Smartphones are changing our daily behaviors in just about every way imaginable. The changes are often subtle, but sometimes apparent. They change how we self-project and how we self-interpret. They enable us to create and sustain digital-only relationships, as they build (and sometimes corrode) our face-to-face relationships. Smartphones make it easier for us to engage in public discourse, and they provide a safe and convenient buffer between ourselves and all our other relationships.
So how do our smartphones shape and pattern the Christian life for better or worse? For three years I looked at this question from every conceivable angle as I researched and wrote 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You (April 2017).
But all my research was incomplete until I interviewed Alastair Roberts, 36, an avid reader, podcaster, methodical theologian, and fluent longform writer who labors in the fields of biblical theology and contemporary ethical issues, including our relation to developing technologies. He lives in Durham, England.
Roberts’s thoughts on technology, scattered here and there online, are deep and well-reasoned. About a year ago, he was generous enough to take a short break from writing his forthcoming book on the theology of sexual difference (Heirs Together: A Theology of the Sexes) to talk with me about the impact of smartphones on the Christian life.
Skimmers beware. What follows is the full 9,000-word interview.
Alastair, thank you for taking a break from your book writing to answer some of the most common issues and questions I have coming out of my research on smartphones. Let’s start here: What is the smartphone and what does it represent?
We should not let its name deceive us: the smartphone is not just a glorified phone. That we use the term ‘smartphone’ is an accidental result of the path taken by its technological evolution. The smartphone is in fact a personal mobile device that is at once a camera, computer, calculator, gaming platform, means of sending mail, GPS, PDA, phone, reading tool, miniature music and video player, window onto a neighborhood and connected world, and many, many other things besides.
As a device, the smartphone as it typically currently exists must also be understood as a technological counterpart to two key developments in the character of the Internet. The first of these developments is the rise of the social web (related to what some have termed ‘Web 2.0’), resulting from the shift of the Internet from a less structured and open realm populated by a more distinctive demographic of creators and publishers to a heavily colonized realm of mass participation, social networking and interaction, and sharing, which is dominated, shaped, and policed by powerful companies such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter. The second and later of these developments is the rapid rise of the app. Our connection to the online world on our mobiles is now overwhelmingly dominated by the use of apps — chiefly within an environment established and managed by Google or Apple — rather than by mobile browsers. The app represents a wider diffusion and greater immediacy of the connected realm into our lives. Rather than the more determined process of ‘going online’ by opening a browser on our mobiles, through mobile apps we are always connected: being connected functions less as a purposeful action than as a continual state, part of the unconsidered and ubiquitous wallpaper of our contemporary existence. The app-based experience of the online world is localized, personalized, and a continual background to our experience. The smartphone is a landmark development in the process that Marva Dawn has termed the ‘technologizing’ of our intimacy and the ‘intimatizing’ of our technology. Keeping all of this in mind is essential as we continue this conversation.
Good, yes. Smartphones, and all their apps, are now ubiquitous. If a young Christian adult came to you, wondering about whether his or her personal smartphone habits were healthy, what are some preliminary diagnostic tests you would offer?
If we are to assess whether our smartphone habits are healthy or not — and this is hardly a question that should be exclusive to young Christian adults! — perhaps a helpful place to start is by challenging the underlying cultural script that typically drives our adoption of new technologies. This script is one that rests heavily upon choice and potential as such and the notion of freedom from — upon the removal of constraints, limitations, and restrictions — and is much less attentive to the reality of freedom for — to our being liberated to become more fully and faithfully human in communion with God and each other. The familiar cultural script is that more is typically better — more interactive, faster, more efficient, more connected, more fluid, more integrated, more social, more intimate, more inclusive, more ‘user-friendly’, etc.—and that the further our limitations are rolled back, the freer we become. Yet many of us are rediscovering the truth of Edmund Burke’s dictum that many of the restraints upon us, and not merely our liberties, should be reckoned among our rights and the grounds of our freedom. Pursuing unguarded liberty with things puts us in very real danger of having those things ‘take liberties’ with us (1 Corinthians 6:12). The loss of natural limitations often doesn’t leave us better off and many struggle to re-establish these broken barriers in the far less certain form of sanity-restoring disciplines.
The diagnostic tests that we should run — and should continually be running — ought to be informed by a clearer concept of what our freedom is for and the sorts of shapes that it takes. The bigger questions that we need to address are as follows: Do our particular uses of our smartphones, and our use of a smartphone more generally, have the actual effect — not just hold the theoretical possibility — of making us better servants of God and of our neighbors? Are our smartphones tools that facilitate our commitment to the central purposes and values of our lives, or are they — and our habitual modes of using them — constantly distracting, diverting, or obstructing us from them?
More specific diagnostic questions could include such as the following:
- Is my smartphone making it difficult for me to give the activities and persons in my life the full and undivided attention and self-presence that they require and deserve?
- Do I habitually use my smartphone as an easy escape and distraction from the difficult task of wrestling through the experience of lack of stimulation and boredom to the rewarding reality of true engagement?
- Is my smartphone use squeezing out my inner life, encroaching upon time that would otherwise be given to private contemplation, reflection, and meditation? Do I use it as a way to distract myself from unsettling truths and realities that can slowly come into focus in moments of silence and solitude?
