Restless Devices
eBook - ePub

Restless Devices

Recovering Personhood, Presence, and Place in the Digital Age

Felicia Wu Song

  1. 232 pages
  2. English
  3. ePUB (adapté aux mobiles)
  4. Disponible sur iOS et Android
eBook - ePub

Restless Devices

Recovering Personhood, Presence, and Place in the Digital Age

Felicia Wu Song

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À propos de ce livre

We're being formed by our devices. Today's digital technologies are designed to captivate our attention and encroach on our boundaries, shaping how we relate to time and space, to ourselves and others, even to God. Our natural longing for relationship makes us vulnerable to the "industrializing" effects of social media. While we enjoy the benefits of digital tech, many of us feel troubled with its power and exhausted by its demands for permanent connectivity. Yet even as we grow disenchanted, attempting to resist the digital "powers that be" might seem like a losing battle.Sociologist Felicia Wu Song has spent years considering the personal and collective dynamics of digital ecosystems. She combines psychological, neurological, and sociological insights with theological reflection to explore two major questions: - What kind of people are we becoming with personal technologies in hand?- And who do we really want to be?Song unpacks the soft tyranny of the digital age, including the values embedded in our apps and the economic systems that drive our habits. She then explores pathways of meaningful resistance that can be found in Christian tradition—especially counter-narratives about human worth, embodiment, relationality, and time—and offers practical experiments for individual and communal change.In our current digital ecologies, small behavioral shifts are not enough to give us freedom. We need a sober and motivating vision of our prospects to help us imagine what kind of life we hope to live—and how we can get there.

