Over the past year I’ve been having many conversations with friends and colleagues about what it means to follow Jesus in the digital age and have read a number of helpful articles on the subject. I thought I’d pass along some initiation observations. My working hypothesis, at this point, is that the digital age has promise in terms of access to helpful information, even theological information, and the organization of various parts of our lives including our congregational life. For example, people have come to our church because they found us on the web! Yet, it also has peril in terms of the potential damage done to (1) our ability to focus and think critically, (2) the public witness of our faith in non-personal yet public debate, and (3) the most important pieces of our lives – (3) the health of our relationships. I will address all three of these in consecutive articles.
(1) Our Digital Focus
The first part of my concern emerges from my own personal experience. One of my majors is computer science. I manage the IT backend of our church’s information structure. I appreciate and value technology in a variety of ways, and use it daily as a pastor and as a member of various teams and boards. Yet – technology has its limits as well as its dangers and I’ve experienced this firsthand as I observed changes in my ability to focus consistently and think through important arguments. For a person who loves to read books, the inherent pressure to be constantly connected to others as well as being informed by the latest news, theological or otherwise, has actually hindered my reading habits by the constant attraction of digital access to instant information. Then I read an article by Hugh McGwire at the SF Chronicle, entitled “Why can’t We Read Anymore?” and things became clear. He writes:
It turns out that digital devices and software are finely tuned to train us to pay attention to them, no matter what else we should be doing. The mechanism, borne out by recent neuroscience studies, is something like this: New information creates a rush of dopamine to the brain, a neurotransmitter that makes you feel good.
The promise of new information compels your brain to seek out that dopamine rush. With functional MRIs, you can see the brain’s pleasure centers light up with activity when new e-mails arrive. There is rarely a beautiful universe on the other side of the e-mail refresh button, and yet it’s the call of that button — and all the buttons like it — that keeps pulling me out of the work I am doing, out of reading books I want to read.
Technology – a new drug, that isn’t really a drug, but behaves much like a drug does in tapping into dopamine! Substitute email here with facebook, twitter, instagram, etc. and the problem is still there. This article, as well as many others, helped me understand one of the reasons why I felt the need to separate largely from constant online presence on a personal level, particularly the areas of social media (more on the other reasons in the next two parts).
I want to read books, and articles, and read them well. I want to write thoughtful sermons and write high quality papers for my current course of study. I want to be able to listen to others pastorally without thinking of the next task to accomplish, or the next email, or the current “internet blow up” of the day. I have slowly become aware of the damage being done to me in terms of my ability to focus and think deeply and I have come to terms with the fact that I needed to get a handle on this. I’m still not there. Email is still calling my name incessantly – often for important matters. But Mr. McGwire offers some very helpful boundaries to draw and I’m giving that a more careful look now.
As will become clear, when this long discussion eventually ends, I have no intention of suggesting that my own decisions on this front are normative for others. I am merely asking the question of myself and you: am I becoming more wise, more thoughtful, demonstrating more the fruits of the Spirit? For me, the first observation of clear failure was my growing inability to read Scripture consistently and deeply, uninterrupted by digital news, tasks and email. This simply had to change for me – so I’ve been digging into the ESV Reader’s Bible and enjoying it very much.
Next time: Our Digital Public Witness