Our digital devices promise connectivity and enlightenment in exchange for our attention. Yet attending to these devices often leaves us feeling displaced, disconnected, and dispirited. How are we being changed by these ever-present technologies?
Westmont College cultural sociologist and author of Restless Devices: Recovering Personhood, Presence, and Place in the Digital Age, Felicia Wu Song, will join us on Friday, June 30, to explore the place of digital technologies in contemporary life. She’ll help us consider the surprising ways that our social media habits and technologies can disrupt our connections with each other and even with God–and how we can recover our sense of personhood and place.
The Trinity Forum with the Consortium of Christian Study Centers held an Online Conversation with Felicia on Friday, June 30 to consider the ramifications of digital technology on our human development.
Online Conversation | Felicia Wu Song | June 30, 2023
Cherie Harder: Good afternoon and welcome to all of you joining us for today’s Online Conversation with Felicia Wu Song on “Human Flourishing in the Digital Age.” As we start out, I’d like to thank our co-host in this effort, the Consortium of Christian Study Centers, ably led by Carl Johnson. Just really appreciate your partnership and collaboration in hosting this program with us. Also wanted to thank and to welcome our nearly 1,500 registered guests for our conversation today. We so appreciate the honor of your time and attention, and we’d love to give a special welcome to our nearly 130 first-time registered guests, as well as our around 300 or so international registrants joining us from at least 37 different countries that we know of, ranging from Kazakhstan and Kenya to Sweden and Sri Lanka. So if you haven’t already done so, drop us a note in the chat box and let us know where you’re coming in from. It’s always fun for us to see the range of guests from all over the world and just really appreciate you joining us from across the time zones.
If you are one of those 130 first-time guests or otherwise new to the work of the Trinity Forum, we will work to cultivate, curate, and disseminate the best of Christian thought leadership and provide a place where leaders can engage with the big questions of life in the context of faith through programs such as this to provide a space for wrestling with those big questions and ultimately coming to better know the Author of the answers. We hope the hour ahead will be a small taste of that for you today.
Sixteen years ago, almost to the day, the first iPhone was released, which was widely referred to at the time as the “Jesus phone” for its seemingly miraculous and transformative powers. Since that day 16 years ago, literally billions around the world have invited the Jesus phone into their lives and have seen their lives changed. Today, there are nearly 7 billion smartphones in existence, one for 85 percent of the world’s population. The average American will spend nearly half of their waking hours online, a percentage that grows every single year. By many estimates, young Americans will spend 44 years or more of their life on their devices. These new technologies have, of course, opened up extraordinary and wonderful new possibilities to connect with old friends, work from home, learn remotely, and stay in touch.
But as with any powerful tool, there are also downsides, dark uses, and costs to pay. Time online, for example, is correlated with an increase in depression, anxiety, mental illness, loneliness, suicidal ideation, and sleep deprivation. Time on social media also affects our relationships, our communal life together. More than two thirds of teen and young adults agree that electronic devices keep us from having real conversations and changes the very nature of their friendships. And each day brings more evidence of the way our social media environment deepens our divisions, intensifies our distractions, and even degrades our ability to continue a democratic government.
But our guest today has argued that the changes our technologies have wrought are even deeper and more dangerous than we are likely to easily perceive, as they change the very assumptions we make about what our common life together should look like. Left to our own devices, we are increasingly submerged in a digital ecosystem that views embodiment as a nuisance, attention as the measure of our worth, productivity as the highest good, and others as objects to be used. Which raises the question: How might we approach rebuilding community and reclaiming relationship in a technological world? How can we cultivate the habits of mind, body, and spirit that enable us to recover personhood, presence, and place in the digital age? These are questions that our guest today has wrestled with, with both erudition and expertise, and offers what she calls “counter liturgies” to help us reform towards communion with God and each other.
And so I’m so pleased to get to introduce our guest today, Felicia Wu Song, to help us unpack some of these questions together. Felicia is a cultural sociologist and professor at Westmont College, where she has a scholarly focus on the place of digital technologies in contemporary life and regularly speaks and writes on digital practices. She’s the author of Virtual Communities: Bowling Alone Online Together, and her relatively new work, Restless Devices: Recovering Personhood, Presence, and Place in the Digital Age, which we’ve invited her here today to discuss.
Felicia Wu Song: Thank you so much. It’s so great to be with you.
