About a month ago, President Obama announced that Osama bin Laden had been killed by Navy Seals in a raid on the compound where he had been hiding in Pakistan. Osama bin Laden, the founder and leader of al-Qaeda, had been on the FBI’s most wanted list for nearly a decade for his role in many terrorist attacks including 9/11. There have been a variety of responses and questions surrounding bin Laden’s death, including some very thoughtful responses by Christians seeking to understand how to react to such an announcement.
I will leave the ethical, spiritual debate to those far more qualified than I.
What intrigued me from a pop culture perspective was how people responded to the news. Facebook was inundated with celebratory status reports and patriotic shouts. It was the talk of the hallways at school, and even integrated into prime time television shows. Speculation and conversation was sparked everywhere you turned. Yet, I heard and saw a much more subdued response from my youth and even less from my Jr. High youth.
Following the announcement of his death, Yahoo’s search engine saw a 10,000 percent spike in internet searches about bin Laden, making him the most-searched person of the day. Yahoo Search Trends, the group of people at Yahoo who correlate search queries with profile information, found some interesting trends in that huge spike of searches. The number one search was “Is Osama bin Laden dead?” as people tried to verify the news. The most common questions were about his death, and one in five searches about bin Laden were made by teenagers. What is striking, though, is that “Who is Osama bin Laden?” was the fifth most common query. Two-thirds of all searches for “Who is Osama bin Laden?” were made by users 13-17 years old.
Many of these students were very young when 9/11 occurred. They may have been sheltered from much of the information at the time, and perhaps never really understood bin Laden’s role in the attack. Yet, in the decade that has passed since then, they have grown and theoretically encountered more and more information about al-Qaeda gaining at least a basic knowledge of the role al-Qaeda plays in the Middle East and how they are connected to the United States.
The information gathered by Yahoo would suggest that these teens know little to nothing about bin Laden and by extension al-Qaeda. Why? One possible explanation is that news and information is transitioning from being static and universal to more varied and self-selecting, causing some teens and even adults to have large gaps of information.
Media in the past has been static and universal. Everyone in a community read the same newspaper and watched the same evening news. If you were watching television at a certain time in the evening or morning you were limited to watching network news broadcasts. If you wanted more information on a topic, you were limited in the number of sources you could find at your library or school and they were generally the identical sources to which everyone else had access. So when it came to encountering news, and information, you had a limited number of places to acquire it and what you got was generally the same as everyone around you.
Today, however, media is fluid and self-selecting. You can tailor internet news to show you just the stories you are most interested in, automatically selecting out stories you don’t want to read. Recording devices allow you to watch whatever television you want, whenever you want, so no one is forced to watch network news at 5:30. People no longer have to read new stories that present information in a non-biased way. Instead we can choose to get news only from places that see the world from our perspective. Technology has allowed for a greater number of information sources to be available, thus allowing people to get different information from a greater number of places.
For example, in the past, newspapers offered the most important stories of the day, unbiased and standardized. A person looking for a specific story would be forced to skim through and take in information from all the headlines in the newspaper to find what they wanted. Now newspaper subscriptions are down significantly, as they are replaced with online news sources. Online news sources may automatically filter news for us based on what they glean from our online activity. An individual can also add specific filter options designed to give us the news we want without having to interact with any other material. If I wanted, I could have it give me nothing but news on Justin Beiber with no hint of world issues.
As we transition from newspapers to online news, encyclopedias to Wikipedia, from television news to blog feeds, we often end up with large gaping holes of knowledge in important areas of world, national, and even local news. Because we have filtered out what we selfishly perceive as unimportant, we have missed information about issues beyond what we dub to be interesting. Students may not know who bin Laden is because they have used self-selection to the point that they get no news or information about him until that information is so pervasive they can’t tune it out.
While technology can put a huge amount of information at our fingertips, it also challenges us to be able to sort that information down into what we can process without over filtering it so we miss out on important and historical world events. Teens need to be exposed to a broader amount of information than they think they do. Without a broader knowledge about the world around them, we risk raising up teens into adulthood who do not know anything about anything beyond themselves. What happens, then, when these now adults must lead a world they know nothing about?
Part of helping teens understand the world around them is guiding them to understand the world beyond them. Our God is the God of all creation, not just the parts of if that we see or find interesting. He has called us to share the Gospel not just where we are but beyond it to the ends of the Earth. As we seek to help them understand that God, not they themselves, is the center of the universe, we have to help them learn about what is beyond their day to day realm.
If we want them to understand more of the big world God has created for us, we have to encourage them to be careful what they filter out. They need to be encouraged to choose sources that give them more information than they think they need, and that expose them to information and stories that can help them understand how God is at work and how they must be at work in the world.