Brief Thoughts on Digital Minimalism and The Four-Dimensional Human

After seeing Tony Reinke’s high praise for Laurence Scott’s The Four-Dimensional Human, I decided to look it up through my local library, and found a free audiobook through Hoopla. I’ve been listening to it on my morning runs for the last two days, and already, I can see why Tony was so impressed.

Scott treads what is, at this point, well-worn ground about the limits and abuses of the digital tech we swim in today, but he does so in a fresh way. It’s hard to believe the book came out in 2015 (and equally hard to believe how long ago that seems in the scheme of the digital landscape).

The premise underlying the name of the book is that we now live in a four-dimensional world, one where we can easily operate outside of the previous limits of time and space — or at least it seems we can. Digital tech (think iPhones, social media, Skype, etc.) promise to put others in the “same room” as us, even though we are obviously in different ones. This ability to be both here and there at the same time is the fourth dimension.

He illustrates the title and concept by pointing back to a 1959 horror film called 4D Man. Here’s the film’s premise from IMDB:

Two brothers, scientists Scott and Tony Nelson, develop an amplifier which enables a person to enter a 4th dimensional state, allowing him to pass through any object.

You can probably already see the parallel to modern-day tech. Our screens are like that amplifier, allowing us to pass through the normal bounds of physical location to be present with others around the world.

But in the film, Scott soon discovers a problem with his newfound ability: Each time he passes through something, he ages rapidly. While he has found a way to enter the fourth dimension, he realizes he cannot do so without it taking a toll on his body.

And so it is with digital tech today, in my view. We can choose to enter into that fourth dimension through the screen, but we cannot do so without it taking a toll on our bodies, minds, hearts, and souls, and on others. While we feel as if we can be both here and there at the same time, we were made to be here. The fact that we can operate outside of that parameter does not make it untrue, and just because we can be here and there does not mean it is good for us.

My question has always been: “If we limit the amount of time we spend in the four-dimensional world, can we limit its negative effects and live an improved 3-D life?”

This question is also at the center of Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism, which I’m reading right now. I’m 100 pages in, and so far, Cal’s answer seems to be yes, but not without the limits. The limits are everything, he explains, because there is a law of diminishing returns with tech use, just as with certain processes. There are real returns (rewards, benefits) with a certain amount of use, but beyond that point, the returns start to diminish. The input increases but the output decreases.

I find this to be true in my own life. When I use helpful services, tools, or software in small, healthy doses, I typically enjoy the returns, in terms of time saved, connecting with others, etc. These are the times when I understand the fourth-dimensional tools to be in service of my three-dimensional life.

But when I forsake my third-dimensional world for the fourth-dimensional one, those returns begin to erode, until I am giving more and more of myself to something that returns less and less (sounds a lot like idolatry).

I’ll probably be writing more about these two books as I go along, but those are some initial thoughts and reflections.

Values-Based Digital Discretion

Andy Crouch likes to say that if you want to have a healthy relationship with technology, you don’t have to become Amish, but you might have to come closer than you think.

He’s right.

Before I get to why I think we need to be more Amish when it comes to technology, it helps to dispel a common myth: The Amish are not anti-technology.

The Amish Aren’t Luddites

Cal Newport, the author of Digital Minimalism, summarizes Kevin Kelly’s experience with the Amish:

“The simple notion of the Amish as Luddites vanishes as soon as you approach a standard Amish farm. ‘Cruising down the road you may see an Amish kid in a straw hat and suspenders zipping by on Rollerblades.’

Some Amish communities use tractors, but only with metal wheels so they cannot drive on roads like cars. Some allow a gas-powered wheat thresher but require horses to pull the ‘smoking contraption.’ Personal phones (cellular or household) are almost always prohibited, but many communities maintain a community phone booth.

Almost no Amish communities allow automobile ownership, but it’s common for Amish to travel in cars driven by others.

Kelly reports that both solar panels and diesel electric generators are common, but it’s usually forbidden to connect to the larger municipal power grid.

In one memorable passage, Kelly talks about visiting a family that uses a $400,000 computer-controlled precision milling machine to produce pneumatic parts needed by the community. The machine is run by the family’s bonnet-wearing, 10-year old daughter. It’s housed behind their horse stable.”

It turns out the Amish only reject some — not all — technology. Newport calls them the “original digital minimalists.” Why? “They start with the things they value most, then work backwards to ask whether a given technology performs more harm than good with respect to these values.”

Values-Based Digital Discretion

This is one of the big takeaways from Newport’s Digital Minimalism: that values are crucial for living a healthy digital life. In the various podcast interviews with Newport I’ve listened to (I’ve yet to read the book), he explains that we should let our values determine and guide our digital lives.

He’s not the only one to draw this conclusion. Jameson Wetmore is a social researcher at the Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society who has studied the Amish doggedly. As one Quartz article put it, Wetmore “suggests that contemporary society needs to take a new approach to technology — one that weighs the value of our new tools before welcoming them into our lives.”

