Lent and the desires of digital media
Neil Postman encouraged those living under what he called Technopoly to have the outlook of “a loving resistance fighter” towards technology. In Chapter 11 of Technopoly, he defines what that resistance looks like:
“A resistance fighter understands that technology must never be accepted as part of the natural order of things, that every technology—from an IQ test to an automobile to a television set to a computer—is a product of a particular economic and political context and carries with it a program, an agenda, and a philosophy that may or may not be life-enhancing and that therefore require scrutiny, criticism, and control. In short, a technological resistance fighter maintains an epistemological and psychic distance from any technology, so that it always appears somewhat strange, never inevitable, never natural.” 1
The loving part is more complicated:
“By ‘loving,’ I mean that, in spite of the confusion, errors, and stupidities you see around you, you must always keep close to your heart the narratives and symbols that once made the United States the hope of the world and that may yet have enough vitality to do so again.” 2
He’s a little less specific on this point, but I’ve taken the aphorism to heart. I’m no Luddite, however, I did quit social media for Lent this year. So am I loving or am I resisting technology?
I’m resisting because I love.
I love the gadgets and the little wonders of software and hardware, but even more I love the people these devices and services connect me with. In either case, whether loving or resisting, there’s some fight involved.
Rightly Ordered Loves
Lent is a season of preparation for Easter where Christians “often choose to give up specific pleasures, such as sweets, alcohol, or social media, […] as a way to foster simplicity and self-control; many use their cravings or desires for these items as a reminder to pray and to refocus on spiritual matters.” 3 In essence, Lent is about rightly ordering our desires.
I’m convinced that any Lenten fast ought to permanently reorder habits and ultimately lead to reordered desires. I can’t imagine a Christian argument for going without certain pleasures unless those things are getting in the way of something better. Desires exist to be filled; how they are filled matters. Fasting from refined sugar ought to heighten the pleasure of fruit and honey. Abstaining from sex should do the same for intimacy.
Forgoing the easy and accessible social candy of interactions on social/digital media should make room for something better. The pleasure of going without social media ought to be found in the same category but of a very different quality: the labour and joy of community.
There is a reasonable counterpoint to this position, though. Lent is a season of preparation, not a lifestyle. This vision of fasting positions it as a discipline that motivates prayer and nourishes a desire for God. This is the type of fasting we see most often in the Bible, and it is an essential discipline. We do not find Lent in the Bible, however, so if we consider Lent a christian practice with biblical roots but no biblical mandate, then I think the work of reordering desires becomes both wise and profitable.
Lent is less a christian practice in itself and more a means of intentionally practicing faith via fasting, prayer, and service. Because Lent is preparation for Easter, the intensity of the practices is ratcheted up but the practices themselves are always good. The goal is not to be perfected by the efforts of the disciplines, rather the disciplines position us to desire that which will truly satisfy.
Going without chocolate for Lent just to gorge on chocolate bunnies misses the point. Instead, the fast should reawaken not just the pleasure of chocolate but what the pleasure points us toward. (My thoughts on this owe a lot to C.S. Lewis’ dialectic of desire).
Fasting as Formation
So what is the purpose of a fast from digital technology for Lent? My decision to lovingly resist the demands of digital media owes as much to Saint Augustine as they do to Neil Postman. Rightly ordering desires is a very old, and very good, idea from the ancient North African bishop. Augustine said that a good person “is also a person who has [rightly] ordered his love, so that he does not love what it is wrong to love, or fail to love what should be loved, or love too much what should be loved less (or love too little what should be loved more).” The practices of Lent seek to position God as the highest love, obviously, but where should digital media go? That’s a more complicated question.
Postman said that every technology should be scrutinized, criticized, and controlled because every technology “carries with it a program, an agenda, and a philosophy that may or may not be life-enhancing”. Whether you’re decided on the “life-enhancing” quality of digital technology or not, fasting from things like social media allow for rare scrutiny and criticism of the products and services that rule our lives. If we don’t know how something works—and how it work on us—how can we expect to exercise some control over its effects?
What if digital media isn’t evil; what if our loves are simply out of order? I’ll be fasting from social media for 40 days, but I’ll be using all sorts of wonderful technology. I’ll go without my feeds but I’ll be fasting towards the relationships those feeds mediate.
No one has to replace every online interaction or hour spent on YouTube with a face-to-face conversation or meal. Still, we ought to know which one we should love more, and build the habits that will put those good desires in their proper place.
1 Postman, Neil. Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology. Vintage Books, 1993.