As we mark Safer Internet Day 2018, John Reader considers how religious beliefs and practices can help us make sense of digital technology.
February 6th this year is Safer Internet Day. Whilst geared essentially to schools and young people, it highlights for all of us the risks associated with the increasing dominance of digital and social media. As a school governor, I know that children in Key Stage 2 have to sign an Acceptable Use Agreement in relation to school systems and devices which commits them to keeping all their private details secret; being wary of anyone trying to contact them over the internet; not opening files from people who are not known to them and alerting a trusted adult if something online makes them uncomfortable or worried. From young digital natives to aging silver surfers, for many of us it is almost impossible to function without negotiating these hazards on a daily basis whilst also engaging with the opportunities that digital technologies offer.
Following the Connecting Ecologies conference at Campion Hall in December which focused on Laudato Si, the question of technology emerged with a concern that the Pope’s document does not deal fully with this issue and tends to present it in a negative light. Is there a way in which theologians might develop a more balanced and nuanced interpretation which acknowledges the new realities of contemporary life? With so many of us now addicted to our digital technology what, if anything, might religious beliefs and practices contribute to this debate?
I want to propose that one helpful approach is to think more deeply about the dynamic between proximity and distance and that this is an area where Christian thought and practice might have something valuable to offer. For instance, the impact of smart phones is that the internet is now permanently accessible. So much so that sleep patterns are being disrupted because people keep their phones turned on at their bedside. There is no escape from the temptation to check one’s messages or to Google something that raises one’s curiosity. And it’s not simply the permanent presence but also the speed at which these systems operate which creates that potentially damaging proximity. The only moment is now, and if you fail to capture it you risk the danger of missing something important or falling behind. Is it possible to create a distance or detachment from this constant flow of communication with a clear head and a calm conscience?
In his latest book, Thomas L. Friedman offers a critical perspective on the impact of digital technology (Thank You For Being Late, Allen Lane 2016). In a chapter entitled “Is God in Cyberspace?” he suggests that we have to re-think ethics and search for moral innovation (p371). “How can we anchor more people in communities and contexts governed by values of decency, honesty and mutual respect?” Friedman’s answer is to draw upon a Jewish post-biblical tradition which says that we have to bear witness to God’s presence by our own good deeds. Our choices and our autonomy are the only means by which deeper values can be made present. How would this translate into the Cyberspace question that Friedman raises? Can it simply be a matter of individuals exercising their freedom of choice as Friedman suggests? Or do we each sign our own Acceptable Use Agreement and the problems will be solved?
In another book on the subject Irresistible: Why you are addicted to technology and how to set yourself free (Penguin, 2017), psychologist Adam Alter proposes a ‘sustainable’ approach to internet usage, similar to that used in environmental debates. One survey discovered that smart phone users spend a quarter of their waking lives on their phones, the equivalent of 11 years over an average lifetime (p15). This overuse has been termed “nomophobia.” One of Alter’s solutions to this is to reduce the proximity to the technology. If we are unable to totally avoid smart phones, email and the internet, we can at least make efforts to remove ourselves from them at certain times and contexts: “remove temptations from arm’s reach and you’ll find hidden reserves of willpower” (p275). Once again it seems that distance can be successfully created by an exercise of human autonomy, although we are yet to fully understand how we as humans are changing as a result of the technology which is shaping us as much as we are shaping it.
Pope Francis suggests that the ecological challenge is at heart a spiritual one rather than simply environmental or scientific, and I suspect one could argue similarly for the digital technology issue. The question that this raises is that of the relationship between the material and the spiritual. Both environment and technology can be seen as material realities “out there” which we control and manipulate for our benefit, but which come back to bite us when we do so inappropriately. At the other extreme is a view that that there is no distinction between the material and the spiritual. We are one with the natural world and indeed with all those material artefacts and technological developments which we have created. The material is always already the spiritual and humans are fully a part of both.
It seems to me that neither of these solutions is adequate. There is both proximity and distance with both the so-called natural world and the technological one and this is the dynamic which we have to grasp and negotiate. In Theology and New Materialism (2017) I proposed what I call a disjunctive synthesis between the Relational and the Apophatic as an appropriate theological response to the insights of New Materialism. The Relational acknowledges that humans are always already fully part of and in total proximity to that which we see as external to and separate from ourselves. The Apophatic recognises that there is always also distance and separation from that which lies beyond our grasp, articulation and understanding. There is no simple reconciliation or synthesis between these two interpretations but only a continuing tension and dynamic working itself out through the immediate ethical challenges we face.
The material and the spiritual are indeed related but cannot be readily conflated or reduced to each other. If ‘God is in Cyberspace’ it cannot be solely by the force of human will and activity; finding that divine presence lies beyond our immediate understanding and apprehension. We need to create alternative spaces, times and practices, then, through which there can be appropriate distance and detachment but also a continuing ethical proximity and engagement with the digital technologies that are shaping us.
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Connecting Ecologies: A report from Campion Hall