A Gathering Voices post by Kate Ott
Technology is often described as a “tool” - a means by which to accomplish a task more efficiently. Telephones reach people (almost) anywhere, and they help us send messages faster than other available forms of communication (ie. handwritten letters.) Machines assemble cars, knit clothes, and create food products in a fraction of the time a human can build most anything. Technology is not just a “tool;” it can radically reshape human behavior and knowledge. The printing press liberated the biblical word from the control of educated clergy. The industrial revolution globally altered workers’ status and economic systems. The television embodied, visual word in news, entertainment, and education.
In each historical time period people bemoaned the shifts and impending cultural and social change. I suspect this is because they knew that technology is not just a tool, but it has the power to shape how we live in radically new ways. What about the internet and all its accompanying hardware and software technologies? It seems almost every day there is a new report on how digital technologies affect our behavior, brains, and overall lives. Yet, unlike past technological advances, the speed at which digital technologies change and innovate might require we not only pause to contemplate the change, but start running to catch up.
Just as the printing press shifted the power center of theological interpretation, writing, and religious practice; so too might social networking and the internet. For example a few months ago, I was talking about understandings of God with a group of youth. While, I was struggling to describe theologies about God’s omnipresence, a student asked, “Like the internet?” and a conversation ensued about God’s omnipresence and correlations with the internet. We cannot separate behavior from belief when considering spiritual development, thus technological shifts will produce new theological meanings shaped by new practices.
A major source of “change anxiety” seems to center around how digital technologies are changing our brains and affecting how we produce knowledge. At least, two camps have developed in this debate. The first group of folks believe that digital technologies (the internet in particular) make us smarter defined as greater access to and knowledge of information, efficiency in decision making, and collaboration. The other group claims we have lost a depth being as equated with concentration. We are distracted, surface-level networked, and instantly bored. Technologies were once heralded as tools that gave us more time. Now digital technologies reshape our very notion of time and attention.
How do we think about this theologically? Professor and pastor Wes Avram laments the FOMO (fear of missing out) syndrome that has been curated by social media and capitalist innovations tapping into our desires and distracting us. He writes, “The instant response becomes the most valuable response, and so educators become choreographers of immediacy rather than midwives of a slower wisdom” in Connecting with a Theology of Technology. The concern about “attention” is based on a deeper theological notion that wisdom requires a slow pace, and that slow equals intentional, aware, conscious.
In Attending to Children, Attending to God, feminist theologian Joyce Ann Mercer raises the question of how current theological constructions of “attention” unfairly bias practices of spiritual growth. Her focus is children with attention deficit and hyperactivity (ADHD) and what their experiences teach the Christian tradition about spiritual formation. (FYI: In turning to Mercer’s research, I’m not suggesting that use of the internet makes us ADHD. Rather, I value how Mercer’s argument informs theological issues related to attention more broadly). Mercer notes that “correct” spiritual development is dependent on normative practices of sitting still, being quite, focusing our awareness, etc. All of these are activities that people with ADHD find difficult. Overtime, youth with ADHD may become increasingly dissatisfied or even feel marginalized in religious spaces that put a premium on words, speaking, and minimal movement. Mercer suggests that those with ADHD are more likely to experience “roller coaster” spirituality--spiritual growth as an immediate bursts, rather than gradual deepening. She challenges churches to think about practices that feed this type of spirituality and attention difference.
There is no doubt that digital technologies are altering our “attention” (its span, focus, and even desires). The assumption by many is that this change is ultimately inconsistent with spiritual and moral formation. Instead, maybe we need to reconsider how certain practices have become “the right way” to be spiritual. Either way, our desires are in small and major ways being rewired. Along the way, it’s imperative to consider how we network with God in new and old ways.