- Am I using hyper-connectedness to substitute a self unthinkingly immersed in a shallow and amniotic communal consciousness and its emotions, for the difficult task of developing my own judgment, character, disciplines, resolve, and identity?
- Are my uses of my smartphone arresting and hampering my processes of deliberation and reflection, encouraging reactive judgments and premature decisions?
- Is my use of my smartphone mediating my relationship with and understanding of myself in unhealthy ways?
- Is my smartphone a tool that I use, or has it fettered my attention and time to other persons and activities that are wasteful and overly demanding of them?
- Are my uses of my smartphone preventing me from developing and maintaining healthy patterns and routines in my life, disrupting my sleeping patterns, interrupting my concentration upon my work, habituating me to the fragmentation of my time and attention?
- Is my smartphone usage consuming time that I used to or could potentially devote to worthier activities? Do I use my smartphone to ‘kill time’ that I could otherwise fill with prayer, reading, writing, edifying conversation, face-to-face interactions, etc.?
- Are my uses of my smartphone conducive to the faithfulness and freedom of others? Am I using my smartphone in ways that create unhealthy demands and pressures upon them?
Of course, as they are the epitome of multipurpose devices, our uses of our smartphones are complex and varied and their effect upon our lives in the aggregate is often difficult to assess for this reason. Consequently, it is important to attend both to particular uses of our smartphones and the space that they occupy in our lives more generally. Alan Jacobs’s article in The Atlantic on abandoning his smartphone for a ‘dumbphone’ is a good example of the benefits of ‘disaggregating’ the purposes and uses of our smartphones and determining which of them truly enrich and equip our lives’ purposes and values and which do not. One of the things that Jacobs observed, for instance, was that his smartphone represented a highly intimatized device for him in a way that his dumbphone could not. I suspect, however, that even a dumbphone would be intimatized for many of my own and younger generations, for whom intensive texting has represented a means of maintaining a persistent low-level hum of sociality throughout our day-to-day lives and activities (and significantly different patterns and levels of mobile phone uses and addictions can often be observed between the sexes in these respects).
These diagnostic tests are tests that we need to perform upon ourselves. We should beware of issuing general condemnations of devices or media more generally and of the communities that use them. Although there are common patterns of dysfunctional usage, these patterns of usage, while often encouraged by our media and devices and even more so by communities of users, are seldom straightforwardly determined by them.
Very helpful. Digital communications technology is disembodied. Life in the local church, on the other hand, is embodied, and it properly grounds us bodily. In the church we gather for fellowship, baptism, communion, and preaching. We are the Body (how could it get more embodied?!). If we ignore all this in favor of “digital fellowship,” what do we lose?
I would like to quibble slightly with the statement with which you open this question. Although I have often used the term myself, ‘disembodied’ is a term that might distract us from or render us forgetful of some issues that merit closer attention. Perhaps the most important of these is that we are constantly bodily engaged when go online, yet engaged in a way that consistently exalts one of our organs and senses over all of the others. The Internet is chiefly ordered around the eye and its mode of perception. The Internet renders the world as a unifying spectacle and its users as spectators and image projectors (a reality that Guy Debord presciently predicted in his 1967 book, La societié du spectacle). This ‘spectacle’ increasingly mediates and intermediates our relationships with ourselves, our world, and each other, and detaches us from the immediacy of human experience, relationship, and our natural lifeworlds. The contemporary person, for instance, may not feel that they have truly had their foreign holiday before that holiday has been rendered in the form of Instagram pictures, tweets, and Facebook status updates. The Internet becomes a sort of mirror within which we incessantly regard ourselves, establishing a cosmetically enhanced presentation of our selves and our personal realities. While not dismissing the possibility entirely, I would highly caution anyone who trusts too heavily in a reality encountered through the mediation of the ‘specious’ realm of the spectacle. While the Internet can be of great service to real world communities, it is a poor substitute for them.
Our digital communications revolution also ultimately rests upon a physical infrastructure (from our massive data centers with their high environmental impact to the tactile immediacy of our mobile devices). For instance, particularly when we are talking about our mobile devices, we need to give consideration to just how intensely they are developed with our bodies in mind and how seamlessly and intimately our bodies learn to relate to them (most of us have experienced “phantom vibrations” from our smartphones at some point). Many people sleep with their mobile devices and keep them on their persons at all times. Most of our mobile devices now operate using the finest flicks and lightest strokes of our fingers and, especially with the advent of devices such as the Apple Watch, are increasingly designed to relate ever more closely to our bodies.
While they may engage our bodies, in addition to the ‘speciousness’ I have already mentioned, it is the ‘frictionlessness’ of these devices and the world that they open to us that is most notable, the ways that they dispense with the resistance of materiality. While the materiality of what some have termed ‘meatspace’ bounds and binds us by such naturally differentiating factors as physical distance and locality, the physical distinctions and separations of our bodies from each other’s, and the structural and relational givenness of families, communities, and societies into which we arrive, such bounds and bonds disappear online.
