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Is Therapy Possible On the Internet?
Plus, AI girlfriends, what I'm reading, and more.
Today I’m debuting a slightly different, longer, and more organized format for this newsletter. The idea is that putting together a meatier post once a week might be better than trying to fire off shorter, blog-length entries more often. That being said, I’m eager to hear your feedback on this. Would a newsletter that came to your inbox once a week but looked more like this be worth it? Or would you prefer 2-3 shorter posts (perhaps without links/reading suggestions)? Let me know!
How the Web Kills Wisdom
On a recent podcast interview, my host asked me to talk briefly about the impact of “online therapy culture,” and to outline some of my concerns about it. I don’t want to spoil it too much, but answering that question did get me thinking once again about the topic. Let me start out by making an observation about Christian culture that I’ve made before but seems worth returning to.
A fair percentage of the controversies I’ve seen in evangelical discourse happened because an author, pastor, podcaster, or social media influencer confused an issue of counseling for an issue of theology. It is very possible to take a position, an argument, an experience, or a viewpoint that that has its roots not in a carefully reasoned out distillation of many theological truths, but in a particular existential moment of crisis. What could be a very legitimate thing to counsel someone in a particular context becomes an illegitimate “take” when pressed in a biblical-theological shape.
For an example, consider the idea of ending a friendship over a person’s “toxic” views (or behavior). In a counseling session, it’s not hard to imagine a situation where the effects of this particular relationship on this particular person, coupled with this particular situation’s long-term outlook, lead logically to the counselee being advised to end the friendship. There’s a lot of textured detail to this story that the counselor could dig up to lead to this conclusion, and concern for the counselee may very well point to the necessity of removing them from the influence of this harmful relationship.
Imagine, however, pressing this issue of counseling into a theological mold. What you get might sound like this:
“People who are toxic or narcissistic are incapable of change. They will drag those around them down, discourage them, and finally use them up for the sake of their own ego. This kind of relationship is a clear cut case of spiritual abuse, and no Christian is obligated to endure it. In fact, if this describes a relationship you are in—whether it’s a marriage, a friendship, a church, or whatever—you have an obligation to protect yourself by drawing firm boundaries. You should leave this kind of relationship.”
Notice that in pressing a counseling issue into a theological issue, we have generated some sweeping statements that generalize the principles and the audience in such a way that guarantee this kind of statement will be applied destructively. For example, what does “toxic” mean? If we unpack such a word in the context of a specific relationship, we could probably arrive at a useful meaning. But without that specific context, the word simply means whatever the reader wants it to mean. It can mean “verbally abusive,” or it can mean “hard to get along with,” or “doesn’t always listen.”
Another problem is the specific action step that is recommended. In a counseling context, we could likely arrive at a course of action that is both biblically justifiable and effective given the details of the situation. But the paragraph above does not address any kind of context. It simply gives a course of action to a reader who identifies at any level—no matter how abstractly—with the situation. It effectively advises readers to torch any kind of relationship that might feel as if it fits this description at any level.
There are other examples we could give. Some of the more unproductive dialogue over things like the “Billy Graham Rule.” Debates over modesty, or alcohol, or when to leave a church. All of these are topics about which there exist a multitude of books, essays, podcasts, and social media posts that offer the kind of abstracted, generalized principles that I illustrated above. You can easily find people arguing that a man and woman who aren’t married to each other ought never sit at the same table at a coffee shop alone, and you can easily find respondents who argue that men and women ought to be able to relate to each other as effortlessly and naturally as same-sex friendships. Both takes reflect a well-meaning but ultimately incoherent effort to take what is properly an issue of prudence and counseling and turn it into an absolute point of dogma that fails to account for many things.
There are certainly some men who should probably not try to cultivate a platonic friendship with some women. There are certainly some people who ought never to drink. Arriving at these conclusions is really the result of hard, inner work that asks particular questions about particular individuals. And truthfully, that describes a lot of the Christian life.
A few people have commented that they wish my book Digital Liturgies would have had more concrete steps for practical application. I think that’s a fair criticism, and if I were to go back, I would make that change. But I also think there’s an instinct in a lot of evangelical circles to try to reduce everything down to a list of action steps that everyone is supposed to follow all of the time. I’m glad the book doesn’t do that, because I just don’t think that’s how the Bible works, and I don’t think that’s how wisdom works.
