Recovering Presence and Place in the Digital Age

Sociological and Theological Reflections on Technology

by Felicia Wu Song, professor of sociology

The Cultural Confession

Being a good Anglican, I feel compelled to start with a confession that only makes sense within the context of what my Baptist roots might call a very brief technology testimony.

When it comes to technology, I am a late adopter. I converted and invited the iPhone 4 (affectionately known as the Jesus-Phone by Apple fans) into my life in 2010. My husband and I took the leap of faith, accepting the Jesus- Phone into our lives because we thought it would better manage our mutual work travels and care of our family.

In 2012, I sincerely but half-heartedly started a blog like millions of other Americans. After a long stint of conscientious objection to giving over my life data to Mark Zuckerberg, I finally joined Facebook in 2013.

Through these years, I have been grateful for how my devices help me to fashion a life that is more convenient and seemingly efficient and even pleasurable. But just as the Christian faith asserts that Jesus transforms anyone who opens themselves to His Presence, I can personally testify to the curious way in which the Jesus-Phone has transformed me: my relationships, my work patterns, my routines of how I spend my time and how I engage my spaces, even the patterns of thinking and my heart’s preoccupations. The more I consider how deeply the logic and presence of my digital techs have penetrated my subconscious, the more irritated I have become.

And so my confession: I have been having a grumpy year with all things digital: my iPhone, my laptop, my email inbox, my texting app, my internet browser. These days, I am locked in mortal combat with all of them. The pleasure I used to enjoy and the sense of satisfaction I used to derive have given way to an increasing cognitive dissonance.

Three reasons particular to my individual life might explain why I have reached this standoff with my digital technologies. First, my job as a professor and department chair demands a fair bit of attention to a wide range of emails that chronically snowball into inefficiencies and distractions. Second, I am knee-deep into the mid-life experience and find myself having conventionally mid-life thoughts: What is my life amounting to? What do I hope the rest of my life will look like? Finally, technological impasse may undoubtedly be tied to the fact my junior-higher is begging me every day for her own phone.

These may be personal reasons for my techno-existentialist crisis, but as a sociologist, the perennial lesson we teach in our introductory classes is C. Wright Mills’ insight: Our personal troubles are often public issues. That is, the sociological imagination asserts that what we often experience as personal problems—while particular to our individual lives—are often tied to issues or changes taking place in the broader cultural and social landscape.

When I watch the TED talks, listen to the Silicon Valley gurus, and read about the big-name bloggers and technologists, I sense a shift in the wind that you may have picked up on as well. Several high-tech, high-profile CEOs speak openly about instituting time limits and banning devices from the family dinner table. Media royalty Arianna Huffington has written books titled, “The Sleep Revolution” and “Thrive” after experiencing her own physical collapse from exhaustion. She calls her readers to live lives driven not by careers or technologies, but wisdom, compassion and giving. Public intellectual Andrew Sullivan stopped blogging, saying to his readers, “I want to return to the actual world again…I want to read again, slowly, carefully. I want to absorb a difficult book and walk around in my own thoughts with it for a while…I want to spend some time with my parents while I still have them….and rekindle the friendships that I have simply… let wither.”

While more public figures who have built their reputations on their social media presence or technological innovations are unplugging, more and more people like us pay hundreds of dollars to attend weekend camps called Digital Detox. As a culture, we are apparently coming to the slow realization that our social media and digital techs have made us very tired. College students admit to being addicted and fatigued by FOMO—the fear of missing out—but have no capacity to imagine how they would live without their devices. When we’ve left the office or go on vacation, many of us feel like our jobs never end as tacit expectations to respond to emails and off-hour requests keep us tethered to our work. Even when we try to rest, we are restless, and we reach for our phones or tablets because our bodies and our imaginations have forgotten what else there is to reach for.

Whatever honeymoon we had experienced with the thrill of feeling connected, alive from the quick and witty exchanges of words and images in social media, many of us are experiencing a bit of technological disenchantment. What is happening to us?

The Sociological Diagnosis

Back in the 1990s, when the notion of the internet first developed, the novel idea of forming and carrying on relationships through the glow of the computer screen was met with either lamentation or euphoria. Some feared that we would neglect our real lives and be seduced by the avatar- driven fantasies of virtual reality. More, however, were bedazzled by the prospects of the internet connecting people across the world and creating new avenues of support and community that freed people from the limitations of time and space.

