Discover more from Digital Liturgies
A Chapter from My New Book
Exclusive preview of "Digital Liturgies"
Note: Below is an exclusive excerpt from my book Digital Liturgies: Rediscovering Christian Wisdom in an Online Age. You can now order the book from Crossway and other publishers.
Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception tells a fictional story about a technology called “dream-sharing,” invented at some indeterminate point in the future, that allows participants to enter into one another’s dreams via their subconscious. The main character, Cobb (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), is a professional “dream hacker” who is skilled at entering into people’s dreams and navigating their subconscious to find valuable information. At the behest of a billionaire CEO, Cobb assembles an expert team of hackers to invade the mind of a rival business tycoon and plant in his mind the desire to break up his company.
The movie is a dazzling thriller, filled with spectacular action sequences and mind-bending visual effects. But it’s also a subtly profound parable. Perhaps more so than any other major Hollywood movie before it, Inception is a genuinely insightful and disturbing meditation on the relationship between mankind and its technologies. As the film progresses and its main characters develop, the dream-sharing device turns out to be a terrifyingly apt metaphor.
In the world of Inception, dream-sharing is not just a tool to invade someone else’s mind; it’s a way to construct one’s own sub-conscious reality. With training, sleepers can learn how to change the content of their dreams at will. However, this intoxicating ability erodes the sleeper’s sense of what’s real and what is a dream. As the dreamers port more and more of their desires and memories into the dream environment, they become increasingly immersed in the world of the dream. Not only does this immersion confuse their sense of reality (with tragic consequences in the case of one character); it recalibrates their desires entirely.
In one of the movie’s best scenes, the team visits a chemist who can make especially potent sedatives to allow for vivid and prolonged dream-sharing. The chemist takes the team downstairs, where they’re led to a dimly lit room where dozens of people are sleeping, connected to dream-sharing devices. The chemist explains that these people come to his shop to take the sedative and spend hours every day dreaming together, as their subconscious selves construct an alternative life in their dreams. Stunned, the team asks, “They come here to fall asleep?” “No,” comes the reply. “They come here to wake up. The dream has become their reality. Who are you to say otherwise?”
Inception works as an excellent science-fiction film, but even more importantly, it understands something fundamental about our technological society. Dream-sharing is fiction, but the near limitless ability to construct our own version of reality lies in our pockets or on our desks nearly every day. Much like the pitiable patients in the film, our relationship with these technologies has a way of causing us to desire digital sleep. As much as we might tell ourselves that we go to the internet and social media to be plugged into what’s going on in the world, many times we’re logging on to escape it.
The power of technology to shape us is something that many evangelical Christians have not considered nearly enough. Particularly in the digital age, evangelicals have often focused exclusively on the content that our TVs, computers, and smartphones deliver to us rather than the form by which that content is delivered. If we were to borrow computing language to make this distinction, we might say that American evangelicals have had a lot to say about cultural software but very little about cultural hardware. When it comes to discernment about what to watch or read or listen to, there’s much theological thinking that can assist. But what if the way we watch or read or listen—the medium, not just the message—also requires discernment?
The Medium Is the Message
The cultural critic Marshall McLuhan famously declared that “the medium is the message.” McLuhan was referring to the epistemological and moral power of technology as not simply a tool to deliver some desired good but a means of reshaping society. In his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, McLuhan illustrates the transformative power of technology by observing how the railway and the airplane both created different kinds of environments to support it:
What we are considering here, however, are the psychic and social consequences of the designs or patterns as they amplify or accelerate existing processes. For the “message” of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs. The railway did not introduce movement or transportation or wheel or road into human society, but it accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human func- tions, creating totally new kinds of cities and new kinds of work and leisure. This happened whether the railway functioned in a tropical or a northern environment, and is quite independent of the freight or content of the railway medium. The airplane, on the other hand, by accelerating the rate of transportation, tends to dissolve the railway form of city, politics, and association, quite independently of what the airplane is used for.
