I was convinced that new digital tools such as smartphone tablets were having negative effects on our ability to relate meaningfully to one another.
Then I got sick. Really sick. I was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and, in a matter of months, went from a healthy and active wife, mother and professor to an oncology patient with a broken back and a lousy prognosis.
On the day I was diagnosed, my brother set up a page on the social networking website CaringBridge to keep my friends and family updated on my prognosis. If I hadn’t been on so much pain medication, I may not have let him set up such a site, skeptical as I was about digital technology’s ability to foster meaningful connections.
But one of the great surprises of my life—in addition to continuing to live with incurable cancer—has been the vast care, love and support that have come my way through digital means. I’ve been shocked by the communion of saints who grew up around me and my family through a website. And my experiences with life-giving care made possible through digital technology have prompted me to reconsider our collective relationship to technology and how it affects our life together.
In considering this, it’s helpful to differentiate our relationships with technology. On one side are the “technological determinists,” who believe that technology determines who we are and what we do. A friend who is the mother of a teenager recently complained to me that “phones are evil,” suggesting that the technology itself is responsible for distracting us from one another and what matters most.
On the other side are the “technological instrumentalists,” who insist that our devices are merely tools of communication that we decide whether and how to use. There’s evidence that, as determinists argue, technology influences the choices we make, but my experiences receiving healing care and support through digital technology have taught me that we have some degree of agency in how we use these tools.
That agency is what we need to think more collectively and expansively about how to live well together in the digital age.
The body of Christ and technology
Because the rules on using digital tools to enhance our relationships with one another have yet to be written, we need robust conversations about how to do so. As a theologian, I see institutions of higher education and communities of faith as uniquely positioned to take the lead in such conversations.
We like to refer to our young people as “digital natives,” as they are more at home in our new technological worlds. Yet educational systems the world over require years of formal education in a student’s native tongue so they can learn the internal logic of a language and how to use it well. While schools now provide education on the technical aspects of digital engagement, our young people need more opportunities to reflect on its ethical dimensions.
Schools and religious communities rightly condemn cyberbullying and sexting, but where are we talking about the ways digital communication enhances—as well as detracts from—building and maintaining meaningful relationships? Colleges and universities claim to shape young people for ethical lives of leadership and service; the time is ripe for these institutions to take leading roles in forming ethical users of our new digital tools.
Lest we think that ethical use of digital devices is a problem concerning only “the young,” plenty of studies indicate that large numbers of teens wish the adults in their lives weren’t so addicted to their digital devices. Many older people might benefit from reflecting on how we interact with digital technology.
Because of the intergenerational nature of many religious communities, they can create spaces for thoughtful reflection on what our life together in a digital age should look like.
One of the most enduring images of what it means to be church is the apostle Paul’s image of the body of Christ. In his letter to the Corinthian church, Paul wrote that the body of Christ is a community of people who bear one another’s burdens and give special attention to those who are suffering (1 Corinthians 12:12-26).
Part of our vocation in a digital world is to discern together how we can use our technology to better live out, and live up to, being the body of Christ with one another and the world.