I bought myself an iPad in August 2016, and to say that it changed my life would be only a slight overstatement. For several years I had been experiencing increasingly severe hand pain that limited my ability to write by hand for any length of time. Even signing my own name had become painful, much less taking notes during an entire lecture or class. Among other possibilities the iPad creates for me, its touchscreen keyboard enables me to take notes while reading and at conferences and talks, to provide substantive feedback on my students’ work, and to send and receive emails while away from my ergonomic desk setup (another example of technology’s usefulness for working while managing chronic pain)—all indispensable tasks for a doctoral student. Of course, my iPad has also fueled my Twitter habit and introduced me to the deep rabbit’s hole of mobile gaming, both of which have consumed many hours that could certainly have been better spent in leisure reading, face-to-face interactions, or prayer. But these downsides do not negate the real benefits of using the iPad, benefits without which I am not sure I would have been able to finish my PhD.
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Whenever we visit my husband’s grandmother, sooner or later she asks us about some weird Facebook messages she’s been getting. The messages appear to come from accounts that belong to friends of hers, or even family—usually people she hasn’t seen for many years, but still cares about and remembers fondly. The names and profile pictures check out; sometimes the messages even contain details, such as children’s names, that support the identification. But the contents of the messages take a strange turn, often asking for financial assistance (though not always right away). We, her Millennial and GenZ grandchildren, immediately smell frauds. We tell her to ignore the messages, even to block the accounts that sent them. And she does, quickly agreeing with us that these couldn’t possibly be legitimate. But a few months later, she comes to us with the same questions and the same uncertainty. Eventually, I realize that there is more going on here than an old woman’s lack of technological savvy. What we are witnessing is an old woman’s loneliness.
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A younger generation’s technological wherewithal does not mean that we are less desperate for human connection, but rather that we have multiple means—multiple technologies—with which to satisfy it. We are able not only to identify but, more importantly, to resist the Facebook scammers, not because we are less lonely, but because we have other ways of reaching out to the people we want to connect with. For example, as my home church’s newly formed student group grew in numbers and expanded its weekly activities to include not only Bible study but also frequent social gatherings for meals, ice cream, or games, an ordinary group text quickly become unwieldy. To make sure we still included one member who used a flip phone, we created a GroupMe, a group messaging platform that allows users to participate from a web portal, mobile app, or SMS. Already well-established by March 2020, this group chat became a major source of community for its members during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to the standard fare of silly memes and thought-provoking links, participants shared prayer requests and gratitude for answered prayers, theological questions and life advice, and (in the case of one couple) many, many baby pictures. We use the group chat to arrange rides for impromptu or planned meetups (now that we can safely gather again), as well as to stay connected with dear friends who have now moved away. In fact, the social ecosystem of which this group chat is a part provides an excellent example of technology as supplement to in-person community.
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A certain kind of Christian cultural analysis tends to exhibit what I call “technological nostalgia.” That is, it identifies modern technological innovations, especially screen-based devices and social media, as one of the greatest threats to Christian faithfulness in the late-modern, secular age, and urges Christians to limit their reliance on such technology. I have in mind here not so much books that explicitly discuss the appropriate role of technology in the Christian life (e.g., Andy Crouch’s The Tech-Wise Family), but rather books whose primary focus and goal is recovering a robust view of Christian community and wholistic, long-range Christian formation. Building on the cultural critiques of philosophers Charles Taylor (in A Secular Age and elsewhere) and James K. A. Smith (especially the Cultural Liturgies trilogy), these works argue that sustaining Christian faithfulness needs more than mere intellectual instruction, whether in theology or apologetics or political philosophy. Rather, it requires long-term training in habits of body, mind, and heart, side by side with others who are similarly committed to developing Christian virtues. That is, Christian faithfulness depends upon Christian formation and Christian community. And these authors take a generally distrustful stance toward new technologies as tending to undermine the goals of community and formation.