Cherie Harder: Oh, it’s great to have you here. You know, as we were preparing for this conversation, I think I mentioned to you that I reread some of sociologist Neil Postman’s laws about technology. And as we start out, I wanted to mention one of them to get your thoughts on it, which was he said that every technology has a bias, has an epistemological, political, or social prejudice that essentially values one aspect of our common life and devalues others—such that writing essentially devalued an oral tradition. And nearly 30 years ago, he speculated that the computer might actually degrade community life. Of course, this was long before our digital devices. So as we start out, I’d love to kind of hear from you as a sociologist 30 years later, what are the hidden prejudices of our digital devices and how are they forming or reforming our communal lives?
Felicia Wu Song: Yeah. Oh, that’s a big question. You know, I think what’s so valuable about Postman’s point is just to even wrap our minds around the idea that our technologies have a bias—I mean, I think just that alone is a huge kind of move to make because I think our tendency is to just think that it’s a tool, that it’s neutral, that it just performs a function, and to start imagining or realizing the ways in which it actually is forming us, sometimes in intended ways, sometimes in unintended ways. And so I think just grasping that point alone starts to open up lots of possibilities.
As for what our digital technology today is, what prejudices or biases it might be carrying, I think one of the things I’ve been really interested in is precisely the ways that it is creating social spaces or creating environments in which we are experiencing relationships. We are experiencing community in environments in which we are forming our identities, particularly for young people, where they have grown up in this landscape as they are developing their sense of self. That is, social media or other platforms are the spaces in which they’re developing their identities. And so I think—and I’m sure we’ll end up talking more about this—but I think many of the biases and prejudices are kind of slanted, shall we say, in a direction that I argue is actually narrowing and kind of flattening what is in fact the reality about how one engages in relationship, community, and what identity is ultimately about.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. So how does that flattening occur? Like, what’s the actual sort of mechanism or process by which our relationship with each other, our interactions with each other, become flattened or distorted through the use of technologies?
Felicia Wu Song: Yeah. So I think there’s two ways we could come at this. We can have a conversation about, say, social media, which I think is the conventional place for us to go. And we can talk about the particular environment of conventional social media like the Facebook, Instagram, Twitter spaces. But I actually want to start in another place, which is a broader space, which I argue is something we need to think about. And this is the way in which, now in 2023, we actually live in an environment that is different from what it was, like you said earlier, when the iPhone first came out. Or if any of us remembers when the internet was kind of plugged into the wall. That time. Right? The internet has been around, but it has continued to evolve.
And so now we’re actually living in a time where the digital is, I would argue, is a state of consciousness. It is a state of being. And media scholars use the term “permanent connectivity” to describe the ways in which we are constantly connected through our mobile devices, through the obligations we might have at school or work or in our communities, but that it is this kind of persistent, ubiquitous embedding in the digital that starts to make “being online” not an activity. Right? It’s not like “I go to my phone and check something” activity. Obviously, there is that activity. But permanent connectivity is actually more about a state of consciousness, a state of kind of being someplace—like your body is doing whatever it’s doing—but you always know that that post that you put out this morning, you’re kind of hoping someone might acknowledge your existence in a positive way. Or that your email inbox is filling or someone is texting you.
And so that’s changing, right? That’s shifting the ways in which we can be present in the spaces that we’re in. It shifts the kinds of priorities our mental, emotional, spiritual states are choosing to invest in. And so even just the state of things, even without doing anything—getting on social media—it’s already kind of shifting how we move through spaces, how we relate to the people who are physically proximate to us, how we experience time. So I’m very interested in that sort of environmental or ecological kind of impact of the digital, that, again, is subtle, right? And it feels so normal, right? And that’s the thing. It’s so normalized, standardized, and the truth is it’s probably not going to change. I mean, we’re not going to just kind of pack it all up and throw it out the window, right? That’s not going to happen. So I think it’s a really substantive reality we need to be engaging and kind of wrestling with.
Cherie Harder: As you talk about that sort of state of permanent connectivity, you used a term that I thought was interesting and would love to hear you talk a little bit more about, which was that one of the great powers, whether formative or deformative, of new technologies is what you call the “social imaginary.” Now, I am not a sociologist, so I was not familiar with that term, so I’m hoping you can explain a little bit more about that. But my understanding was essentially it kind of boils down somewhat to the power of such an immersive ecosystem—the permanent connectivity, we never really hook unhook from it—to essentially form our stories or form our imagination about what life is and should be. So I’d love to kind of hear you say a little bit more about that, both its power to do that, but also what story is it telling?
