The Yes (to Technology) in Our No (to Social Media)

Phone and Flame

I’m no Barthian, but as a fellow contrarian and over-corrector, I’ve always found Karl Barth’s notion of “the yes in our no and the no in our yes” to be a helpful way of reflecting theologically on a variety of topics.1  For instance, in my early exuberance for the deliverances of modern technologies, I was willing to say “yes!” when others might have been a bit more cautious. In my mind, blanket condemnations of emerging technologies and new media were not only reactionary and unhelpful, but they also seemed to gloss over the ways in which God was present and active in a variety of digitally mediated spaces.

But that same kind of optimism ran the risk of preventing me from making critical distinctions between and among the variety of tools, media, systems, and social practices that are often lumped into a single category called “technology.” There are important differences, for example, between the technological devices we use (e.g., the iPhone), the multinational corporate entities profiting from the active manipulation of our online behavior (e.g., Apple, Google, Amazon), the various platforms organizing our social networks (e.g., Facebook, Instagram, Twitter), and the basic architecture—the superstructure—of the increasingly participatory, user-generated digital world we inhabit on a day-to-day basis. These differences matter, not only for people of faith attempting to be wise and discerning consumers, users, and developers of technology, but also for a broader society moving into an unknown (and in a very real sense, unknowable) future.

To put this all a bit differently, I was initially hesitant to say no to anything technological out of concern that it would, for all intents and purposes, be a no to everything technological—a complete and total negation of the yes embedded in every critique. But this is exactly why the practice of critical reflection (theological or otherwise) is so necessary at such a time as this, for it provides us with tools that help us break down this complex and convoluted thing we call “technology” so that neither our yes nor our no run roughshod over the other.

The need for more nuanced categories to engage technology theologically became painfully clear when I read Jaron Lanier’s recent book, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.2  Lanier is not only one of the architects of the internet and Web 2.0, but he also happens to be one of my techno-heroes. Lanier isn’t anti-technology nor is he suggesting we should all return to the age of analog. Quite the opposite. He is far more concerned with the damaging effects of social media as a particular (but nonessential) manifestation of our technological society. In fact, he’s quite optimistic about our techno-future—if we can all muster enough courage to choose a more constructive and life-giving technological substrate upon which to operate.   

Lanier doesn’t just talk the talk. He walks the walk. Even though he maintains a robust digital presence and continues to be one of the key figures for developing our future technologies, there is no Jaron Lanier profile on any social media platform whatsoever (see what I mean about being heroic?). In his book, he offers 10 compelling arguments (including “social media hates your soul”) that underscore not only why he has made this choice, but also why we should all pause and consider doing the same. Three arguments stand out as particularly helpful ways to think theologically about the relationship people of faith have with their technology: (1) social media is destroying your capacity for empathy; (2) social media is undermining truth; (3) social media doesn’t want you to have economic dignity.

Because Lanier’s arguments are focused exclusively on social media and not on technology more broadly understood, I want to consider his critiques of social media as the “no in our yes” to technology’s theological possibilities.

1. Empathy: To say yes to technological virtue is to say no to formation by “impressions”

So then, let us pursue what makes for peace and for building up one another. (Romans 14:19)

Based mostly upon gut instinct and anecdotal evidence gathered from informal conversations with other parents, I would imagine that many if not most parents feel a twinge of guilt when it comes to their family’s technological habits. Some may be resigned to the fact that digital technology is a necessary part of contemporary life, even if they feel badly about how much time they and their children spend in front of screens. Others might see it in somewhat more positive terms, but still think of digital technologies as, at best, ethically neutral tools not unlike a refrigerator or car. (Parents: see Kara Powell and Brad Griffin’s fantastic article on page 64).

I would also imagine that practically no parent is of the mindset that digital technologies might actually cultivate virtue, especially not with their kids. But that’s exactly what a team of researchers in Fuller’s School of Psychology are testing in their studies involving app-based virtue interventions with teenagers. In this particular instance, the virtues in question are patience, self-control, and emotional awareness.3 They are examining whether routine practices prompted by an intentionally designed smartphone app can and do cultivate these virtues. They are also assessing if end-users whose identities are shaped by a community of faith are more likely to become more patient, self-controlled, and emotionally aware as a result of this technologically mediated practice.

Without hesitation, we can offer a resounding yes to technology that helps us cultivate virtues like patience, long-suffering, and empathy. What is more, people of faith should be actively (and perhaps fiercely) committed to developing new technologies that enhance rather than inhibit these virtues, especially as it concerns the ways in which virtue development of any kind is intimately bound up with one’s identity as a member of a larger community of persons-in-relation.