For example, in his widely discussed manifesto The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, Rod Dreher claims, “Online technology, in its various forms, is a phenomenon that by its very nature fragments and scatters our attention like nothing else, radically compromising our ability to make sense of the world, physiologically rewiring our brains and rendering us increasingly helpless against our impulses.” Despite its apparent neutrality, technology is “an ideology” and “a worldview”—and a deeply dangerous one, at that. It promises control and endless creativity, but ultimately ends up controlling us.
What Dreher fails to see is that for people who live with various kinds of disabilities, technology is not an “endless quest to master nature”—our bodies remind us every day that that will never happen!—but a set of tools that make it possible to live and work within our bodily limitations. Dreher encourages his readers to resist the control of technology by “do[ing] more things with our hands.… Getting our hands dirty, so to speak, with gardening, cooking, sewing, exercise, and the like, is a crucial way of restoring our sense of connection with the real world.” For people with disabilities, our “sense of connection with the real world” is often all too strong already! In my own case, living with chronic pain means that gardening, cooking, sewing, and exercise are always painful, often incredibly difficult, and sometimes completely impossible.
The right technologies serve to make these and other “interactions with the material world” far more manageable; in some cases, technology is the only reason these tasks are possible at all. Dreher’s technological nostalgia posits a false dichotomy between technology and the material world and assumes an able-bodied individual who needs no technological assistance to interact with the “real world.” Far better to pursue technological innovations that work alongside our bodies, remedying our physical limitations not for the purpose of forgetting that we are creatures, but in order to enable us to more readily fulfill our callings and serve one another.
Besides “doing things with your hands,” Dreher suggests reconnecting with “the real world” by “doing things face to face with other people.” Once again there is a false dichotomy here: Dreher can see no way for technological innovations to make it easier to connect with others in-person. For example, Dreher himself acknowledges that the Internet has made “it possible for me to live where I want to live because I can work from home.” But he does not connect this to his desire to nurture geographically-close Christian communities. Perhaps if more Christians were free, through technology, to work from anywhere, they could live closer to one another and thereby build stronger communities.
On the other hand, the Internet and related technologies can also make it possible to sustain rich, deep Christian community across geographic distances. Dreher argues, “immersion in technology causes us to lose our collective memory. Without memory, we don’t know who we are, and if we don’t know who we are, we become whatever our momentary passions wish us to be.” But my own experiences, for example with the Bible study group chat described above, demonstrate that the proper use of technology can actually promote and sustain collective memory. By continuing to interact with old members of our Bible study who have moved to other parts of the country (and the world), we have retained a link to our own collective past that has continued to enrich our sense of identity and community.
The concern that technology mostly works to undermine in-person community features prominently in Jake Meador’s In Search of the Common Good, as well. With greater nuance than Dreher, Meador considers attempts to use technology to rebuild community, particularly through Facebook and other social media. Although he acknowledges the aspirations on the part of both users and designers to create connection through social media, he points out that these attempts largely backfire. Not only does social media fail to deliver on its promise to build and sustain human connection, but by keeping us focused on our screens, it actually pulls us away from the in-person human beings we encounter every day.
I have certainly found this to be the case in my own life. Whether trying and failing to start a conversation with a teenage cousin (or a grandmother) whose attention is devoted to a screen, or finding myself more interested in my mobile game or Twitter feed than in hearing about my housemate’s day, technology subtly draws us away from the face-to-face interactions with the lure of constant diversion.
Yet I have also experienced the opposite, as I have already mentioned in the case of my Bible study’s group chat. Meador rightly observes that, “As human creatures, we want to share our lives with other people. We want our lives to have witnesses.” But he goes on to repeat the same false dichotomy we saw in Dreher: “And witnessing another person’s life requires more than simply sending them strings of letters via an electronic device. It requires time. It requires physical presence. It requires affection.” Rightly designed and rightly used, technology can actually make it possible to bear witness to one another’s lives. Under the right circumstances, the messages we send through our apps and devices become much more than simply “strings of letters.” They become the words of encouragement or exhortation, compassion or companionship, that a brother or sister needs to hear.
