In this excerpt from How Do We Live in a Digital World?, C. Ben Mitchell examines some opportunities and challenges Christians and the church are presented with while living in a digital world.
There is exponentially more content on the internet today than in 1991, when the first webpage appeared. In terms of volume, the internet quadrupled in size between 2014 and the end of 2016. More than 1.3 zettabytes of data are transported between computer networks worldwide—that’s 1.3 followed with 20 zeros. By 2020 that number was estimated to grow to 40 zettabytes. That number is so large it’s difficult to comprehend.
Among other things, all of this means that it is increasingly challenging in our digital age to concentrate for multiple minutes, much less hours at a time without interruption, admittedly, often self-imposed interruption. Although I will grant that my experience cannot be taken to be universal, I suspect that there are plenty of others who can empathize. What does all of this mean for the future of digital communication? What does all of this mean for Christians and for the church?
The Opportunities of Digital Technologies
We should note, firstly, that the internet has done much to connect people, give them a voice, and facilitate the creation of virtual communities that have the opportunity to shape real communities. Many will remember the role digital media played in the ouster of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in the so-called Arab Spring of 2011. Social media had an important part in building activist networks and rallying protesters, especially in Egypt. If literacy is power, connectivity is shared power.
Similarly, digital media have united religious believers and religious communities around the world. In her work on media and religion, Texas A&M professor of communication, Heidi Campbell, chronicles the evolution of what she and her colleagues have coined “digital religion.” Although Christian and Muslim adherents are thought to occupy the greatest bandwidth in social media, Hindu, Buddhist, and new Japanese religions have a growing footprint in the digital landscape. Through phenomena like the birth of religious user groups, broadcast-style web forums, and the founding of cyberchurches and virtual interactive worship environments, the internet has provided a new media context for religious expression, proselytism, and engagement. And, as Campbell and others have pointed out, it is a two-way street. That is, not only are new media being shaped by religious communities, but religious communities are being shaped by new media. Notions of authority, authenticity, community, identity, ritual, and religion are all being shaped and re-shaped, formed and informed by digital religion.
The Challenges of Digital Technologies
Information retrieval, economic growth, digital religion, and access to education represent significant sectors of opportunity that the burgeoning digital revolution is helping us realize. As with nearly every other arena of life, however, there are both benefits and burdens. An accurate benefits versus burdens calculus may help us determine whether or not digital media are a net gain or a net loss; but it may well turn out to be more complex than that. Perhaps the gains are sufficiently robust to justify ongoing technological development, but instead of uncritical adoption, we should develop criteria for making better informed choices. How would we begin to do that? What should we know that will help us make good choices about technology?
Let’s begin with this question: Does digital technology contribute to human flourishing? Surely this is an important question for any technology, and not least one that is so clearly poised, according to some futurists, to tempt us to jettison our humanity. Here, of course, I’m thinking not only about transhumanists, but also any who are tempted to believe in a kind of technological inevitability that will eventually outgrow human capacities and require us either to fight for our very lives or succumb to servitude to the Machine.
What sorts of creatures are we humans? And what does human flourishing look like in a burgeoning digital “technoculture”? What burdens do digital technologies pose for human well-being? These are profound questions in this phase of the twenty-first century.
A Few Practical Tips for Moving Forward
These points beg for practical ways of moving forward. Thus, in Reclaiming Conversation, Turkle suggests that those who wish to tame technology should:
- Remember the power of your phone. It’s not an accessory. It’s a psychologically potent device that changes not just what you do but who are.
- Slow down.
- Protect your creativity. Take your time and take quiet time. Find your own agenda and keep your own pace.
- Create sacred spaces for conversation.
- Think of unitasking as the next big thing.
- Talk to people with whom you don’t agree.
- Obey the seven-minute rule—wait at least seven minutes into a conversation before reaching for your phone.
- Challenge a view of the world as apps.
- Choose the right tool for the job.
- Learn from moments of friction.
- Remember what you know about life.
- Don’t avoid difficult conversations.
- Try to avoid all-or-nothing thinking.
This post is adapted from How Do We Live in a Digital World? by C. Ben Mitchell (Lexham Press, 2021).
The Questions for Restless Minds series applies God’s word to today’s issues. Each short book faces tough questions honestly and clearly, so you can think wisely, act with conviction, and become more like Christ. Edited by D. A. Carson, the 17 volumes in the series cover a wide range of topics centered around critical questions many Christians wrestle with today.