By Felicia Wu Song

Abiding in the Digital: The challenges of today’s technology

We are so pleased to share a special series this week on connection, digital technology, and abiding in God’s presence. Felicia Wu Song offers both academic and practical consideration of the ways technology creates or erodes real connection, with a keen sociological and theological eye. The first two pieces look critically at how digital technology works, and the third offers practical suggestions of ways to pursue the real connections we long for. She has an upcoming book from InterVarsity Press further exploring this topic. These pieces are excerpted from original talks shared at the 2019 West Coast Faculty Conference (you can find information about 2020 conferences here!). We hope this series will raise questions and prompt you to think about how you engage technology in ways that cultivate real connections in the places God has called you to live.

The promise of connection has always been at the center of modern information and communication technologies. At the core of the Internet — in all of its amazing networking capacity — was a desire to connect, to share. But, “being connected” in 2020 means something dramatically different from what it meant back in the 1990s when the Internet of yesteryear was accessed through a boxy desktop computer dialed into the wall of our homes or workplaces. In fact, “being connected” today is closer to a state of consciousness — a human condition — than a discrete behavior. Unlike the World Wide Web of old, the character of today’s digital technologies and social media push us towards living in, what media scholars call, a state of permanent connectivity.

A major part of this shift occurred when the Internet slipped beyond our desktop computers and into our phones and onto our wrists. It became mobile and ubiquitous. With our digital devices ever in our pockets, in our bags, and even beneath our pillows when we sleep, we move through our days and nights draped with the immanent sense of the digital. Ever available and accessible, it is perpetually poised to tend to our desires, living and breathing along-side us.

What also makes our current state of permanent connectivity so compelling and seemingly inevitable is the fact that the digital media and technology of today has become the primary portal to our social lives. Unlike the chat rooms from the 90s which gave us contact with strangers, today’s social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram capitalize on our existing networks of friends, family, colleagues, and professional contacts. We are often drawn into being connected to the Internet today not because it connects to the “Information Superhighway” or a limitless shopping extravaganza, but because it promises to connect us to those we love.

While going online in 2020 offers the possibility of communing with those we belong to in far-flung places, it is precisely because our digital experiences are thoroughly social that its ubiquity and mobility can become a problem. In her poignantly insightful books Alone Together and Reclaiming Conversation, Sherry Turkle explores what it means that friends and family are now digitally tethered. Undoubtedly, on the plus side, to be constantly tethered to loved ones can be reassuring and pleasurable. But, Turkle points out that it can also come to serve as a crutch when we become people incapable of solitude, fearful of being alone with ourselves, and prone to turning to our screens and away from our immediate surroundings, whenever we feel awkward, bored, or anxious.

Furthermore, being digitally tethered can foster a growing expectation of constant availability to one’s friends and family, regardless of time or day. Just as the digital is always accessible to us, we come to expect the same of people.

While our psychological longings to stay connected to the people we love may keep us in a constant state of vigilance and responsiveness to notifications at a moment’s notice, our condition of permanent connectivity is further fed by the infinite novelty that is designed into our current digital media and services. From the moment a young person gets her own smartphone, she knows that she is gaining access to a mode of life that is perpetually filled with possibility. Her social media feeds are ceaselessly “refreshed,” her games and apps are always “updating,” and there are always new texts, new snaps, new “stories” to tend.

When the mobile, social, and infinitely novel aspects of the contemporary digital experience are mixed together, the result is a psychological cocktail of pleasures, anxieties, and felt expectations. This is what it means to be living in permanent connectivity. With our devices in our possession, the promise of fulfillment, completion, and emotional connection feels ever within a few inches of our reach. It is these key features that make the digital experiences of today very difficult to resist.

Indeed, even if our devices are not powered on, or even in one’s possession, our consciousness has become sufficiently trained and thoroughly immersed in the habits of mind formed by an unceasing awareness of the constantly shifting landscape of what is being said and posted in the digital realm. As Dalton Conley has described, life is constantly “being lived elsewhere” as our bodies are in one place, but our minds and consciousness dwell on the stuff of our screens.