Communities that arise within ‘frictionless’ conditions operate very differently from traditional communities, much as substances like water behave peculiarly in zero gravity. The appeal of digital fellowship often arises from the lack of friction either keeping people together or holding them at a remove from each other. Without the friction of obvious bodily difference intervening, for instance, many people find it much easier to experience or project a sense of oneness of mind with others. Without the friction of spatial distance holding me within my immediate locality and apart from people in other parts of the world, it is much easier to abandon difficult relationships with my neighbors for easy and undemanding ones with people very similar to me. However, by holding me in relation with people who are dislike me and often opposed to me, the friction of materiality forces me to grow in healthy ways that I might not otherwise choose.
‘Digital fellowship’ has a tendency to be a lot more homogeneous and homogenizing than its material counterparts. For instance, I recently remarked upon the dulling of our sense of generational difference and the honor due to our elders in the online world, where we all learn to address each other as peers and contemporaries. Similar observations could be made about office-holders and authority figures: many of our social media networks encourage an unhealthy over-familiarity, informality, and intimacy in our relationships with persons that God has placed over us. The structures of our social media almost universally represent society in the form of detached and self-defining individuals who chose their own affiliations, relationships, and preferences. I am struggling to think of any that truly reflect the givenness of our identities, the unchosenness of most of our relations, the significance of differences between different people’s statuses in life, and the ways in which we are subject to authorities and the claims of wider communities. Our differences are reduced to the level of indifference and society is flattened out.
It is easy to forget online, for instance, that our pastors are not just persons with theological opinions and dispensing spiritual counsel, but that they have been placed over us to watch over our souls and represent an authority exercised by our congregations more generally, an authority to which we are called to be subject. No theological blogger or online Bible teacher can take that place.
Yes, great point. Alastair, on this theme you wrote what I think is one of the most important paragraphs I have ever read on social media. It was in a blog comment from you, which will not surprise your friends (you write some epic blog comments). You said this:
The Internet can enable us to form connections with people with whom we have extremely particular things in common, making possible highly stimulating, enriching, and deepening interactions. I wouldn’t be where or who I am today were it not for online interactions sustaining and helping me to develop a perspective that often bears little relation to my immediate contexts over the years. This said, while I have undoubtedly gained an immense amount from these, I have frequently found them to be a retreat from the challenge of actual relationships with Christian neighbors with whom I differ, a temptation amplified for me by virtue of the fact that I can naturally be an extreme introvert, prone to reclusiveness. When you know that there is a place where everyone largely agrees with and values you, one can develop a reluctance to go to a church where you are not so valued, understood, or appreciated. The narcissism that can be characteristic of romantic ideals, romantic ideals that can actually drive us away from our real partners into escapist and emotionally comforting reveries, can also cause us to replace the concrete relationships of our given contexts with idealized communities in which we can forgo the struggles associated with the transformation of actual communities and the need to adapt to and be vulnerable to others.
So how do you break free from the constant lure of online likemindedness in order to benefit from online friction? And what helps you not neglect those awkward offline relationships?
I tend to think through argument so excessive likemindedness, while initially enjoyable, gradually leaves me feeling dissatisfied and unstimulated. This natural instinct, for which I am immensely grateful, has encouraged me to seek out difference and argument online and to give thought to ways in which we can argue faithfully and to mutual benefit. In resisting the lure of online likemindedness I have been spurred by a recognition that homogeneous communities tend to have exaggerated blindspots and unaddressed weaknesses. Exposure to the challenge of people who perceive, experience, inhabit, and understand the world differently is a necessary spur to growth. To the extent that online communities are homogeneous or homogenizing, it robs us of this.
I have also come to appreciate that the problem isn’t solely with the ‘likeness’ dimension of likemindedness, but also with the ‘mindedness’. Social media is an abstract realm that consistently privileges the mind over the body. However, the Christian faith has always been grounded in the life of the body. As Christians we don’t just share beliefs, open up about our feelings, and give opinions: we share meals and open our houses to others, we give to those in need, we meet together, and are physically present to each other. A ‘community’ that lacks these elements is hardly worthy of being called a community at all. This doesn’t mean that online relationships can’t be deeply and often surprisingly enriching. However, when they are they are straining towards something that can’t be achieved within the confines of the virtual itself.
Embodiment goes far beyond encountering people with different beliefs and opinions. Embodiment involves intense exposure to the friction of the world, myself, and other people in their obstinate and frustrating reality. Developing a carefully managed online representation of myself is relatively easy; living as a faithful Christian in the unobserved moments of my life is considerably harder. There is a constant danger of substituting an online representation of myself for the lived reality of my life, living vicariously through the former in a way that papers over the failures and corruption of the latter. This isn’t just true of my own self, but also of social reality. In the egalitarian uniformity of our social media profiles and the exclusivity of our walled social network neighborhoods, realities such as poverty, disability, and age and the people who live with them are largely invisible to us.
Living our lives vicariously in the realm of the online spectacle to the neglect or dissembling of reality is a structural form of hypocrisy. If I am to obey the calling of one who desires truth in the inner parts, it is imperative that I address and wrestle with the self I dare not project, that I engage with the social reality that lurks behind the façade, and that I am present to the people who are invisible in our society’s spectacle.