In Technology and the Contemporary Life, Albert Borgmann, one of the go-to scholars for everyone reading and writing about technology, suggests that instead of living our lives according to the values of new technology, we should determine our values first and attempt to use our tools in service of those values.

Christian thinkers have reached the same conclusion and started to lay out what this values-based digital discretion might look like. Two books that come to mind are John Dyer’s From the Garden to the City and Networked Theology, an interesting book I’ve not seen many people cite.

From the Garden to the City

From the Garden to the City, as I’ve written before, is helpful for both understanding technology’s history and applications, as well as its interplay with theology. Unless a better book comes along, I would say that if a Christian could only read one book on theology and technology, this is it. John Dyer is employed by Dallas Theological Seminary but has degrees and a background in both computer science and theology. He has built useful tools for the Internet and thought deeply about how technology affects humans and society.

In his book, Dyer helps you understand technology along the spectrum of reflection (think “creation”), rebellion (think “the fall”), redemption, and restoration. This allows him to cover a range of biblical texts as he traces the theme of technology throughout Scripture and history. He summarizes thought leaders in the area of technology — Albert Borgmann, Jacques Ellul (whom Newport recommends reading) — while providing helpful analysis of their work. He then brings the truths of Scripture to bear on that analysis, helping you see past the limited views of the technological optimist or pessimist, as well as the shortsighted view of the instrumentalist, and gives a more nuanced approach of making decisions based on understanding your values and technology’s values.

After the closing section of the book, he suggests five steps for making these kinds of decisions:

  1. Valuation – Continually returning to the Scriptures to find our Christian identities and values
  2. Experimentation – Discerning the effects of technology through actual use
  3. Limitation – See what happens when boundaries are places on the technology you now understand
  4. Togetherness – Use the technology together with other believers as you discern the positive and negative contributions in community
  5. Cultivation – Participating in the creation and shaping of technology and its values.[1]

Like Newport et al, Dyer is telling us to begin with values so our devices don’t become the tail that wags the dog.

Networked Theology

Networked Theology, written by Heidi Campbell and Stephen Garner, comes from a mostly substantive (or technologically optimistic) point of view but tries to chart new territory in the theological discussion. More than any other books I’ve surveyed, this one cultivates a new paradigm from which to have a theological discussion.

Its title refers to a new approach to theology which understands persons and religions as forming their identities and values from networks. This understanding differs from historical ones that saw churches and people forming their identities based on familial, institutional, or other tightly controlled forces. Their work charts the way for a discussion of technology that’s not overly optimistic or pessimistic, yet also doesn’t fall into the trap of evaluating technology based solely on its uses (instrumentalism).

The authors do this by tracing the biblical theme of neighbor, and ask, in the digital age, “Who is my neighbor, where is my neighbor, and how should I treat my neighbor?” Through their answers, the authors lay a theological foundation for accepting both online and offline Christian community, but in ways that differ depending on the values of the individuals and the technological forms they seek to employ. This discussion leads to a four-stage framework for evaluating technology and deciding how to use it in one’s life:

  1. History – The history and tradition of the community that shapes who they are and what they stand for;
  2. Core Beliefs – Core beliefs of the group that relate to their general beliefs and choices related to media;
  3. Media Negotiation – The negotiation and decision-making processes they undergo, as it relates to a new technology grounded in the first two areas; and finally
  4. Community Discourse about Technology – The communal framing and discourses created by a group to justify their technology use in light of their values and identity.[2]

This model is very similar to the Amish one, where they carefully think through how each technological innovation will change their community if adopted. This is a strong decision-making framework, but it makes an assumption that may not be true of many. Campbell and Garner say their model “emphasizes the fact that, when deciding how they will engage technology, religious groups often prioritize communal and spiritual values above technological affordances or advantages.”[3]

While that would certainly be nice, I am not sure that is the case for many Christians, at least in America, though it does seem to be true of the Amish. Perhaps that’s why the Amish way of life has remained largely unchanged while American Christianity has eroded so precipitously.

LEDERs

My contribution to this discussion is what I call the LEDER framework, meaning that Christians consider the use of any technology, they should be LEDERs. They should:

  1. Learn broadly
  2. Evaluate biblically
  3. Discuss communally
  4. Engage skeptically
  5. Revisit regularly

You can read more about the LEDER framework here.

Will We Become More Amish?

You need to become more Amish than you might think if you want to have a healthy relationship with your devices. That doesn’t mean you have to give up technology, just like the Amish haven’t abandoned it entirely. It means you’ll have to consider technology’s impact on your values, including your family and community.

What’s unclear is whether we will look up from our phones long enough to realize our values, then ask ourselves whether our technological tools are congruous with them.

Will we consider technology’s impact on our communities, or will we adopt them sight unseen? Will we become a little more Amish in our technological thinking, or will allow technological change to set the course?


[1] Dyer, From the Garden to the City, 176 – 179.

[2] Campbell and Garner, Networked Theology, 103 – 104.

[3] Ibid., 97.

