Like most of my generation, I don’t remember when internet optimism began—but I remember when it ended. I graduated high school in 2006 and the first iPhone was released in 2007, so my childhood was largely unmarred by the now-omnipresent screens that dominate the childhoods of all but a few with hyper-vigilant parents consciously swimming against the current. But smartphones and social media arrived soon enough, and we swiftly discovered that the digital world had the power to shape and even transform the real one. Some of us were fortunate enough to only get addicted to our devices or social media. Most got hooked on hardcore porn.
There are few internet optimists left, and the consensus is that social media and smartphones have profoundly damaged us in ways we are just beginning to understand. We now know that the masterminds behind social media created platforms that were designed to turn us into hopeless addicts. As Sean Parker, the first president of Facebook, put it: “The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them, was all about: How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible? And that means that we need to … give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or post.”
The creators of much of our digital world, Parker noted, created a “social-validation feedback loop” that amounts to “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology”—and that they “understood this consciously, and we did it anyway.” In other words, if you’re wondering why you struggle with addiction to your smartphone or the internet, it’s because you’re using the tool the way it was designed to be used. The social effects of this are hard to comprehend: near-universal consumption of pornography driving the emergence of a genuine rape culture; and a mental health pandemic that has a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report noting that nearly 60% of U.S. girls feel “persistently sad or hopeless.” This is a generation who have had their minds wired by the internet.
Nicholas Carr’s groundbreaking book The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains (2011) catalyzed conversations about how the internet was changing us, and a growing mountain of data since then has consistently proved his gloomy analysis correct. Carr’s work formed the foundation for other intellectuals to begin questioning aspects of our digital world. One of the best is Samuel D. James, an American evangelical intellectual who has consistently produced some of the most insightful analysis I have yet read at his Substack newsletter, Digital Liturgies. His book Digital Liturgies: Discovering Christian Wisdom in an Online Age has just been published.
James is, in my view, one of a handful of emerging Christian intellectuals with something both necessary and unique to say. I finished Digital Liturgies in two sittings, and I believe that any Christian grappling with the implications of the digital world—and if you aren’t, you should be—should read this book. James not only provides a trenchant cultural critique of the internet’s impacts; he integrates theology and philosophy to provide a clear picture of the implications for social and spiritual life in a way that makes his conclusions seem obvious. James lays out the structure of the digital world and provides both a “you are here” map along with compelling—and often uncomfortably probing—questions.
James is the associate acquisitions editor at the Christian publishing house Crossway and a resident of Louisville, Kentucky, with his wife and their three children. He kindly agreed to answer our questions.
You observed, early on, that: “The very form of the internet forms our mind—not just what we consume, but how we consume it. As our entire lives are increasingly structured around the Internet, we are being profoundly conditioned to see the world in certain ways and live our lives in certain ways.” It seems to me that the conclusion of your book is that although we cannot escape the internet, we must resist the way it shapes us. Is that a practical possibility considering the sheer addictive power of the platforms and content?
I think so! One of the points that Nicholas Carr makes in his book, The Shallows, which was a very influential work for my book, is that the human brain is very ‘shape-able.’ This is what’s known as cognitive plasticity. That’s a big reason why digital technology has the effect it does. But that’s true also in the opposite direction. We can take steps to mitigate and even push back against the mental effects of the Web for the same reason we feel those effects in the first place.
For many, the first and most consequential step they will take is simply to stop using digital technologies that don’t serve their values. Whether that’s cancelling a social media account, limiting your phone, or simply building in periods of abstinence, pushing back on digital media’s harmful effects is actually not as complicated as many might think.
And I think there’s a very good chance that governments and elected leaders are going to make these efforts easier for the average person. There seems to be a growing awareness of how addictive and deformative some of these technologies are. There’s a very real public health crisis element to this. It’s not too difficult to imagine a future in which smartphones have the same kind of stigma attached to them as cigarettes.