Back to the quote, speak to the person who has a strong presence in social media, and then they show up to church on Sunday where they feel undervalued, misunderstood, and perhaps overlooked. What advice do you have for them to know that, yes, they are likely where God wants them to be?
I have been struck by how distorted an impression of social reality online media can give. The sharp sense of dissonance between our ‘strong presence’ in social media and our seeming lack of ‘presence’ in the Sunday morning meeting can be illuminating of this. When we experience this sense it is perhaps a sign of our excessive self-regard that our first thoughts run to our supposed right to be more appreciated, rather than to the fact that so very many of the people we worship with in our churches have little or no presence in our privileged and exclusive circles on social media.
Our online contexts are dominated by relatively affluent, cosmopolitan, Western, highly educated, literate and articulate, young, middle class persons. Children, the elderly, the poor, those with less education or lower levels of literacy, and persons from less cosmopolitan and non-Western contexts are largely invisible. That is, the majority of the human race.
James counsels the rich hearers of his epistle to glory in their ‘humiliation’, because they and their riches will pass away as a flower of the field. When we experience a sense of invisibility in our local churches, it may be God’s way of teaching us something about the superficiality and ephemerality of our privileged online statuses. It may also be that God wants us to attend, not to our own sense of entitlement, but to other people’s lack of visible presence in realms where our education, wealth, connections, articulacy, and level of access grant us a high profile and a hearing. Perhaps we may think more deeply about how we can serve others; our gifts and statuses have been given to us for the sake of our brothers and sisters in Christ, not merely for our own, and we should employ them in light of this knowledge.
So, our digital profile is plastic and malleable — we can edit and project ourselves as we please. Our physical profile exists in a much more fixed state — we are largely the product of biological factors we cannot control. For most people, do you think social media is an attempt to disguise our physical limitations, or a way to express the sort of control we wish we had over our physical selves?
I don’t think that most people are alert to the ways in which their profile in various social media has come to shape the way that they relate to themselves. I don’t think that our use of social media is initially an attempt to gain control over ourselves. It does tend to become such an attempt very quickly, though, simply through the sort of reflexivity of self-understanding that the habitual practice of self-representation encourages. In an earlier response, I remarked upon the manner in which the Internet functions as a spectacle and that this spectacle mediates our relationships, not merely with others, but also with ourselves. The projected representation of ourselves within this shared spectacle can be a means of vicarious or idealized self-realization. This occurs as my personal sense of self becomes increasingly dependent upon and represented in the ‘self’ that is represented in my Facebook profile, Instagram account, Twitter feed, Tumblr, and other such media.
The advent of social media and mobile connected devices is, in certain respects, a development akin to the movement from a world without any clear mirrors to one where highly reflective surfaces are ubiquitous. Just as the physical mirror image powerfully mediates my sense of my bodily self, the virtual mirror of social media now powerfully mediates my sense of who I am as a relational and social being. If the physical mirror feeds many anxieties and obsessions with our bodily appearance, the mirror of social media has a similar effect for our sense of our selves within our communities and society more broadly.
Of course, although they can have a similar relation to our increasingly reflexive senses of self, our self-projections on social media are not perfect mirror images, but representations involving an element of control, as you observe. Our careful curation of our virtual representations is not unlike the application of cosmetics to conceal unattractive blemishes. Online we also have the advantage of highly selective self-representation, choosing to present only our most attractive angles and exclude much else from view.
In speaking about ‘control’, however, it is important that we recognize the degree to which our self-projections in the shared spectacle of social media are experienced as disempowering, alienating, and anxiety-producing by many. Our practice of ‘control’ may feel less like an act of taking charge than one of mitigating a new threat. Just as the mirror can torment people with the awareness of themselves as objects to the gaze of a judging other, the mirror of social media can come with a terrifying sense of exposure to social judgment (or a disorienting sense of alienation from the representations of ourselves that we see there). Also, while the mirror merely allows us to see what others could already see, social media pressures us to share with others something altogether more intimate, and not previously publicly visible: our self-representations.
As Christians, I believe that it is important that we wrestle with the struggles, crises, and distortions of self-relation that can afflict us in the environment of new media. There are unhealthy dynamics present here that we need to be alert to and which require us carefully to negotiate and consider our use of online social media. We must also give thought to the ways that the gospel can bring light and hope to experiences of condemnation and judgment that are more peculiar to our hyper-connected age.
Speaking of this, in social media, why do you think it is so likely two people to go after each other’s throats in angry debate, but it is so unlikely that those two people will find humble resolution in the end? What does online hostility say about the limits of digital media in resolving serious disagreements?
Debates can serve important purposes even when the immediate participations arrive at no resolution. They hone our thinking by stress-testing our positions and they also serve to reveal to spectators the relative strength of different positions. In debate I don’t usually set out to persuade my opponent, but to persuade the third party who is watching. I also aim to sharpen my own understanding and case, to discover its strengths and weaknesses, and to provide myself with a clearer sense of where I need to improve or change it. Thought can be strengthened through certain forms of conflict.There is a difference between the ‘agonism’ of a good debate and the ‘antagonism’ of vicious and angry argument. In agonism, we struggle together because the struggle has the potential to be rewarding for both of us. Agonism is typically marked by mutual respect and admiration: we value those who can strengthen and cause us to grow through their challenge to and conflict with us, even when differences between us remain.
