Mediums and Messages - Part 1
Any recovery of the body must contend with our digital age
Any project that seeks a recovery of the body must contend with our digital age. The pandemic—in a uniquely apocalyptic fashion—uncovered the strengths and weaknesses of our digital world. Our temporary screen-confined existence, for all its usefulness and safety, was deeply dissatisfying. Sure, we were safe from potentially deadly microbial invaders. But no amount of screen time could replace a hug from a grandparent, the smiling face of a friend, or the energy of a crowd at a concert. For many, this dissatisfaction launched a reevaluation of our digital existence and a return to more embodied living. People were running, gardening, or experimenting with sourdough not so much because they were bored, but because these activities engaged an essential part of themselves: their bodies.
Of course, it wasn’t all dissatisfaction. The common grace features of digital technology have been long apparent. We can stay in touch with grandparents who live across the globe. We can instantaneously communicate in emergencies. We can keep up with friends. We can solve problems and get much needed information at the click of a “search” button. Our technology is even tailor-fit to our interests and likings. Say you’re like me, constantly searching for books on theology of the body. Well, Amazon’s algorithms suggest tons of related titles that pique my interest and can easily expand my research. For many, feeds and algorithms turn up just what they’ve been looking for.
Yet, for all its gifts, there is more to digital technology than meets the eye. And this is exactly what the pandemic revealed. Sure, Amazon may suggest ads for the kind of kitchen ware you’ve been looking for, but it’s no substitute for, say, your grandma’s wisdom about what you really like, what works best, and what lasts longest. Social media may keep us more up to date with friends. But no amount of a friend’s stories or posts can replace their presence. This is exactly the paradox of digital technology.
Though digital technology boasts greater “connection,” “information,” and “personalization,” we are, in fact, less connected, less informed, and less personally understood. Rather than making a personal connection by calling grandma (who likely lives miles away), we opt for the ease of Google, which is usually tucked just inside our pockets. We can keep up with “friends” on social media without ever having to do the hard work of seeing them and catching up. We “know” what they’ve been up to. And yet, with all this apparent connection, we find ourselves lonelier. The easily accessible information ends up keeping us less informed. And a “personalized” world of algorithms cannot substitute for someone who actually knows you personally.
What causes such a paradox? As tech writer Andy Crouch asks: “Is it coincidence, or just a kind of grand irony, that loneliness has spiked just as our media became ‘social,’ our technology became ‘personal,’ and our machines learned to recognize our faces?”
The answer is, no. The “personalized impersonal world” of digital technology is no accident.
In fact, much of the modern technological project, from its spirit to its various forms, is antithetical to creation and human nature.
The spirit of the modern technological project finds its source in an early modern reimagining of the created order. As cultural critic Neil Postman has noted, the vision of early modern thinkers like Francis Bacon was the foundation on which this project was built. Bacon saw the natural world as raw material over which man ought to gain power for the sake of human progress. Others like Rene Descartes held similar views. Descartes, too, viewed that humanity’s task was to become “masters and possessors of nature” for the sake of liberating humanity from toil and disease and enriching life with leisure. But he also (re)introduced a division between the human and the natural world, by sequestering the immaterial person (the soul or mind) from the material body. Such a vision of nature, however well intended, ultimately meant that, in the words of Postman, “any conception of God’s design certainly lost much of its power and meaning”. But this is only half the picture.
Though born in the minds of academics, the spirit of the modern technological project would go on to shape culture through particular forms of technology. Technology, as philosopher Albert Borgmann argues, is the practical means by which the Baconian-Cartesian vision for progress has been realized. Although it took a couple of centuries, 19th and 20th century advancements in industrial, agricultural, and medical technologies had clearly expanded man’s control over nature. Distances were rapidly shortened as a result of trains and cars. Thanks to steam-powered farm equipment, food was produced more efficiently at higher quantities. Vaccines and penicillin brought an end to once deadly diseases. Technology’s success seemed to confirm that nature was exactly as Bacon and Descartes said: raw material whose limits didn’t matter. It was modern technology (not classroom lectures on metaphysics or critical theory) that taught western culture to imagine nature—including human nature—as something essentially “formless and void” (Gen 1:2).
However useful, the modern technological project’s presupposition about nature is at odds with the biblical picture of creation. Unlike the modern technological project, the Bible’s depiction of creation is one with limits, order, and purpose. The God of Genesis not only creates the light, the heavens, the waters, the dry land, the living creatures, and the human; he also orders the creation. He separates the light from the darkness, the heavens from the earth, the dry land from the sea, and the plants and animals according to their kind and habitation. He even distinguishes man from the rest of creation. These distinctions express good, God-given limits. Light is not the same as darkness. Land is separate from water. Fish aren’t meant for land. Cattle aren’t meant for water. And creatures are designed to produce each according to its kind.
As told by Scripture, creation is not formless, as the modern technological project presupposes. Rather, the story of creation is a movement from formlessness into ordered distinction. Though distinct, creation—by virtue of being created by God—shares a fundamental unity and harmony. According to Paul, all of creation is ordered by, through, and for God (Col 1:16; Rom 11:36). Being made by and through God means that all of creation owes its existence to God. Created existence is not chosen or deserved. It is given (limits and all) as a gift to be received and stewarded, not a burden to be thrown off or overcome. Being made for God means that every created thing possesses intrinsic purpose—namely, to glorify God—simply by the fact of its creation.
Biblical creation includes humans as well. Within the creation accounts of Genesis, humanity, though distinct, is nevertheless part and parcel with the rest of creation. At the very least this is evident by the fact that the heavens, earth, plants, animals, and humanity share the same creator. But the commonality extends further. Man has a special bond to the earth. He is formed “from the dust of the ground” to “work and keep” the garden of Eden (Gen 2:5-7, 15). Man also possesses some likeness to the animals. Though he is specially formed by God and does not find a corresponding helper in any of the animals (Gen 2:20), he is nevertheless described as a “living creature”—the same term used to refer to animals (Gen 2:7; Gen 1:20 24). This means that what can be said of creation is general, can also be said of humanity, or human nature.
As we’ve noted elsewhere, the modern technological project obscures and recasts our creaturely existence. But it has cost us more than a clear grasp of our creaturehood, as defined by Scripture and confirmed by embodied experience. As Crouch hints at above, much of modern technology has not just obscured what it means to be a creature—that we exist by, through, and for God. It has obscured that which makes humanity distinct and unique within the creation. Namely, it has obscured what it means to be a person.
Over the next few posts, I’ll unpack the theme of personhood in Scripture, how it relates to our bodies, and how much of our modern technology, despite being personal or personalized, obscures and obstructs the personal meaning of our bodies.
Jared Eckert is the founder of Perishable Goods and a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary.