well. Her workload increased immensely, not only because we had another child in seminary but because I was not always home to do the tasks that were normally mine. For the most part I did spend my time well and worked diligently, but there was also a good many lunch hours spent pontificating with my friends and classmates. Communication regarding my tasks each day created a needed sense of stability for us and gave us a “light at the end of the tunnel” to look forward to.

Do not reinvent the wheel.

Much of the advice on productivity begins with, “just do it.” This advice focuses on people’s hesitancy to start whatever they want to do: write, workout, go to school, etc. However, as I learned in seminary, having a strong work ethic is pointless if you are working in the wrong direction. For my first Greek quiz, we had to do the simple task of writing out the alphabet by memory. I memorized the alphabet alright, but I shuffled my flashcards, so when I sat down to take my first quiz, I realized I had no idea the order of the alphabet. Rookie mistake, right? That’s precisely the point. If we assume we know how to accomplish even the most straightforward task, we are likely missing out on the more efficient methods of our friends and peers. It was through friends in seminary that I learned that the bibliographies of journal articles are the best place to look for resources for my papers, that memorizing 20 pages of 10 point font is possible by memorizing the outlines of topics, and that studying for an exam also means studying with the peculiarities of each professor in mind. Reading self-help material outside of the work you are in can only take you so far. You have to find someone who has been there and done that. You won’t only need their advice, but you will need someone who can genuinely empathize with you because your spouse will not always want to commiserate about your work. They will help share the burden in other ways without having to “get it,” and that’s completely fine.

Conclusion

While the worksheets, schedules, and productivity hacks ultimately belong to the realm of common grace, an essential truth for Christians to remember in our work is how God is at work in us. Sanctification is a particular work, in that it is ongoing, and it employs our actions. Even though we are never told to justify ourselves, God exhorts us to “put to death what is earthly in you” (Col. 3:5), “purify yourselves from all unrighteousness” (2 Cor. 7:1), etc. In the work of sanctification, God treats us as human beings. That is, our humanness does not change upon being saved. As a professor of mine explained to me, we can’t flip a switch and not desire alcohol after abusing it, and we can’t flip a switch and become a concert pianist. Even though God is the guarantor and giver of sanctification, it is a long work of rehabituation, where our habits are reformed over time. I do not mean the process of ‘running the race’ and ‘fighting the good fight’ is analogous to productivity, but I do mean that when we go about our work, we must remember that God’s work in us after our decree of justification does not work like an on and off switch. Our work will be full of roadblocks and failures (Gen. 3:17), and while our plans are easily upset due to our fragile frames (Ps. 103:14), God is still working out our salvation in us to his good pleasure. So, when your plans of productivity get interrupted by your 1-year-old who is still not sleeping through the night, remember God’s promise to work all things together for good (Rom. 8:28). There is not an ounce of our work that can guarantee that promise. Acknowledge and be thankful that even though our to-do lists fail, God’s work does not fail. From here, of course, adjust your goals and plans accordingly, and keep on working.

Second Amendments and First Commandments

When it comes to gun control issues, one thing that’s occurred to me is how I wish conservatives had the same kind of relationship with the Second Amendment as they do with the First.

Here’s what I mean. With regard to pornography, conservative Christians are unafraid to challenge the supremacy of “free speech.” Court opinion over the last half-century has decisively stood with the porn industry, declaring that most attempts to curtail or check it fall under the condemnation of the First Amendment. What’s fascinating to me is that social conservatives have not responded to this thinking by arguing that there is no conflict between free speech and laws against porn. On the contrary, they’ve typically argued that  “free speech” in the First Amendment is not an absolute, self-interpreting idea, and that there is an ontological and ethical dissimilarity between porn and the speech that the Constitution envisions.

In other words, in the debate over pornography and public well-being, social conservatives have responded to procedural arguments (about the First Amendment) with moral arguments that reframe, in response to a cultural crisis, our basic assumptions.

Now, I don’t have any pet policy on guns. I didn’t grow up around them and I didn’t grow up hostile to them either. Gun control is one of the issues on which I am genuinely indecisive. What I’m noticing nowadays is how the conservative relationship to the First Amendment is unlike its relationship to the Second Amendment.

When it comes to bearing arms, many conservatives are both unflaggingly literal and relentlessly pragmatic. “Bearing arms” is given a maximally broad meaning, and on the other side, this broad meaning creates a hopelessly deep and complex situation for anybody who’d want to, say, regulate ownership of certain kinds of weapons. This is the opposite of what social conservatives do in the porn debate. When talking about smut and the First Amendment, conservatives bring a moral evaluation of the problem into the debate and insist that our understanding of the Framers’ intent be modified by this evaluation. When talking about the Second Amendment, conservatives simply say that the words themselves are impenetrable.

I think this double standard is unfortunate on a couple fronts. First, progressives are understandably cynical when conservatives appeal to moral counterarguments to jurisprudence on certain issues (porn, pro-life, etc), yet condemn this approach on guns. Second, conservatives have found themselves without a robust moral political vision of weapons and self-defense, which means that the debate over guns has fallen almost entirely among predetermined tribal camps (thus, social conservatives are at the mercy of the Republican Party, which, let’s just say, struggles to represent the conservative worldview).

Worst of all, this mentality has left conservative Christians without a prophetic moral vision on guns, which means that many evangelicals have simply mined the libertarian camp for talking points, not realizing the fundamentally sub-Christian commitments that often attend them. The recent interest in some quadrants of progressive evangelicalism in Christian pacifism serves, among other things, as a rebuke to the unfortunate alliance between evangelicalism and the GOP platform. If Christian witness can revolutionize our vision for what “free speech” means, it ought to at least have a chance to do the same for our firearms.

The consensus in much evangelicalism around Second Amendment absolutism is not a point of doctrinal orthodoxy. You will search in vain for a biblical text or historic tradition that teaches that Christians have a providential right to own guns (just as you won’t find a providential right to a free press or democratic elections). This of course doesn’t solve the issue, but it should certainly temper the dogmatism with which quite a few American evangelicals seem to think about it. If the thought of being unable to own assault rifles creates more anxiety in a Christian imagination than, say, the thought of a white supremacist terrorizing a black church during a midweek Bible study, we would do well to ask what is most shaping that imagination. Love can be misdirected.