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S1E13: ...Is To Break the Spell
(The following is the manuscript for episode thirteen of season one of the Breaking the Digital Spell podcast, which premiered on November 26th, 2018. Available wherever you get your podcasts, or you can listen online here.)
The language of being “under a spell” suggests that the person under the spell is seeing the world differently than it actually is.
Whether the spell is self-inflicted due to feelings of love or at the hands of a malicious witch or wizard of ancient folklore, the state of being “under a spell” is ultimately undesirable because you are under the control of something else, and that your ability to see and think clearly has been hijacked. Even if that spell you’re under is one that you’d like to be under (think of all the cheesy romance stories you want to here), it is still a dangerous state to be in because you are acting according to a warped perception of the world and your surroundings. “Breaking the spell”, then, is to break the control something or someone has over you and that is causing you to see or do things at their disposal or command and to return to your normal state.
For this season of Breaking The Digital Spell, we have been operating under the assumption that we live in a world where the technology and media in our lives have cast a spell on us, and as a result we no longer see the world as it is. Under this spell, our thoughts, habits, and beliefs are held under the sway of our machines and the mediums these machines create, and we begin to understand and make sense of our world according to the terms set forth by how we use this technology and consume this media. Television insisted we begin understanding the world through images instead of understanding the world through the spoken and written word, and now we have reached a point where visual communication via GIFs, memes, and emojis is an understandable language in and of itself. The Internet insisted that we come to it for all of our needs, even if those needs are basic human connection and relationships, and now we have reached a point where the Internet itself is considered a need instead of a useful tool. Our smartphones insist that we always be on, always be connected, always be available, and now we have reached a point where the idea of “disconnecting” for a day or two is now seen as a daunting task. Under this spell, we cannot conceive of a world without television, without the Internet, without social media, without smartphones, or without the technology and media that we take for granted in our daily lives, and we cannot conceive of a world without these things because technology and media have become our world. We are held under a spell that leads us to see the world differently than it actually is, and the world that we see is a world where our technology and media has convinced us that there can be no other world other than the one our technology and media have created for us. And like Neil Postman predicted in Amusing Ourselves to Death, it wasn’t the Orwell’s vision of totalitarianism that we shouldn’t have been so afraid of, but it was Huxley’s vision of us ruining ourselves by what we love – and our love for the technology and media in our lives has left us held under a spell that leads us to believe a vision of the world where there is nothing worth seeing or experiencing beyond the screen in front of our face.
Postman believed that no medium (and the machine behind that medium) was excessively dangerous if it’s users understood what those dangers are, and that to ask questions about these dangers was sufficient to break the spell. I can’t necessarily speak for Postman here, but I think an implied premise in that directive is that if people were to ask questions and come to realize the dangers posed by television’s creeping influence into all corners of life and public discourse that people would do an about face and choose to live in such a way as to keep television in its proper place. As Postman states,
The point I am trying to make is that only through a deep and unfailing awareness of the structure and effects of information, through a demystification of media, is there any hope of our gaining some measure of control over television, or the computer, or any other medium. How is such media consciousness to be achieved? There are only two answers that come to mind, one of which is nonsense and can be dismissed almost at once; the other is desperate but it is all we have.
Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves To Death
Postman goes on to describe these two options, and both of them are tied to education about media and it’s effects. The latter is at the schooling level (which is beyond the scope of this podcast) and the “nonsense” option is to use these mediums to raise awareness about the dangers of these mediums. Of the “nonsense” option Postman writes,
The nonsensical answer is to create television programs whose intent would be, not to get people to stop watching television, but to demonstrate how television ought to be viewed, to show how television recreates and degrades our conception of news, political debate, religious thought, etc. I imagine such demonstrations would of necessity take the form of parodies along the lines of Saturday Night Live or Monty Python, the idea being to induce a nationwide horse laugh over television’s control of public discourse. But, naturally, television would have the last laugh. In order to command an audience large enough to make a difference, one would have to make the programs vastly amusing, in the television style. Thus, the act of criticism itself would, in the end, be co-opted by television.
Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves To Death
I recognize that using a podcast as a medium for communicating how technology and media changes the way we think about God and love our neighbor falls into the same trappings that Postman warns about. This podcast contributes to the waterfall of content that one can consume. This podcast is geared towards being something you can listen on your phone. In trying to get people thinking about technology and media, I am relying on the very same technology and media that I am critiquing in order to make my critiques available (and don’t even get me started about using social media to promote episodes that criticize social media)! While I certainly believe there are numerous differences between podcasting and television, and I believe Postman would agree were he alive, I think his general point still stands: we cannot rely on the technology and media that creates the digital spell as a means of breaking that spell. We cannot rely on educating people about the dangers of technology and media through the very technology and media we are warning them about and believe that the effects of co-opting the mediums we criticize will be minimal. Much of our education about the negative effects of technology and media must come from outside of the technology and media in question, but given that technology and media have become deeply integrated into our education and learning, this will be a difficult task, and Postman recognizes this fact, which is why the book does not end on an optimistic note.
Given the two options he listed, he believes that Huxley’s vision of the future will come to pass without hindrance, and I don’t believe his prediction was wrong at all. Not only should we not rely on the technology and media that creates the digital spell as a means of breaking that spell, we also need to accept the fact that not everyone will want the digital spell to be broken in their lives. Like we talked about in the episode on extended reality technology, we suppress the truth about God in our unrighteousness, and now we have the tools at hand to not only suppress the reality we actually live in but to also construct convincing replacement realities to live in as a means of worshiping creature and creation rather than the Creator. Where Postman might have hoped that people would change their attitudes towards television if they could understand how television affected them and where this direction was headed, there is the obvious fact that people would still choose the screen-dominated dystopia even if they achieved the deep unfailing awareness of information and media that Postman desires, and if this was true in the 80s, it’s even more true today. Postman assumes that education is the solution to this problem and while education is certainly part of the solution (and this is certainly one of the goals of this podcast), education in and of itself will not be enough. People will still text and drive despite knowing the dangers of texting and driving. People will still smoke cigarettes despite health warnings being plainly obvious on cartons and advertising. People will still eat excessively and get drunk even if they know – even if they are educated – about the dangers of doing so if for no other reason than they want to do so, and so education alone cannot be our sole hope here in breaking the digital spell in our lives and the lives of others. People will still spend hours upon hours on their phones knowing that doing so will make them anxious, agitated, and depressed. People will still spend hours binging Netflix knowing that there are psychological consequences for doing so. People will still dive headfirst into alternative realities of their own making knowing full well – perhaps intentionally so – that they’re leaving the real world behind. We must find another way. And this is where I think Postman missed a possible option here. If our technology and media have put us under a spell that convinces us that there is not a life worth living beyond the lives given to us by our screens and the content they give us, then one way to break the spell is to live and display to others the full and satisfying life that exists beyond the screen.
If I could make one criticism of Postman’s book, it would be that he offers very little description of what life could look like if we were not amusing ourselves to death. Postman’s book is bleak, dark, and depressing (and rightly so), but he does little to convince you that there is a better, more full, more satisfying life that can exist outside the television screen. And, to be fair, he is addressing a meta-level problem, and believes that few meta-level solutions exist, and I don’t disagree with that. But, at the same time, Postman does not offer a more compelling vision of the world to move towards to as a means of escaping the Huxleyian apocalypse, and this is where the transcendent Gospel we talked about in the last episode comes in. The Gospel compels us to see the world the way God sees it, which is full of beauty, and awe, and majesty, and all of which points back to Him and His glory, even though we have marred and tainted the world by our sin. Because Jesus Christ has saved us from our sins through his life, death, and resurrection, we await his return where he will make all things new, heaven and earth included, and already we see him making all things new in the fact that, as a result of our salvation in Christ, our ability to see God’s creation (including you and me and everyone else made in his image) and delight in His creation and give praise to him for it as the Creator has been restored. We no longer look at the beautiful night sky and say it is just an accident. We no longer look at the vast, ever expanding cosmos and say it has no purpose. We no longer look at the sparrow and assume it has been forgotten or abandoned by God. In warning people about the dangers of living in a world dominated by screens, we do so because we have a better world, a better life, a better existence to invite people to live in to, and this existence, life, and world offered to us in the Gospel that points to the transcendent Creator promises us that the joy we can experience in this life is only just the beginning.
