Amusing Our Neighbors to Death

An 18-year-old woman was flying down the highway in the central valley of California when she lost control of her vehicle and rolled the car, killing her 14-year-old sister, who was thrown out the back window. As far as tragedies go, this one was pretty run of the mill. Tragic, to be sure. Avoidable, absolutely. But it was not unusual on the highways of California. To be sure, such a moment would hardly make the nightly news these days, except for one bizarre twist. The whole event, from the reckless driving to the death of her sister, was streamed live on Instagram.

The driver of the car doesn’t waste the opportunity for internet fame as she kneels beside her sister’s lifeless body and poses for the camera, kisses her on the forehead, and says she’s sorry.

We should ask if this is the logical conclusion of a narcissistic culture in which everyone is so lost in their own image that they have no regard for their neighbor. Is this a sign of things to come, or was this woman just a monster, an aberration to be duly noted just for us to move on without thinking much about it?

Several weeks ago in Cocoa Florida, a group of teenage boys watched as a man struggled to swim in a retention pond. He cried out for help, but no help was given. Though the boys had cell phones, not even one called 911. Not even one attempted to enter the water himself to help the drowning man. No, instead, they sat on the shore and filmed him. In fact, they laughed and made jokes while they watched him die. In a strange twist, it was the man’s sister who posted the video on Facebook and invited the court of public opinion to judge the situation.

In 1985, Neil Postman wrote his famous work “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” That’s 19 years before Facebook launched and 22 years before the first iPhone. I wonder at times if he could envision these recent stories in his cautionary tales about technology and the endless desire for human amusement. Could he have pictured a day when our amusement wasn’t just suicidal or self-harming but homicidal as well?

What do we do? What recourse do we have? Do we make and administer more laws to curb the distractions of modern technologies? Do we come up with better and safer ways to move and use our latest gadgets in ways that don’t endanger anyone’s life (handsfree calling, driverless cars, etc.)? Do we embrace a Luddite, antitechnology stance and collectively throw our smartphones into the sea and cancel our Facebook accounts?

Perhaps, but none of these get to the heart of the problem. None of them can change the self-serving, amusement-driven narcissist. The only thing I know of that is powerful enough to change this love of self is a Word that comes from the outside. This Word speaks of a new identity, reveals the death in our lives, and gives life in the death of another. The only hope to challenge our culture’s love of self is to proclaim into it the love of Christ for them.

The call of our Lord was as true in the days he walked on this earth as it was at the dawn of television and continues even today in the midst of Instagram live: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15)