The railway, according to McLuhan, transformed civilization by creating railway-shaped cities, railway-shaped work, and railway-shaped leisure. Once geographical distance was no longer an immutable, given part of people’s lives and experiences, the way people thought about things like work, home, and even time itself was permanently changed. On a much more intense level, commercial flights have likewise “shrunk” our conception of the world. It’s not simply that jet airliners travel thousands of miles because that’s what we want them to do. Rather, the fact that jet airliners can travel thousands of miles is itself a transformational physical fact that has consequences for how we think about ourselves and the world.
Consider the clock. In his delightful book About Time: A History of Civilization in Twelve Clocks, David Rooney documents how timekeeping technology has consistently transformed society. Some ancient Romans ardently resisted the novelty of the sundial, cursing “that man who first discovered the hours.” As Rooney shows, timekeeping technology has always served philosophical and political purposes, imposing a certain kind of structure and worldview on its beholders. Whether this is a spiritual structure of piety expressed in chiming bells that call for hourly worship or an imperialistic reminder of one nation’s dominance over another, expressed through imposition of time, the fact remains: “technology is never neutral, because objects are made by people with an agenda of some sort.”
Central heating is another example. Before furnaces pumped heat into every part of a house, most homes were dependent on fireplaces to keep warm during winter. If you were not wealthy, the odds were good that there was only one fireplace in your house, which meant that there was one location in your home that supplied heat, which consequently meant that all the members of the household tended to gather at the same spot to share warmth. The necessity of sharing space created the sharing of time together. By contrast, central heating and cooling enabled comfort throughout a house. Technology literally decentralized homelife, laying the technical foundation for the everyone-has-their-own-bedroom layout of a home that we assume today. This architectural transformation has brought with it a philosophical transformation: an emphasis, for example, on granting children “privacy” and “respecting their space” that has had significant implications for parenting and the governance of the home.
What about the automobile? Henry Ford’s assembly line gave the world not just a far more efficient way of traveling; it gave the world a new way of imagining itself. As one author explains, most of the twentieth century was defined by “the expectation that people would get from one place to another only by driving an automobile.” The speed and convenience of the automobile gave birth to a different way of thinking about our relationship to work, to home, and to each other. For most people before the nineteenth century, the concept of “place” carried a thick givenness: the place you were born was very likely the place you would live. Home was an inheritance, and vocation was downstream from place. The Industrial Revolution in transportation redefined the concept of space, and in so doing redefined the concept of home. Thanks to technology, the remote was now accessible, which meant you were free to structure your life around pursuing the best-paying job, the most prestigious education, the most exciting new town—or simply to just get away.
I should be quick to point out that these are not necessarily moral criticisms of the technologies. Hardly anyone who studies the his- tory of clocks, air-conditioners, or automobiles desires to return to a world without them. Indeed, biblically speaking, pining for such a return is not an example of wisdom but of futility (Eccl. 7:10). The idea that technology changes the kind of people we are is not itself an argument against them; it’s simply a true observation of the world we live in.
Further, evaluating these effects is enormously complicated, not least because the effects are subtle and sometimes almost impossible to notice. The medical doctor and philosopher Stanley Joel Reiser, for example, has made a provocative case that the stethoscope, along with other medical technology, made physicians less dependent on (and ultimately less interested in) the subjective experiences of patients. “As the physician makes greater use of the technology of diagnosis,” he writes, “he perceives his patient more and more indirectly through a screen of machines and specialists. . . . These circumstances tend to estrange him from his patient and from his own judgment.” This isn’t as simple as deciding whether a stethoscope or EKG machine is good or bad. Rather, the point is that technologies, simply by virtue of what they do, communicate something. They communicate a vision of what life should be like, what human beings and the natural world should be capable of.
