Embracing Embodied Solitude After Techno-Gnostic Failure

This article is reprinted with permission from Theopolis.

I take the thrust of Jeffrey Bilbro’s fascinating essay, “Forming Redemptive Communities Outside the Digital Public Sphere,” to be addressing the question, “How can we participate in the digital public sphere redemptively?” After an insightful account and analysis of the crises brought about by the digital public sphere, and the limitations of proposed remedies such as fact-checking and diversifying one’s news feed, his answer to the question comes in the form of a necessary condition: We must be grounded by participation in formative communities outside the digital public sphere. He then explores what that could entail.

My response unfolds in three stages: I first draw attention to Bilbro’s wisdom in posing the question the way he did, then I share personal illustrations of how our participation in the digital public sphere may be hindered. Finally, I offer a further suggestion in the form of a necessary condition that precedes Bilbro’s condition of community: We must develop our capacities for empathy via the practice of solitude. I acknowledge from the outset my essay’s debt to Craig Gay’s excellent book and recent remarks by Sherry Turkle.

 

A Question Well-Posed

“Answers are easy. It’s asking the right questions that is hard,” declares Tom Baker’s Dr. Who. Unlike many questions being asked about the digital public sphere, Bilbro’s is posed in a way to admit definite practical answers. Major advancements in science have arisen by posing a question in a particular form, such as seeking a contradiction or induction. (Having recently celebrated “Pi Day” on March 14, Lindemann’s proof that π is transcendental is fresh in my mind.) Last year’s release of OpenAI’s massive GPT-3 language model that operates on “prompts” and users’ experiences of how strongly outputs depend on the prompts’ construction have inspired playful speculation that “prompt engineer” may soon be a job title.

It’s instructive to clarify what Bilbro’s “prompt” does not entail: It is not limited to social media, though social media plays a major part in the digital public sphere given their conflation in the form of micro-blogging and Timeline systems (“What’s on your mind?”). This conflation touches on a side question: “Who is the ‘we’ participating in the digital public sphere redemptively?” Ten years ago John Dyer suggested that it’s not every person’s calling to participate in the digital public sphere. Bilbro does not ask, “Should we participate in the digital public sphere at all?” because he establishes (citing the work of Zeynep Tufekci) that such a space is, like it or not, an important driver of world events. Finally, he is not asking the popular question, “How do we fix the digital public sphere?” Many are finding this important question to be intractable, and answering it may be beyond our responsibility (let alone capacity). As Jacques Ellul asserts in The Presence of the Kingdom: it’s not our job to fix the world, but to make it tolerable for the communication of the Gospel.

To help make it tolerable, Alastair Roberts’ eloquent response to Bilbro observes that for many people, trying to alter the evolution of the media ecosystem would be like trying to change the weather, but for those who are gifted and tech-minded he issues a call to be “creatively and attentively involved in this process” of “reforming or redesigning our media technologies themselves.” As someone who is tech industry-adjacent, I see this call being answered in many efforts by individuals, corporations, startups, even tech-minded Christian groups. Their proposals often take the form of enhancing the totality of digital presence by borrowing spatial metaphors such as sitting in “seats” around “tables” or full 3D virtual worlds for conferences, yet it’s not clear that these stand-ins for embodiment will be enough to preserve the humanity of our interactions.

I suspect some of us who are very tech-minded may be starting from a different vantage point than theologically-grounded Roberts and may have a different valley to walk through to reach the common ground of a flourishing community. George Grant famously observed, “The very substance of our existing that has made us the leaders in technique, stands as a barrier to any thinking that might be able to comprehend technique from beyond its own dynamism.” Gay cautions, “We need to be careful not to construe our present predicament in terms of problems for which [technical] solutions must somehow be devised.” We can take an active role in shaping the media ecosystem, but we must keep our minds on what is important. This can be clarified by considering media ecology in terms of information theory.

Marshall McLuhan was profoundly influenced by Claude Shannon, whose revolutionary notion of “information” was expressed in terms of its “surprise” to the recipient: one only needs to transmit what the recipient can’t already guess. In other words, the more you have in common with your recipient, the less you need to transmit. Google’s new Lyra codec for speech transmission uses so little data because both ends of the system contain a specific model of how to synthesize the human voice. L.M. Sacasas responds to Roberts in seemingly effortless prose, saying that through digital media we tend to ”lose our standing in a common world of common things that grounds our common sense, understood not simply as things everybody takes for granted but rather as an understanding of reality that is held in common.” The success of an online community, as Askonas and Schulman observe, is predicated on commonalities that tend not to “scale” to universal audiences. This makes sense in light of “Shannon Theory”: the larger and more universal your pool of recipients, the longer posts will need to be—yet Twitter does the opposite! McLuhan’s catchphrase, “The medium is the message,” could be cast in information-theoretic form: Any encoding scheme involves decisions about what is important (and what can be neglected). For example, the MP3 audio codec captures only what humans are likely to hear, discarding anything above 16kHz and sounds that would get “masked” in the auditory nervous system. The platforms comprising the digital public sphere definitely involve high-level choices that encode values. There is a danger that tech-minded people will be deceived by the “sales pitch” that the digitally-networked world can suffice as a simulacrum of embodied existence, which itself is regarded as a mere limitation. Thus a kind of gnostic heresy can creep in. One outcome of the past year of COVID-induced lockdown has been that the defects in such a “techno-gnostic” orientation have been exposed through extended stress-testing.

 

Techno-Gnostic Failure

I was among the most prepared for shelter-in-place directives, with my stockpile of coding projects, social media, video conferences, video games (including Virtual Reality), and a personality tending toward introversion and workaholism. The lockdown strengthened my inclinations toward the “other life” of Thomas A. Anderson (Neo): one “lived in computers.” Brevity and taste dictate that I forgo the customary “Why I am (still) not a Luddite” litany, but it may suffice to say that I have been primed and rewarded for counting the mind and the permanence of mathematical truth as important while things smacking of physicality or requiring maintenance got neglected. Highly mobile and alone due to my career, with family distant for decades, I have had no sense of “place” or the “locality” that Bilbro and Sacasas wrote of. Convenience, accessibility, and speed determined my choices, and physical “burdens” such as cooking, yard work, etc., were de-prioritized or outsourced. One anecdote: As physical books were an encumbrance to travel, I felt the irony in reading Brent Waters’ critique of the urge to transcend the limitations of time and space on the Kindle edition of Christian Moral Theology in the Emerging Technoculture, which I’d bought electronically so I could get it immediately! My immersion in technoculture and devaluing what Gay calls “ordinary embodied existence” was enough that Waters’ in-person advice to me was as comprehensive as it was terse: “Well, don’t be like that.”

With the gym off-limits and travel canceled due to COVID (including my fall sabbatical at Facebook Reality Labs), church pre-recorded online, usual social outlets available to single people nonexistent, and my porch and hammock-time spoiled by neighbors’ barking dogs, I succumbed with the inner voice that said I could stay inside, converse on social media or over Zoom and FaceTime, sate my travel thirst with photo-realistic video games, and I’d be fine. And to a fair extent, this was true: rather than suffering “Zoom fatigue” as many did, I found working from home liberating, not unlike South Park’s young sociopath Eric Cartman who begins the “Pandemic Special” episode exulting about staying home from school in song, “I Love You, Social Distancing! No one’s around, no one’s talking to me. Social distancing, I’m free!” Astute readers may note the similarities between Cartman’s “heaven” and C.S. Lewis’ vision of hell in The Great Divorce: The people in hell who are so profoundly disconnected from one other don’t think it’s that bad and prefer it to “real”’ heaven, considering themselves to be—modulo plenty of gripes—fine.

Eventually, however, I changed my Twitter profile picture to an image from Harlow’s monkey experiments, writing, “Here’s social media and me during quarantine.” The image of the young monkey clinging feebly to a robotic-looking fake mother to try to get its needs for socialization and love met seemed a haunting metaphor for the embodied nature of human social interaction and of human existence itself. The importance of embodiment is unremarkable in the science community, as “embodied cognition” is by now mainstream psychology, and its threat to traditional disembodied rationalism articulated by George Lakoff and others. Likewise in Christian theology, Gay summarizes, “While gnostic longings after some presumably more spiritual or otherwise better reality might, prior to the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ, have been plausible, they are no longer tenable.” He follows with the pronouncement of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The body belongs to a person’s essence. The body is not the prison, the shell, the exterior, of a human being; instead a human being is a human body.” Even the disembodied atheist protagonist in the transhumanist adventure series We Are Legion, We Are Bob eventually finds it necessary to transition from mere sanity-preserving virtual environments to embodied existence to connect with others and truly thrive.

What has this to do with the digital public sphere? It informs another precondition to redemptive participation akin to Bilbro’s in that it involves formative activity outside the digital public sphere, yet involves being alone with oneself—undistracted. It’s now 25 years since astronomer and cybersecurity expert Clifford Stoll urged early internet users to turn off their computers and spend time with their families, yet during the COVID era, many of us had no nearby family or local communities with whom to meet. The failure of my year-long experiment had convinced me to heed Waters’ admonition, but to unplug meant not only to face myself but to invite the “trauma” of boredom.

 

Embracing Embodied Solitude

It is precisely this capacity to spend time alone and handle boredom that is needed so people can develop the empathy required to participate in communities of the kinds that Bilbro advocates. In his response to Roberts, Sacasas picks out the characteristic of “how we belong to one another” as a key signifier of what is needed. This fits with Turkle’s recent interview in which she casts empathic communication as being a commitment to one other:

“Empathy is a commitment to be a kind of listener,…to be there for the long haul for somebody...The trouble…is that you need…the capacity for solitude…to be able to cultivate empathy, and technology can take that away from us.”

When we are alone and quiet, many of us tend to reach for digital distractions to avoid feeling bored, but this cuts off the experience of silence which, as Michael Burdett explains, is a necessary condition for solitude. Turkle continues:

“The capacity for boredom is one of the most important human capacities… Neurologically, when we’re bored,…your brain is…doing incredibly important work. We pay a cost if we’re never bored.”

Those who lack the capacity for solitude will be unable to participate redemptively in the digital public sphere or the kind of communities Bilbro advocates (or, on a personal note, in dating relationships). Richard Foster’s classic devoted a chapter to the discipline of solitude. Current readers may be more comfortable with the word “practice,” a word Michael Burdett employs when describing the link between solitude and silence. Roberts observed that Western Evangelicals too often place undue importance on the consequences of ideas, a point similar to one made by my former research assistant Tommy Kessler reflecting on Shannon Vallor’s Technology and the Virtues: “virtue is less about ideas and more about practice.”

When Stoll repudiated “silicon snake oil,” he advocated a host of what Albert Borgmann termed focal practices that ground us in ordinary embodied human existence such as cooking, gardening, or playing a musical instrument—things requiring creativity or skill or even those that modern technology offers us shortcut from their “burdensome” nature. Gay, expounding on Borgmann, reflects: “We are subsequently surprised to discover, after all of the things that used to ‘burden’ us have been conveniently removed, that our lives have become disengaged, distracted, and lonely.” Thus to embrace the practice of embodied formative tasks, to develop the capacity for solitude and therefore empathy, is to begin the (re-)growth needed to participate in formative communities and thereby to be able to participate redemptively in the digital public sphere.

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