Felicia Wu Song: Yeah. Good. Yeah. So the term “social imaginary” actually comes from philosopher Charles Taylor. And it is basically a concept that describes the story that a society tells itself about how to live, how to be together. And I use that term as a way to say that there actually are different social imaginaries and that there is a particular digital social imaginary that is cultivated as you were describing, that is cultivated through this ecological reality of permanent connectivity. And so all the ways that we live in contemporary life with our various devices and all the different routines and practices that we engage in with our technologies, they are training us, right? They’re training us into a story, a story that may not be articulate to us, but that in our behavior and in our sensibilities, we are being kind of moved into believing it.
And so that story is multifaceted. It includes, I think, the necessity of using our time efficiently, filling it with content and substance or entertainment all the time. It’s a story that tells us that we need to be able to always be in communication with people, that that is— and this is, again, not to say that that’s a bad thing. It’s just a promoting, right? As you said, it’s formation and deformation, right? It’s just saying that, for example, choosing solitude in the world of social media is very strange. Like, it doesn’t make any sense. Because, like, why would you do that? Surely you would want to be transacting and posting and sharing about your life, right? Because that’s how you gain worth and a sense of self even.
But I think what’s so interesting about parts of this digital social imaginary is it also starts to say, “Hey, you know, the person that’s standing next to you while you’re waiting online actually is not as important as the person that’s on your screen.” Like, the person on your screen who you’re interacting with is of priority. And that when we present ourselves—again, back to the social media model or example—we need to have a certain persona that’s perfected, the well-crafted, curated life, etc, etc.
And I think what’s so interesting about understanding that we are being trained into a story is then to juxtapose it with other social imaginaries, with other stories. And that’s where for me, as a person of faith, as I’ve been studying the digital—I love Postman, so I’m so glad you started with him—just the unintended consequences of our media and digital landscapes, as a person of faith, I started really feeling a tension, a tension between the story that I felt like I was being trained into through my practices and my routines online and the story that I professed that is embedded in the gospel and the truth and the Christian truths about who we are, how we value each other. What is the purpose of my life? What is the function of time? How am I supposed to relate to it? All of these matters. I think I started feeling like, oh, these aren’t quite lining up. In fact, maybe they’re actually going in different directions. And so in many ways, the book that I’ve written comes out of my own felt tension and trying to wrestle with, okay, well, what am I going to do about this? Because I can’t just pretend that I’m living one story when, in fact, I’m living something else.
Cherie Harder: There’s so many aspects of how our social media platforms and technologies sort of train us or at least positively reinforce kind of unusual behaviors, and I’m long enough in the tooth to remember a time before that where the dominant form of self-expression wasn’t necessarily just hitting transmit, or reacting to something that someone else had said or written about was not an emoji, you know, a quantifiable choice between six reactions. Like it was considered a good thing to have a more customized, relational reaction than that. And there have been a lot of times where you hear different things said or written about [that say], well, you know, the discomfort that, say, I or others might experience is largely because, well, we’re digital immigrants, and that’s not a problem for younger people who are digital natives. And that may be the case, but it also seems like in many ways many of the costs associated with these technologies are both the most severe and the most pervasive for digital natives rather than digital immigrants. And I’d be curious what you’re seeing even among your students at Westmont in terms of making sense of an ecosystem where they have not known another one and this is the way that, you know, the assumptions are, that one should interact with others.
Felicia Wu Song: Yeah. You know, I’ve been teaching college students long enough now to actually see a bit of an arc. So when I started teaching on internet and society issues, my students reflected much of what our culture reflected, which was a kind of unabashed, blissful embrace of all things digital. And so whenever I would kind of even just suggest that there might be costs, it was like, “Oh, no, no, no, no.” And what’s been interesting to see in the last 10, 15 years is the way in which, as young people are growing up with the technologies earlier and earlier in their lives—having it be a part of their upper elementary, junior high, high school experience and so forth—that more and more of my students express a sense of—still, you know, wonderful things about the technologies and what benefits there are—but an increasing sense of frustration, exhaustion, feeling actually a bit stuck, you know.
