This book begins with a conversion story of a non-cell phone owning, non-Facebook using religion professor judgmental of the ability of digital tools to enhance relationships. A stage IV cancer diagnosis later, in the midst of being held up by virtual communities of support, a conversion occurs: this religion professor benefits in embodied ways from virtual sources and wants to convert others to the reality that the body of Christ can and does exist virtually and makes embodied difference in the lives of those who are hurting.
The book neither uncritically embraces nor rejects the constant digital connectivity present in our lives. Rather it calls on the church to a) recognize ways in which digital social networks already enact the virtual body of Christ; b) tap into and expand how Christ is being experienced virtually; c) embrace thoughtfully the material effects of our new augmented reality, and c) influence utilization of technology that minimizes distraction and maximizes attentiveness toward God and the world God loves.
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The Virtual Body of Christ in a Suffering World
By Deanna A. Thompson
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2016 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Our World Is the Virtual World
And that is what technology is, a tool. The roots of the word technology are in the Greek name for practical things that extend our human capacities. Some of our more famous technologies, the wheel, the printing press, have changed the world in unimaginably diverse ways. So too will our digital tools, with an emphasis on the unimaginable part. The tools will only be as good as the imaginations of the people that put them to use.
—T. V. Reed, Digitized Lives
It can be overwhelming to try to make sense of our increasingly digitized lives. New forms of virtual communication proliferate daily, leaving many of us bewildered as to how we will ever keep up. It is not overstating the case to say that digital means of communication are revolutionizing the way humans interact with one another as well as how we produce knowledge. In fact, this time of ever-changing digitization of our world is being called a "fourth revolution" that follows three previous human revolutions that changed the way we think, communicate, and interact: language, writing, and the printing press. In this list of revolutions, human speech is the initial one, emerging before recorded history and making human beings the first — and thus far the only — species to describe and explain the world in which we live. Writing, the next revolution, came along much later, taking the codification of thought made possible in speaking and preserving it apart from any one particular speaker. The third revolution, movable type, was invented first in Asia in the ninth century but took quite a few centuries to be utilized frequently, likely due to the complexity of Asian writing systems. The invention of the printing press in medieval Europe caught on more quickly and made it possible for texts to be distributed much more quickly and broadly than before. And in the twenty-first century, many deem the current technological sea change a digital revolution, one that makes possible near-instant gathering of information and communication with people both near and far.
While few of us living in the twenty-first century would want to imagine life without the products of the previous three revolutions, it is important to realize that such massive revolutions in communication have always caused consternation, worry, and upheaval as well as excitement, innovation, and transformation. With the invention of writing, for instance, Greek philosophers like Socrates worried that human capacity for memory would be fundamentally compromised, as people would simply rely on a text rather than on their own ability to memorize. Even as evaluators of history see the invention of the printing press as an overwhelmingly positive development that revolutionized access to texts and increased literacy and access to knowledge, many learned people of the Middle Ages worried that mass production of printed materials would cheapen the craft of book making and, again, damage the ability of people to memorize and recite poetry, literature, and sacred stories. Other important technological innovations like the telegraph led cultural critics to lament the loss of people being oriented toward local communities and local events, as news from across the nation and eventually the world became available and often took precedent to what was happening in the neighborhood. All these examples demonstrate that technological innovation changes us in unanticipated, sometimes destabilizing, and potentially threatening ways.
In terms of the digital revolution unfolding around us, we need not look far to see that consternation and worry over the implications of digitalization run high. Even though I have been converted to some of the positive, transformative uses of digital technology, I am not immune to such worries. On a macro level, I share concerns over the impact in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo where "conflict minerals" (like tin, tantalum, and tungsten, all needed for our ubiquitous devices) are mined at great human and environmental cost, over the prevalence of smart phone use while driving, and over the potential health risks (especially to children) of constant possession of electronic devices, to name just a few. On the micro level, I continue to grow uncomfortable when people in restaurant booths near mine eat in silence as they scroll their phones or when parents ignore their children's sincere desire for interaction in favor of whatever is moving across the screen on their mobile device. Whether or not digital tools enhance or detract from meaningful interpersonal relationships continues to be debated. We know, for instance, that research suggests that Americans are growing increasingly isolated in terms of meaningful communial as well as personal connections, a trend that has been in place since the 1980s. That feelings of social isolation have been on the rise long before any of us went digital suggests that the emergence of the Internet does not bear sole (or even primary) responsibility for our sense of disconnection. Smaller families, more people living farther from extended families, declines in civic engagement, and less participation in religious communities all challenge well-established ways of being connected to one another. Yet for many critics of current technological trends, one common narrative is that the digital revolution exacerbates and amplifies such realities.
