Do you find yourself drawn to check your social media feeds with expectancy, looking for something new and interesting? Does your heart rev up with anticipation to what might await you as you reach for your phone? Is constantly being available to people taking a toll on you? Even if this is not you, these characteristics might describe people you know. Do you long for something more, for yourself and others?
In Restless Devices: Recovering Personhood, Presence, and Place in the Digital Age, Felicia Wu Song shows us that even though we rightly long for community, we settle for connection instead. She shows us how our souls are being formed by the digital world we inhabit in ways we may not always be conscious of. She shows us how to form spiritual habits that help us flourish as human being capable of relating deeply to God and to one another.
Felicia Wu Song (PhD, University of Virginia) is a cultural sociologist of media and digital technologies, currently serving as professor of sociology at Westmont College in Santa Barbara. She is author of Restless Devices: Recovering Personhood, Presence and Place in the Digital Age and Virtual Communities: Bowling Alone, Online Together as well as articles in scholarly journals including Gender & Society and Information, Communication & Society. She also serves as Associate Editor at Current, an online journal of commentary and opinion that provides daily reflection on contemporary culture, politics, and ideas.
Session 1 — Chapters 1-2
1. What did consciousness feel like before mobile devices, email, and the internet?
2. What are your thoughts about the fact that we live in a state of permanent connectivity? What observations did you resonate with? (Chapter 1) How do you respond to the author’s views that “We too have become a people who abide in the digital, and the digital abides in us.”
3. Felicia Wu Song discusses how companies have knowingly exploited our emotional and cognitive vulnerabilities. How do you respond to her observations about digital media companies? (Chapter 2) “Whose values and dreams are embedded in the design of our apps, platforms, and digital experiences? What type of world was this technology supposed to make possible and encourage? What kind of lives are these technologies meant to enhance? How is it shaping mine?”
Experiment in praxis — digital media fast for a day
1.What problems did the fast create?
2.What new possibilities did the fast create?
3.What adjustments did you have to make to your usual routine?
4.What have you discovered about your relationship with digital media/technology?
Session 2 — Chapters 3-4
1. How are we being formed in our relationships when it is often easier and more convenient to conduct them through social media or digital interfaces? Consider Song’s assertion that it is difficult to determine when we are online or offline. (Page 71)
2. [In our digital interactions] what do numbers mean and what do they mask? Does having large numbers say something meaningful about the quality of our different relationships and about the quality of the person we are becoming?
3.Felicia Song says that social media collapses the context of our relationships to one setting, levelling out the hierarchy of friends and contacts — so that rather than communicating in relationship we end up "broadcasting." How do you respond?
4.Think about how in our collective consciousness we get caught up capturing moments, rather than enjoying experiencing them, how we are pre-occupied wondering which of our life’s activities are postable moments as they are happening. We don’t have to live under a repressive government to have our minds controlled in a direction that a powerful entity wants! How do you feel about that?
5.What does it mean for the plural forms of God to be used in Gen 1:26? What difference does it make to realize that we are made to be relational like the Trinitarian God?
6.How can we actively grow into people with an interior posture ready for enjoying communion with God? How do we train and practice in the ways of love and communion with each other such that we are neither threatened nor diminished by each other’s welfare?
Session 3 — Chapters 6-7
1. How do you respond to the idea that our bodies and practices are integral to our faith and spirituality, the same way our minds & hearts are? Does the author’s assertion that mundane bodily practices shape us ring true in your experience?
2. How do you respond to the idea of digital practices as secular liturgy? Do you feel that your life’s assortment of liturgies has taken you deeper into God’s realm? Or do you think the ceaseless abundance of the digital with its pressing urgencies have obscured the path to God?
3. What soul formation (or mis-formation) is taking place when we go to sleep and arise with our emails and social media feeds bookending our bodily rest? What type of desires do our digital practices encourage in us? How are they training us to love something very different from the Kingdom of God? (FWS – page 135)
4. What is a small step you can take to "retrain" your body to long for something new? (E.g. FWS’s example of Tish Harrison Warren’s ritual of bed making in the morning — creating a little order and beauty to counter the compulsion of reaching for her phone)
5. Reflect on the “what would happen if…” questions on pages 140-141. How might monotasking, walking away from my phone for a few hours, or not using my phone as social crutch make me open to what I might be shutting out — silence, God, other people, our own thoughts? What experiments can I try out with others in my circles?
6. How do you feel about FWS’s assertion that we are becoming accustomed to being in a state of always catching up and that academics in particular feel we are constantly living in a state of time poverty. She also says that the more it is required of us to be productive, the less capable we are of maturing — understanding ourselves and others. (page 158). How do you respond?
7. When we are enmeshed in permanent connectivity (carrying noise, hurry, and crowds with us all the time), FWS says we may lose sight of these essential natures of God — hiddenness, unafraid of holy interruptions and adoration. How do you respond to our theology of abiding in Christ yet our practice of abiding in the digital? How do we transfer the anticipation for what our feeds might hold, to expectancy for God to communicate to us?
Session 4 — Chapters 8-9
1. How has both the pandemic and chapter 8 shaped your thoughts about being in the presence of another?
2. When the digital is available to circumvent the mundane, how can we trust that our presence and proximity is precious and meaningful?
3. Any fresh insights about the value of our embodiment from the theological significance of Jesus’s incarnation, God’s “Emmanuel” nature, and Jesus’s bodily resurrection?
4. How does our dependence on the socio-technological practices of friendship and community reflect the modern disregard for the role that physical presence (and the accompanying set of verbal and non-verbal cues) play in the ways we interact with each other?
5. In what ways does the digital shape/not shape our imagination about what the full range of human engagement might look like?
6. What are your thoughts about faithful presence? When confronted with those unlike us, what does faithful presence do? How might digital silos make us unfamiliar with and fearful of difference?
7. How can the church be a place where people can encounter a God who can heal us of our sense of inadequacy and where we can discover ourselves to be loved — humiliating flaws and all?
8. Do we dare to believe that people want to come and put that technology aside for a moment and experience a sacred space? (in our churches, homes, classrooms, relationships)
9. For those of you in positions that can influence the conditions of social life in your workplace & school cultures — what might creating communal cultures of sacred spaces look like?
10. Are there counter cultural ways the Church can reimagine and joyfully observe Sabbath that is attractive to a modern industrial culture already abundant in consumer goods and media diversions?
11. What does it mean to cultivate appetites that are fixed on the Kingdom of God such that the promises and allure of the digital world lose their power? What do you think about the commitments to ordered digital life? (page 205)