And this never comes up in the first conversation. This comes up, you know, at least four weeks in, where students are saying, “Yeah, I don’t like having to sleep with my phone actually in bed. But this is the way our friendships work now. Like, I need to be available to my friends if they need to text me at 3:00 in the morning because they have some kind of crisis or something. And this is just what I have to do. I don’t know what to do about it.” And so to me, at least this particular example, gives us a glimpse into the way in which friendship is unimaginable outside of that particular way of expressing love and care that in the end is just diminishing every individual because they’re not getting enough sleep and they’re feeling constantly needing to be available.
And so I think many of the students that I encounter recognize—and again, this reflects the culture—we’re at a place, I think, this really interesting inflection point, where as a culture we are talking about it. We can say, “Yeah, I’m really exhausted.” But as a culture we’re also stuck, right? Like, we can’t just like stop doing email or stop being on my computer, right? We have work, we have school, we have responsibilities where it’s all embedded. And so then the question is, well, how do I live this life?
But I do agree that I think the digital natives are not well, certainly in the media we are getting a lot of the reports now. And the surgeon general has kind of spoken up also. But I think what will be interesting to see in the next decade or so—and I think this is always the case—is we need the empirical data. We need the research to finally catch up to some of the realities that maybe a lot of parents or people who work with young people can anecdotally attest to. But we need the research and the data that’s longitudinal, that isn’t just like this one point in time, to start trying to make forays into, okay, well, what does this mean about the place of technology in our school systems then? What does this mean about what parents should be recommended? And that will take time, unfortunately.
Cherie Harder: Of course, the challenge is, you know, research takes a lot longer than the development of new technologies. You know, 16.5 years ago, there were no iPhones. And there’s always going to be a lag. And in some ways that makes me want to ask you about something else, which is, you mentioned just the embeddedness, the sense that there’s really nothing one can do. And of course, you know, a lot of times our technologies do take on this sort of mythic status that, you know, it’s almost like they descended from on high as opposed to, no, they were actually created by particular people in particular contexts with different motives and constraints and aims. And it could have gone differently. There could have been a lot of very different decisions made and we would be in a very different ecosystem if that were the case. And it seems like we’re on the cusp of another very important set of developments, and that’s the decisions, you know, very similar decisions will be made in the very near future about ChatGPT, decisions that will have to be made years before a lot of the research showing the implications. And knowing what you do now, just having studied the impact of our devices, not only on an individual level but on a communal level over the last 16 years, are there guidelines or guardrails that you would like to see put in place as ChatGPT and the technologies behind it are developed over the next few years?
Felicia Wu Song: Yeah. You know, artificial intelligence is so complicated, and ChatGPT is just one little sliver in that much larger landscape of that particular machine learning aspect of the digital. I think as we have seen even in the pre-ChatGPT AI world is, you know, there’s the options, right? Like do you ask for industry to self-regulate, to make ethical decisions? Do you force them? Does the government step in and regulate and say this is what has to happen? Or do other sorts of social institutions, like school systems and churches and so forth, do they on their level, that kind of middle level, try to organize their environments, their spaces in particular ways? And, you know, I have to say—and I’m an educator, so I’m in the thick of all the conversations about ChatGPT and what’s going to happen to that assignment I always use for that essay question in social theory when my students can just go on and just ask for the answer, so to speak? I think it’s, to me—let’s just talk about ChatGPT in particular—I think it’s very complicated because I think it’s very easy to have the knee jerk like, “Oh, this is terrible.” This is all just gonna, you know, everyone’s just going to not do any work anymore, right? Not think for themselves, just copy what’s been said, and so forth. And certainly there’s elements of that in the mix.
But I think what interests me is that my hope is that every organization that is impacted by these new technologies, that it actually throws each of us back to the larger question. So for me as a professor, what am I trying to do really? Like, what do I think learning involves and teaching involves? Like, what do I really hope for? And not to be just a quick kind of like, “okay, no,” but sort of like go back to the fundamental questions, rearticulate them for myself, try not to be biased—back to that word—to what I’m used to and what I’ve been trained up in, and and be open, to like, “Okay, let’s look at what is it that I’m really trying to do and how then does this technology fit that or doesn’t fit that?”