While concerns about technological revolutions go hand-in-hand with technological innovation, some critics of the digital revolution insist that the impact of this revolution is distinctively problematic. Writer Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, argues that unlike most other technologies, the Internet and our increasing addiction to it is causing us to lose touch with the "real world." In our relentless engagement with digital devices, our brains are being trained to constantly refocus our attention, flitting from one thing to another in "real life" just as we do online. Other digital critics like sociologist James Davison Hunter insist that our current revolution is reshaping notions of intimacy, and not for the better. I imagine most of us hear at least some truth in these critiques. Many of us likely have experienced the frustrating lack of focus when we multitask with e-mail, Facebook, a work document, and texting all at once. We have felt the challenges that 24/7 digital connectivity presents to the relationships with those we love the most. We are quite aware that liabilities exist in, with, and through the current digital revolution.
As we try to determine how new technology is altering our lives for better or for worse, it is important to resist adopting a simplistic version of technological determinism that avoids the complexity of the issue. To illustrate this point, take the example of online education and the potential problems with thinking about it within a deterministic framework. It is not enough, for instance, to insist that online education — simply because it is not conducted face-to-face — is inherently less effective than education that happens when people are physically together in the same space. We know from experience that bad teaching happens in face-to-face environments as well as in online ones. At the same time, it seems irresponsible to endorse online teaching and argue for its intrinsic superiority to face-to-face education simply because it utilizes the newest technology. Most of us also know from experience that it is entirely possible for in-person teaching to be knock-your-socks-off good even with minimal use of technology. Versions of both positive and negative technological determinism mistakenly argue that simply using the technology guarantees a particular outcome. Neither approach recognizes, however, that when technology is understood as a tool, its ability to help make lives better or worse depends on how it is used.
But critics like Carr caution against rejecting determinism too quickly in order to embrace a wholly instrumentalist view of technology, where technology is instead seen as a neutral artifact, completely dependent upon users to determine its influence. This view of technology tends to be the dominant one, Carr believes, because we want it to be true. Looking broadly at how technology influences societies in which it is used, we can see that technology often does the shaping of individuals and communities alike, often much more than we would like to admit. Carr himself leans more toward a deterministic viewpoint, sounding the alarm that technology can and will alter even the way our brains work and encouraging us to resist going "gently into the future our computer engineers and software programmers are scripting for us." Carr calls on all of us who use digital technology to develop more critical awareness of the ways new technologies are reshaping our lives so that we can resist what seems virtually inevitable.
Carr is far from the only one calling us to examine the technological scripts we're being handed along with our Wi-Fi passwords. Growing numbers of scholars and activists insist that technologies themselves are "inherently social and political." New technologies do not simply come into being randomly; rather, they most often are created because entities like the government or businesses have actively supported and funded their inventions. Some groups that have been particularly vocal about the political nature of our technology are those who advocate for the rights of those who are disabled. Disability rights activists acknowledge that while technological innovations like the wheelchair have been liberating for people with mobility issues, "it is worth asking whether a more liberating form of mobility would exist for people who currently use wheelchairs if they constituted some of the most powerful members of society." In other words, paying attention to what and how new technologies are created — and whose interests they serve or fail to serve — challenges the view that technology is "just a tool."
There is no doubt that the digital revolution we are currently living through is igniting change in virtually all dimensions of our lives. The Internet and digital technology are tools, yes, but tools accompanied by scripts and cultures influenced by political interests and ideologies beyond our control. And as Carr suggests, the debate between the determinists and the instrumentalists will likely never be resolved. But even as we acknowledge that technologies come with ideological baggage, we also must realize that cultures — even ones with power-ful ideological interests — are capable of change. Take American culture and its history of racism as just one example. While this issue is incredibly complex, requiring nuanced analysis to understand its insidious layers, my invoking of this example here is to point to places where powerful ideological agendas have not been able to prevent significant change. When Barack Obama was elected the first black president of the United States in 2008, for instance, Atlanta mayor Shirley Franklin declared, "Just a little more than ten years ago it was inconceivable to any of us that we would see an African American win a national party's ticket and then compete effectively. It's mind-boggling." Anyone familiar with American legal and political culture knows that white racism has long been a central and defining feature of those cultures. Obama's election most certainly has not brought about an end to racism within American legal and political cultures; nevertheless, the two-term election of a black president is a striking illustration of how even cultures steeped in powerful ideologies are capable of change.
