Parent: I’ve heard that you have said some pretty disparaging things about TikTok in class.
Parent: Wouldn’t you say that what is true of all tools is true of TikTok? What I mean is that any tool can be used poorly, and any tool can be used well. In and of itself, a tool is morally neutral.
Gibbs: Over the last two decades or so, it has become increasingly common for people who like cutting-edge technology to repeat the claim, “Tools are morally neutral.” I have never heard a satisfactory explanation of the claim, though. Why do you believe tools are morally neutral?
Parent: A gun can be used to protect the innocent or to murder the innocent. The problem is not the gun, but the heart of the person holding it.
Gibbs: I’ll go along with that claim, but you haven’t proven anything about tools in general. You’ve merely proven that a certain tool, a gun, has a legitimate use.
Parent: Well, then, take a shovel for example. A shovel might be used to dig a garden, but it could also be used to dig a hole to hide a murder victim. A shovel could also be used to attack someone who was innocent or to defend someone who was innocent. In itself, the shovel is neutral. It’s all in how you use the thing.
Gibbs: While a man might use a shovel to smack someone over the head, that is not what a shovel is made for. That is not the intended use of a shovel.
Gibbs: You have proven too much. If a tool is “absolutely any object used in absolutely any way,” you would have to allow your daughter’s boyfriend to keep huge stacks of pornographic magazines around his apartment.
Gibbs: He uses them as doorstops.
Parent: That’s possible, I suppose.
Gibbs: No, it’s only possible in theory, but anyone with common sense would know the idea is absolutely absurd.
Parent: What’s the difference?
Gibbs: In theory, a drunk teenage babysitter could do her job just as well as a sober teenage babysitter. But common sense isn’t concerned with theories. Common sense is concerned with how people usually behave, how events usually transpire. Theories don’t deal with what usually happens, though, which means that theories don’t have much to do with good parenting. Good parenting requires a knowledge of human nature. Such knowledge only comes by paying attention to how people behave. When it comes to caring for teenage souls, I have no time for theories.
Parent: What does this have to do with TikTok?
Gibbs: “Tools are morally neutral” is the kind of theoretical claim that has nothing to do with good parenting. At best, it’s not common sense— although I’m not sure I even believe it’s true on a theoretical level.
Parent: How would it not be true in theory?
Gibbs: Do you believe that any movie is morally neutral?
Parent: No. I believe that all movies express a certain worldview, whether that worldview is obvious or hidden.
Gibbs: Great. Have you ever heard of a Chinese torture device called an “iron chair”?
Parent: I can’t say I have.
Gibbs: It’s a large iron chair covered with spikes. A victim is strapped to the iron chair then slowly edged closer to a fire. The chair would gradually heat up, both burning and piercing the victim to death.
Parent: That sounds awful. If a man deserves execution, he ought to be summarily put to death, not slowly mutilated over the course of many hours.
Gibbs: I agree. The iron chair is a tool, though. It’s one of many tools designed to slowly, horrifically mutilate God’s image. Using any such tool as it was intended implies all kinds of beliefs about human life that I find reprehensible. A tool is an invitation to do something in particular. Some tools are invitations to do something wicked or stupid.
Parent: So, what does this have to do with TikTok?
Gibbs: The use of TikTok as it was intended also implies all kinds of beliefs about human life that I find reprehensible.
Parent: What in the world about a video sharing platform could possibly imply “reprehensible” beliefs about human life?
Gibbs: The whole point of TikTok is to atrophy the attention span of the user. That is the immediate effect of TikTok. It takes less than ten minutes to take effect on the user.
Parent: Do you have any studies to back this up?
Gibbs: I’ve used it myself. I’ve seen how it works.
Parent: What do you mean it “atrophies the attention span of the user”?
Gibbs: Have you used TikTok before?
Parent: I don’t have the app on my phone, but I’ve seen how it works.
Gibbs: Really, all scrolling entertainment atrophies the attention span of users. A couple weeks ago, I was scanning the radio dial and came across a local station that had just adopted a new format. Instead of playing whole songs, the station just played four second clips of songs. One clip followed the next which followed the next, over and over again. In ten minutes, the station probably played between 120 and 150 clips.
Parent: How bizarre.
Gibbs: Not really. The radio station was merely simulating the experience of scrolling through TikTok, only without videos to accompany the music. Do you know what the radio station called itself?
Gibbs: Short Attention Span Radio. You see, people no longer have the patience to listen to a three-minute pop song. We are even bored with the sexy, slick, sensual, witty, modern works of art that were supposed to save us from all the stuffy, over-intellectual works of art that came before them. As opposed to going back to classical music and classical art, though, we’ve just sped up the pace of pop culture because we get sick of it that quickly.
Parent: That sounds like theory.
Gibbs: No, it’s all based on actual experience. In my earliest years of teaching, my students loved learning art history. It meant getting out the overhead projector and looking at slides of Rembrandt, Caravaggio. Over the last ten years, though, art history has become increasingly hard to teach. Many students don’t have the patience to look at an image for more than two or three seconds. When an image isn’t funny or sexy—which is a good portion of what scrolling media is—they start getting fidgety. They want control over images. They don’t have strong enough imaginations to find something interesting about painting. We don’t know how to find something interesting about other human beings, either, which is why people our age love it when evening plans with our friends fall through. We’re even too lazy to find our friends interesting— although I think that also comes from all the banal platitudes Christians have parroted about “community” for the last ten years.
Parent: But don’t you think it’s possible to use TikTok well?
Parent: That seems so close-minded.
Gibbs: It is. My mind is entirely closed to TikTok. If you want me to keep an open mind about something, there needs to be some real incentive to do so. TikTok is widely known as an addictive, time-wasting platform for bullies, thirst traps, and stupid antics. What reasonable person would keep an open mind about such a thing?
Parent: Don’t you think Christians are obligated to redeem things like TikTok? To reclaim them for Christ?
Gibbs: If you really believe that, you probably would have stood in way of those Christians described in Acts 19 who burned hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of magic books shortly after they converted. “Can’t sorcery be redeemed for Christ?” No. TikTok doesn’t need to be redeemed for Christ. We need to be redeemed. We need to be careful how we live and do “everything we can to redeem our time,” as St. Paul tells the Ephesians.
Parent: Couldn’t someone make TikTok videos proclaiming the Gospel, though?
Gibbs: In theory, sure. Twenty years ago, I sometimes caught parents defending the video game habits of their sons by asking, “Can’t someone play Halo to the glory of God, though? Don’t we need Christian video game designers who will create games that spread the Gospel?” Again, theoretically, sure. But that’s just not how people work.
Parent: But the Bible tells us that we should think on whatever things are true, noble, right, pure and so forth. Are you saying there’s nothing on TikTok that is true, noble, right, and so forth?
Gibbs: If someone actually cared about truth, nobility, rightness, and purity, they would not waste their time trying to find such things on TikTok.
Parent: Why not?
Gibbs: For the same reason no one goes panning for gold in the troughs of spaghetti on a Golden Corral buffet line. If you actually want to find truth, nobility, and rightness, you look for such things in places where they are known to accumulate: old books, old music, and old people.