And this is a general approach that I take towards any technologies, right? Like I wrote this book; it came out in 2021. It already felt like five years out of date by the time it came out. But it’s sort of an occupational hazard doing this kind of work because it’s always behind and there’s always going to be a new technology, right? And I can’t spend, none of us can spend, our time formulating an entire treatise or manifesto about every single technology that comes out. But what we can do is pull back. Take a few steps back and say, “Okay, if what I’m interested is in being a human being, a person in the way that I understand God has created us to be, what is that?” I think of our personhood as being embodied, as valuing others, as being in our places, and inhabiting time in particular ways. Okay. So if that picture, that story—back to social imaginary—is what I believe is the reality of things and what I hope to cultivate in my life and other people’s lives, okay, well, then how does the technology relate and engage? And I think that’s where we need to go first before we figure out all the kind of concrete, you know, boots-on-the-ground guardrails and so forth.
Cherie Harder: There’s so many more things I could ask you, and we are going to get to audience questions in just a minute, but before we do that, I’d love to kind of ask you about some of those practices and some of those questions that enable one to pull back and essentially pay attention to what we’re paying attention to on our devices. And in your book, you offer a number of different, you call them areas of praxis, whether it’s a digital fast or stock taking. And then towards the end, you also offer this really sort of interesting historical analogy between, you know, our own need for a liturgical commitment to an ordered digital life and even the commitment card created by MLK during the civil rights movement, which essentially served to train movement workers into a new way of thinking. So I’d love to hear from you what commitments and counter liturgies do we need for an ordered digital life?
Felicia Wu Song: Yeah. So one of the things I talk a fair bit about, mainly because it’s something that I live and have wrestled with myself, is the way in which my sense of how I spend my time gets disordered. And so the counter liturgy that I recommend is to actually be more intentional about thinking about what I do first when I wake up in the morning and what I do last before I go to bed. And there was a season when those bookends were filled with checking my phone because I felt like I needed to, needed to know what was going on. And what I was seeing was the bad fruit that came out of that. It made me very anxious. I was not preparing myself for rest because I was coming upon some new email that cropped up at 10:30 in the evening or so forth. And so I think what I—. You know, I use the term “counter liturgy” from Jamie Smith’s work because I love this idea that it’s not just about, “Oh, these aspects of technologies are bad and it’s deforming me, so I need to kind of try to limit or get that part of that routine out of my life.” But the counter liturgy says, “No, no, no. It is that, but it is also, we are created for goodness and beauty and truth. And so we need to fill ourself with that as well.”
So it’s not just, oh, I’m not going to check my phone during the first 15 minutes or the last 15 minutes of my day. That’s just the getting rid of. But it’s like, well, what am I going to do during those 15 minutes, right? Like, what am I going to do that’s actually going to fill me up? And sure, there are beautiful practices in the Christian traditions of reading scriptures and prayer and meditation that we might consider experimenting with and trying on. But there might also be other sort of less standardized practices like just sitting outside. I have the good fortune of living in a beautiful part of the country. So being able to sit outside for much of the year and just listen to the birds in the morning for the first 15 minutes. Or playing music. I enjoy music a lot. So whatever it is for people, experimenting and finding out what is it that we can fill ourselves with that redirects us towards the Kingdom of God, redirects us towards the story that we profess to be true and helps us taste the good thing, the goodness of that reality. And I think once we do taste that reality, we’ll come back, right? And that’s the Augustinian notion. Like, we will be restless until we rest in God. And when we rest in God, we’ll know it’s the real thing.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. Well, I see the questions piling up. So we’re going to turn to questions from some of our viewers. And our first question comes from Melanie Dubois. And Melanie asks, “In some ways we could see parallels between disembodied digital connection with other people and disembodied or perhaps beyond-bodied spiritual connection with God. We are, in fact, both physical and spiritual beings. So how do we bring a healthy recognition of this duality of human experience into grappling with flourishing in the digital age?”