But—and there’s where I’m going with all this—that is how the Internet works. One of the more fascinating ironies of digital life is that, for all its disembodied reliance on personal autonomy and self-narrative, digital culture is quite dogmatic. The legalistic spirit of the influencer would give the supporting cast in The Scarlet Letter a run for their money. Just try to Google or search social media for topics like parenting, or health, or best toothbrushes, or the right way to do paleo or yoga. Hoo boy. You will be on these pages for a few seconds before you encounter sentiments like, “You HAVE to do this.” You know why? Because that content sells. That content gets attention. The more you can absolutize the most niche practices and novel behaviors, the more people will give you 5 seconds of attention out of sheer incredulity. And that 5 seconds of attention drives the values of the digital economy.
This is precisely why we now have a digital “mental health” content mill that is practically guaranteed to drive pathological self-absorption, dysfunctional instincts, and harmful assumptions deeper into the minds of Gen-Z. Set aside the growing evidence that online therapy tropes are actually influencing real-life counseling sessions. Even if they weren’t, the sheer scope of online therapy culture means that it’s reaching an enormous audience, the vast majority of whom have little to contrast it against (because sometimes stereotypes are true).
In his book In the Swarm, Byung-Chul Han observes that the digital age has facilitated the collapse of the private. The public/private distinction rests on a sense of place that is no longer intuitive. What was personal is now performative, since individuals now project their identities onto electronic media. Han’s greater point is about the behavior of online “swarms” (i.e., mobs) but the observation makes sense of what I’m talking about too. Wisdom’s personalized character—the idea that there are feelings, behaviors, and beliefs that are obligatory upon a specific person but not generally—is obscured by the absorption of identity into mass media. Because we are all in the business of extending our identities into broadcastable nuggets, our thinking takes an absolutist shape. We lean on our own experiences/self-IQ to interpret the world because those experiences/self-IQ are all that exist of us is in a disembodied context. In other words, when wisdom becomes #content, it becomes law, rather than wisdom.
What I’m Reading
For an upcoming review, I’ve been reading David Ayers’s book After the Revolution: Sex and the Single Evangelical. It’s a very interesting, well-researched look at the sexual habits of professing evangelicals. It’s to Ayers’s overall point that in an era of insanity over basic questions of gender, a book about widespread premarital sex among evangelicals seems blase’. But of course, it’s not! While the culture war has moved on from sex during dating, cohabitation, and divorce, these are very, very pressing issues in nearly every evangelical church.
You need to take a few minutes to read “We Can’t Compare With AI Girlfriends,” an article by British writer Freya India, that offers a quick summary of how ascendant the business of custom-designed “women” (who are really computers) has become. Here’s an excerpt:
Apparently ads for AI girlfriends have been all over TikTok, Instagram and Facebook lately. Replika, an AI chatbot originally offering mental health help and emotional support, now runs ads for spicy selfies and hot role play. Eva AI invites users to create their dream companion, while Dream Girlfriend promises a girl that exceeds your wildest desires. The app Intimate even offers hyper-realistic voice calls with your virtual partner.
This might seem niche and weird but it’s a fast growing market. All kinds of startups are releasing romantic chatbots capable of having explicit conversations and sending sexual photos. Meanwhile, Replika alone has already been downloaded more than 20 million times…
What’s even more sinister is the unrealistic emotional standards set by these apps. Eva AI, for example, not only lets you choose the perfect face and body but customise the perfect personality, offering options like “hot, funny, bold”, “shy, modest, considerate” and “smart, strict, rational”. Create a girlfriend who is judgement-free! Who lets you hang out with your buddies without drama! Who laughs at all your jokes! “Control it all the way you want to,” promises Eva AI. Design a girl who is “always on your side”, says Replika.
If you pair this with the much longer profile that British GQ ran in March about the men who are “dating” sex robots, the picture starts to crystallize. The conquest of digital pornography has, among things, made real sexual relationships feel less plausible and less desirable to an upcoming generation. The sophistication of things like dolls and AI is accelerating at exactly the same time that big numbers of men and women are giving up on human intimacy. The godlike power of complete customization has left the confines of the keyboard. What Neil Postman said of TV has become true of the Web: it has “re-staged” the world.
Where I’ve Been
For the Crossway Podcast I talked with Matt Tully about the ideas in Digital Liturgies. I loved this conversation, which was probably one of my favorite interviews so far.
I also really enjoyed this conversation with the guys from the What Would Jesus Tech podcast. They bring in some helpful distinctions and clarifications to the ideas in the book. This kind of discussion is always very helpful for me, and I hope helpful for you too.
If you find the stuff in this newsletter helpful, consider buying Digital Liturgies: Rediscovering Christian Wisdom in an Online Age.
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