Bonnie Kristian, formerly an editor at The Week and Christianity Today, opens her most recent book, Untrustworthy, with a sweeping claim: “American society has a knowledge crisis, and the American church is no exception.” As the subtitle of her book plainly states, this crisis is “breaking our brains, polluting our politics, and corrupting Christian community.”
Presently, there’s no shortage of attention being paid to the societal ills attributed to social media and the adverse consequences of misinformation. Often, however, these criticisms are too narrow in scope, focusing only on major social media platforms and construing complex social phenomena as merely technical problems that could be managed through regulation, policy tweaks, or better content moderation. Kristian takes a broader view of the situation, examining, for example, how traditional media have also contributed to the crisis.
The book has a chapter on the growing prevalence of conspiracists, grounded in Kristian’s reporting on QAnon over the past few years, and one on the plight of expertise in an age of information superabundance – a case of “democratized knowledge, public hubris.” In each chapter, she provides insights into how our capacity to seek the truth is derailed by an inability to think constructively beyond the bounds of our tribe and our experience, respectively. Along the way, Kristian takes readers through the fraught territory of “cancel culture” and what, following Matt Bruenig, she calls “identitarian deference.”
Though Kristian is sensitive to the ways in which social media has exacerbated and channeled these developments, she is careful not to reduce her argument to a critique of specific platforms. In the digital “public sphere,” a multitude of existing communities, each with its distinct culture and norms, has been thrust together within systems that, it turns out, are not particularly conducive to mutual understanding and respect. The priests and prophets of digital technology promised that increased connection would lead to a form of cultural unity. Instead, as Marshall McLuhan anticipated, the “global village” is a place of “arduous interfaces and abrasive situations.”
Kristian’s closing chapters invite readers to consider how we might interact with this new information ecosystem more virtuously. Here she provides sound and sane counsel, and a welcome reminder that we bear some responsibility for learning how to navigate it. As Kristian puts it, “We’ve spent forty years dramatically increasing how much information the average person encounters daily, and we’ve made no effort to equip ourselves to handle that shift.”
But a focus on virtue is susceptible to the charge of inadequacy. Is it realistic or wise to pit personal virtue against problems of such scale and scope? Can we expect public knowledge to lead to understanding and solidarity while our encounters with the world and those we share it with are so profoundly structured and mediated by digital technologies that have clearly led us not together but apart? While we sort out those questions, Kristian has given readers a helpful set of practices and strategies with which to meet, even if just provisionally, one of the biggest challenges of our age.