Felicia Wu Song: Oh, interesting. Yeah. So I would say, while that reality has always existed, we live in a time, we are embedded in a particular culture and society, where living into that reality will feel different from what Christians 100 years ago would have experienced in that duality. And that arguably we live in a time that very much champions a kind of disembodied notion of ourselves, right? We don’t need our bodies to express ourselves, or our bodies are often actually kind of a drag on being able to express ourselves. And there are truths to that. But I think the pervasiveness of the digital heightens that disembodiment. And there are conversations we could have about Gnostic tendencies and so forth that have always been around through the ages. But I think what’s interesting is now we have a structural reality that encourages or tends us, again in unintended ways, to thinking like, yeah, my body doesn’t matter. So for me, I think I’m interested in embodiment and advocating for more awareness and living into what it means to be in my body, that God created my body. And in our church and Christian circles talk about our bodies beyond sexual morality, beyond kind of the usual ways that we talk about bodies, but to try to understand and live into practices more that actually do amplify the body, because I think we are living in a time when it’s being de-emphasized or devalued. So maybe that’s a dodge on the question a bit, but I think that’s just—. I don’t know. I think it’s the historical embeddedness that we need to recognize about our times.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. So our next question comes from an anonymous attendee. And they ask, “What possibilities do you see or imagine for faithful, conscientious objection to the ‘constant connectivity’, the ways in which, at least in academy where I am, but surely also in the business world, we’re expected to answer emails/texts sent nearly all hours of the day or night, every day of the week. For example, what possibilities are there for individuals taking a Sabbath or a sabbatical of sorts, or even a so-called ‘jubilee year’ to avoid the idolatry of constant connectivity to the wrong god?”
Felicia Wu Song: Yeah. Oh, that’s good. A jubilee year. That would be— I love that idea. Don’t know how that works. So yeah, I think to be able to conscientiously object requires a fair bit of privilege, I think. You know, there are celebrities that choose that, and it’s because they have other people that can mind their business and so forth. But I think for folks that don’t have the capacity to shape their livelihood in that way, I think there are small ways that we can do that. And sometimes it might just start with a conversation. You know, so if you’re working in a setting that is quite demanding about your availability, perhaps talking to your supervisor and just asking, “You know, like, what are the expectations?” Because I think what’s interesting is that so much of what happens in our workplaces in particular is, like, it’s a tacit acceptance, right? And it is a way of performing our aptitude and our commitment that is unintended but, frankly, nobody’s happy with. And so I think, you know, companies in Silicon Valley that are interestingly kind of ahead of the game on this, they create structures for their employees that say, “Hey, when you go on vacation, we don’t expect you to check all those emails. In fact, you get to expunge all of it.” And that’s an organizational policy. So the conversation with the supervisor isn’t necessarily to go right there and say, “hey, we need a new policy,” but just to ask, to just start the conversation to say, “hey, you know, I’m just really curious, what are the expectations? I kind of have these commitments. How do you think we can work this out if I need to maintain this?”
But then I think there are small, kind of less active ways perhaps, and I learned this from a colleague at my previous institution, is he actually in his signature has his online times. “I’m going to be online and checking emails this time, this time, and this time.” And he responds to his emails in batches. And so it’s his way of communicating, “I’m going to be available. I am committed. But it is at these times.” And he communicated that to his colleagues, to his students. And I thought that was brilliant. It’s just this very—. And I tried that for a couple of years, to, you know, tell my students, “hey, it’s on the syllabus.”
Cherie Harder: How’d it work?
Felicia Wu Song: Yeah, it did work. You know it was my actually lack of discipline that made it fail. But people were super respectful of that. And I think they’re just, you know— it was a creative kind of little tactic that we can try.
Cherie Harder: Yes. So our next question comes from Bill Betts. And Bill says, “When you first mentioned the need to start with the question of ‘what am I trying to accomplish?’, it sounded like it could lean towards a naive pragmatism. But you emphasize clarity about the nature of our personhood as what you are seeking to develop and live out. Could you talk more about our need to cultivate a robust understanding of personhood from our clarity in Christ?”
Felicia Wu Song: Yeah. That’s good. Yeah. I mean, I think when I say, ‘what am I trying to do here as a professor?’, yeah, I guess I did kind of presume that I’m going all the way to the beginning, the basic blocks of who it is that we are as persons. And what I write about in the book is that, I think, this is why I think Christianity has so much potential to speak into our moment because we have theologies and various faith traditions and heritages that do talk about the ways in which relationally who we are is we are creatures created for communion, with God, with others. That is who we fundamentally are. And that we are embedded in time and place. And those are not mere burdens or things that we need to manage, but spaces and realities in which God infuses and meets us. And so if we start with those—and those are obviously very shorthand way at pointing to large theologies and conversations that we could have—if we start with those premises, I think, whatever context that we’re in, I think it can be very generative in exploring, “Well, then what is my relationship to this technology in this context?”
Cherie Harder: Out of curiosity, why do you think that the church has been relatively silent on these issues? Or silent is perhaps an overstatement, but in terms of the issues that seem to capture the most attention, certainly the most noise, this is not one, and yet it is so central to our personhood, our purpose. Why is there not more attention and discussion?