There is a difference between the ‘agonism’ of a good debate and the ‘antagonism’ of vicious and angry argument. In agonism, we struggle together because the struggle has the potential to be rewarding for both of us. Agonism is typically marked by mutual respect and admiration: we value those who can strengthen and cause us to grow through their challenge to and conflict with us, even when differences between us remain. Agonism is an important form of bonding for many of us. By contrast, antagonism is a conflict characterized by such things as anger, hatred, or a drive to destroy or remove the other person.
Social media is not a place where healthy agonism thrives. Its pathological forms of relations, however, do not come merely in the form of violent antagonisms but also in the other — and closely related — extreme of the intense conflict-averseness characteristic of many online communities, where challenge, criticism, and disagreement are fiercely resisted and hyper-conformity expected in stiflingly intimate contexts. I have commented on these dynamics in detail, where I discuss the phenomena using the foil of Jane Austen’s depiction of the community of Meryton in Pride and Prejudice. Why is healthy agonism so rare online and why does conflict, where it occurs, so typically take the form of angry antagonism? Here I believe that the ‘frictionlessness’ I remarked upon earlier is a significant factor. Social media are often far too highly ‘conductive’ and bring us too close together for effective argument.
Why is healthy agonism so rare online and why does conflict, where it occurs, so typically take the form of angry antagonism? Here I believe that the ‘frictionlessness’ I remarked upon earlier is a significant factor. Social media are often far too highly ‘conductive’ and bring us too close together for effective argument.
I have found the insights of both Edwin Friedman and René Girard very helpful in understanding the dysfunctional dynamics of Internet argument. In their different ways, both Friedman and Girard appreciated the danger of and the potential for violence in communities that are related too closely together. Such dangers are not usually recognized or taken seriously: people presume that community and forces such as empathy are inherently and uniformly good things and that we just need more of them. However, Friedman and Girard both draw attention to the fact that undifferentiated communities — communities whose members are too closely related to and identified with each other — tend to produce violent and reactive herd-dynamics. Such communities act through collective instinct rather than through considered response. They stampede like startled herds of cattle and emotions whip through them like firestorms. The way that we speak of the movement of ideas, emotions, advertising, cultural products, and pieces of information online using the language of ‘memes’ and ‘virality’ is very telling. Our agency is diminished as we merely react to and become the bearers of mass movements of emotion and interest that have taken on a life of their own.
The dangerously undifferentiated character of social media is part of the appeal for many. It is this undifferentiation that enables people to feel such an intimate connection with other people online, to experience such a high level of emotional resonance. Being caught up in shared feeling, a common sense of outrage, or being collectively drawn to a shared focus of interest produces a pronounced and addictive feeling of togetherness and belonging. Yet becoming creatures driven by the reactive instincts of the herd is dangerous. The herd doesn’t deliberate. The herd doesn’t reflect and then respond. The herd runs according to the immediacy of impressions, rather than through the responsible act of interpretation. The herd can’t negotiate difference with maturity.
Social media breaks down many of the means by which we are capable of developing a self distinct from the herd and by which we are enabled to respond rather than react. Social media moves exceedingly fast, breaking down the differentiating factor of time. Online the natural differentiation established by physical distance no longer exists. With more delay in time comes more of an interval for reflection and less of a drive to arrive at conclusions and responses prematurely. The density of relations in social media often denies us the emotional and personal space in which we can act and think for ourselves without experiencing crippling peer pressure. Social media obscures the differences between social and personal location. On social media people are typically anonymous and interchangeable account users: their backgrounds and histories, families, neighborhoods, places in society, and psychologies are invisible to us, often leaving us unmindful of these realities. Social media also dulls our awareness of differences in social status, placing the voices of elders, leaders, authority figures, experts, and professionals on much the same level as that of the opinionated man on the street. Social media breaks down the distinctions between public and private spaces, bringing the disagreements of public spaces into those realms to which we would retreat and where we are more likely to feel threatened. Disagreements on Facebook feel more threatening to people for whom Facebook is their realm of connection and close relation and they are more likely to react instinctively rather than respond thoughtfully as a result. Social media collapses contexts, forcing different groups of persons who would otherwise be able to enjoy friendly relations at a healthy distance into close contact with each other’s threatening and stifling differences, rather than giving us all the space and the places within which to be distinct. Social media disguises the differentiation of bodies, diminishing our sense of other people in their ‘full-bodied’ personhood and difference from us.
The result of all of this is that we become exceedingly close to each other. Creating the differentiation that enables us to have well-defined selves with a genuine inner life is a huge challenge in such contexts. Differentiation is like the skin that enables us to draw a boundary between one self and another, marking out the place where one self begins and another ends, preventing selves from fusing in some shared ‘emotional plasma’. Where such differentiation is lacking things can get ‘under our skin’ far more easily where they are experienced as immediate threats to our selves and identities. Agonism requires the development of ‘thick skins’, which enable us to engage closely with things that are alien to us in a way that protects us from their infecting us and initiating our natural reactive and defensive mechanisms. However, a well-functioning agonistic society isn’t merely formed by individual virtue, but by structures that maintain healthy differences and distances between us and others. This, I contend, is something that social media is actively undermining.