Evangelical Christians in the West today sense that the ambient culture has changed dramatically over the past few decades. The moral language that was commonplace in schools, workplaces, and town halls just fifty years ago is not only absent but considered hate- ful, even treasonous. We know this, and our preaching, teaching, writing, and evangelism often reflect a sober awareness of our post-Christian situation. At the same time, however, many evangelicals struggle to understand how the situation has been transformed so quickly. Ideas about gender identity that were strictly the domain of far-left bastions in higher education just a decade ago are now top- ics of conversation among pastors and parents in middle America.
How in the world did we get here so soon? I believe an important answer is about technology. The epistemological and ethical effects of technology have gone underreported in evangelical spaces partially because we don’t know how these material devices are shaping us, which in turn is due to a lack of a viable theology of spiritual formation. Just as timekeeping, heating, and automobile technologies created social and political revolutions because of what they empowered people to be and do, so also has internet technology cultivated a spiritual revolution by its very form.
What Technology Is Saying
The idea of digital technology’s sparking a spiritual revolution is not at all a novel or reactionary concept. In fact, there’s good reason to believe such a holistically transformative effect was what the original visionaries behind personal computing always hoped. In his fascinating book World Without Mind, journalist Franklin Foer begins by narrating the history of personal computing, starting with the story of Stewart Brand. Brand, whom Foer refers to as a “crown prince of hippiedom,” was a true child of the 1960s who rejected his parents’ middle-class values and instead sought authenticity and higher truth through drugs, counterculture, and technology.
Brand’s New Age inclinations combined with his interest in digital technology to create a techno-utopianism. Brand believed that although “politics failed to transform, computers just might.” Brand favored life among the “free love” communes that had shown up in the latter half of the sixties, and he tried to imagine ways to use his interest in cutting-edge technology to help his friends become more self-actualized and liberated. The biggest result of this effort was The Whole Earth Catalog, published in 1968. “The catalog pointed readers toward calculators and jackets and geodesic domes, as well as books and magazines,” Foer writes. “The goods themselves were less important than the catalog’s theoretical arguments about them.”
What were those arguments? A paragraph from the catalog sum- marizes its worldview thus:
We are as gods and might as well get good at it. So far, remotely done power and glory—as via government, big business, formal education, church—has succeeded to the point where gross defects obscure actual gains. In response to this dilemma and to these gains a realm of intimate, personal power is developing—power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested. Tools that aid this process are sought and promoted by the WHOLE EARTH CATALOG.
In another world, The Whole Earth Catalog might have been just a piece of deep trivia from a colorful and chaotic chapter in American history. But it was much more than that. For one thing, the catalog was a massive success, selling millions of copies and winning prestigious literary awards. More importantly, the catalog expressed a philosophy of transhuman liberation through technology that shaped the foundation of the modern computing industry. “The Whole Earth Catalog is a foundational text of Silicon Valley,” Foer writes. It “transposed the values of the counterculture into technology” and cast a vision for computers to be vehicles of “personal liberation and communal connection.”
The liberative vision of Brand and his catalog became influential not just with the general mass of tech-curious hippies on the West Coast, but also with some particular individuals who would go on to shape the digital world. One of the catalog’s eager readers was a young Steve Jobs. A computer engineer named Ray Kurzweil also caught the vision of technology-as-salvation and formulated the notion of the “Singularity,” an eschatological belief that eventually human consciousness and technology will merge and form a new era in human existence. Google cofounder Larry Page hired Kurzweil in 2012 as their “leading futurist.”