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PartI

1

Being at Altitude

Understanding the Digital Ecology

Modernity promised us a culture of unintimidated, curious, rational, self-reliant individuals, and it produced . . . a herd society, a race of anxious timid, conformist “sheep,” and a culture of utter banality.
ROBERT PIPPIN
Cats have done the seemingly impossible: They’ve integrated themselves into the modern high-tech world without giving themselves up. They are still in charge. . . . Oh, how we long to have that certainty not just about our cats, but about ourselves! Cats on the internet are our hopes and dreams for the future of people on the internet.
JARON LANIER
THE FIRST TIME I was at altitude, I felt terrible and I had no idea why.
A couple hours into a long awaited weekend in the mountains, it began with a dull headache and an inchoate sense of discomfort. We had unpacked the car, the kids had scrambled through the ins and outs of the vacation rental property, and we were finally ready to get playing! Eager to press on with our family’s plans, I ignored my body’s early distress signals and muscled through the afternoon. But as the night wore on, the headache and exhaustion had overtaken me and I was casting desperately for explanations: What was going on? Why did I feel so badly?! Poor fitness? Previous nights of poor sleep? Not enough breakfast?
I self-diagnosed in all the wrong directions, getting more and more frustrated. Finally, my mind found its way through my self-inflicted maze of bewilderment and came to the simple realization, “Oh right. I’m at altitude.”
It’s the same with digital technology. At first, everything is exciting and fun! You’re jamming through your to-do list, multitasking with great efficiency. The messaging banter with friends is pretty great. Your social media presence is getting some attention, as people like and re-post your content. But then, a few years in, you begin to feel a vague discontent and sometimes even guilt about your digital life. Checking your notifications starts to feel more compulsive and isn’t as satisfying as it used to be.
In fact, even when things get ugly and you recognize how much you need to make a change, you press on because you don’t know how to stop or change your digital reflexes. It feels impossible. Why? Because we live in an environment that is structured to resist and even punish such change. To realize that one’s growing dissonance is largely rooted in such a digital environment is like realizing, “Oh right. I’m at altitude.”
When we are at altitude, even if our minds don’t grasp it, our bodies do and they send out distress signals. Similarly, when we are living in a digitally saturated society, even if our minds don’t recognize it, our bodies and our spirits know—and arguably, they’ve been sending out distress signals for more than a few years now.
If medical knowledge helps us understand that dehydration reduces our body’s ability to acclimate to higher elevations and leads us to drink more water when we’re on the mountain hiking or skiing, sociological insight can help us understand the cultural and structural character of our digital environment and lead us to imagine an alternative way of living in today’s digitally saturated world. A good place to start is simply naming some of the key characteristics of the digital environment and recognizing how they’ve changed dramatically over the last thirty years.
i. When the internet first went mainstream in the mid-1990s, the very idea of forming and carrying on relationships through the glow of the computer screen was met with one of two responses: alarm or euphoria. Some feared that the internet would cause us to neglect our “real lives” because we would be seduced by the avatar-driven fantasies of cyberspace. More, however, were excited by the dazzling prospects of the internet connecting people across the world and creating new avenues of support, community, and empowerment.
Thirty years into this magnificent experiment of digital communication, when we look around at our world today, it seems the optimists were mostly right. We don’t appear to have completely lost touch with reality. We aren’t cloistered in our basements or bedrooms playing the latest equivalent of World of Warcraft or Fortnite. We still manage to keep our jobs and tend to our families. In fact, many scholars surmise that we may be more connected with each other and more in touch with the “real world” than ever as our technologies enable far-flung friends and loved ones to see each other on screens, share videos and pictures, and even convene virtually during major life moments like childbirths, anniversaries, and graduations.
On the surface of things, while the optimists may have carried the day, even the most strident would have to acknowledge that the actual experience of the internet and the social dynamic of “going online” has completely changed. “Being connected” in today’s world means something dramatically different from what it meant back in the 1990s when the internet of yesteryear was accessed through boxy desktop computers dialed into the wall of our homes or workplaces. Most prominently, “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 toward living in, what some scholars call, “a state of pervasive or permanent connectivity.”1 Once we are in the digital environment with email, social media, and a device, we don’t have to actively “do” anything to be connected.
A major part of this shift to permanent connectivity occurred when the internet slipped beyond our desktop computers and into our phones and onto our wrists. The internet became mobile and ubiquitous. With our digital devices now 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 alongside us.
This 24/7 availability of digital experience would not have revolutionized our lives if the reason we looked to the internet remained stuck in the 1990s when we mostly marveled over such e-commerce innovations as Amazon.com, Travelocity, and eBay, or enjoyed the novelties of reading the news online or using HTML to build our own website. No, what makes our current state of permanent connectivity so culturally compelling is the fact that the digital media and technology of today have become the primary portal to our social lives. Rather than meeting strangers in AOL chat rooms and Usenet forums during the 1990s, today’s social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram capitalize on our existing networks of friends, family, colleagues, and professional contacts. Rather than drawing us away from our family and friends as so many early pessimists of the internet had feared, much of our contemporary digital experience is thoroughly looped into our existing ties. We turn to our screens because it is there that we find and experience friendship, family, and relationship. We are often excited about being connected to the internet today not because it connects us to the information superhighway or a limitless shopping extravaganza, but because it promises to connect us to the important people in our lives.
