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The Internet as a Theological Plausibility Structure
Habitats can change the way we think and behave. Most people are aware of this at a very large-scale level; e.g., people born into a religious family are more likely to be religious, people who live in an impoverished or violent neighborhood tend to be shaped by that experience, etc. But this also happens at a small-scale level. For example, it’s irrational to invite a dozen people to your living room for a two-hour session of sitting absolutely quietly, not conversing or using phones; but if the environment changes from a bare living room to a movie theater, it makes sense. It’s not only the activity that changes (watching a movie vs. doing nothing) but how people perceive and respond to the environment. As I’ve mentioned before, a cinema is one of the only remaining cultural locations where undivided attention is considered obligatory; this habitat still retains some of its formative power.
Certain habitats make certain attitudes and actions more plausible, and others less so. This is what I mean by “plausibility structure.” If we consider the Internet an epistemological and emotional habitat, then we should expect it to generate its own kind of plausibility structure. Further, the plausibility structure would be connected to the digital habitat’s nature, the way the plausibility structure of a cinema is connected to its shape and purpose. And there’s a further wrinkle: When we consider the nature of the social Internet, we can perceive that its plausibility structures can be theological in nature.
One of the most powerful digital plausibility structures is disembodiment. Because the Internet allows us to communicate with real language apart from our physical bodies and physical spaces, we tend to identify our “selfs” online not as whole-persons (body + mind) but as minds that exist independently of physical constraints. Biblically speaking, there is a real sense that our bodies tell us what we are. But digital language tends to create a digital self-perception. And this digital self-perception makes certain theological claims less plausible than they might be otherwise.
Let me offer two examples:
Of course, gender roles have been incredibly controversial well before the time of the Internet. But the digitization of language introduces a much more complex layer: a felt implausibility of gender distinctions in increasingly bodiless experiences of the world.
Ontological distinctions between men and women make an intuitive sense in embodied contexts because those distinctions tend to manifest themselves physically. For example, a man’s physical strength and a woman’s breasts are physical traits that signal a kind of ordering: upper-body strength that suggests a labor-oriented design, and breasts that suggest feeding and nurturing babies. Of course, there are weak men and there are women who have had their breasts removed, and these are still men and women. The muscles and the mammary glands do not create gendered identity. Nevertheless, in a community where these physical traits are regularly visible, members perceive a plausibility to the idea that men and women may be created toward distinct patterns of life.
Digital life, on the other hand, is disembodied. A person’s gender identity as revealed online is completely a matter of self-revelation; their physical body may be hidden entirely, it may be despised or neglected. For the purposes of digital selfhood, the body is irrelevant. What creates personality online is language, language divorced from physical givenness. For a person who came of age experiencing the world through the Web, the idea that men and women might be ordered toward differing patterns of life feels contrary not only to ideology, but to lived experience. It just doesn’t make sense in an online world of bodiless personality to say that men and women are meaningfully different.
It is impossible to read the Bible’s teaching on suffering and come away convinced that its primary concern is helping people escape it. Scripture instead goes to great lengths to help people persevere in and re-interpret their suffering as something that, while not the way the world’s meant to be, does not necessarily signal a need for personal revolution. The Bible is fairly calm, for example, about poverty, or mistreatment by others, or rejection. These are not intrinsically good things, but they are things that can push us toward that which is good.
The online therapeutic is decidedly against this kind of mentality. Within the online therapeutic, the most important thing anyone can do is escape suffering, no matter what. The most important thing anyone can do for someone else is to facilitate and endorse this escape, no matter what that escape might mean (a broken family, an abandoned faith, stopping anti-psychotic medication, etc.). Yet this accords well with the Internet’s flattening of existence into language and narrative. In the offline world, our experience of suffering is often complicated; we are simultaneously hurt and healed, often by the same people. We weigh the difficulties of a particular relationship against its value, and this math is rarely simple. Of course, people who overcome suffering are regular sources of viral inspiration. But there is a difference between overcoming and enduring, and it’s the endurance of suffering that doesn’t compute in the online therapeutic.
These are two examples of how digital plausibility structures run counter to Christian wisdom, even in ways that don’t seem like bald “worldview” statements. Often, the things that influence us the most are not declarations, but moods: a sense of how to feel and what to do, rather than a command.
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