Of the books discussed here, Alan Noble’s Disruptive Witness offers the most complex and nuanced account of technology, focusing not on screens or electronics as inherently dangerous in themselves but rather on a) the role played by new technologies in creating and sustaining a broader culture of distraction, and b) the effects of living in a largely man-made world on our awareness of transcendence. As he explains, “Our pervasive culture of technological distraction dramatically exacerbates the effects of the buffered self, which in turn feeds the demand for technology of distraction…. Modern media technology focuses largely on two goals: capturing our attention and gathering our data. While the latter has troubling implications for our privacy, the former has a direct effect on our ability to encounter and contemplate the holy.”
Noble explicitly rejects a “reactionary stance” toward technology. “Barring a catastrophic event or a dramatic shift in the structures and goals of modern technology,” he writes, “we can expect that for the foreseeable future our society will be in part defined by technology designed to continually distract us. Wise Christians will discern how to appropriately use new media and technology, not withdraw and rail against it.” And he recognizes that minimizing or withdrawing from technology use does not necessarily prevent distraction or promote wonder; for example, a policy of “no phones at the dinner table” may simply make space for planning the day’s tasks. “It is a time of rest from screens and technology, but not from preoccupation.”
Accordingly, Noble offers a modest solution to help us stop being consumed by distractions, whether via technologies or not. He calls this solution “low-hanging fruit”: it is simply to stop filling every spare moment with distractions. (I have been deeply convicted in the days and weeks after reading Disruptive Witness of just how quickly I reach for my phone every time I have to wait more than a few seconds for anything or anyone!) Noble’s rationale for this suggestion is as beautiful as it is convicting:
A habit like this can allow you to see God’s creation anew, to process experiences, to reflect on sins, to be grateful. Most important, such a habit is an embodied claim that “Redeeming the time” for the days are evil means redeeming it for God, for his glory, not for profitability, productivity, efficiency, or plain busyness. How on earth can we redeem each moment for him if we are so absorbed by the next thing that we forget he exists at all?
Overall, Noble’s greatest concern is not with the technology we do or don’t use in itself, but rather with our ability to hear and respond to the radical call of the gospel, whether for the first or the thousandth time. He argues that a technologically-mediated culture filled with messages of undifferentiated urgency and importance deafens our ears to the gospel:
The space between the trivial and the crucial has shrunk. Everything is important all of the time, and you are obligated to keep up. Just as it is harder for us to sort all our correspondence when it comes in the same medium, it can be difficult for us to communicate the gospel if we primarily use mediums that are traditionally devoted to triviality….I am not making an argument against the use of modern technology. People who use email and text messaging regularly are not less likely to convert to Christianity—so far as I know. Nor is conversion dependent on proper psychological conditions; the Holy Spirit’s call is not constrained by such things. The point is that our past models of discussing faith have almost all assumed a listener who is active, attentive, and aware of the cost of believing—a listener who conceives of a thick world. But as we have moved to a distractive age, we can no longer make this assumption.
This renewed focus on evangelism is refreshing after Dreher’s and Meador’s emphasis on shoring up communities of like-minded Christians (which is not wrong in itself; we need both). Noble encourages us to consider how the technologies we choose to share the gospel position our hearers to receive it, or not: “We’ve tried to communicate the gospel with cultural tools that are used to promote preferences, not transcendent, exclusive truths.”
Like The Benedict Option and In Search of the Common Good, Noble’s Disruptive Witness overlooks differences of bodily ability in relation to the physical and technological worlds. In describing the distracted environment of work, Noble observes, “To do any seriously challenging task, I often have to get up and take a walk to absorb myself in the problem without the immediacy of technology to throw me off.” A description of the author’s work habits will necessarily reflect his own physical capabilities; but subtle elements of ableism creep into his suggested remedies as well. For instance, while I share Noble’s strong concern that churches minimize worshipers’ distractions (beyond the necessary ones of “life and children”) by discouraging the use of electronic devices during worship services, I also know that leaving my iPad behind would leave me practically unable to take sermon notes. Even so, this ableism is fairly minimal, and Noble critiques more than just electronics: our private devotions may be equally distracted by looking up a Greek word in our Bible app or by taking undue pride in a moleskine prayer journal. By pointing out the wide range of ways that the Christian faith can be and has been packaged as a commodity and a private identity, Noble opens the door to critique technological nostalgia just as much as technological captivity.