While turning to the digital today offers the possibility of communing with those we love, 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, social psychologist Sherry Turkle explores what it means that friends and family are now digitally tethered. Undoubtedly, to be constantly tethered to loved ones in this way can be reassuring and pleasurable. But Turkle points out that it can also serve as a crutch when we grow to 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.
Moreover, 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. And even as some of us may intuitively feel that something is not quite right about this arrangement, we can’t shake the tendency to express and measure our commitments to each other by the degree to which we are immediately responsive to our friends’ digital requests for attention. We have fast become a people who are always available, always on call. Young people grow into their friendships and personal identities in this engrossing fog of social pressures, stresses, and anxieties that had—until this point in human history—mainly been the purview of surgeons, firefighters, and workaholics. (And even then, first responders and doctors were professionally obligated to take time away from their beepers.) This does not even address the widely recognized fear of missing out (FOMO) that drives people to compulsively check their devices and respond to notifications at a moment’s notice.
While our psychological longings to belong and to be “in the know” can hardly resist the scent of real-time news and updates delivered by our devices, our propensity to check our technologies are 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, snaps, and “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 at altitude. There is a soft tyranny that persistently feeds our desires to check one’s email, peek at one’s Instagram, tweet one more remark, and respond to one more text. Indeed, with our devices in our possession, the promise of fulfillment, completion, and emotional connection feels ever within our reach. These key features are what make the digital experiences of today so difficult to resist, and frankly, much more difficult to even differentiate from our “real lives” because they are so intimately enmeshed in delivering to us our daily sense of reality.
Indeed, being permanently connected means that, 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. Life is constantly “being lived elsewhere” as our bodies are in one place,2 but our minds and consciousness reside focused on the stuff of our screens. Our collective consciousness is increasingly one in which—no matter where we are or what we are doing—we feel the need to catch up: to catch up on our emails, texts, social media feeds, the news of the day. The internet used to be “out there” in an exotic frontier called cyberspace. Now the internet is very much in the mundane of our kitchen counters and living rooms, lubricating our social lives and infused into our daily rhythms and habits of being. The comparison of “real” and “virtual” from the 1990s simply doesn’t make sense anymore.
Rather it might be more apt—whether your main point of reference is the Bible or the movie cult classic The Big Lebowski—to borrow the ancient notion of “abiding” to describe our relationship with digital 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. And for Big Lebowski fans, in the same passive way that “the Dude abides” and rides the currents of life in a medicated and vague hope that all will turn out fine enough, we too may be becoming a people who run the risk of passively riding the digital currents in a numbed hope that all will turn out just fine enough.
Is it any wonder that young adults who have spent significant portions of their formative years catering to the whims of social media’s notifications and algorithmic gatekeeping now express the staggering discovery that something has gone very wrong? Many speak of how “the internet broke my brain” and are on the search for some kind of relief. Indeed, daily we swipe on the glass to refresh our feeds and we gaze with the peculiar gaze of hesitant anticipation commonly seen on casino floors when gamblers pull the lever of the slot machines one more time. Just one more time. We are at altitude, and we don’t even know it.
ii. When our daughter was eleven, she began lobbying for a smartphone. Like any shrewd child, she offered reasons that she knew would appeal to us as parents. She told us that a phone would help us know where she was when she went out with friends. She told us that a phone would let her text us if she needed to reschedule a pickup time. She told us that a phone would keep her safe if she found herself in danger. Rather than reveal her desires for social status—because anyone who’s anyone has an iPhone and can stay connected with friends through texting or social media—she appealed to the pragmatic functions of the device and how it would help our family life. In doing so, my daughter’s rhetorical strategy appealed to the sense that digital te...

Table des matiĂšres

  1. Cover
  2. Title Page
  3. Dedication Page
  4. Contents
  5. Acknowledgments
  6. Introduction: Confessions
  7. Part I
  8. Part II
  9. Index
  10. Notes
  11. Praise for Restless Devices
  12. About the Author
  13. More Titles from InterVarsity Press
  14. Copyright
Normes de citation pour Restless Devices

APA 6 Citation

Song, F. (2021). Restless Devices ([edition unavailable]). InterVarsity Press. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/2985369/restless-devices-recovering-personhood-presence-and-place-in-the-digital-age-pdf (Original work published 2021)

Chicago Citation

Song, Felicia. (2021) 2021. Restless Devices. [Edition unavailable]. InterVarsity Press. https://www.perlego.com/book/2985369/restless-devices-recovering-personhood-presence-and-place-in-the-digital-age-pdf.

Harvard Citation

Song, F. (2021) Restless Devices. [edition unavailable]. InterVarsity Press. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/2985369/restless-devices-recovering-personhood-presence-and-place-in-the-digital-age-pdf (Accessed: 15 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Song, Felicia. Restless Devices. [edition unavailable]. InterVarsity Press, 2021. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.