But this affirmation of technology necessarily implies a no to a digital landscape that makes virtue development impossible. As Lanier points out, the world we see when we log in to our social media platform of choice is one that has been completely customized by algorithms that privilege “impressions” over everything else. Unsurprisingly, that which generates the most “impressions” are bits of data that either align with our hyperindividualized preferences, or are radically opposed to our preconceptions. Making matters worse, advertising dollars artificially amplify this polarization, which means that Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, et al., have sold our eyeballs millions of times over to corporations more than willing to show us only posts that either reinforce everything we already believe or represent the polar opposite. In the end, what emerges is our own fully customized (and hyperpartisan) view of the world to which no other individual has access. Neither can we see what anyone else’s feed looks like.

If the cultivation of empathy begins and ends with our ability to see the world through someone else’s eyes—even if just for a moment—then people of faith need to radically rethink our participation in social networking sites that make this empathetic gesture literally impossible.

In other words, it’s a hearty yes to digital technologies that cultivate Christian virtue and help us see with the eyes of the other.And it’s a hard no to platforms that profit by destroying our capacity for empathy.

2. Truth: To say yes to technological incarnation is to say no to technological excarnation

Now the Word became flesh and took up residence among us. (John 1:14)

Matt Lumpkin is an alum of Fuller Seminary who served for nearly a decade as Fuller’s director of IT for web and mobile and as a user experience strategist. To put it in lay terms, Matt spent most days designing the user interfaces that all students, staff, and faculty use while navigating Fuller’s intranet. He also designed and helped build the CharacterMe mobile app, the brain-training app used in the psychological studies I mentioned above.

Matt now works as a product designer at Tidepool, where he develops technological solutions for families living with disease. Matt’s professional move from higher education to applied technology was in part driven by a personal frustration: after his youngest daughter was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, he discovered a glaring lack of thought for the experience of the patient in the available technologies he used while caring for her. He is currently working on building a device called bgAWARE, which is a new way of using the sense of touch for ambient blood glucose awareness (see sidebar).

At first blush, it might be surprising that this is Matt’s work, as a person who holds graduate degrees in theology. But it shouldn’t be. In fact, if I were to put my speculator’s hat on, I would say that, in the not-too-distant future, what he is doing will be the norm and not the exception for people pursuing a seminary education. Matt is not simply developing new or more sophisticated technologies; he is quite literally generating a new kind of intimacy between the technologies that support human flourishing on the one hand and our living, breathing, bleeding bodies on the other. Put differently, drawing upon his theological acumen and his expertise in user experience, he is designing incarnational technology.

This is no small matter, at least not for people of Christian faith. In fact, as the opening of John’s Gospel suggests, reality itself is constituted by God’s project of taking on flesh and dwelling with humans. The missio Dei is and always has been an incarnational mission—one that will be fully realized when God takes up residence with human beings (Rev 21:3). We collaborate with God in that incarnational mission anytime we make something of God’s creation that leads us into a more fully embodied way of life. As Matt’s work demonstrates, technological innovations are part and parcel of this collaborative, incarnational project.

The problem, as Lanier and theologians like Craig M. Gay have pointed out, is that no technology is neutral.4 Every technology has a direction, a purpose—a telos. Many transhumanists, for example, are enamored with technology’s promise of a wholly disembodied life. As the story goes, technology will one day provide the digital substrate upon which humans will upload our consciousness. Along with philosopher Charles Tayler, we might call this an “excarnate” vision of humanity’s techno-future.

But we don’t need to look to the future to see this vision playing itself out. Social media is already inclined toward excarnation and disembodiment. Actually, it’s far worse than that. It’s not simply that social media allows people to inhabit a world entirely detached from their own physical bodies or the bodies of others. It’s that, in many instances, we’re not even interacting with other human bodies at all. We’re interacting with armies of digital bots masquerading as flesh-and-blood human beings. And it is undermining the truth of our incarnate lives. Lanier writes:

Leaving aside explicitly fake people like Alexa, Cortana, and Siri, you might think that you’ve never interacted with a fake person online, but you have, and with loads of them. You decided to buy something because it had a lot of good reviews, but many of those reviews were from artificial people. You found a doctor by using a search engine, but the reason that doctor showed up high in the search results was that a load of fake people linked to her office. You looked at a video or read a story because so many other people had, but most of them were fake. You became aware of tweets because they were retweeted first by armies of bots. . . . This is a difficult truth to accept, but because of the importance of social perception, it is true to at least a small degree that you have been living a fake life yourself. [This system] is making you partially fake.5

It is a resounding yes to technology that is fundamentally incarnational and thus leads us toward rather than away from the truth of embodied life. But it’s a no to technological excarnation and its undermining of truth.

3. Economic Dignity: To say yes to technological liberation is to say no to oppressive systems of power

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens. (Ephesians 6:12)

It’s probably fairly obvious by now, but I am quite proud of Fuller’s students, staff, faculty, and alumni, especially when it comes to matters of technological innovation. A perfect example is Phil Chen, an alum who has taken his theology degree from Fuller and used it to frame his work as a technologist and venture capitalist. After designing a mobile device that could deliver entire digital libraries to students in developing countries (what eventually became the first Barnes & Noble e-reader), and then developing one of the first attempts at a mass-market virtual reality headset (what eventually became the HTC Vive), Phil now works as HTC’s decentralized chief officer. In this role Phil is spearheading the development of HTC’s first blockchain phone, which, not insignificantly, is called “the Exodus.”

