For much of the past few years, I have been reading and thinking about the formative power of Internet technology on our intellectual, emotional, and spiritual lives. As I’ve shared with people the ideas in my book Digital Liturgies, one question comes up more often than any other: “What do we do about this?”
This is a challenging question not only because identifying problems is easier than developing practical solutions, but also because our first instinct in talking about the effects of digital life is often to attempt the impossible: turn back the clock, put the electronic Pandora back in her box, stand athwart technological history, and yell “Stop!” Even if we could summon the will to delete all our accounts and get rid of all our devices, we would not change the kind of world we and our neighbors inhabit. Faithfulness to Jesus cannot and does not mean time travel. “So,” people will ask confusedly, “what should we do?”
My answer is that we should think not (primarily) in terms of retreat, but in terms of resistance. The bad news is that the thought patterns of the web are so embedded into modern life that we cannot effectively avoid them. The good news is that the same responsiveness to the power of habit that makes online addiction so powerful also makes analog resistance effective. If God created human beings as physical creatures who must inhabit a physical, objective world to live as he made us to live, then this inhabiting of the real world is not a “hack” we must manufacture, but something deeply consonant with our created nature.
Analog resistance simply means practicing habits that accord with our fundamental needs as God-created persons. Let me, then, offer three of these needs and three corresponding habits.
Need #1: Permanent Words
The Internet age is an onslaught of words. The average person in the United States wakes up and, while sleep still lingers in the eyes, reaches for a glass rectangle that will show new words. These words may be about the latest scandal in Washington, DC, or the newest gadget from Silicon Valley, or a life-changing update from an employer, a friend, or a family member. A person can consume all three types of messages before rising from their pillow. There is no limit to the kind of words a digital age can speak to us.
Because the content of our minds deeply shapes the posture of our hearts, the abundance of online words creates an urgent need for something permanent: a bedrock of truth against which the latest novelties, temptations, and anxieties crash and shatter into the ephemera that they are.
Habit 1: Meditate daily on Scripture.
Scripture is that bedrock. The inspired words of the Bible, directly from the throne room of the Creator of the universe, fulfill a human need for permanence. Imagine waking up every single day in a different bed, next to a different person, in a different part of the world, to go do a different job. While the novelty might sound exciting at first, our hearts would quickly despair of the lack of anything solid. Why do we not expect a similar spiritual despair when our day-in, day-out thought life is dominated by this exact kind of transience?
Daily Scripture meditation is a habit of resistance against the rootless digital age. As we return again and again to words that never change, the presence and promises of Jesus will build foundations that a day’s worth of media intake cannot shake. The latest controversy that beckons for outrage will seem less important than the command to consider truth in calm silence (Proverbs 17:27–28). The newest reason for anxiety will seem less ominous as we consider the saints who have gone before us into worse peril, and who never abandoned the race (Hebrews 12:1). Resist the meaningless angst of content culture with permanent words.
Need #2: Godward Attention
The importance of where we give our attention is a subtly significant theme in Scripture. Consider how Moses commanded the people of Israel not only to remember God’s word, but to observe festivals, rituals, and dietary and clothing requirements that served as constant reminders of who they were and where they came from (Deuteronomy 11:18–19; 12:10–12). The wisdom literature in particular prioritizes the skill of listening to righteous instruction (Proverbs 4:20), and the author of Hebrews admonishes us to “pay much closer attention to” the gospel (Hebrews 2:1).
Attention is a finite resource. Contrary to what we often tell ourselves, “multitasking” isn’t really a thing; in order to really hear someone or attend to something, we have to take attention away from other things (at least temporarily). In the online age, not only is our attention spread thin; it is actively harvested and colonized by digital merchants. The fight to put our attention in the right place is an upstream swim against the currents of online culture.
Habit 2: Adopt intentional structures.
In his excellent book The Tech-Wise Family, Andy Crouch advises readers to do more than resolve to use technology better; additionally, we should implement physical structures in our lives that make wise uses of attention easier and unwise uses harder. That may mean leaving your phone in a separate room at night to make it harder to reach for in the morning. It may mean relocating computer use to a central family room instead of individual bedrooms, not just for accountability but to cut off the power of digital isolation. It may mean using apps during the work or school day that block not just inappropriate content but time-wasting and addictive content. The point is that the way we use online technology should tell the truth about what’s most important.
Need #3: Peaceful Rest
In his lovely little book And So to Bed: A Biblical View of Sleep, Adrian Reynolds observes that sleep is, theologically speaking, a reminder of our mortality. Our sleep resembles death, yet the Bible clearly says that God “gives to his beloved sleep” (Psalm 127:2). How can something that makes us vulnerable and stops our productive work be a gift? Because neither our sleep nor even our death can stop the sovereign God from caring for us and his world. Even as our mental and physical busyness stops, God’s power and love continue.
Habit 3: Take regular breaks.
In the digital age, we can embrace two vital expressions of rest-as-resistance. The first is, simply, the deliberate choice to sleep instead of consuming. The founder of Netflix famously said that the company’s number one competitor was sleep. This was more than a tongue-in-cheek moment. There is something in the nature of digital entertainments that entices us to ignore sleep and keep streaming or scrolling instead. That’s why some are referring to the emerging generation’s accumulating “sleep debt” — a deficit that manifests in poor physical and emotional health.
Do some self-examination. Do you wake up feeling exhausted? Are you often too tired to do your job well, or help someone in need, or parent your children with patience and grace? Ask whether your phone or streaming habits are preventing you from savoring God’s good gift of sleep.
The second expression of resistance is simply abstaining from online consumption for a given amount of time. The best way to do this is with someone else’s help. For example, only my wife knows my Twitter password. I cannot log myself in. Not only does this naturally throttle how much time I spend on Twitter, but it makes my use of Twitter transparent to my wife. She knows how often I ask to log on and can remind me of commitments that I’ve made. This isn’t a magic cure-all, but it has made a profound difference for me.
Let your digital consumption stop regularly so you can be reminded of the world and people outside your screen. Of the habits of resistance listed here, this one has had the biggest effect on me in the quickest span of time. Particularly for one who often feels like he’s drowning in the digital liturgies, disciplined times of genuine restfulness are among the most powerful means of resistance. Learn to shut off the digital world and enjoy God’s good gift of rest, and as you do, you’ll find a level of calm and freedom you may not have known was possible. And let this token of your Savior’s love reawaken you to the most precious realities in the world.