Lanier and the Care of 21st Century Souls

Ten ArgumentsIn his recent interview with New York Magazine, futurist Jaron Lanier responded to a question about his “urgent” arguments against social media.  And while he has a whole book about the topic dropping at the end of the month, he ends the interview by positing a concern based on the spiritual consequences of digital life.  From the interview:

The argument is that social media hates your soul. And it suggests that there’s a whole spiritual, religious belief system along with social media like Facebook that I think people don’t like. And it’s also . . . phony and false. It suggests that life is some kind of optimization, like you’re supposed to be struggling to get more followers and friends. Zuckerberg even talked about how the new goal of Facebook would be to give everybody a meaningful life, as if something about Facebook is where the meaning of life is.

It suggests that you’re just a cog in a giant global brain or something like that. The rhetoric from the companies is often about AI, that what they’re really doing — like YouTube’s parent company, Google, says what they really are is building the giant global brain that’ll inherit the earth and they’ll upload you to that brain and then you won’t have to die. It’s very, very religious in the rhetoric. And so it’s turning into this new religion, and it’s a religion that doesn’t care about you. It’s a religion that’s completely lacking in empathy or any kind of personal acknowledgment. And it’s a bad religion. It’s a nerdy, empty, sterile, ugly, useless religion that’s based on false ideas. And I think that of all of the things, that’s the worst thing about it.

Just because it’s “phony and false” doesn’t mean that there’s nothing there, and I think Lanier knows it.  Like any emergent system, the network of social media apps has become something bigger than any one thing.  Even if it is a shadow of true living, it is still a kind of life.  Strange to think, but we’ve created and nurtured a culture of so little substance that social media has become a necessary substitute from which only some kind of people can afford to refrain.

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And so we might find ourselves hollowed out on both sides: socially and spiritually, on both the outside and the inside.  But the inside is vital.  The Three Ages of the Interior Life speaks of the complete necessity of a healthy interior life, of an interior space and conversation where creation and Creator meet.

This interior life thus conceived is something far more profound and more necessary in us that intellectual life or the cultivation of the sciences, than artistic or literary life than social or political life . . .

This shows the the interior life, or the life of the soul with God, well deserves to be called the one thing necessary, since by it we tend to our last end and assure our salvation . . .

The interior life of a just man who tends toward God and who already lives by Him is indeed the one thing necessary.  To be a saint, neither intellectual culture nor great exterior activity is a requisite; it suffices the we live profoundly by God.

For many of us, the ubiquity of technology has accelerated the chipping away or obliteration of any kind of interior life.  Evidence of “living profoundly by God” isn’t always easy to come across in the current climate.

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This dovetails nicely with the second question posed in Henri Nouwen’s Spiritual Direction: where do I begin?  Or, perhaps for some of us, where do we begin again when trying to make space for an interior life that serves as a well from which God’s Spirit can flow?  This is especially pertinent if so much of our lives now happen online.  Nouwen asserts:

There is a real tendency to think of the spiritual life as a life that will begin when we have certain feelings, think certain thoughts, or gain certain insights.  The problem, however, is not how to make the spiritual life happen, but to see where it actually is happening.  We work on the premise that God acts in this world and in the lives of individuals and communities.  God is doing something right now.  The chipping away and sculpting is taking place whether we are aware of it or not.  Our task is to recognize that, indeed, it is God who is acting, and we are involved already in the spiritual life.

And so the question arises: what space can we carve out from our routines that makes room for a God bigger than our technology?  And how do we put technology and its attendant apps back in the place of “tools” instead of the place of “masters”?  That will be a question good for us to wrestle with as we move deeper into the 21st century.  So the perceived “desert of the moment” brought on by the digital is the place that most of must start from.  That or we have to set up places of rescue on the desert’s edge, ready and waiting for the exiles and refugees of digital life.

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