In Tension with Intention: The Divide Between Humanity and Technology
The mission of the Center for Applied Technology is to transform the way technology shapes the Westmont experience. We seek to accomplish this goal not only by building software for the school, but also by being conscious of how we use technology—and social media in particular—both professionally and personally.
Recently, the CATLab hosted a lecture by Dr. Felicia Song. Zak Landrum, the program director, told us that “a lot of the inspiration for the most thoughtful aspects of the CATLab came almost directly from Dr. Song’s Internet and Society class.” As a cultural sociologist, she studies social media through the lens of “how we understand meaning as a society.” Dr. Song helped us grapple with the problem of technology today, identify an antidote, and articulate our plans of action for engaging the digital world.
In her article “Recovering Presence and Place in the Digital Age,” Dr. Song gives us both a sociological and theological diagnosis for the problem of technology. She describes the digital environment as “a set of rushing rapids consisting of texts, posts, likes, tweets and quippy hashtags that we are compelled to traverse to maintain both our most intimate and most pragmatic of relationships.” Drawing on the work of philosopher James K. A. Smith, Dr. Song shows that technology provides us with a set of “secular liturgies” that train us to focus our attention and love away from the Kingdom of God.
In her lecture, she said that “boundaries are slipping,” and as a result, “our expectations of each other” shift as well. Although she used a lot of the language of addiction, she said that our society’s relationship with technology was more of a “shared compulsion” that normalizes our need to always be connected and “doesn’t frame it as a problem.” Referring to her class on Internet and Society, she described an “arc in the students’ experience”—students usually began the class believing that they had healthy relationships with technology, only to be awakened to a truer picture of their problem.
The professional/personal divide
All that said, Dr. Song conceded, “There’s a big difference between professional uses of the screen and personal uses of the screen.” Zak added that a lot of that difference comes down to using “technology as a tool as opposed to technology as a social influence.” As we discussed the divide between the professional and personal, Emily noted that she found it hard to “be fully immersed in work if I have notifications on,” showing how disruptive—even invasive—media can be. Zak further reflected that the distinction between work and home “used to be such a physical divide,” but that nowadays it is more “like a partitioning of the mind.”
Here at the CATLab, we’re working hand-in-hand with technology all the time, but our professional engagement with social media occupies only a few minutes at the beginning and end of each day. We’re encouraged to be intentional, not obsessed, with social media. In addition, the “professional development” time in the morning and evening also give us space to simply reflect on what we’ve done and where we’re going.
Ethan, for instance, uses his time primarily as “a way to mentally prepare myself for the day.” He has also spent time following “other people in my line of work and what they are currently working on” to gain inspiration for things he can do. Similarly, Nathan said that “having the social media makes me think more intentionally” about how he’s presenting himself to employers who might be looking at his profile. His social media is primarily for his professional persona, “pretty compartmentalized” in the sense that he only spends time on Twitter while he’s at work. Rebecca, too, began using social media as part of her work for the CATLab. She hopes to “venture out into the professional setting” and connect with people in her field, building up a kind of portfolio to say, “this is what I’ve done, things I’ve thought about in the workplace, things I’ve learned, how I want to learn.”
Thinking well about technology
When asked if there was an “antidote” to our current digital immersion, Dr. Song replied that we should “try to find ways to spend enough time in our week for our brains to remember what it’s like to not be on a screen.” Her article champions “counter-liturgies that push back against these mis-formations of the heart” that come from the “secular liturgies” of technology. “Whether it’s like surfing or baking or changing diapers,” she told us, we need times in which we are “deeply grounded in something outside” of the digital world.
She went on to say that the current generation of young adults seems to be “self-correcting”—more and more young people are beginning to see the damage of digital addiction and choose to unplug. The students chimed in their agreement: “Personally,” said Sam, “I haven’t gone on social media since freshman year in college.” James reflected on the need for “opportunities to pull yourself away forcibly.”
Despite the growing disillusionment with social media, it is still important for us to be conscious of our use of technology and to remember, as Dr. Song writes, “the fact that we are embodied persons who bring both physical presence and voice.” We should seek not merely to avoid addiction but to “live in a way that is flourishing.” At Westmont, Dr. Song has thought deeply about the implications of social media both “sociologically and also theologically.” And while society forms part of the problem, we can also harness it as part of the solution:
“The point is: our technological practices do not need to be privatized; individuals and individual families do not need to be the sole arbiters of how technology gets used. Instead, when set within the framework of counter-liturgies, the work of the people, it is wholly possible for groups of friends, families, church communities and work organizations to promise each other to commit collectively to not subjecting each other to FOMO, but choosing to abide through countercultural practices that encourage a compassionate view of each other’s vulnerability as frail human beings.” - Felicia Wu Song
In essence, this struggle to redeem technology demands collective, even institutional, effort. Here at the CATLab, we are trying to join that effort by making space for conversation and reflection. We recognize that we are people within community, and that what each of us does individually has an effect on the community as a whole. While we all agreed to take a social media fast one day a week, we are also seeking other ways to practice grounding ourselves outside the digital realm. For Ethan, this looks like cutting down on screen time during the weekends so that he can spend more time with friends. For Rebecca, it’s “be[ing] intentional with people in person.” She was especially inspired by Dr. Song’s prompting to “cultivate other realities” beyond the digital. After some reflection, Rebecca asked a question that merits serious thought in our technology-dominated world: “What are we doing to embody our humanness?”