A new book aims to help us heal our 'screen-broken brains'

The cover of Bonnie Kristian's book: Untrustworthy, with a foreword by David French.
Bonnie Kristian's new book, "Untrustworthy." (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: via Brazos Press)

We are all bedeviled by “screen-broken brains,” Bonnie Kristian writes in a new book on the “knowledge crisis” that she argues is at the root of political and cultural problems in the United States.

Americans have lost the ability to disagree productively with others, and language has been reduced to a weapon for use in combat, rather than a tool for understanding, Kristian argues in “Untrustworthy: The Knowledge Crisis Breaking Our Brains, Polluting Our Politics, and Corrupting Christian Community.”

Our problem, she writes, is that we have spent decades traipsing through a world shaped by the internet without recognizing the epochal transformation it represents.

“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," writes Kristian, a freelance journalist who was most recently acting editor at The Week.

Kristian’s book is a call to resist the urge to play the amateur demagogue and to educate ourselves to defend against the industry of professional demagogues who populate politics, cable TV, talk radio, online influencing and the like.

“We're getting so much content all day long, all of the time,” she said in an interview on “The Long Game,” a Yahoo News podcast. “I don't think that we really prepared ourselves for that change. And so now ... we have this deep confusion around what is knowable and what is true and who is trustworthy.”

Kristian’s book has a few chapters' worth of practical advice on what to do about this. She walks through the core values that shape a “virtuous” news consumer and social media participant, and then suggests habits to help readers make better decisions about how and where they focus their attention.

A reader surveys a graph on a laptop.
A surfeit of information has transformed our waking lives. (Getty Images)

“In an information environment as chaotic and overwhelming as our own, much of this habit formation concerns what we do with our attention,” Kristian writes.

She advises readers to take inventory of their average week by writing it down. “Notice how you spend your days and what rituals, technologies, and information sources shape your existence,” she writes.

One of Kristian’s core arguments is that “we don’t understand the power of language” and are vulnerable to manipulation by those who do. She quotes the British author Dorothy L. Sayers, who described words as “fields of force” in 1942, as Nazi tanks and bombs were battering Europe.

The words of Nazi demagogues, Sayers argued, had been the prelude to World War II. “The common sense of Europe had been undermined and battered down by Nazi propaganda,” she wrote.

Too few people at the time, Sayers argued, understood that language can be “an instrument of power.”

“Nothing is more intoxicating than power: the demagogue who can sway crowds, the journalist who can push up the sales of his paper to the two-million mark, the playwright who can plunge an audience into an orgy of facile emotion, the parliamentary candidate who is carried to the top of the poll on a flood of meaningless rhetoric, the ranting preacher … are all playing perilously and irresponsibly with the power of words,” she wrote.

Kristian’s point is that, by comparison with 1942, we are far more vulnerable to these forces now.

"In Sayers's time, the verbally unscrupulous, however powerful, were relatively few in number and limited in technological means,” Kristian adds. “Today ... at any moment, anyone in our acquaintance may play the demagogue ... on our newsfeed.”

Dorothy L. Sayers, in glasses and beret, signs an open visitors' book with a quill pen.
The writer Dorothy L. Sayers in London in 1942. (AP Photo)

The professional demagogues, in Sayers’s day as in ours, "know well the potential of language, which they deploy for power, fame, agenda and profit against 'people who were not armed to resist it and had never really understood that it was a weapon at all.'"

Kristian addresses some of her book to her fellow adherents of the Christian faith, noting that there is a crisis of “discernment” in much of the church. For decades, evangelical scholars such as Mark Noll have warned that anti-intellectualism in the church has eroded the ability of many Christians to distinguish truth from falsehood.

But for believers and nonbelievers alike, Kristian’s book is a plea for us to stop reacting to information we see coursing across our screens without first asking more basic questions. “What do we know about the issue at hand, and what do we not know?” is the first inquiry.

The second set of queries is even more crucial: “How do we know what we say we know? What was the process for acquiring that information? And are there vulnerabilities or weak links in that process? How can I make it better, more honest, with more intellectual integrity?”

Asking ourselves these questions, Kristian argues, is how we begin to practice “responsible and humane use of language.”