Even as the Internet and the tools of the digital revolution come wrapped in potentially powerful cultures, then, it is still possible to affect how they impact us by how we choose to participate in these cultures. Therefore, while our current digital revolution is capable of increasing disconnection, disengagement, and isolation within and among groups of people, if we're intentional and imaginative about how we use it, digitized Internet technology can also enhance, deepen, and even transform our connections with one other. I know. My conversion story testifies to the surprising power of connection I have found via online networks since the onset of my illness. I will testify again about the healing power made possible by digital technology after we explore emerging perspectives on the capability of new technology to create and sustain meaningful online connections.
Strong and Weak Ties Exist Both Online and Offline
While it is the case that there now are more cell phones than people in the world, it is also the case that, as of the year 2014, 4.4 billion people across the globe were not yet connected to the Internet. Access to and participation in the digital revolution remains restricted by scripts and cultures that privilege certain geography, abilities, and types of communities over others. Therefore, we must not pretend that the World Wide Web is actually worldwide or that our imaginings of this virtual connectivity have the capacity yet for literal universal reach. At the same time, even if Google executive Eric Schmidt is incorrect in his prediction that everyone on the globe will be connected to the Internet by 2020, the digital revolution shows no signs of slowing down. Our world is being altered; we're becoming increasingly connected digitally and virtually. Our task as individuals, and our task in communities like the church, is to think imaginatively about how digital technology can enhance our lives, especially in its potential to help counter the sense of isolation and disconnection that threaten to persist in this digital age.
One way to explore how we can utilize digital technology to enhance a culture of interconnection with other human beings is to listen to discussions by sociologists and others about whether or not digitized social networks are capable of being "strong tie networks," that is, networks of people we trust who can help us weather change and the uncertainty that comes with it. All of us live within webs of social networks composed of both strong and weak ties. Since the rise of the Internet, and especially since the "Arab Spring" movements toward democracy in 2011 and the recent emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, scholars, journalists, and others have been debating whether or not it is possible to create online social networks strong enough to transform the ways we relate to one another and organize our communities. On one side of the debate are social critics like Malcolm Gladwell, who argued that "the revolution will not be tweeted," a position that nurtures skepticism of Web-based social media and their "weak-tie environments." When assessing the capacity of social media to create strong ties among individuals and communities, Gladwell insists, "The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. "While sociologists have long acknowledged that weak ties are a given — even necessary — component of our social networks, Gladwell gives voice to a common concern regarding the types of relationships being formed online: that networks created through social media are primarily weak-tie environments and thus incapable of supporting strong-tie networks or, for his purposes, instigating meaningful political or social change. Critics continue to build on Gladwell's concerns, derisively referring to online organizing around social and political causes as "click activism" or "slacktivism," where the strength of the ties amounts to little more than clicking "like" at the end of a post that professes something similar to what we already believe.
If Gladwell's analysis is correct, why would the church want to spend more time utilizing digital tools when the end goal is to build strong-tie environments that foster trust, support, and healing around the broken and hurting in our midst? Theologian Stanley Hauerwas makes clear that when the church is being the church, it should be a strong-tie environment made up of people "who have learned how to be faithful to one another by our willingness to be present, with all our vulnerabilities, to one another." If, then, the body of Christ is called to be present to one another in and out of pain, don't we need networks built primarily on strong ties and, therefore, networks that are primarily offline?
Excerpted from The Virtual Body of Christ in a Suffering World by Deanna A. Thompson. Copyright © 2016 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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Table of Contents
Part 1 The Virtual World Is Our World
Introduction: Embraced by the Virtual Body of Christ: A Conversion Story 3
Chapter 1 Imagine That: Our World Is the Virtual World 13
Part 2 Virtually There: The Body of Christ as a Virtual Body
Chapter 2 The Body or Christ Has Always Been and Will Always Be a Virtual Body 31
Chapter 3 Incarnational Living in the Digital Age 53
Part 3 The Virtual Body of Christ in a Suffering World
Chapter 4 Attending to the Weakest Members of the Body in the Digital Age 77
Chapter 5 Beyond Digital Strategies: Becoming More Fully the Body of Christ in and through Virtual Reality 97
Discussion Questions 111