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Why Everything Feels Boring, Everybody Seems Mad, and You Were Happier 20 Years Ago
The digital age does more than we think.
If you’ve ever wondered why it feels so hard to truly “lose yourself” in a moment of wonder or joy, and if you’ve ever suspected that such moments were vastly more common in childhood than they are in adulthood, you may be interested in philosopher Hartmut Rosa’s book The Uncontrollability of the World. Rosa’s book is a brief (about 120 pages) but dense and contemplative work of philosophy that extends his concept of resonance: Rosa’s word to describe deep experiences of harmony and meaningfulness as we interact with the world. Rosa begins by asking the reader to remember watching the winter’s first snowfall as a child. The joy we felt at this event, Rosa writes, went deeper than liking how the snow looked or being glad school would be canceled. Instead, precisely because the snow was out of our control, there was a wonder and self-forgetfulness to it. Snow either falls or it doesn’t. It either sticks or it doesn’t. There is nothing we can do to “make it snow,” we can only “let it snow.”
Rosa writes that our captive wonder at the snowfall is an experience of resonance. Further, this metaphor is the foundation of his main point. Resonance is something we cannot manufacture or engineer. These kinds of deeply moving moments are by definition outside of our control. Thus, resonance requires uncontrollability. Rosa writes,
My hypothesis is this: because we, as late modern human beings, aim to make the world controllable at every level—individual, cultural, institutional, and structural—we invariably encounter the world as a “point of aggressions” or as a series of points of aggression, in other words as a series of objects that we have to know, attain, conquer, master, or exploit. And precisely because of this, “life,” the experience of feeling alive and of truly encountering the world—that which makes resonance possible—always seems to elude us. This in turns leads to anxiety, frustration, and even despair, which then manifest themselves, among other things, in acts of impotent political aggression.
There’s a lot in Rosa’s thought that deserves serious reflection. But I only want to capture one part of it in this post.
One theme that Rosa alludes to several times is the relationship of our technology to our experience of resonance. Rosa’s definition of resonance indicates our capacity to be moved or affected by something outside ourselves. “Something suddenly calls to us, moves us from without, and becomes important to us for its own sake.” In other words, resonance involves a genuine encounter with what we might call givenness: a confrontation between ourselves and objective reality (rather than our own ideas or self-conception) that depends on something’s being real outside our head. Often, this confrontation results in something we don’t desire to happen, as in a relationship that doesn’t meet our demands in the moment because the other person is truly outside our total control. Rosa writes, “We cannot resonate with someone who always tells us we are right, who always encourages or shares our opinions and fulfills our every wish and desire (the dream of the ‘love robot’).”
Rosa develops this idea further by pointing out that digital technology has allowed us to exercise an enormous amount of felt control over the world. Obviously there are massive, industrial examples of this, but Rosa makes the point at an individual level. Anyone with an internet connection now has 24-hour access to power. You can purchase plane tickets to anywhere in the world at any hour. You can find the answer to any historical or scientific question from the comfort and obscurity of your house. The most revealing behavior may be the way digital natives seek to “capture” moments of deep resonance through photography and video. Photos of starry nights, roaring waterfalls, and even digitally created environments are attempts to, in Rosa’s words, “paralyze” the moment of resonance so that it can be experienced at will. We don’t have to wait for these moments to happen the way we did when we were children. We can summon them at any time.
But deep down, we know this kind of encounter with the world is frustrating, not resonant. Try as we may, we cannot recapture that feeling we had when we arrived at the ocean shoreline, or when we looked up under a clear night sky. Not only do those truly powerful moments elude us, our digital habits seem to make the moments we do encounter less powerful. I was reminded of Marc Barnes’s essay Click Fix, and his reflection on a crowd of people at an art gallery who seemed to be using their phone cameras as a defense mechanism against the art itself. Or consider the emotional flatness that many of us feel nowadays at a museum, whose treasures are readily available for our gaze online. To be in the presence of a dinosaur skeleton or an Egyptian mummy does not awaken our wonder the way it used, because our technology brings these artifacts—and the “event” of seeing them—to us in a powerfully subversive way. The world does not “come alive” for us the way we seem to recall it doing when we were young, and we cannot attribute this solely to the somber realities of aging. Indeed, even as our supposed ability to experience deep resonance expands as we get older—through more relationships, more mobility, etc.—the resonance itself is harder to find.