Now at this point you might be thinking that I’m about to outline a bunch of rules and guidelines about limiting and controlling your screen time, or taking certain apps off your phone, or not having a television in your bedroom, or all these other suggestions aimed at helping you get better control and mastery over your technology. And here’s the thing: breaking the digital spell in your life will result in different technology and media habits in some way, and one does not attain to new, beneficial habits without practicing them. But, I want to suggest that we often put too much of an emphasis on fixing the problem (and the myriad of steps one can take to fix the problem) that we fail to craft a full and compelling vision offered by the solution. This is especially a risk with all of the talk about measuring and tracking “screen time”, or how much you spend in front of a phone, television, or computer screen, and while tracking how much time you spend with these devices is certainly a necessary step towards gaining control of those devices, tracking screen time just for the sake of tracking screen time somewhat misses the point. Yes, spending 30 minutes on social media each day is more preferable than spending 3 hours on social media, and the effects of spending 3 hours on social media will be far more serious than spending 30 minutes on social media, but if you’re spending those 30 minutes of social media constantly comparing and evaluating yourself to others or berating yourself for coming up short compared to someone else or using social media to mock, belittle, or bully others, that’s still 30 minutes of using social media in unhealthy ways – and the same is true for another other technology. The focus needs to be not just on the amount of time spend with the technology but on the reasons for that use of technology with the hope of point people away from unhealthy uses of technology and media towards healthy uses of technology and media and the benefits that come from that, and those benefits are found in the world that exists beyond the screen. But again, education is not simply enough – we must offer a compelling solution that is not just learned, but lived, and our aim must be to convince people not only of just the dangers of unhealthy technology and media habits but that living a life beyond the screen is a life worth living. Telling people that spending less time on their phone will allow them to be more focused on their work or loved ones is only an effective solution insofar as the person is convinced of the beauty, value, and joy of spending time with their loved ones or helping them enjoy their job better. Telling people that spending less time in front of the television or computer will allow them to read a book is only an effective solution insofar as people are convinced of the healthiness of reading books and of the benefits that come from it. And, to put this solely in Christian terms, telling people that their technology and media usage habits are depriving them of the joy of knowing and being known by God is only an effective solution insofar as people are convinced of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus as their Lord – and only insofar as the people telling other people are actually convinced of the surpassing value of knowing Christ themselves.
Part of the reason why I spent so much time in the previous episode explaining why Christians need to be the first to repent of their unhealthy technology and media habits is because we cannot point people towards a better way of life that we are not living ourselves. We cannot convinced people of the surpassing value of knowing the transcended, risen Christ if we are not deeply convinced of this in the deepest parts of our soul as well. If our Christianity is merely a lifestyle preference or a part of our customized, individual identity – if our approach towards Christianity is on secularism’s terms – then point people away from their screens towards anything else is ultimately pointing them towards more of the same, and a conception of “the good life” driven entirely by technology and media is no better or worse than a conception of “the good life” where technology and media are used when appropriate. But, if our Christianity is built around the fact that Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again, and that this has implications for how we live our lives each and every day, then repenting of our unhealthy technology and media habits not only brings us more into the life the Gospel has saved us to, but also helps us bring people alongside us to join us. It is far easier to tell someone that life is better when you’re not glued to your phone all the time when your life is characterized by a fullness and joy that comes from enjoying the world beyond the screen, and from enjoying it in such a way where you can invite the person to put down the phone and enjoy life with you. It is far more powerful to tell someone that online life and online communities can’t compare to real, embodied community with real people than when you’re able to invite that person to join you into your community (and your community gladly receives and welcomes them) despite the differences in personality, hobbies, or beliefs. It is far more welcoming to invite someone at your dinner table when your dinner table is characterized by thankfulness, warmth, and compassion instead of inviting someone to table where screens separate you from your neighbor. If we can conceive of and live out lives that are vibrant and fulfilling beyond the screen, then we can convince others that such a life is possible as well, and such a life is only possible because of Jesus Christ.
Like I’ve said at many points this season – I am not advocating that anyone throw their computers out the window, smash their TVs and run over their phones in the street. Technology and media are good things we have received from the Lord, and we should receive them with thanksgiving. But, like every other thing we have received from the Lord, it has a proper place in our lives. Our lives are not to be dominated by food, drink, sex, entertainment, recreation, or any other good thing we have received from the Lord that has exceeded the boundaries that ought to be set for it. Television was not meant to be an alternative for a religious experience. The Internet was not meant to be a conduit for escaping your life and living a fantasy life. Your smartphone was not meant to dominate your attention and focus for hours of the day. Technology and media have a place in our lives, they are not meant to be our lives. Our lives are meant to be much more than what they’ve come to be living in a distracted, digital age. Breaking the digital spell means living our lives to the fullest, which cannot be done through a screen, an app, or a website. Breaking the digital spell means living our lives together with others, which cannot be done when our phones or computer screens constantly serve as a buffer from having to talk to others. Breaking the digital spell means enjoying the world we live in, which cannot be done without acknowledging the Creator of this world and the one from whom all good things come – and to ask questions about how technology and media change the way we think about God and love our neighbor and how to see and live in the world that God created and intended for us to live in – that is to break the spell.