Does My Book Shy Away from Its Convictions?
I’ve read now enough reviews of my book to discern some common praises and critiques. One of the most common praises is for chapter 7, in which I argue that the Internet is pornographically shaped. This point seems to have landed with many readers. Conversely, one of the most common critiques—in fact, I would say it is the near universally expressed critique—is that the book isn’t practical enough.
Jeff Bilbro expressed both the praise and the critique. I am grateful for his very thoughtful review (which was positive). Similarly, Brad East has said that while I’m right about the pornographic shape of the Internet, the book seems to “back away” from that conviction. I take him to mean that I am not (in his reading) willing to stand behind my critique consistently enough to tell people that they really should delete their social media accounts right now.
Let me get one thing out of the way instantly: I told myself for years that if I ever wrote a book, I would never respond to reviews. It makes authors look small, petty, and overzealous for praise. There’s no way to make responding to a review of your book interesting (unless the review makes some kind of explosive accusation—the kind of “interesting” you don’t want). So, I will take the L right off the bat. Here I am being small, petty, and overzealous for praise. But along the way, I’m going to try to make at least one small but important point.
Jeff and Brad are both correct that the book gestures toward convictions that it never actually puts into practice. This was not an accident. Digital Liturgies argues that the Internet is a powerful heart-shaping ecosystem that will, simply by virtue of what it is, create thinkers and feelers for whom big-t Truth, big-b Beauty, and big-g Goodness feel alien. The most logically consistent conclusion from this argument is that the Internet is bad (or at least mostly bad) and Christians who care about Truth, Beauty, and Goodness should avoid it as much as possible. The book does not advance this conclusion, and thus it is, in at least one sense, an illogical or inconsistent book. But not every inconsistency is bad. For example, Christians believe that they are justified by God through faith in Christ, apart from good works. In one sense, the most logically consistent inference to pull from this is that good works do not matter and that Christians don’t have to do them. In fact, it’s so logically consistent that Paul literally anticipates this exact inference and responds to it. How does he respond? He does not say this inference is illogical. He says it is simply wrong (Rom. 6:1). He doesn’t deny the idea that good works don’t matter is intuitive. He merely denies that it is true. So Christians have experience living in the tension between “A” and “…therefore B.”
The reason the book appears to back away from its main argument is that its main argument depends upon a presupposition that is, at least in a sense, somewhat paralyzing. The book assumes that technology’s formative power is unavoidable because it is a) omnipresent, b) intrinsic, and c) spiritual. In other words, there could have been a version of Digital Liturgies that made the case that technology possesses only the spiritual potency that users grant to it. Or it could have argued that humans exercise total agency over what they create and can (and thus should) calibrate technologies to only yield desirable results. Or it could have argued that some technologies are value-positive in good way, some are value-positive in a bad way, and some are value-neutral. But all three of these ideas are actually contrary to what I argue in the book. What I argue (along with McLuhan, Postman, Carr, Smith, et. al.) is that technology does things to people that people cannot fully control; that the technological world changes the thought-patterns and assumptions of those who dwell in it; that technologies, especially digital technologies, will tend to outgrow their original envisioned purpose; and that every technology is value-positive (in good and bad ways). In other words, the book does not “back away” from its argument because there is literally nowhere for it to back into. I simply do not believe that humans can choose to live above the heart-shaping effects of technology. The Amish do not do this; they merely choose which technologies they will be shaped by, as do we all.
But on that note, couldn’t I simply have said that the Internet is one technology that Christians ought to choose against? Two replies are in order. First, I actually think the book did say this to a meaningful degree. Choosing to limit one’s intake, control one’s exposure, moderate one’s time, and unplug/deactivate where helpful is a kind of choosing against the Internet. Thinking critically about what social media and streaming are doing to our attention spans and spiritual senses is a kind of choosing against. The vast, vast majority of people in the modern world do not put up any kind of resistance. Many people are actively trying to migrate more of their life to the screen, not less. I think the average reader who picks up Digital Liturgies would find my critique more blunt and direct than a reader who is deeply familiar with the best texts in tech and cultural criticism.
Second, the subtitle of the book invites readers to rediscover Christian wisdom “in an online age.” That phrasing is important. It’s not just your life or my life that’s online. It’s the world. Ours is a digital era. Because this is not a separatist book, calling people to establish analog communes a la The Village, the reasonable conclusion is that there are patterns of thinking and feeling that can navigate us wisely even as we participate (inevitably) in the digital age. I do not believe the most significant impact of Neil Postman’s work is felt in the legacy of readers who threw out their televisions. I believe it’s in the legacy of readers who discerned the way that television was staging their world, and fought back against this with intent: choosing to learn from books rather than sitcoms, building practical parameters around mass media (yes, I believe parental limits on “screen time” are a good fruit of media criticism), etc. Jon Askonas’s landmark essay on Tucker Carlson and Jon Stewart is not worse because Askonas himself watched cable at one point. Many times, standing athwart history means standing right in the middle of the tracks.
But is the book impractical? Here I have to confess that my critics have a point. This part of the book is underdeveloped. You will not find anything approaching Justin Earley or Cal Newport’s strategies. To the degree that readers would have benefited from such a development, I have missed the mark. But let me throw in one final observation.
Strategy-minded books can be enormously helpful. They can also be neglected very easily. If your income depends on your managing social media accounts, for example, you will not be enamored with a book that tells you to do a radical digital detox. Further, a book like Digital Liturgies is bound to find readers who honestly do not identify with most of the dynamics I identify. They don’t find themselves gnawed by outrage. They don’t retreat into virtual friendship sessions or doomscrolling. Part of what I wanted to say to those people is: Behold your world! This is not a self-help book. It’s a window, not a mirror. The heart-shaping patterns of the social Internet are with us whether we feel them or not, whether we take urgent action or not. My hope for Digital Liturgies was that it would challenge readers to see something differently, not just do something differently; because I tend to think when people really do see something differently, they will find—in ways calibrated to their specific communities and situations—paths to live wisely.