One aspect of the digital age that is beginning to get more attention is the ways in which it has transformed our social imaginary. You noted that as “human culture transforms, so too do the stories we tell ourselves … it is not simply the content of the stories that can captivate and change us but the form of these stories.” One of the things I have observed in Christian communities is the way the arrival of the smartphone is facilitating a breakdown in the intergenerational experience—that the shared stories that underpin those communities are being replaced, subverted, or forgotten. The stories of the grandparents; the history of the community; these things are replaced by the “infinite scroll,” the tyranny of the present. Hyperreality is simply far more alluring than the collective experiences of an embodied community. Have you observed this challenge as well? How do you suggest we might address it?
Absolutely. One of the more bracing examples of this is the transgender revolution. Now, regardless of whether you think adults should be legally entitled to identify as any gender, you have to read some of the testimonies in Abigail Shrier’s book and others with a profound sense of sadness at the alienation between the emerging generation and their parents that’s being facilitated by social media. Preteens and teens who are known and loved in a family context are discovering influencers online who tell them that their insecurities and social anxiety are due to their probably being a different gender identity. It’s the word of a remote influencer—who may be profiting personally from this kind of content—versus the word of a mother, a father, a sibling, a grandparent, who know this child in a very personal way. There’s obviously a lot going on there, but one unmistakeable dynamic is the allure of the social media world vs the embodied world.
But even short of things like the gender revolution, the epistemology of social media is set radically against the values of the community. The internet isolates us. It allows us a godlike freedom to curate our sense of reality. Community flourishes when people have to rely not just on themselves but on each other to make sense of life. The atomizing setting of the Web intrinsically undermines this. I think pushing back against this dynamic starts with recognizing that too much of our modern life is organized around technological efficiency and privacy. I think we’re going to look back in 20 years and be absolutely flabbergasted that any parent ever handed their young child a tablet, phone, or laptop and let them live alone in their room with it.
The internet has eliminated the gatekeepers not only of the mainstream media and other elite institutions, but also in church communities. If children and young people are online, adults lose the ability to present new information within a biblical context (e.g., they will very likely see Pride Month content long before their parents discuss LGBT issues with them) and alternative stories and ways of seeing the world created by talented storytellers are already being explored. I’m seeing this in many Christian high schools—the teachers are stunned to discover that the social imaginary of the students is being shaped by social media on issues from pronouns to same-sex relationships, not by Christianity. How can we respond to this?
I think there has to be a widespread recognition that Christians have largely failed to understand the Web for what it is. We’ve focused so much on filtering out obviously immoral content that we’ve missed the fact that the Web is a teacher whose lessons are shaped in the image of expressive individualism. It will always, always, always make sense online for someone to identify as a different gender, or to believe that two or three or four people can be married. Why? Because the Web is a disembodied habitat, a plausibility structure for the feeling that there is no givenness to reality, there is simply individual will. That’s what all of us are when log on. We are mental wills projected onto a screen. Christian orthodoxy makes as much intuitive sense in the epistemological context of the Web as the idea of sun-tan lotion makes to a deep sea creature. There’s just a profound dissonance between the online medium and the Christian message.
In terms of response, I think churches have to take initiative here and reemphasize in-person discipleship, especially discipleship that puts the generations in contact with one another and points to the beauty of God’s given design. Some have missed this due to not wanting to offend progressive sensibilities in their congregation. Others have missed this because they’re so focused the political implications of Christian teaching that they assume their members see the beauty of it when they really don’t.
You noted that the internet is “a lot like pornography.” What did you mean by that?
The essence of pornography is taking what is really an experience between two subjects (a man and a woman) and turning it into a consumable commodity. Sex is not a product. It’s not something that can instantly downloaded by an isolated individual and then discarded after it accomplishes its purpose. Sex is personal. It’s human. It’s experiential. Pornography, especially online pornography, creates an artificial product that cannot really satisfy, because it was taken from something that is ontologically different.
Yet, that’s kind of like how the entire web is. The Web is a tool for turning the world—whether ideas, relationships, experiences, etc.—into something we can control and consume at will. Just as pornography offers a cheap simulation of intimacy, so too does the web offer a cheap simulation of things like travel, or friendship, or beauty, or conversation. It doesn’t mean that everything on the Web is pornographic. Of course that’s not true. But it does mean it is its nature. To use Nicholas Carr’s term, the “intellectual ethic” of the web is identical that of pornography.