The digital world shapes us

Technology changes our lives. That’s a truism, you wouldn’t find anyone to disagree. The disagreement comes when we speak of particular technologies—whether pesticides or automated looms or Bluetooth speakers—and the particular ways they change our lives.

Then we need to add an extra layer, not only are there specific ways that technologies change our lives, which are often wide ranging (think of the impact of the washing machine on women’s liberation and therefore on the modern workplace and conception of ‘family’), but there are also what James K. A. Smith would call the liturgical effects of the technology.

By this I mean that we are formed by the things that we regularly practice. We’re formed by the liturgy of worship we follow each Sunday, which is why liturgical theology is incredibly important even for the free-flowing follow-the-Spirit-where-he-wills charismatics among us. We’re also formed by the ‘liturgy’ of anything that we do repeatedly; repeated actions have forming effects on us beyond gaining mastery of whatever the action is. Everything teaches.

In his book Analog Church, Jay Kim explores the effects of digital technologies—I’m thinking of everything within the broad category of ‘computers and the internet’ but Kim is particularly thinking about the black glass bricks of Babel we carry in our pockets.

Kim reckons that there are 3 improvements to our general lot that comes from these digital technologies—Speed, Choices, and Individualism.

By speed he means that things are now available to us faster, often instantaneously. This is true of knowledge (you can Google it), and pretty much any product you can get delivered. It’s also true of connection (via social media), and an array of human goods that fit under that umbrella from affirmation to discussion to correction.

I’d like to problematise this a bit. We might be able to get knowledge, but not wisdom, and even then the ‘knowledge’ available in a Wikipedia summary of a book isn’t the same as the knowledge earned by struggling through the book yourself. Any suggestion that it is gives into the technological impulse—the fact that we think it might be is due to the effect of these technologies on us.

More importantly, I am unconvinced that these human goods are available digitally at all, but we’ll get there in a moment.

Kim’s second ‘improvement,’ choices, covers the access we have to an endless array of options when it comes to pretty much whatever you can imagine. Almost anything, with the notable exception of affordable academic books, is available via the internet’s ever-hungry maw.

The third improvement, individualism, could as easily be called ‘customisation.’ In essence we can emphasise our preferences and personalities through almost every digital medium and physical technology available to us these days. Enough so that things that aren’t customisable are always surprising: I drive a Mazda that was available in, I think, four colours. That a customisation that would have seemed lavish to Henry Ford is limited enough to speak of it as though there weren’t a choice at all, just about sums up the changes in outlook in the last century.

I am, obviously, unconvinced that these are unalloyed improvements, but I think it would be a bit much to suggest that there are no goods associated with them, tempting though I find that.

Kim doesn’t disagree, because he moves on to describe how each of these benefits has changed us, because as I started with, everything we do changes us.

He argues that speed has made us impatient, choices have made us shallow, and individualism (read: customisation) has made us isolated.

I’m not sure that needs proving, but to attempt to flesh it out a little: when everything is immediate we start to expect everything to be immediate, with detrimental effects on things that can’t be immediate. We, over time, come to value more highly things that can be got immediately and devalue those that can’t. Here’s the real kicker: little if anything that’s worth having can be got immediately. Love isn’t immediate. Friendship certainly isn’t. The Christian life isn’t. Understanding the Bible isn’t. The presence of God isn’t. The Lord’s Supper isn’t.

I’m not sure the line between choice and shallowness is as direct as Kim draws it, but it certainly is true that the internet has made our thinking shallower (see Nicholas G. Carr’s ground-breaking 2010 book The Shallows). It’s also true in churches in the UK, I think, that we are less serious than we used to be. Our thinking is increasingly shallow.

Our expressive individualism inspired desire for everything to be customisable, including the body and the self, is isolating us. Friendship requires a kind of death, because we have to put another before ourselves, our story cannot be paramount as two Is become We. Our insistence on performing our identities adds layers around us that make interrelations inherently difficult, fraught even.

That is then compounded by the nature of modern, digital, life. Our connection with others that might help us escape from our isolation is mediated by digital tools and platforms. Sherry Turkle thinks that digital connection offers an ‘illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.’ I agree.

In essence we’re able to hide from each other while appearing to be face-to-face. The grand drama of literature like Lewis’ Till We Have Faces is entirely elided. There’s no great inner battle to take off our masks and see and be seen; seeing and being seen is not understood as the kind of death that results in a resurrection.

In other words, the sorts of technology we habitually use have made us deeply in need of friendship but almost entirely unprepared for its demands. We are not the kind of people who can be good friends—but that’s because we think friendship is a device when it’s an instrument.

What’s the solution? Well, my regular readers know what I think the solution is. The Lord’s Supper remakes the world, meaning that hospitality around the table is the centre of human inter-relations.

In other words, to solve the greatest challenge facing most people I know we need to remake the world. Where are worlds remade? Over a bowl of curry at my dining room table.

Our isolation ends at the table because we are forced to be with others; while you can perform your identity at the table the outcome is a lot of clashing arguments and no communication, which a good host will deftly not allow. Our shallowness ends at the table because real face-to-face communication with people who disagree with us on serious matters is the way our opinions are lifted and forged. Our impatience ends at the table for the simplest reasons: food takes time to cook, conversation takes time to have. As I learn to listen to others, my impatience is slowly reformed into presence.

Of course, all of this requires a basic assumption I’m making: that you obey our home’s rule. No phones at the table.

Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

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