Felicia Wu Song: Yeah, well, I’m so glad that you think it is so fundamental to our personhood and purpose. I think there are large parts of the American church that has a fairly benign view of media and technology, I think, because it is primarily regarded as, especially in the realm of communication and information technologies, that it’s seen as a tool to be able to spread the gospel, right? It helps distribution. Let’s use the industry terms. And so that makes sense to some degree. But I think it is a naive view, quite frankly, about both what the—back to Postman—what the bias and prejudices of the technologies then do to the message that one is communicating. And I think it also raises the question—I kind of half-joked about the distribution problem—it does to me press back to the issue of, like, is that how we think about what the gospel is and what evangelism is? Is it a matter of distribution? And to put it in those terms, what is that saying? So I think that’s part of the problem.
I think we also have a tendency in our church context to think about technology in terms of the social ills. So we might talk about how it’s affecting our young people or we talk about pornography or we talk about the ways that it amps up political polarization and the ways we get tied up in that. But we kind of limit it to these kind of acknowledged social ills. And it’s not to say that these aren’t very significant areas that we need to discuss, but I think in doing so, we have missed the larger way in which we are embedded in something that can potentially move us into a completely different story.
Cherie Harder: Keith Plummer asked a question which could be considered almost a follow-up, and Keith asked, “What advice would you give to Christian ministries concerning the kinds of questions they should consider before seeking to employ online platforms for the sake of reaching non-Christians?”
Felicia Wu Song: Oh. That’s good. Again, I think it goes back to needing to be very clear with oneself and honest about what we think we’re doing, and also thinking about how engagement in that particular technology—. So let’s say you want to cultivate a presence on TikTok because you want to reach young people and that’s where young people are. I think needing to have a fair bit of sobriety about, well, what does it mean? What are young people experiencing when they are on TikTok? What is happening in their formation and what does it mean for me or our organization to participate or contribute to their formation by that practice of being on TikTok? So it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be on TikTok. It just means you want to be very clear and honest and weigh the benefits and the costs. And to have kind of a long-term eye then, like, okay, well, if we’re going to do this and there are these costs, well, how are you going to shore up those costs? Like, how are we going to deal with that?
Cherie Harder: Our next question comes from Timothy Gulick, who asks just a very foundational question. He asks, “How would you define or describe flourishing?”
Felicia Wu Song: That’s good. I think I would define it as being in a state of living in communion. Communion with God and others. And I mean that in ways that are perhaps beyond the conventional imaginations of like, “Oh, that means I’m praying and I’m spending time with people.” I mean that as like a flourishing as in God is in nature. God is in time. The people are not just my recognized neighbors, but it is the person on the supermarket checkout line. And having the capacity to actually enjoy communion with all of those people, to be in that state of being, would be flourishing for all of us.
Cherie Harder: Oh, that’s great. So another question from an anonymous attendee who asked, “How feasible is it to enter into the kinds of counter liturgies you describe on our own? It sounds hard without a supportive community, including church, but ideally starting with one’s own family.”
Felicia Wu Song: Yeah. Well, yeah, that’s a great question. I mean, I think it’s very feasible doing it individually. And I love the fact that the question assumes that we should be doing it collectively, because I do believe that as well. One of the things that I write about in the book that I do encourage folks is to think about counter liturgies, not in terms of commitments, but actually to start with experiments, because I think that actually helps on an individual level and I think gets to the heart of the question, which is, you know, it’s hard to start a new habit. I’m terrible at starting new habits. I can never keep a New Year’s resolution. I can’t. I’m terrible. And so I think thinking of whatever new practice as an experiment is a more generative way because there is no failing in experiments. Experiments [are] all about gathering data. So even if you don’t get the result that you may have hypothesized or wished for, you still learn something, right? And so starting off with different kinds of experiments.
And I do offer kind of different concrete ideas about what experiments one could try. But starting with that. Start small. Start with an experimental posture. And recognizing that all those experiments are actually part of your faith journey. So if you try an experiment and you ‘fail’ or you don’t get the result that you were hoping for—like I tried to not be on my phone for 15 minutes, but I couldn’t even last five minutes—that’s okay. That becomes, “Okay, Lord, what is—?” That becomes that point of “What is that, Lord? Why is that happening? Show me.” And I think that’s where it can be so generative and—I don’t know—we grow, right? We grow in our honesty and our self-reflection.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. So our last question comes from Don Woods. And Don says, “I work with teenagers and sometimes I think they’ll listen to me and receive from me more if I have a digital vocabulary. However, part of me also sincerely thinks that they so desperately need to see and relate to people who are contrast to that world. Do you ever sense that students in this digital world need someone who is so different and might be drawn to the contrast?”
