Tune In, Turn Off, Drop In: A New Asceticism for our Time
Gender identity, political disinformation, AI, pandemic aftermath: now there’s a controversial and polarizing list! What if I told you that most of us could agree on something at the heart of all of these debates? In each case, technology in general and social media in particular have had a pernicious effect on us and our society. As a result of this, frankly, we’d do better to ‘just say ‘No.’’
Some friends of ours have a teenager. In spite of resistance, they withdrew all social media from her for a month, at the end of which she seemed more at ease, engaged, and peaceful. There is now research to confirm this anecdote on a wider scale, that social media increase anxiety and depression. Nor can one deny that the issue of gender identity itself was spread on the internet, wherever one may come down on the issue itself. At both pastoral and practical levels, wouldn’t we do better to begin by turning the social media volume all the way down? Then we could get anxious kids the psychotherapeutic support they need, and see where they are once they become adults.
The main point of the movie about the origins of Facebook, Social Network, was that it was launched precisely in lieu of widespread social connections. Since then we have seen it become a powerful and ubiquitous force that provokes and rewards anger. While political conflict is nothing new, it has been amplified and manipulated to a worrisome extent. It is worth mentioning at this juncture that there are good theological reasons to give for the defense of democracy, namely that division of powers and civil liberties assume accurately the capacity of human nature for corruption and, as Augustine said, the libido dominandi. Tuning out social media would be good for the body politic, for it would contribute to a greater sense of the common good and civility.
The new kid on the block of social concern is Artificial Intelligence. You do not need to heed the direst of predictions to agree that baneful effects are on the way. Our political landscape flooded with disinformation indistinguishable from the real, broad swathes of employment surrendered to machines, and a blurring of a sense of the distinctness and dignity of the human being: these are the approaching ills everyone can acknowledge! The notion that ‘because we can we must’ turns us into machines ourselves.
I do not have space here fully to develop the idea, but you can see how technology in each case is not something neutral or indifferent. It has the potential to hold us in its thrall, that is, it has a kind of power over us. One can compare this to the concept of the ‘powers and principalities’ which we find, for example in Ephesians. The closest concept we have to this in our culture is that of addiction.
Where does that leave us as the Church? The time of the pandemic required us to do the best we could in difficult situations- most of us suffer from 20/20 hindsight. At the time, technology was a great help through the most constrained period, and can have certain focused uses still. But we can surely now see in relief how the Church is necessarily embodied, located, and interpersonal. We are literally the clay pot in which the treasure of the Gospel is found (II Corinthians 4:7). As the floodtide of technology rises, we must be resolutely ‘Luddite’, an island where we ‘present our bodies as a living sacrifice’ (Romans 12:1) Sunday by Sunday. What was once obvious may soon become a witness to our human uniqueness as made ‘in the image of God.’ (Genesis 1:26). To this end, might we see covenants and fasts from tech as part of the spiritual life of youth and adults?