Twenty years into this magnificent experiment of digital communication, the optimists seem to be right. We don’t appear to have become a society of isolated persons, cloistered in our bedrooms, forgetting our jobs and our families. In fact, many scholars point to the fact that we are more con- nected than ever.

Many say, “Look at all the exciting possibilities that arise when we adapt our relationships and institutions to these new technologies and their prescribed practices and norms.” Yet we would be naïve if we have actually changed in our expectations of our relationships and institutions during these 20 years of digital living.

One of the ways to imagine the actual texture and experience of living with, living on and maybe even living through our digital devices is to imagine our daily lives as if we are stepping into a set of rushing rapids consisting of texts, posts, likes, tweets and quippy hashtags that we are compelled to traverse to maintain both our most intimate and most pragmatic of relationships. Today, many of us are accustomed to the ceaseless currents of status updates, photos, comments, video—while simultaneously providing our own streams of tweets, texts, posts and videos.

The fact that digital has gone mobile makes it 24/7. Most of us recall how the internet of yesteryear was housed in a desktop computer that we dialed into the wall of our home, school or workplace. Today, our social media is much more immanent, carried in our pockets, in our bags, strapped on our wrists—seemingly living and breathing alongside us as we move throughout the day. As such, we become people who are living in a state of permanent connectivity which opens up amazing possibilities of relationships. On the other hand, that permanent connectivity can bear down on us in the form of a gnawing feeling that feeds our compulsion to check email, to peek at Facebook and to tweet one more remark. Permanent connectivity manifests in what I call a soft tyranny that is also experienced in the burdens of perceived social expectations of always being immediately available and responsive to any text or email.

Increasingly, our collective consciousness is one in which, no matter where we are, whatever we are doing, we feel we need to catch up on our emails, our texts and our social media feeds. As Dalton Conley described, life is constantly “being lived elsewhere” as our bodies are in one place, but our minds and consciousness are focused on the stuff of our screens. We swipe on the glass to refresh our feeds with the peculiar gaze of hesitant anticipation often found on casino floors when gamblers pull the lever of the slot machines one more time.

Drawing a parallel between our contemporary digital practices and gambling habits is not that much of a stretch. The physiological costs of submitting to our tech’s soft tyranny are becoming more evident with each passing year. There is growing evidence that every time our smart phone pings us with a notification, dopamine release is activated in our brains, along with opiates and other neurochemicals that charge up the reward center or pleasure pathways. Studies show that these are the same changes in the neurotransmitters found in years of research on drugs, alcohol and gambling addictions.

The implications of such data are particularly grave when considering the effects of technology on young people’s yet-developing brains. Questions arise about its connections to their experiences of increased anxiety and depression. Other psychological studies also suggest that even the sheer anticipation of email or other digital stimulation is taking up working memory in our brain. These possibilities that our brains may be overtaxed and overstimulated from heavy digital use all point to the fact that we actually know very little about the long-term physiological and psychological effects of our permanent connectivity.

Interestingly, while we may be losing control over our compulsion to engage our digital devices, these devices and practices give us the ability to control and manage other people’s access to us. However, what this control gives us is a form of dialed-down human contact. In her last two books, “Alone Together” and “Reclaiming Conversation,” MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle has shown in her research on young people that we now prefer technological mediation over and above face-to-face or voice-based interactions. We prefer to text rather than call. We prefer to email rather than stop by in person because the face-to-face encounter, so rich in non-verbal cues, now feels psychically overwhelming. The risks of awkward silences, the uncertainty read on the faces of our interlocutors and the fumbling for right words are just too unpredictable. Instead of working to better meet these less appealing aspects of our very human encounters, we prefer to hide, flattening out and editing away our discomforts with a few well-chosen acronyms or emojis.

So we use our devices to grant us distance from each other and to give us permission to downshift to our lesser selves. We indulge in the enjoyment of social stimulation without the costs of caring. It is far easier to let each other publicly signal absence and unavailability with our technology use than reveal to each other that we actually long for each other’s full attention. It is far easier to let our mobile devices become crutches that fundamentally minimize the risks of encountering each other as real persons. Some of us don’t even realize our compulsions or we don’t even realize how our use of technology is negatively affecting the people around us.

In studies that ask children what they wish for most when it comes to technology in their households, the No. 1 wish is that their parents would get off their phones more. One child said, “You know, I think about my dad. I wish my dad would put his mobile phone away and just enjoy watching me play soccer once in a while.”