Technological nostalgia reveals the ways that modern technological innovations have captivated our attention, promised connection while delivering isolation, and capitalized on and reinforced our desire for quick fixes and instant gratification. Ironically, however, the very ideal that technological nostalgia claims to reject—liberalism’s young, middle-class, able-bodied individual—turns out to be a necessity for realizing the nostalgic vision of technological independence.
In different ways, Rod Dreher, Jake Meador, and Alan Noble all blame our technological captivity on the Enlightenment’s version of a “self-made man” who knows neither vulnerability nor dependence. Certainly the technological innovations of recent decades can work to hide our interdependence, to reinforce a sense of self buffered from the transcendent and the variations of nature, and to prop up the façade that we can be and do whatever we choose. But the one-sided perspective of technological nostalgia overlooks the ways that technological innovations can also provide important avenues for community and Christian formation, especially for those marginalized in various ways.
I share these authors’ desire to replace the culture war mode of striving after politics, power, and prestige with a deeper, more long-term focus on community, character formation, and faithfulness. I share also their concerns with the effects of technology on our ability to sustain attention, build community, and maintain faithful Christian witness. In fact, it is precisely because of our shared commitment to Christian formation and community that I raise the concerns of this essay. Technological nostalgia is not the only possible alternative to technological captivity; we can instead pursue a technological faithfulness that (among other priorities) calls for designing technologies that serve the needs of the variously marginalized.
First, technological faithfulness recognizes the ways that technological advances can serve as tools to mitigate the many bodily constraints we all live with. Though circumventing these constraints can feed into a spirit of liberalism that denies our status as inherently limited creatures, it can also open up new possibilities for us to pursue the very things we care about so deeply, including community, wholistic formation and virtue cultivation, and long-term faithfulness. The COVID-19 pandemic drove this point home, as so many of us turned to technology not as a substitute for community but as a means of sustaining it safely. But those who live with disabilities of various kinds have long appreciated both the liberating potential of technology and the limitations it does not remove. Technological faithfulness incorporates awareness of differences in bodily abilities in order to draw attention to the ways that technology can open doors to Christian community as well as close them.
Furthermore, the widespread use of technology, and especially social media, both within and outside the Christian community raises concerns of justice and equity that cry out for thoughtful Christian engagement—not retreat. This is not to say that Christians cannot pursue technological justice and equity while also making thoughtful, strategic decisions to limit their own use of social media and other technologies. But even so, we need wise Christians to be involved in advocating for just and equitable technological practices, policies, and products for all, even those who cannot or will not practice such limitations. Much of this work may fall to professionals; for instance, Christians working in the fields of computer security and privacy can help to advocate for, create, and implement approaches to user data that prioritize the needs and abilities of the elderly, the poor, the disabled, and other vulnerable people who depend on technology. But these technology professionals need a vision of technology, not as a hindrance to our return to a golden age of faithful Christian community, but rather as a tool, a part of God’s creation to be used well or poorly, for flourishing or for harm. Technological faithfulness calls Christian thinkers to develop and articulate such a vision.
Finally, technological faithfulness shares technological nostalgia’s awareness that the technologies we use are not neutral, but rather nudge and shape us toward certain patterns of interaction and away from others. In fact, it is this very non-neutrality of technology that necessitates designing better technologies, technologies that promote sustained attention rather than constant distraction and that prioritize interactions with other human persons, ideally those we also interact with offline. Even before the pandemic, and all the more so afterwards, the most significant type of marginalization may well be loneliness. Though loneliness cannot be cured through technology, we can create technologies that offer valuable support for existing efforts to develop rich community. In terms of the opening vignettes, we need fewer technologies like my husband’s grandmother’s Facebook spammers and more technologies like my Bible study’s group chat. A commitment to technological faithfulness, rather than the extremes of either technological captivity or technological nostalgia, opens the way for technology to serve the things we care about most.