Mark Edmundson, professor of literature, presciently captured this shift in consciousness all the way back in 2008, when he wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education about how the Internet was changing the college students he was teaching at the University of Virginia:

“Classes matter to them, but classes are just part of an ever-enlarging web of activities and diversions. Students now seek to master their work — not to be taken over by it and consumed. They want to dispatch it, do it well and quickly. Then get on to the many other things that interest them. For my students live in the future and not the present…. They dwell in possibility…. The idea is to keep moving, never to stop.”

After class, Edmundson observes what we all, as professors, notice — the cell phones are out, “[Our students] need to disperse themselves again, get away from the immediate, dissolve the present away.”

With the infinitely novel content of digital media inevitably accruing over the course of a ninety-minute class, our students grasp for their phones at the end of class like oxygen tanks. As if we had submerged them underwater in our classes, they are finally coming up for air. Our classes have become the interruption in their lives and they eagerly “dispatch” of their coursework as quickly as possible in order to get on with their “actual lives” which are mediated through their hand-held screens.

If we are honest, we know that college students are not the only ones who live like this. When we are at work, watching our kids, having lunch, or sitting through a meeting, our regular use of social media has trained us to feel this sense that something else is always happening, something potentially more important, and we feel the itch to peek and know. The result is that, whatever is taking place around us, whatever proximate reality we are submerged in, begins to feel less interesting, more stifling, and more like something we want to be released from or bypass altogether.

It is no wonder that a professor of literature laments this psychological outcome of digital technologies. For a teacher who has invested his life in guiding students to appreciate the richness embedded in the slow and steady work of story in our lives, it is a travesty to see students who seem constitutionally unable to disconnect from the digital flow. What becomes of us when we too become people so permanently connected to whatever streams of reality are being piped through our digital devices that we are incapable of allowing ourselves to be consumed, engulfed by the presence of another — whether it be a person or a piece of literature?

In all this, I can’t help but wonder if it might be rather apt to borrow the Biblical notion of “abiding” to describe our relationship with our technologies today. In the same way that Jesus called his disciples to abide in him as he would abide in them, we too have become a people who abide in the digital, and the digital abides in us.

• • •

A few years ago, a study reported that young people use their smartphones an average of five hours a day — roughly one-third of their total waking hours. And before we pile on about the digital habits of “young people,” the truth is: Gen Xers have often been found to be no less tethered to their devices and screens.

  • 68% of parents and 78% of teens check their devices at least hourly.
  • Parents use tech and media to nearly the same degree as their teenagers. Younger parents in their 30’s and 40’s are even more dependent.

But, what is actually more interesting about this study is the following: when participants were asked how much they thought they were on their phones, it turns out that they massively underestimated their use of their smartphones. The researchers found that participants used their devices roughly twice as much as they thought they did.

Such a huge gap between perception and reality suggests that we are a people who have little or no awareness of what we are actually doing with our devices. The researchers write that these five hours often go by with little reflection because they are an accumulation of micro-moments — in between meetings, in between classes, waiting in line, waiting for the hot water to turn on…. The digital practices that characterize our lives are largely habitual, automatic, and even compulsive.

Just last year, a Google report noted that our constant exposure to social media, email, and news apps on our smartphones is creating a “constant sense of obligation, generating unintended personal stress.” As our cortisol levels rise and we feel growing discomfort, we are driven to check our phones even more in order to relieve that anxiety. However, once we check again, we usually encounter something else that causes our cortisol levels to rise and the cycle of stress and connectivity begins again.

Add on other observations about the collective disruptions in sleep we are experiencing,  as the greater majority of us sleep with our phones in our bedrooms within reach and are therefore prone to checking our phones in the middle of the night to respond to a text, resume a game, or check our social media feeds.