Felicia Wu Song: Oh, yes, all the time. I think— well, so, one, if you’re not actually really savvy with the digital terminology and the practices, don’t try to pretend because you’ll get sniffed out in a second. I have teenage kids, and I know—like, you’re just going to be savaged. So they know we’re old, right? And so I would say what our young people want is what we all as human beings want. We want to be seen. We want to be heard. We want people to want to just spend time with us. Right? And I think young people are so deeply hungry for authenticity. Let’s talk about the real things, right? Like, let’s not do all this kind of—. Because they all know they’re performing. They all know that that’s what social media is about even if they keep doing it themselves. They all know. But I do think what they long for is the contrast of the world that they constantly feel obligated to inhabit. So if we can provide spaces and create opportunities for them to taste something different, I think that could be a really good thing.
Cherie Harder: Right. Well, Felicia, thank you. It has been a real pleasure to see you and to hear from you over the last hour. And in just a moment, I’m going to ask you to provide us with the last word. But first, a few things just to share with all of you who are watching. First, immediately after we conclude, we’ll be sending around an online feedback form. I say this every time, but we really appreciate when you fill it out. We read every one of these. We try to incorporate your suggestions and try to make this an ever more valuable experience for all of you who are watching. And as a special thank you and inducement to fill out that form, we will send you a code for a free Trinity Forum Reading download of your choice. There are a few readings that we would recommend as being quite germane to today’s discussion and help one think and reflect a little more deeply about some of what has been said, including “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” by Annie Dillard, and “Confessions” by Saint Augustine. “Bright Evening Star” by Madeleine L’Engle, or “Bulletins from Immortality” by Emily Dickinson. So hope that you will fill that out and look forward to hearing from each of you and reading your comments.
In addition, tomorrow, right around noon, we’ll be sending around an email which includes a link to a very lightly edited version of today’s Online Conversation, as well as a number of readings and resources. If you want to go more deeply into some of the ideas that have been discussed today, we hope that you’ll flag that, be on the lookout, and share this conversation with others that you might want to have a conversation with.
In addition, I wanted to invite all of you who are watching to join the Trinity Forum Society, which is the community of people who are united around advancing Trinity Forum’s mission of cultivating, curating, and disseminating the best of Christian thought for the common good. There are a number of benefits and advantages to being a member of the Trinity Forum Society, in addition to the mission and the community, including a subscription to our quarterly Trinity Forum Readings, a subscription to our daily “What We’re Reading” list of curated reading recommendations, and as a special incentive for anyone who joins or with your gift of $100 or more, we will send you a signed copy of Felicia’s book, Restless Devices. So I hope that you will avail yourself of that opportunity and we can welcome you in to the Trinity Forum Society.
In addition, I wanted to flag a couple of upcoming Online Conversations, and we’ll be scheduling more of these too as the summer goes on. But on July 21st, we’ll be hosting Russell Moore, who is also a senior fellow of the Trinity Forum, on his new book to be released just a day or two before that entitled Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America, as well as on August 11th, we’ll be hosting senior fellow Karen Swallow Prior on her new book, The Evangelical Imagination. So we’ll be sending out more information on both of those online conversations soon and hope to be able to see you there.
In addition, I wanted to thank again the Consortium of Christian Study Centers for collaborating with us on hosting this program, as well as to thank my colleagues at the Trinity Forum who are behind the camera, including Tom Walsh, Brian Daskam, Marianne Morris, our producer for our online conversations, and Kristen Forney. Really appreciate all your hard and good work.
And finally, as promised, as we close out our time together, Felicia, I’d like to give you the last word.
Felicia Wu Song: Thank you. So I have a quote from poet Mary Oliver that I’d like to close with, and this is the epigraph of the beginning of the book: “The patterns of our lives reveal us. Our habits measure us. Our battles with our habits speak of dreams yet to become real.” Mary Oliver.
Cherie Harder: Felicia, thanks so much.
Felicia Wu Song: Thank you all.
Cherie Harder: Thank you to all of you for joining us. Have a great weekend.