How influential is the idea that technology will “successfully” splice human beings from their bodily limitations and usher in a techno-paradise? Perhaps more than you think. Transhumanism refers to a broad set of beliefs and ideas about the future of human- machine singularity. Transhuman philosophy, far from being a foil in science fiction novels or a theoretical “slippery slope,” is rather a live worldview among serious educators and inventors. In his helpful book Transhumanism and the Image of God, Jacob Shatzer describes the perspective of transhuman theorists: “By applying technology to ourselves, we can move beyond and become some- thing that is posthuman.”The opening of the 1998 Transhumanist Declaration makes the connection between technology and the abolition of embodied limitation explicit: “Humanity stands to be profoundly affected by science and technology in the future. We envision the possibility of broadening human potential by overcoming aging, cognitive shortcomings, involuntary suffering, and our confinement to planet earth.”16
A more detailed look at transhumanist philosophy is beyond the scope of this book. The point is that, historically speaking, our computer and internet technologies express a worldview that was programmed into them at the outset. As Foer notes, this eschato- logical vision of technological transcendence permanently shaped the character of Silicon Valley’s technology companies. It’s evident not just in history but in the present.
Facebook cofounder Mark Zuckerberg believes the metaverse— an immersive virtual reality environment where digital renderings of people gather—is an essential step in the human journey toward total freedom to customize our bodies and our environment. Elon Musk, as of this writing one of the wealthiest people in the world, has observed that as our personal computing tools become more important in our daily lives, the line between self and software is blurred. Musk welcomes an imminent chapter in human history where we will “see a closer merger of biological intelligence and digital intelligence. Musk’s point is that our existing relationship with digital technology makes such a transformation plausible. He’s right. There’s a vision of humanity, the good life, and our final destination as persons expressed not only by propositional language (i.e., statements that argue for these philosophies) but by these tools themselves. Once again, this doesn’t mean that these technologies are inherently evil in themselves or that the right response would be to disavow permanently any use of computers or the web. Instead, what we must do if we want to live wisely in the world God has made is identify these ideas and worldviews for what they are, and understand how they can shape and move us even when we are not conscious of any mental battle going on.
This glance at the intellectual heritage of much of our online and computer technology helps make sense of why these devices seem to powerfully separate us from the givenness of the world. In a very real sense, this is precisely what such technology was intended to do. Its function is downstream from a particular belief system, a story of humanity wherein salvation consists of overcoming givenness itself, curating a custom existence, and achieving freedom from boredom, limitation, ignorance, and even death.
Of course, simply because an invention’s maker holds certain beliefs does not necessarily mean that the invention itself is synonymous with those beliefs. The doctrine of common grace prevents us from seeing human beings as simply the sum total of their worldview. Even parents who are evil can give good things to their children (Luke 11:13). The question is not whether a certain technology is tainted by an inventor’s ideology; the question is whether we can see evidence of that ideology in the way the invention works. As we observed earlier, technologies, from the clock to the jet airplane, can create systemic changes in society so that people begin to think and feel and act in ways that are permanently shaped by those changes. Technology can recalibrate our vision of God’s world. The question is not whether this happens; the question is which technologies do this, and how they do it.
If so, then when we look closely at the most important digi- tal technologies of our time—especially the internet—we should expect to see traces of this posthuman vision. We should detect some kind of intrinsic tension between the given reality our bodies inhabit and the world that is rendered for us on the screen. We should expect to see that these “digital liturgies” don’t just encourage us to try to escape from the givenness of God’s world but that they actually obscure and resist that givenness in the very things they do.
And that’s exactly what we find.
Let me tell you about two friends of mine. I’ve known Dean and Erica for several years. They don’t know each other, and, in fact, I doubt they would have very much in common if they ever did meet, beyond the fact that they’re both Christian, married, thirty- something parents of young children. Dean is a professional in online communications, specializing in helping people grow their digital platforms. Erica is a stay-at-home mother. Dean is fairly described as politically left of center. Erica is very conservative. Dean’s kids attend public school, while Erica homeschools herchildren. In terms of ideological instincts, temperament, and where each is willing to err, Dean and Erica are two very different kinds of thinkers.
But over the last few years, I’ve noticed (and my wife has noticed) that something seems to have changed with both Dean and Erica. Although their social and political worldviews are far apart, both Dean and Erica seem to have changed in ways that are remarkably similar. For one thing, we’ve noticed that Dean and Erica seem to be very different kinds of people when we’re talking to them in person and when we’re reading their social media timelines.