In society, debates and conflicts are typically bounded and mediated. In our parliamentary chambers we may have speakers. In our courtrooms we have judges. In our debating chambers we have moderators. On our playing fields we have umpires and referees. The purpose of such contexts and figures is to bound, mitigate, and keep under control the dangerous tendencies of conflict, to seek to maintain the ordering of agonism to ends and its submission to laws and rules beyond itself. Where such mediation is lacking, conflict can easily devolve into pure antagonism, our sole purpose being the subjugation of our adversary, the conflict itself consuming our entire attention. Mediating and bounding factors are minimal on social media. We do not have separate contexts for engaging in healthy conflict, but it bleeds into all areas of our online lives. We do not have a clear sense of a broader reality that exceeds and bounds our conflicts. In the world of interchangeable and relatively undifferentiated social media profiles, the fuller social and personal reality of our opponents is largely invisible to us, so they are easily reduced to the dehumanizing level of pure and mere adversaries. We do not have robust and well-designed institutional structures and third parties to mediate and manage our conflicts (online culture widely exhibits a distrust of institutional and traditional structures over the individual). Unsurprisingly, the result is the widespread presence of antagonisms that become more and more totalizing, making it harder for us to enjoy friendship amidst disagreement.
If we are to debate effectively online, we will have to be very mindful. We need to establish through determined creation and personal resolution the structures and conditions of healthy discourse that online media tend to deny us. Effective debate is a product of well-crafted institutions and structures as much as it is a product of intellectual virtue. As Christians we need to forge contexts that restore healthy forms of differentiation.
As individuals within an environment hostile to healthy debate, however, there are also steps that we can take ourselves. One of the most helpful things I have found in sharp online disagreements is to ensure that my relationship with my opponent is mediated in a healthy manner by thanking God for them and praying for their good and that of the people in their lives. This forces me to remember what the online environment obscures to me: that my interlocutors are multi-faceted persons created and loved by God, that I should be concerned with their well-being and not merely allow our differences to consume all of my attention. Consistently praying in such a manner in the midst of disagreements is important. A further thing I have found important is regularly to go out of my way to practice friendship with people with whom I have sharp differences, situating our differences within a context of mutual respect and appreciation. Doing this, one soon realizes that, far from merely serving to improve one’s manner of debate, such relationships can profoundly enrich one’s life.
As we have mentioned already, the web is increasingly a place of image and video. Christians are called to live by faith and not by sight. Where should Christians feel the tension between endless visual delights on their phone with living by eternal realities that cannot be seen?
Earlier I remarked upon the connection between the online world and the apotheosis of the eye and its mode of perception. It is noteworthy that in Scripture it is often the ear that seems to be the privileged organ, particularly prior to the eschaton. Living by sight is contrasted with living by faith in the heard Word. While our culture based around the eye positions us as those gazing upon, bewitched by, and projecting ourselves into a shared spectacle, the Scriptural emphasis upon the ear is less absorbed in such a spectacular immediacy (here I ought to note that the sharp disjunctions between sonic and visual cultures in the works of such as Walter Ong or Marshall McLuhan need to be handled with caution: subsequent research has called into question many of their bolder claims).
The limit of sight, as Don Ihde has observed, is not darkness but invisibility, while the horizon and background of sound is silence. The act of listening is a gesture towards this horizon — ‘Shhhhh!! I’m trying to listen.’ In careful listening we make ourselves more vulnerable and open to our environment and to the movements within its silence. In sound we encounter, not merely surfaces, but also unseen interiors and depths, the living ‘voices’ of things, the world, and others. The horizon of silence is an open one from which voices previously mute might emerge. In listening we can attend to that which is invisible, to the living and personal depths of persons, not least myself. In relating and gesturing to the openness of the horizon of silence in focused listening we can experience something of the presence of the invisible. The association of the presence of God, not merely with the voice of his Word among his people, but with silence and stillness is not accidental.
I wonder whether, in the intensity of the audio-visual world of the Internet, with its clamor and its spectacle, we dull our awareness of a depth beyond its surfaces or of a reality beyond the immediate and the visible. As we enjoy a rich wealth of background music on tap, the unsettling reality of an open horizon of silence, with its intimations of the silent and invisible presences it may possibly contain, is far less commonly encountered. When this is coupled with the hypnotic dazzle of a visually diverting online realm, our preoccupied senses can leave our attention inured to any reality that might exceed the immediate and visible. I fear that our hyperkinetic, cacophonous, and riotous audio-visual environments erode the art of silent and attentive listening and with it our sense of the presence of the invisible.
I want to carry this same theme over to the data deluge of our online world. In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman contrasted George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Postman writes, “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much information that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared that the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.” Was Huxley right?
Huxley’s fear was not without justification. That said, however, I am not sure that the problems that we face should be narrowly attributed to the quantity of ‘information’ we possess. The information as such is not the issue so much as the pathological relationship that we have developed with it. We feel overwhelmed, not primarily on account of the quantity of information in our society but on account of the failure or lack of functional processes for dealing with it. In the past I have compared our relationship to information with our relationship with food. The rise of the health problem of obesity is not merely a result of the quantity of food in our societies, but is also affected by our changing cultural relationships with food and practices surrounding food production and consumption. Similar things can be said about information.
