A God's-eye-view of the world will destroy those who aren't God.
Earlier this year I discovered, quite by accident, that a girl I was friends with in high school had already divorced her husband of just a few years. The form of my discovery was a blog post by the man in which he relayed news to his readers that he had caught his wife in a years-long affair and that she was now suing for divorce. I’ve never met this man, and I have no idea what her side of the story would be; I haven’t spoken to her in over a decade. But this news made me sadder than I expected. It had hit some kind of gray zone between something that affected me and something that didn’t. I found it hard to stop thinking about it, even though there was no reasonable explanation. There was nothing I could do about it; I have no contact info, no relational capital whatsoever. It was one notch above the happenings of strangers. But it was a strangely depressing notch.
I’ve found that the Internet age seems to be good at generating these gray zones of emotional investment. It evokes the image of the small community in which everybody knows everybody’s business, but with an important caveat: in the digital village, people are abstracted into information streams. To know someone’s business is to not know them in any physical sense, but to know what they or others choose to share. I was friends with this girl in real life, but I was “friends” with her on Facebook longer, and this fact seems to put her recent life developments in a different emotional register for me. In a completely analog world, I would likely never have discovered that she was divorced; if I did, it would likely have been through conversation with someone closer. Finding all this out digitally has a weird effect: simultaneously remote and personal, its irrelevance to me highlighted but also distorted by how direct was my discovery.
For the last few years I’ve thought much about what happens to our relationships, our beliefs, and even our minds when the whole range of human experience is translated to a digital medium. The effect I’ve described above is, I think, an under-appreciated dynamic of the Internet age. We are all confronted with an unmanageable stream of information that makes emotional demands on us. The misfortunes of a former acquaintance whom we have not spoken to in years find their way to their front of our attention span. The failings and conspiracies of politicians, churches, and institutions—no matter how remote from us—fuel our anxiety and anger. As someone has observed, “Twitter is the place where we get angry at people we’ve never met, for reasons we can’t explain, over issues we don’t care about.” The point is that the Internet seems to be a tool that amplifies our emotional investment in everything and then chains us in a very particular way to this feeling.
On the other hand, the ability to cultivate natural limits to what dominates your attention and demands a response is a big part of living wisely and well. This is part of accepting our finitude, part of receiving the gift of creature-hood. Most of us know people who seem invested in absolutely everything; every news story, every rumor, every crisis. These people are well-intentioned and can often do good, but they are harried and often miserable. They seem to constantly be trying to overcome their humanity, to be something more than a person.
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There’s a sense in which the allure of digital life is precisely that: the promise to be more than a person, to use technology to overcome the boredom, obscurity, frustration, and smallness that might otherwise capture you. This is how the Internet is pornographically-shaped: it gives us godlike powers to vivify our fantasies and actualize our desires, and even if these fantasies and desires are not sexual in nature, the process of realizing them is one of endless consumption. This helps us to understand how political and even theological conversation on social media seems to be prone to the same logic as a porn addiction: go online, vent your spleen, get your Likes, feel the pleasure—rinse, repeat as desired. Or consider how the perfect poses of happy families or satisfied influencers on Instagram arouses a craving for a better life, a craving we nonetheless choose to fill by doing little more than refreshing the feed for another hit. In these moments our own limits disappear and we feel we can become our ideal. If we could just get inside the picture, or dominate the algorithm, or defeat our enemy, we would crush our anxieties and find the meaning we seek.
The muddy distance between our digital daydreams and our bodies that indulge them brings me back full circle to the gray area we all find when something online haunts us more than it should. A couple years ago my wife showed me news from a lifestyle influencer she followed on IG. Her young daughter had been badly injured in an accident, suffered severe brain trauma, nearly died, but survived and is now on a likely lifelong journey back toward very basic cognitive capacity. Watching this unfold through deeply intimate posts on IG, many of which talked about their struggle to pray and trust God with their daughter in this season, left a huge impression on me. I found myself checking the updates on this little girl almost daily, invested in her story. Her setbacks cause me to grieve and pray and quietly struggle; her good days elicited praise and gratitude. At some point, however, I realized what was going on. In my soul, this daughter was really my daughter, these parents were me, and this daily intake of news and updates was a way of living out emotionally this journey in a third-hand way. I knew I couldn’t bear up under this burden, which was so untethered from the embodied means of grace that God gives those actually carrying it. I had to stop journeying with them.
The same dynamics are at work even in our less traumatic experiences. We see characters online and either identify with them or identify with their opposites. We carry burdens: often the burden of, “Somebody is wrong on the Internet!” We take things personally because we are persons. We are meant to take things personally. But we find that we are not meant to encounter the world as something more than a person. We are not meant to hold a God’s eye view of the world throughout the week. And like the emotional gray area I found at the news of my old friend’s divorce, this quasi-investment, this not-really-already-but-definitely-not-yet of digital life, gives us anxiety and anger. The more we try to exercise godlike power over the world, the more it eludes us. We blame others for this: those with the wrong opinions, those with the wrong politics, those with the wrong products or ideas.
This is why I believe our most important conversations and beliefs must be rescued from the digital medium. The Internet is not the source of all our problems. It is not an unmitigated evil that we must put back into Pandora’s box, even if that were possible. But just as there are realities too precious for a sitcom, there are things too important to surrender to the Web. And one of those things is our emotional presence. We cannot take a God’s eye view of the world via our timelines. We cannot seek to escape our limitations through tech. We have to learn to tend to the land our feet are actually on. We have to learn how to think and debate and relate to the people around us, not an algorithmically constructed “culture.”
If we pursue this, I think we’ll discover registers of peace and confidence that we’ve forgotten are ours in Christ. This digital way of encountering the world is anti-humane. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can live better. And one way or another, I think we will.