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Nathan Bierma

Bad Habits of the High-Tech Heart

After the fall

Imprisoned by the Czech communist regime in 1979 on trumped-up charges of subversion, playwright Vaclav Havel was allowed to write only four pages of heavily censored correspondence per week to his wife. The circumstances seemed mind-numbing at best: repetitive labor, relentless harassment by warden and guards, chronic ill health. And yet in confinement, writes Quentin Schultze in his new book, Habits of the High-Tech Heart: Living Virtuously in the Information Age (Baker), Havel found his thinking deepened and sharpened—as became clear after his release, with the publication of Letters to Olga.

The lesson Schultze draws from this for our media-saturated lives is not that we should abstain from technology but rather that we should make wiser use of it. Still, after reading about Havel, I wondered if it may be time to introduce a new term to our vocabulary: technological asceticism, self-denial of technology for the good of the soul, the mind, and the Church. In a new digital century, our circumstances are nearly the opposite of Havel's: textual communication is unfettered, unlimited, and often thoughtless. Adrift in an ocean of information, would we not be better off gaining a new appreciation for dry land?

It turns out that my proposed term has already been used, by John Muether of Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando. "By recklessly pursuing the tangible and the visible, we can all too easily forget that faith is being certain of what we do not see," Muether writes in a Christian webzine. "Christians must place limits on the lusts of their senses, and restrain themselves by developing technological asceticism." (And how did I discover this earlier usage? By searching the web, of course.)

Douglas Groothuis, associate professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary and author of The Soul in Cyberspace, has been conducting a relevant experiment.

"I routinely require my students to engage in some kind of 'media fast,' in which they abstain from an electronic medium for at least one week," he says. "The results have been nothing less than profound for the vast majority of the students. Having withdrawn from the world of TV, radio, computers, they find more silence, time for reflection and prayer, and more opportunities to engage family and friends thoughtfully. Yes, we need areas of asceticism."

But where do you draw the line? Could this sort of thinking gradually promote a withdrawal into cultural irrelevance, repeating the error of Christian colleges decades ago when students were forbidden to watch movies? Schultze himself has long represented the antithesis of such separatism, as in his 1995 book Redeeming Television, which advocates an activist approach to reforming a seemingly soul-consuming social medium. Is he beginning to have second thoughts?

Yes and no. In a derisive reality check, Schultze writes that the salvific rhetoric of the digital technology boom of the 1990s was a bill of goods—and that we bought it at great moral cost. In a fragmented age of instant information, we become detached from traditional systems and communities of moral wisdom. It is a message that Groothuis sometimes feels lonely in promulgating, as society carelessly embraces technology assuming it brings inherent improvement, and churches make the same mistake.

"To my knowledge, there is no other book that calls the cyber-world to account before the higher realities of God, the moral law, and the imperatives of virtue—outside of my own book," says Groothuis. "Schultze's book contributes what is nearly always lacking in discussions of cyberspace technologies: a strong sense of moral order as it impinges on our informational habits, the crucial importance of character and community for all our communicative endeavors, the need to critically assess the nature and effects of new technologies instead of merely ratifying their innovations and their potential to 'change everything,' and the theological imperatives regarding our souls, beliefs, and behaviors."

In Silicon Valley, meanwhile, inflated as it was by "irrational exuberance" and then deflated just as quickly, the book may meet with a weary, knowing nod, if not a full endorsement.

"Very little of the original brave new world rhetoric remains," says Steve Barnett, an e-commerce consultant and professor of business at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. "I've

witnessed a sea-change from 'let's try anything' to 'tell me the roi [return on investment] upfront.' As we move from one extreme to the other, the middle drops out. It's a change from 'the Internet will transform our society' to 'the Internet is just another way of doing business.' Or from gee-whiz to ho-hum."