Terms such as ‘information’ or ‘data’ can be unhelpful in their vagueness. Speaking of ‘information’ as such tends to detach it from the processes to which it belongs. Instead of speaking of the problem of ‘information’, we need to take a step back and ask about, for instance, the nature of our processes of deliberation, reflection, and social connection and how information has come to function within these. When we do this, I believe that we may discover that the culprit is seldom information itself but the dysfunctional social processes that drive us to produce and consume it excessively.
For instance, what exactly are we looking for when we spend an hour scrolling through tweets or Facebook posts? Information? Why do we share small details of our day-to-day lives, feelings, impressions, and opinions obsessively? To ‘inform’ people? Here it can be helpful to reflect upon what some have termed ‘phatic communication,’ speech whose purpose is not to inform (although ‘information’ may be contained within it) but to connect or to socially groom. Much of the ‘information’ in which we are deluged is of such a kind. On closer examination, even the ‘information’ that may seem to apprise us of significant realities formerly unknown to us in our world frequently bears much in common with the information within phatic communication; it envisages or initiates no responsive process of reflection, deliberation, or action in the hearer. The information isn’t given to us and we do not seek it out primarily in order to become wiser or to act more responsibly, but in order to feel connected, ‘informed’ (the consuming of information being an end in itself), and up to date. The sense of connection being sought may be with our wider online social environment or with the pressing national political conversations and our chosen tribe’s part within them, but it is the quest for connection that often drives our appetite for information.
Oliver O’Donovan insightfully diagnoses this:
There is a folly of opinion, which finds satisfaction, as the proverb says, not in understanding but in expressing one’s mind (Proverbs 18:2). Unlike the inconsiderate folly, this has exposed itself to the dialectic of social interrogation. But driven by a dread of having nothing to contribute to the social exchange, it allows society’s exchanges to direct it, rather than the realities that they should be communicating. ‘Where we are now’ becomes the sole measure of truth — always ‘we,’ never ‘I,’ for the voice is that of the immanent collective, not of a formed judgment.
Here is the ‘simple’ of the Proverbs, who ‘believes everything’ (Proverbs 14:15), and here is the ‘scoffer,’ who ‘does not like to be reproved’ (Proverbs 15:12), the suggestible and the counter-suggestible, one echoing the current views and the other reacting against them, both wholly creatures of them, forming no judgment and offering no dialogical resistance. Opinion gains no coherence, and so has no prospect of growth. It is neither accumulative nor critical but reactive, a series of discontinued beginnings.
A self too weak to interrogate or argue with the successive new reports of reality that reach it makes no contribution to communications by reporting its own experience or questioning others’ reports. The mind is lively enough — images of the world and its doings and constantly formed and re-formed — but it is no more than a screen onto which public reflections are projected. . . .
The passions aroused by the news have a purely representative character, like those aroused by tragedy on the stage. Sharpening our arrows of opinion and firing them off at actors they will never reach, pronouncing judgments that involve us in no actual responsibility, we go through the motions of playing a part in the great communicative drama and so work off surplus active impulses before turning to the tasks that actually lie before us. We may, perhaps, feel more resolute about those tasks as a result of the exercise, but this is not the result of anything we have learned. (2014: 86–87)
The problem that O’Donovan identifies is not an excess of ‘information’, but our ungoverned appetite for connectedness with the immediacy and insistent urgency of the ‘great communicative drama’ of our society. This ungoverned appetite produces a world where instant opinions and ever hotter ‘takes’ are the bellowing noise that drowns out any voices of seasoned reflection and patient deliberation, which will always be several steps behind the immediacy of the current issues that are absorbing the collective consciousness.
The more time we give to reading Christian classics, for instance, the more we may fear falling out of touch with the supposed pressing matters of the moment. This urgency, of course, is a false one that we must resist, one produced by our own misplaced anxiety. The problem is not in the ‘onslaught of digital media’ but in the ungoverned appetites of our own hearts. Our sense of a lack of connection may well be real, but it will not best be met in drinking from and adding to the firehose of social media updates and takes on the latest events, but in giving our lives in service to our neighbors and in seeking the face of God.
As we learn to resist the excesses of our appetite for connection and the addiction to the production and consumption of trivialities and information divorced from healthy processes of reflection and deliberation, the better we will be prepared to restore such processes in our lives and communities. Once again, differentiation is an important factor here. We must learn to wrench ourselves away from the magnetic pull of the ‘immanent collective’ that O’Donovan describes, to differentiate ourselves from the opinionating herds on all sides. As we create space apart and distance away from these it will be possible to restore the solitude, the silence, and the time that mature reflection and deliberation demand. In so doing we will once more be prepared to reap the harvest of wisdom that such disciplines yield.