The Theological Diagnosis

Quotes like this suggest to me that we have arrived at a cultural moment of new awareness. From the worrisome data of brain science to the celebrities making digital detox fashionable, there is an increasing willingness to recognize that something may be amiss about our present age.

For those who identify with the Christian faith in particular, we can either ignore the signs and risk further impoverishment of our lives, or we can move out to the front and help lead by example toward a more thoughtful technological practice that acquaints people with what true freedom feels like and a renewed sense of personhood.

Where do we begin? I think it is helpful to first establish a theological anthropology: what we believe it means to be human in relation to the divine. Here, I am drawn to the recent work of Jamie Smith, a philosopher at Calvin College, who critiques the dominant rationalist anthropology that focuses on the mind and frames the human person primarily as a thinker, a processor of beliefs and propositions. Instead, he proposes that we return to Augustine’s view of human beings as formed primarily by our loves, not our knowledge or beliefs. Rather than view humans as thinkers, he asserts humans as lovers. What we daily do with our bodies—what churns in our guts—is ultimately what motivates the outcomes of our lives.

“The way our… desire gets aimed in specific directions,” he writes, “is through practices that shape, mold, and direct our love…Habits are formed by practices: routines that inscribe particular ongoing habits into our character, such that they become secondary nature to us…..Some of the habits and practices that we are regularly immersed in are actually thick formative practices that over time embed in us desires for a particular version of the good life.”

Fundamentally anchoring our primary orientation to the world as being visceral and bodily rather than cerebral, Smith proposes a theological anthropology that I think is especially helpful for Christians figuring out how to live holy lives with our digital technologies.

In this emphasis on bodily practices, Smith argues that left to our own devices (pun fully intended), we inevitably find ourselves engaging in practices that he calls “secular liturgies,” rituals and habits that mis-form our desires. He writes, “Secular liturgies capture our hearts by capturing our imaginations and draw us into ritual practices that ‘teach’ us to love something very different from the Kingdom of God.”

This reminds me of a mundane example that Turkle cites when a friend wonders out loud about the meaning of her daily ritual of waking up and going to sleep by checking her email on her phone while still in bed. In light of the notion of secular liturgies, this somewhat mundane ritual reads rather poignantly if we see how checking our phones has replaced the disciplines of Scripture reading and prayer that believers have historically engaged during the early morning and late evening. Indeed, what soul formation (or mis-formation) is taking place when we go to sleep and arise with our emails and social media feeds bookending our bodily rest? What types of desires do our compulsive digital practices encourage?

The call to Christians then is to engage in counter- liturgies that push back against these mis-formations of the heart. In response to our secular liturgies—checking our phones whenever we are bored, texting that friend we seek to avoid having the awkward conversation with, our daily wind-down of 30 minutes with Candy Crush— we are faced with a question: What are our counter-liturgies to these secular liturgies? How might the spiritual disciplines, which we may think about only in terms of personal piety or spiritual direction, turn out to be the pragmatic tools necessary to weaning us from our co-dependent relationships with our technologies?

Counter-liturgies may include experiments in mono- or uni-tasking (doing laundry, eating a meal, driving). What happens to my brain if I stop filling it with an agenda? Do I become more aware of the place where I am? What if I turned off my phone completely each time I sat down at a meeting or a meal? What if I set my phone on “do not disturb” or better yet, left it in my desk drawer and went for a walk?

I particularly like Smith’s use of the terms “secular liturgy” and “counter-liturgies” that rely on the word “liturgy.” Its Greek origin means “work of the people.” This definition warms the heart of any self-respecting sociologist because it brings out the way certain practices are not truly individual in nature but are actually the product of the people—many people, a community, a culture. These practices retain their power and remain sustainable precisely because they are practiced as a people, a group, a culture.

If secular liturgies possess power because we engage in them together, then Christians need to find a way to engage in bodily counter-liturgies together. While personal acts of technological self-discipline and restraint are still essential, it will ultimately be the communal effort in counter-liturgies that proves effective and sustainable. Year after year, college students have told me that, even if they themselves would love to get off Instagram or Snapchat, they will incur such social costs to their social and family lives that it is impossible to consider. But rather than accept this status quo, I wonder back to them: What if we could you gather our closest friends together as a group and make a pact to take a break from social media together—a sort of social media mass exodus or social media group vacation?