In a recent op-ed about the Exodus phone, Phil makes the theological implications of his work explicit.

Much like the Israelites under the tyranny of Pharaoh, the users of the internet are being oppressed—slaves to large masters. . . .

Internet users are being worked to generate and build modern treasure houses for their overlords, using their own data as bricks. Within the walls of these modern pyramids is all of our personal data, which empowers and wealthifies the modern-day Pharaohs: Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Google (known, with the addition of Netflix, as the FAANGs), coupled with their Asian counterparts Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent.

The father of the world wide web himself, Tim Berners-Lee, has called for a new architecture that places security, privacy, and ownership of data back where it belongs: with the people. We are currently in a crisis of giving away our data and digital identity for cheap endorphins, and surrendering all of our attention and power to the Big Data monolithic cloud companies, which mine that data for artificial intelligent agents and advertising revenue. In some cases, our data has been used by bad actors to steal money or confidential information, but in the worst cases, it has gone as far as impacting and influencing democratic processes. . . .

We are at the internet’s burning-bush moment. We have been given a generational opportunity to utilize a new technology for good, and the ability to lead people away from being controlled to being in control.

The promise of the internet was a world without borders, but corporate sovereigns have built multiple walls that now divide humanity. As in the Book of Exodus, we need to lead users to the promised land.6

Phil is hoping to do nothing less than initiate a grassroots exodus with the Exodus phone. He is providing people with a tool that will enable them to escape not a geophysical place, but an entire digital architecture. In this way, he is echoing the Apostle Paul’s words regarding the ways in which we struggle not against flesh and blood but against non-human systems and structures that are ruled by an ever-smaller number of centralized, global powers.

It might be tempting at this point to say that these systems and structures are broken and that the Christian calling is to work at fixing what’s broken so that the poor, marginalized, and oppressed might regain some semblance of economic dignity. The only problem with this kind of vision is that the system isn’t actually broken at all. It’s working perfectly. It’s doing exactly what it was designed to do. The current architecture is designed to profit off our free labor, while also convincing us that there’s no use pursuing liberation because there is nothing to be freed from. This is simply “the way things are.”

Which is why we say yes to technological innovations that set the captives free from these finely tuned digital worlds. It is also why we say no to the oppressive technological systems (and their architects) that rob people of their economic—and human—dignity.

Taking a Techno-Sabbath

Recall that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there by strength and power. That is why the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.
(Deuteronomy 5:15)

In the account found in the book of Exodus, the rationale for observing the Sabbath is that God rested on the seventh day of creation (Ex 20:11). In Deuteronomy, however, Sabbath keeping is connected to the Exodus from Egypt. Sabbath rest, it would seem, is about more than recovering the energy we expend during the work week. It has something to do with resisting the oppressive systems and structures within which we operate. Sometimes our participation in these power structures is willful, but more often than not, we are completely unaware of just how complicit we have become.

For this very reason, during the past Lenten season I chose to fast not from technology, but from social media in particular. I needed to observe the Sabbath. I needed to rest. I needed to resist. Of course, as my colleague and Fuller alum Aaron Dorsey says, “Fasting from social media is part of the modern world survival toolkit. Right next to using the do not disturb feature on your phone and YouTube tutorials.”

But that’s exactly the point of Sabbath keeping, isn’t it? It’s a routine (and somewhat mundane) reminder to ourselves and others that we are not to be held captive by life-denying structures of power, no matter the form they might take. It’s to remember that it is God and not Pharaoh that we serve. In this particular case, to observe the Sabbath is to say no to digital platforms that demonstrate very little concern for our bodies, our dignity, or our basic ability to empathize with others.

The theological twist, however, is that there is always a yes embedded in our no, and this yes involves what is potentially a radical embrace of technologies that provide us with the means for pursuing “what makes for peace and for building up one another” (Rom 14:19). From this perspective we need not be cautious or concerned about technology. In fact, we can confidently affirm the transformative potential of technological innovations, especially those that help adolescents cultivate virtue, that allow families to manage chronic illness, and that liberate people from economic structures robbing them of their dignity and worth.

And at least in my book, that’s something worth saying yes to.

  1. K. Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 6th ed., trans. E. C. Hoskyns (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968).

  2. J. Lanier, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2018).

  3. S. A. Schnitker, B. Houltberg, W. Dyrness, and N. Redmond, “The Virtue of Patience, Spirituality, and Suffering: Integrating Lessons from Positive Psychology, Psychology of Religion, and Christian Theology,” Psychology of Religion and Spirituality 9 (2017): 264–275.

  4. G. M. Gay, Modern Technology and the Human Future: A Christian Appraisal (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018).

  5. Lanier, Ten Arguments.

  6. Phil Chen, “The Journey to a New Internet: A Reading from the Book of Exodus,”, March 29, 2019.