Rosa’s framework of resonance and uncontrollability is a compelling explanation for our relational and even theological malaise in the digital age. Dating apps now account for how a plurality of Americans find mates. The technological power to overcome things like geography or friendship networks and find someone “compatible” with you is an enormous tool to experience relational resonance. Significantly, however, most young Americans are struggling to connect with one another. Even the loosening of sexual mores has not combined with digital technology to create a golden age of hookups; instead, young people are having less sex, and Western nations like Japan are facing demographic crisis.
The point is not that these digital technologies cannot “work.” In fact, they often do work: couples find each other on the app and get married; people connect over social media and develop a friendship that bears fruit in other spaces. Increasingly, however, the analog fruitfulness of digital relationships seems like an exception that proves the rule. Much digital technology is even structured to seemingly prevent this from happening. The smartphone is an instrument of radical individualism, and the privacy that the online era requires as a matter of course is a de facto isolation of people from each other (consider the technology one can now purchase to figure out what their kids are doing online).
More to the point, what Rosa calls “resonance” is harder and harder in an age mediated by screens, precisely because the screens are designed to help us deeply control our experience of the world. The Internet age is the age of curation. Whereas going outside and mingling in the public market might force you to hear something you don’t want to hear, or to see someone you were trying to avoid, life online presents to us as totally vulnerable to our deliberate choices. We can mute those we dislike, block those who are rude to us. We can navigate away from the page if the words make us uncomfortable. And what’s interesting about this is that such power over our world is robbing us of the resonance that comes from encountering people and ideas that may cause us to stretch, to realize our own fallibility (or at least our inability to convince others).
This leads me to the second point. How is our theology being affected by the digital age? Rosa’s categories suggest one important answer: As we move theological discourse and discovery online, we are subjecting it to a loss of resonance. The obvious example here is virtual church. Virtual church is clearly not a spiritual habitat that is powerfully formative in the way that in-person church is. Why not? Because it is completely vulnerable to our control. We can mute the parts of the liturgy that we find boring. We can even sing our own songs or choose our own Scripture passages instead of the ones in the service. This is harmful, because so much of the spiritual formation of the church is being forced to encounter the gospel in an unexpected way: through a passage of Scripture you weren’t thinking about but speaks directly to your conscience, or through a conversation with a friend that brings you closer together somehow.
But what about theological discourse online? Here, too, Rosa’s categories of resonance could matter. What happens to theology when it arrives on the Internet? It could be that our digital media is of such a nature that we cannot think or talk about theology online the same way we think about it offline. In fact, it could be that the form of the Internet elicits our efforts to tightly control theology—to make it less wondrous, less self-convicting, and pointed always toward the out-group—and that this effect turns Scripture itself into a “point of aggression.” This could be a reason why there are such things as Christian “trolls.” It is not, as some suggest, that Christianity (or complementarianism, or Calvinism, etc.) create trollish behavior, but that the Internet turns theology, as it does most other things, into a point of aggression that we must weaponize in order to possess. When we do theology in the context of embodied local congregations or institutions, there is a givenness we run up against that gives our theology a particularly resonant quality in our lives. The erasure of givenness is an erasure of resonance, and as such, we are left with frustration and the impulse to control.
There’s much more we could say here. But Rosa’s categories of uncontrollability, resonance, and “points of aggression” seem to make up a very compelling explanation of technology’s effect on us. It also offers the hint of a way forward. Instead of turning the clock back, we need to turn our eyes outward: away from a hyper-controlling posture toward the world, and toward the reality that only divine Providence can wield.