The point is: our technological practices do not need to be privatized; individuals and individual families do not need to be the sole arbiters of how technology gets used. Instead, when set within the framework of counter-liturgies, the work of the people, it is wholly possible for groups of friends, families, church communities and work organizations to promise each other to commit collectively to not subjecting each other to FOMO, but choosing to abide through countercultural practices that encourage a compassionate view of each other’s vulnerability as frail human beings.

Small experiments in the workplace or in our households may be worth trying: email-free Fridays at work; tech-free rooms in our homes and workplace or tech-free family vacations; agreements to make phone calls between friends instead of texting; and goofy games like Phone Stack at social gatherings that compel friends to avoid reaching for their phones by threatening them with the punishment of paying the bill.

We can be creative in thinking about counter-practices when we stop focusing on how to limit our technology and consider how to get more serious about practicing our humanity and recovering our sense of presence and place in the fullness of our bodies and our relationships.

In this, I believe the Christian faith possesses good news for those exhausted by our digitally saturated lives. In the heritage and theology of Christianity, potential resources remind us that our embodiment matters. Part of the trouble with our growing dependence on our socio-technological practices of friendship and community is the modern disregard for the fact that we are embodied persons who bring both physical presence and voice and are impinged upon by the human voice and physical presence of others.

Certainly the Scriptures provide much evidence of a high view of human embodiment. The creation story deems the physical creation and human beings good. In the incarnation of Jesus, God sends him to live and be with us, to experience the fullness of our human frailty and our image-of-God-ness. In his ministry, Jesus performed bodily healings and subsequently experienced bodily death and resurrection. We all are familiar with one of the most moving moments in the Gospels when the mere voice of the resurrected Messiah uttering Mary’s name instantly overwhelms her frantic blindness with a clear-blue recognition of her Lord and Savior. Finally, we have the doctrine of the resurrected body that will be raised up when Jesus returns as king.

It may be equally human for us to grasp how our bodies are tied to the material things in our world rather than letting the idol of efficiency distract us from cherishing the beauty and power intrinsic to particular places. Part of the church’s Gospel to its people and the wider world is that the spaces we occupy are holy and instilled with mystery—if we have cultivated our eyes to attend and rested our brains and bodies to fully inhabit them.

Here, American Christians might take some cues from other religious traditions that seem to better understand and practice the honoring of this sacred materiality of object and spaces. In Judaism, the bar/bat mitzvah service includes a beautiful and holy ritual that allows a young man/woman to present the Torah for the first time—lifting the sacred text out of the ark and physically walking it among the people, signaling the maturation from child to man/woman. Attending my nephew’s bar mitzvah, I was not only incredibly moved by this moment in the service, a sacred object being carried through a sacred place but I was equally struck by a small sentence printed on the bottom of the program that asked everyone to turn off and put away all electronic devices, explaining that the synagogue is a holy place of worship, deserving of reverence and respect. This modest tidbit of synagogue etiquette had quietly but firmly drawn a counter- liturgical line.

Even non-religious institutions are beginning to ask similar types of questions about our devices and our spaces. While art museums are seeking to remain relevant to modern audiences with guided tours and information made available

on apps, they are also trying to create an environment that cultivates quiet and engaged communion with art. In an interview, Connie Wolf, director of Stanford’s Cantor Art Center, remarked on this inherent tension, “In our busy lives….we’re always connected to technology. People want to come into museums and put that technology aside for a moment.”

The problem is that museum visitors have their eyes glued to their devices when they walk through the gallery. People end up staring down instead of up at the art. So the Cantor Art Center offers its visitors a very old technology: a package of colored pencils and sketching paper. Doing this kindles a kind of hopefulness when you turn the corner in the gallery and see a child lying on the floor, with paper and pencils before them, staring at a painting. Perhaps the museum is encouraging a counter-liturgy of artistic engagement in their sacred space?

Does the American Christian church dare to believe the same thing: that people want to come and put that technology aside for a moment and experience a sacred space? Within our churches, are there sacred spaces in which our devices are not allowed? Within our homes, are there sacred spaces in which our devices are not allowed? At the dinner table? In the bedroom?

As users of digital technologies, we can approach these dilemmas of our digitally saturated lives by simply addressing matters of safety, survival and good manners. We can raise awareness and work against the clear social ills that affect us and our children such as cyberbullying, sexting, pornography, deception and the like. We can teach our kids to have good manners, to address each other online with civility and to be respectful of each other’s privacy.

Professor Song is working on a book, “Left to Our Own Devices,” based on this talk, which she gave to parents in 2017.

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