In person, Dean is quite approachable and humble, easy to talk to, and seems open to considering viewpoints not his own. Online, however, Dean appears to be leaning much further into a theologically and politically progressive mindset, a mindset that seems to imply that people who don’t agree with him are harmful and should be avoided. Dean is quite critical online toward certain doctrines or church practices that he was open to just a few years ago. What’s more, Dean often “likes” or “shares” content that he surely knows friends like me would find extremely controversial, perhaps even attacking. Yet this seemingly does not create awkwardness when we hang out. In fact, if all I knew from Dean was the way he talked outside social media, I would never have imagined him to feel this way at all. It’s not his conversa- tion but his posts that express skepticism toward evangelicals like me. When we talk about the gospel and our families over lunch, there’s no eye-rolling, no snarky retorts, and certainly no heated arguments. We may not always agree, but the aggressive spirit that I pick up from him online is simply not there, and he doesn’t seem to try to create it. In fact, it’s almost like it’s not the same person at all.
Something very similar has been going on with Erica. Erica is genuinely sweet and compassionate. In person, she still asks questions about how we’re doing, checks on our kids, and keeps us up-to-date with everything going on in her family. She exudes friendliness and cheerfulness almost all the time. But online is a different story. Recently Erica has been far more strident and absolutist in her opinions about everything from vaccines to child safety. Even on issues that are not clearly addressed in Scripture, Erica has been projecting a kind of agitated confidence that is very surprising when compared to her offline persona. Interestingly, the opposite is true online: she has become less surprising. She has started to talk about certain issues in a very predictable way, often sounding exactly like certain opinion “influencers.” It’s not just that her opinions have become more plentiful online. They’ve become less thoughtful and more reactionary. Most distressingly of all, Erica seems less and less comfortable in offline conversations and visits. She’ll come off as stressed and distracted, even meekly asking for prayer that the Lord would help her in a chaotic season of life. When we check her page, though, there’s no sign of any stress or neediness. Her pictures show only smiling faces, happy times, and of course, correct opinions.
These changes in Erica and Dean might be easier to under- stand if they were more radical. People can certainly change. But what makes these transformations hard to comprehend is that they’re really not radical. As far as I can tell, there’s been no major change in their theology or worldview, there’s been no significant life event that rattled their presuppositions, and (again, as far as I can tell) there’s been no relational trauma or disillusionment that might have led to this palpable sense of conflict. What has happened instead is that Dean and Erica, while what they say is very different, are both thinking and speaking in a new kind of way. And that new kind of way feels distinctly like an internet-shaped way.
This might sound awfully self-righteous. But, truthfully, the real reason I’ve been concerned about Dean and Erica’s recent transformation is that I’ve seen it in myself too. Everything I’ve just described about my friends is something I’ve picked up going on in my own mind and heart, and just like Dean and Erica, it’s only gotten worse and more noticeable over the last few years. I think differently than I used to. I concentrate less and emote more. I value carefully reflecting on things, but what I end up doing a lot is simply seeing what people I dislike are saying and confidently taking the opposite position, whatever it is. Conversation is harder, reading is much more of a slog, and mental busyness is so alluring I almost feel restless when I’m not distracted. When I share these experiences with friends and family, almost everyone agrees that some version of this is happening to them. All of us seem to feel like we’re in some kind of spiritual and intellectual haze.
What’s happening? The answer, I believe, brings us back to that haunting scene in the film Inception. When people accept dreams as their reality, they feel like they have to go to sleep in order to wake up. In the movie, a dreamer’s ability to construct his own reality is a two-way street: the dreams shape him into something different as well. That’s true. What we choose to see as our reality changes us in that “reality’s” image. The spiritual and intellectual haze we feel is the feeling of thinking, feeling, and believing more like our technologies. We are becoming what we worship. And what we are worshiping has a mind of its own.