  • A 2012 seven-country poll found that while over 70% of respondents 18-34 years old reported sleeping with their phones in their bedrooms within reach, 55-70% of adults 35-64 years old also did.
  • Less than 20% adults slept with their phones in their bedrooms but out of reach. And the older you are, the more likely you are to have your phone in a different room altogether.

All of these outcomes are hardly surprising when we consider how the digital media industries are invested in securing and keeping (might I even dare to use the word “colonizing”?) our attention. Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube: they are all designed with the leading-edge insights of behavioral psychology and brain science to draw us in and keep us ensnared. The same experts that design casinos and other addictive industries are brought in to consult about what types of notifications, what color buttons and badges, what types of emotional content are optimal for training our brains to become activated with dopamine hits that charge up the pleasure pathways of our brains.

Brilliantly-calculated algorithms chew through the trail of data that we have consented to have collected about ourselves — whose posts we respond to, what videos we watch and ignore, our click patterns, our viewing times, keywords in our emails. All this data is used to deliver the content that these platforms think we want, but not necessarily the nuances and complexities of reality that we so desperately need, individually and collectively.

As a result, our experience online is meant to feel like what gamblers describe as being in “the machine zone” — a state of mind in which their attention is wholly locked on what’s happening on the screen and the immediate world around them recedes to the background.

Media scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan explains it this way: “Facebook is designed to keep you immersed, to disconnect you just enough so you lose track of the duration and depth of your immersion in the experience, and to reward you just enough that you often return, even when you have more edifying, rewarding, or pleasurable options for your time and effort within your reach. This is not an accident.” (from AntiSocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy, p. 37)

Juxtaposing the digital life with the gambling life is instructive. For, if we follow Vaidhyanathan in understanding that our digital “machine zone” is designed to masterfully “disconnect” us just enough and away from “more edifying, rewarding, or pleasurable options”  that are within our reach, then we have to ask:

What are we disconnected from? 

When we are permanently connected to our screens and devices,

What is receding into the background?

• • •

One of the most immediate and obvious disconnections we experience is being disconnected from those people who are in our immediate proximity.

Social theorist Zygmunt Bauman predicted that, in an age of digital flows, “making eye contact and thereby acknowledging the physical proximity of another human being spells waste: it portends the necessity of spending a portion of precious, yet loathsomely scarce time on deep-diving [into embodied interaction].”

We know that we have all been there. When we make the split second decision to ignore the person and to attend to our screens instead. We all know that meaningful embodied interactions with family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors take a lot of work and that the payoff can be great. It is, as Bauman put it, a form of deep-diving. But, when we are preoccupied and tired, and are still looking for some kind of payoff, it is often more appealing to indulge in social media’s promise of a dopamine hit or to answer one more email in order to bring down our anxiety by one notch. To tend to those who are physically proximate to us is, as Bauman writes, “a decision that would interrupt or pre-empt” our hungry ritual of clicking through so many other, potentially more interesting, or potentially more productive possibilities.

Adapted from Felicia Song's forthcoming book tentatively titled When Left to Our Own Devices to be published by InterVarsity Press. Copyright 2020 by Felicia Song. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press (ivpress.com).

 

Click through to read the other articles in Felicia's series on technology.

About the Author

Felicia Song is Associate Professor and Chair of the Sociology and Anthropology Department at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. Having trained in History, Communication Studies and Sociology from Yale, Northwestern, and University of Virginia, and taught at Louisiana State University’s Manship School for Mass Communication, her research is oriented around the rapidly evolving digital technology industry and how the adoption of social media and digital devices fundamentally alters the landscapes of family, community, and organizational life. In addition to her book, Virtual Communities: Bowling Alone, Online Together (Peter Lang 2009), she has conducted research on expectant women’s online information-seeking habits and the evolution of “mommy bloggers” as social media professionals. Currently, she is working on a book project that explores how our contemporary digital habits form us and our imaginations about personhood, time, and place. When she is not working, she enjoys children’s chapter books, searching local consignment shops, and watching The Great British Baking Show with her husband and two children. 

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