Sacred life in a digital age
'Restless Devices': an interview with Felicia Wu Song.
What follows is a conversation I had with Felicia Wu Song, Professor of Sociology at Westmont College about her recent book, Restless Devices.
DCS: What motivated you to write Restless Devices?
FWS: Over the past few years, more and more of us have felt overwhelmed and exhausted by the digital demands in our lives. And despite how much we may want to reduce the pervasiveness of the digital in our lives, most of us feel stuck. Restless Devices emerged out of a desire to offer a sociological description of how external forces make it difficult for individuals to exact real change in their digital lives, and explores how the theological resources and practices of historical Christianity can help us imagine a path forward for living more deeply into our personhood.
DCS: Your book suggests that technologies shape us through the habits they foster. What are some examples of this?
FWS: The sheer ubiquity of devices and digital services has normalized the state of being permanently connected. Not only are more of us almost constantly checking our screens, but even when we aren’t looking at a screen, we’ve cultivated a mode of consciousness that is always aware and curious about what is transpiring online.
Similarly, because our devices offer a constant stream of novel content and stimulation, we can grow accustomed to relying on them when we are bored, feel awkward, or simply want to avoid any social interactions. We can come to forget (or never get to even learn) how to cultivate an inner life that is grounded in stillness and calm, or how to be open to what in-person encounters can unexpectedly bring.
DCS: Can you share a few practices for living faithfully in a digital age? What role does the church have in this?
FWS: Creating sacred spaces and times can be a productive exercise to practice. Cultivating a sacred space for rest (e.g., a bedroom) or communion (e.g., a dining table) is a positively-directed way of building a life that honours who we are as human beings. It isn’t so much about “getting rid” of technologies, but more about protecting the depths of our rest and celebrating the precious times we can enjoy with each other over a meal. Committing to sacred times, like fifteen tech-free minutes after we first wake up (or before we go to bed), similarly signals to ourselves the significance of being wholly grounded in our own being during those waking or resting moments.
Theologies of time, embodiment and communion can help ignite the imagination about what is sacred and deserving of protection in our experience of personhood. Churches can encourage members to identify and cultivate sacred spaces and times in their own households, but also consider what aspects of life together as a church community are deserving of such freedom from the digital as well.
DCS: Do you have any advice for Christians involved in designing new digital technologies?
FWS: I hope creators of tech can stay curious as to how assumptions about the human condition are built into the ways we define problems to solve or limits to overcome. As people of faith, we must honestly grapple with what aspects of our human condition are a part of our status as creatures (and therefore, not God) and which aspects of our human condition deserve thoughtful intervention in undoing the harm and inequalities rendered by the brokenness and tragedies of our world. While it is natural to draw from one’s own experience to define problems and seek solutions, I encourage engineers and computer scientists to spend more time bearing witness to a wide range of people’s experiences in order to be fully aware of how technologies might differently impact a wide range of people’s lives.
DCS: Thanks for sharing your insights – and for your book. Engineers need sociologists like yourself to help us discern how to best shape the digital world!
Pope Francis mentioned being captive to cell-phones (“devices”) several times on his trip to Canada. Apt, I think.
This is maybe a quirk, but “digital” could mean “handling a pencil” or “tying a trout fly” as well as pushing the keys on the computer I’m using.