"Not much rhetoric around here these days, except some rather subdued talk about biotech," says author Stewart Brand, cofounder of the Global Business Network, a futurist consultant organization. "The discourse pretty much is, 'Oh well, back to the old drawing board.' "

Virginia Postrel, author and columnist and editor of Reason magazine, who maintains a popular weblog at www.vpostrel.com, is one insider who has not lost faith in the broader social vision of the Internet. "The promise of the Internet is what it has always been," she says. "It lowers the cost of information. It lowers the cost of any venture that primarily deals in bits—from producing music to producing political commentary. Witness all the recent attention to blogs and, notably, the ability of Glenn Reynolds's Instapundit site to become a major information hub in a matter of months. The Internet makes it possible for people with specialized tastes or interests to find each other. It reduces the disadvantages of geographical distance. It saves research time."

Still, the utopianism that spawned the digital revolution seems to be fading in the light of practical financial calculations after the burst of the dot-com bubble (although Brand points out that roughly one fourth of publicly held Internet companies are already profitable, and another one fourth will be "soon"). Which may be both good and bad in light of Schultze's book. On the one hand, the more sober outlook is a welcome shift from e-utopianism, which Schultze describes as a religion unto itself (an early draft of his book called it "informational fundamentalism"). On the other hand, the new pragmatism doesn't encourage reflection on how technology shapes—and sometimes distorts—our understanding of community and virtue.

Instead of utopian claims, the cyber-elite are likely to offer strikingly modest visions of community. "Prior relationships and 'community' had usually always been created based on accidents of geography and chance," says Jon Rochmis, executive editor of WiredNews.com. "Your friends were your neighbors or school chums or work mates. Now, a fan of Yo Yo Ma in Austria can easily find one in Omaha, for example. Some of my closest friends now are people I've met through email who share my common interests."

"The Internet isn't a substitute for face-to-face friendships, but neither is the phone," says Postrel. "But by making communication at a distance easier, the Internet allows people to maintain and develop relationships that wouldn't be otherwise possible. My experience around September 11 illustrates some of the power of the Internet. My website became a hub for all sorts of people to communicate with a virtual community. Email allowed me to communicate easily with friends and family even in the New York area." (On a more mundane level, my conversation with Postrel, like all of the interviews for this article, was conducted via email.)

Chris Thyberg, director of ministry development at ForMinistry.com, nuances the point: "Can true, deep, healthy, life-giving interpersonal relationships that join three or more persons together be initiated and sustained only by mediating communications technologies and never involve a face-to-face encounter? Well, was St. Paul genuinely part of the communities of Christ-followers he wrote to but never visited? Yes, it's possible. And there's plenty of literature to show that people are finding and forming meaningful community on the Internet.

"A more important question is this: Can those particular local yet universal communities of faith we call the Church exist only via mediated means? No. The presupposition for Israel and the Church seems to be that of a people truly gathered."

And the Wharton School's Barnett adds that we must be specific about what kind of community we expect digital technology to develop.

"The Internet is suited to fostering what I call 'mono-communities,' people willing to engage others around a single concern, interest, or activity," he says. "In fact, the anonymity of members of the more profound online mono-communities allows them to become more revealing and open more quickly than if they were face-to-face. But they are fundamentally different from communities where members have to compromise across many contexts to survive and flourish."

Thyberg says Schultze's book sets up a new model that rejects the three typical religious reactions to the Internet: embrace it as an evangelical magic bullet, fear its evil, or naïvely consider it neutral.

"Habits of the High-Tech Heart confirms my conviction that there's a fourth way," Thyberg says. "It begins by recognizing that information technologies fundamentally shape how we communicate, which in turn shapes our language, perceptions, self-awareness—our very identity. Once we discern the spiritually formative power of these devices, we must be on guard against their deforming tendencies. The relationship should be one of prophetic engagement: In this world but not of it."

Figuring out how to do that should keep us busy for the next century, at least. Meanwhile, I need to check my email.

Nathan Bierma graduated in May from Calvin College with a degree in communications, and interned this summer as a feature writer for The Chicago Tribune. Editor's disclosure: Bierma was employed by Schultze as a manuscript editor before the book went to the publisher.

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