Next, a question for Alastair the online creator. I find it nearly impossible to perceive the influence of my writings online. And of course the ultimate value of our work is left for God to adjudicate. But you’ve been blogging and engaging social media for fifteen years or so. You’re engaged on Twitter and you publish a constant stream of longform pieces. How do you weigh the power of influence on Twitter and Facebook with your longform articles? From your vantage point, when it comes to influencing others, how do you weigh the return on your time investment in social media vs. articles vs. book writing? Can you quantify that?
For most of my time as a writer online and even down to the present, my primary purpose has not been the influencing of the minds of others so much as the formation of my own. Blogging, when I first started, was a more communal medium, with different blogs engaging in an aerated and challenging conversation, sharpening their thinking in dialogue. I joined this conversation less to influence than to be influenced by thinkers I admired. Furthermore, it has always been my personal experience that the best way to improve one’s thinking is to go to the effort of putting one’s thoughts into writing. My blog has for many years served as a tool for me to learn and to make up my mind in public. When I assess the return on my time investment in blogging it is this that weighs most heavily. That I have been able to share my journey of theological discovery with others and influence readers along the way are added benefits.
Twitter has served slightly different purposes for me (and many of my followers might complain that I employ an inappropriately ‘longform’ style there too!). Twitter has been like a vast and bustling corridor onto different rooms, each holding the promise of different conversations and discoveries. I have appreciated Twitter as a source of links and a window onto different worlds of knowledge and experience. It has also been a benefit to enjoy the sorts of conversations that one might have in a corridor with many friends there. Many such conversations have been fortuitous sparks that have ignited my interest in new areas of inquiry. As in any busy corridor, it has also yielded many serendipitous encounters with people with whom far deeper friendships have subsequently been forged.
Writing a book is a rather different sort of process to all of these things. A blog is a more provisional and ephemeral form of publication, thought suspended in the waters of a moving mind that has yet to be completely made up. By contrast, a book represents a degree of closure and sedimentation of thought. Writing a book demands a far greater level of responsibility and accountability. As a practice it is also more driven by the concern to serve and influence others than blog writing has ever been for me.
In my decade online, living among reformed Christians in America, I have seen a sharp rise in the number of Christians who closely track daily news cycles. Ever-emerging online is something of a Christian news cycle (featuring the breaking news from within the church). Our phones can light up to the next emerging breaking story. At what point does our ability to know everything happening in the world and in the church go wrong for the Christian?
In a far more perceptive reflection on some of the themes raised by this question than I could ever hope to provide, Oliver O’Donovan observes:
If “new every morning” is the tempo of divine grace and the tempo of our personal responsibilities, it is because the morning is a time when one can look back intelligently and look forward hopefully. It is the tempo of practical reason. The media’s “new every morning” (quickly becoming “new every moment”) is, one may dare to say, in flat contradiction to that daily offer of grace. It serves rather to fix our perception upon the momentary now, preventing retrospection, discouraging deliberation, holding us spellbound in a suppositious world of the present which, like hell itself, has lost its future and its past. (2014: 237)
A desire to feel connected to the immediacy of current events and the conversations that surround them is a trap that many of us — myself most definitely included — have often fallen into. As O’Donovan recognizes, our obsession with the new, with the ‘roar’ of the ‘breaking wave’ privileges first impressions over considered reflections, the immediacy of the present moment over the broad sweep of historical context. His remark upon our peculiar obsession with the news is worthy of reflection:
Every culture concerns itself with news-bringing in one form or another; most other cultures have been more relaxed about it. Perhaps simply because we have the power to communicate news quickly and widely, we are on edge about it, afraid that the world will change behind our backs if we are not au fait with a thousand dissociated facts that do not concern us directly. It is a measure of our metaphysical insecurity, which is the constant driver in the modern urge for mastery. (2014: 234)
In an age where news can travel around the world in a matter of seconds, it is easy to forget how peculiarly novel the urgency our swift moving news instills in us actually is (the news of the fall of the Alamo didn’t reach London for over two months). In the age where news travelled exceedingly slowly, time given to deliberation and reflection would feel considerably more natural. With an addiction to the news cycle we are in danger, not only of losing the natural ‘tempo of practical reason’ O’Donovan identifies, but of disengaging the process of practical reason more generally. For how many of us is the news cycle really material for practical deliberation, rather than an addiction to feeling ‘informed’ and engaged in the national conversations?
So do you retreat from social media? If so, how? And for how long?
I do, usually in a manner that discriminates between various social media. I joined Facebook in 2005 and left it in 2010, concerned at the sort of place it was becoming and the ways my use of it was affecting me. Over Lent I will often abandon Twitter and sometimes also blogging, taking the opportunity to re-establish my sense of priorities and fortifying my core commitments. When I return to social media after such a period, I am better able to keep things measured and controlled. Last week I shuttered my personal Twitter account for the rest of the year to give me more time to concentrate on reading and writing and also to take a step back from a context that I have been finding increasingly oppressive and antagonistic. At the moment I am unsure if I will return. Being off social media, giving myself the space to act responsibly apart from the crowd, leaving behind the constant practice of self-representation and the immediacy of the hypnotic spectacle, learning to be in silence again, and rediscovering space for reflection and deliberation beyond the stifling urgency of the Internet has been tremendously rewarding.
Amen, thank you for your time and thoughts, Alastair.
P.S. Roberts returned to Twitter in 2017.