Restless Devices, Felicia Wu Song. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.
Summary: An exploration of how our digital devices shape us, our relationships, and our economic life, and how we might establish a “counter” lifestyle shaped by our communion with God and each other.
Do you recall how your life changed when you acquired your first smartphone? Or think further back to your first cell phone, or the advent of the World Wide Web? Some of us remember the advent of email. Each of these changed how we work, how we relate with others, our economic activity, and the use of our time.
Felicia Wu Song began to notice an uneasy feeling in her life in relation to digital devices, from seeing them as serving her to beginning to recognize that she was serving them. She was reminded of an observation by Jurgen Habermas “that the ruling logic of the economy had hopped the boundaries of the market and begun to exert control over historically noneconomic aspects of life such as family and community.” She notes the rise of dissenters from the very ranks of those who created the architecture of Google, Facebook, and Twitter, decrying the consequences of the technology they helped create.
The first part of the book explores how our broader social and cultural structures make our digital ecology so compelling. It is not just a lack of willpower. We are digitally tethered 24/7 making us constantly available, and even if we have powered off our devices, our minds are still there, wondering what we are missing out on. It turns out that the tech companies actually reward our continuous use and become the medium of our relationships and the means of “performing” our identities.
The second part of the book explores how we counter this. The counter begins with a counter-narrative rooted in the Christian story of being made for communion with God and each other as embodied creatures. In the long history of the church are counter-practices and counter-liturgies. Drawing on James K. A. Smith’s ideas of liturgies as thick, formative practices–whether on Facebook or in church, she both identifies the secular digital liturgies and propose counter-liturgies. Whereas our digital technologies enable us to “push our productivity to the max,” practices of spiritual formation invite us to shift from managing our time to managing our attention, inviting us into adoration, and being open to holy interruptions.
I appreciated her discussion of faithful presence. This often sounds mild-mannered or passive until we consider what God’s faithful presence with Israel was like or that of Jesus during his ministry. Wu Song invites us into the powerful work of embodied, rather than digitally disembodied, presence with others. She believes the church can be a powerful counter-culture with counter-liturgies that help liberate us from the tyranny of our devices. The practice of Sabbath is one such counter-practice. She is not a Luddite. She recognizes both the usefulness and pervasive presence of the digital in modern life. Rather, she calls us to an ordered digital life and even proposes ten commitments to help us do so. Here’s one: “When I am sad, bored, angry, lonely, or anxious, reach for another person, nature, or God before turning to a screen.”
This brings me to one other aspect of the book, four “experiments in praxis.” The first is taking a 24 hour digital media fast–what to fast from, exceptions, preparing and debriefing. The second is digital stock-taking, in which we monitor and become more self-aware of our digital usage and how this makes us feel and even change our posture. The third has to do with counter-liturgies: creating a sacred zone around our beds, monotasking, boundaries in which we set blocks or limits on app usage, and finally new bedtime and morning routines. Each of these run three to five days. Finally, the last is to determine alternate paths and new futures based on the readings and praxis exercises.
At the beginning of the book, Felicia Wu Song mentions C. Wright Mills observation that personal troubles are often public issues. What she has done in this book are a few helpful things. One is to name the public issues, how the hard and software we carry around have been designed to addict us to their use and shape our lives. Another is to help us stop and pay attention to this aspect of our lives through the praxis exercises. Finally, she lays the groundwork for a Christian counter-culture, critically aware of the uses and abuses of this technology, and intentional about refusing to allow our devices to distract us from communion with God and each other, and the rich embodied practices of Christians at work, play, and worship throughout the church’s history.
This book is a good first step toward breaking the technopoly over our lives. It doesn’t solve the public issues but helps us become reflective on how we are being shaped and how we regain a sense of our own embodied personhood, communion with others and faithful physical presence in the world. This is a good beginning.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.