September 06, 2023
by: Samuel D. James
Our Digital Lives
More than a billion people worldwide own an iPhone. Nearly five billion people use social media. The average person spends two and a half hours every day on those social media accounts, and another five hours just checking email. The days of thinking of the internet as a hobby that stayed plugged into the wall in a corner of the family room are gone beyond recall. Our work, education, relationships, and even worship are increasingly happening digitally.
Our tendency is often to think of these technologies as just neutral “tools” that do whatever we ask them to do. But this is not quite right. The Web is a language-shaping habitat that transforms how we think. The question is not whether we will be shaped by the Web; the question is, How is the Web shaping us, and how do we respond?
Here are five ways the digital age is transforming how we think:
1. The digital age dilutes the importance of truth.
Much has been written about the internet’s “democratization” of information. It’s certainly true that digital technology gives a public platform to many people who would otherwise not have it. But this blessing comes at a cost. Because of the Web’s disembodied nature, things like evidence, reasoning, and expertise have become marginalized. Instead, the idea of truthfulness has devolved into a question of individual narratives. “My story is my truth” is one of the key mantras of the digital age. Traditional authority structures have given way to an ephemeral “equality” that means the random blogger is as powerful as the veteran pastor, or the anonymous Twitter account can demand deference merely with a powerful story. On the Web, we all have the power to “define” our reality, no matter how far that supposed reality may be from objective truth.
The disembodied, narrative-based culture of the Web requires Christians to know and remind each other regularly what is really true. This is a big reason why we must continue to gather together in church. Being physically together as we sing, pray, and hear truth powerfully recalibrates our sense of reality to be more in line with eternity. God’s story does not destroy our story—it transforms it, interprets it, and gives it meaning and purpose beyond “likes.”
2. The digital age has beautified anger.
It sure seems like the entire internet is combustible. Log on to any social media platform and you can hardly scroll ten seconds without encountering a hotly worded post, an argument, and much worse. Many people do not realize that these digital platforms are inflaming our emotions intentionally. The algorithms that make these websites fun and efficient also manipulate our attention spans so that what is controversial, outrageous, or just plain absurd tends to float to the top of our feed. Even the platforms that we go to just to see pleasant photos or funny videos tend to skew in this direction. Most of us can think of an example where we logged on to some social media app and were soon frustrated and irritated by a controversy we did not go looking for.
Though there is such a thing as righteous anger, there is no such thing as righteous perpetual anger. Our social media platforms engage our negative emotions intentionally because their engineers know this is what drives heavy use. But biblically, there is something far more important than winning an argument or correcting someone who is wrong online: obedience to Jesus. “Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath!” (Ps. 37:8) “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19). Christian thinking is careful, calm, and loving. We can say countercultural truths or unpopular wisdom with an accent of humility and compassion because this is precisely what God calls us to do. To the degree that our favorite internet locations gin up our anger and make un-Christian thinking easier and more appealing, we should be very skeptical of their roles in our lives.
3. The digital age has given authority to mobs.
“Cancel culture” does not always happen exclusively online. Yet our immersion in digital existence surely has given it a plausibility in our society. We are accustomed from a young age to looking at the world through a computer. Computers empower us with a godlike ability to delete, mute, or block anything we dislike. This posture of immense power to curate our world puts down roots in our hearts and makes us think that the people and ideas we dislike shouldn’t exist. We should be able to erase them as easily as we can erase words on a screen. This is one reason for the stunning turn in much of our culture toward shaming and bullying rather than debate. In the disembodied digital age, we want total power over our world, and we feel like we deserve it.
Discontentment is destroyed in the sufficiency of God’s goodness to us in Jesus.
Cancellation mobs and callout culture are opposed to Christian wisdom. The centrality of forgiveness to the Christian life comes from our awareness that we, too, are sinners, that we deserve wrath, and that we cannot receive Christ’s mercy without extending it to others. This doesn’t minimize the importance of accountability, but true accountability happens in the context of covenant. Just because something or someone offends us does not mean that thing or person has no right to exist. The world is not a computer that we program to our liking. It is an objective reality that exists under God’s sovereign rule.
4. The digital age has made us passive consumers.
There’s just so much stuff online. The sheer amount of new articles, new photos, new videos, and everything else is overwhelming. Often, our response to this relentless novelty is to aimlessly scroll. The phrase “consuming content” describes how so many people in the world today fill the hours. This mindless consumption is not neutral, however. Much like how pornography turns intimacy into a commodified product that can be used and tossed aside, the very nature of the Web tends to turn human experience into a consumable. Digital technology has indeed made knowledge and experiences that were previously available only to an elite few widely accessible. In the process, however, we have developed “digital cravings” that tend to replace offline existence. We avoid the awkward trappings of in-person conversation and send messages instead. We give many of our evenings over to “binge” streaming. All the while, we can vaguely sense that we’re exhausted and frustrated but frequently medicate this emotion away by more digital amusements.
God’s good physical world subverts the charms of mindless consumption. The moments of weakness are the moments of listless anxiety in which we hope that something we find online can distract us or flatter us just enough. They are not the moments when we are surrounded by the beauty of snow-capped mountains or snow-white beaches or the friends and family we love most. In those moments, we are brought out of ourselves. Most of the time, the thought of aimlessly scrolling at such a moment feels absurd, even immoral. Nothing can disarm the allure of consumption like a day well spent, making and studying and serving in a way we know contributed something, by God’s grace, to those around us. The fight against consumption is a fight to anchor ourselves in the physical world God gave us, and to see as most real the things he has sovereignly placed us alongside.
5. The digital age has left us distracted, discontented, and dislocated.
Reading a book without reaching our phones every fifteen minutes feels like an Olympic event. Silence and solitude feel like enemies rather than friends. The digital age has immersed us in an ocean of noise, and many times it feels like we can barely think for all the distraction. But our problems often go further as we see people on social media present edited, curated versions of themselves and find our own hearts frustrated that we don’t have such a beautiful, exciting life. We are dislocated too. We find our attention fractured between the digital and the physical, and that’s why we find ourselves emotionally invested in people we don’t know or controversies we don’t actually care about. It seems our phones feel more like home than our actual homes.
The gospel can ground us by speaking directly to these feelings. Christ’s promise that his Spirit is with us always can calm our hearts long enough so that we don’t need the constant noise of content to numb our anxiety. In Christ we can trust that we not only have what we need now but also that we will be co-heirs with him of the entire universe one day. Discontentment is destroyed in the sufficiency of God’s goodness to us in Jesus. Our dislocation can give way to gratitude for the life that God has given us, and even our sufferings come with promises of his care. We can be free to give our attention to where we really are, because wherever we are, he is with us.
Samuel D. James is the author of Digital Liturgies: Rediscovering Christian Wisdom in an Online Age.