Technology, Place, and Incarnational Life

I’ve always thought it must have been a drag for Jesus to go from omnipresence (being present everywhere at the same time) to unipresence (present in just one place at one time). But Jesus didn’t seem to mind.

One of the most moving scenes of Jesus’ life in Sally Lloyd-Jones’ The Jesus Storybook Bible is when Jesus is on his way to heal Jairus’ daughter, who is about to die. Jesus had agreed to visit and heal the girl, so Jairus, Jesus, and his disciples were moving as quickly as they could through the thick crowd that had formed around Jesus.

Suddenly, Jesus stopped and said, “Who touched me?” It turned out to be a frail, old lady who had been bleeding uncontrollably for 12 years. Frustrated by this distraction, Peter tried to hurry Jesus along. Lloyd-Jones imagines the disciples saying, “We don’t have time!” But Jesus always had time, she writes.

“He reached out his hands and gently lifted her head. He looked into her eyes and smiled. ‘You believed,’ he said, wiping a tear from her eye, ‘and now you are well.'”

Jesus could not have loved that woman like that if he had not been incarnate among her, or present with her.

The 3 Essential Elements of Incarnational Life

One of the primary areas of theological discussion regarding technology is a theology of incarnation, which in Christianity refers to the embodiment of God the Son in human flesh as Jesus Christ. You can’t talk about incarnation without speaking into the topics of place and embodiment.

To be incarnate is to be embodied in human form in a particular time and place, as the Son of God was incarnate over 2,000 years ago in the person of Jesus around the Sea of Galilee. Jesus, though fully God, was limited to being physically present in one place just like any human. His ministry was carried out in an area of only about 30 miles.

To be incarnate like Jesus, to love and live like Jesus, takes focus, attention, and order. These are the three essential elements, if focused in the right direction, of an unhurried, incarnational life like the one lived by Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus always had time because his life had focus — preaching the gospel to the lost sheep of Israel and sacrificing himself on the cross for the sins of the world. That focus allowed him to give his attention to the right things at the right time — like with the frail lady. And his attention was possible because his life was ordered around the right things — prayer, solitude, fasting, and other spiritual disciplines.

Technology and Incarnational Life

If we want to love like Jesus, we must have focus, attention, and order in our lives. But the modern, technological world values none of these things. Sarah Clarkson notes,

“The habits of modern life draw us out of fellowship, away from connection, and toward distraction, absence, and autonomy. While there are certainly benefits to the world or technology, and while social media has in many ways increased connectedness, there are also profound ways in which the overuse of virtual reality and technological media is causing us to become mentally and emotionally absent from the present world of incarnational action.”[1]

This should give Christians pause as they think through how best to incarnate, or bear the image of, Christ in the world around them. The imagination gives birth to creation. And one can only reflect Christ if one has taken the time to internalize His truth and teachings, and tasted His goodness.[2]

“When you understand the reality of incarnation, the way that the physical trappings of our lives and our use of time and space are places where God either comes in His creative presence or remains at bay, you understand that nothing is neutral. Nothing. You can’t just waste an hour on the Internet. You can’t just miss one sunrise in its beauty. No room is just space. No hour is meaningless. No meal is mere sustenance. Every rhythm and atom of existence are spaces in which the Kingdom can come, in which the story of God’s love can be told anew, in which the stuff of life can be turned marvelously into love. We cannot change the world if we cannot incarnate God’s love in our own most ordinary spaces and hours.”[3]

Humans were made to pay attention to the world and people around them. And not just to pay attention, but to bring the love and creativity of God to bear on the world and people around them. The inherent values of the modern technological landscape — autonomy, distraction, interruption, chaos — all work against that purpose. That is not to say technology is all bad, only that Christians must be aware of a technology’s values when thinking through their engagement.

If Christians are not careful, they will find they waste a large portion of their time and life by giving their attention to the consumption of media and products instead of cultivating the kinds of relationships God intended. Aside from technology’s ability to distract away from incarnational life, the consumption of media and products is potentially troublesome in another way.

The Importance of Place

When people are immersed in social networks (not just social media, but networks of people distributed across the Internet), they begin to lose their concept and the value of physical place and what it means to dwell where they are. Bill Gates notes this concern in his book The Road Ahead, speculating that

“the internet would change our patterns of socialization and systems of education, forcing us to rethink the nature of our relationships. The network will draw us together, if that’s what we choose, or let us scatter ourselves into a million mediated communities.’”[4]

For many people today, the latter has become reality.

There have historically been three main understandings of the importance of physicality and place in the church. First, human beings were intentionally created by God to be physical beings, not just spiritual, so any rejection of humans’ physicality is to be resisted (such as with Gnosticism). Second, since humans were created in the image of the triune God, Christians understand humans to be created for community. Last, and most importantly, “God became flesh and blood in the form of Jesus so as to provide a fuller revelation of God.”[5]

Simon Carey Holt sees the call of God to be a call to place:

“The Christian story is a story of places — the most tangible places — from beginning to end. We are made to inhabit. … The story of the incarnation is the story of God en-fleshed in a particular place at a particular time and within a very specific community. So too for us, the call of God is to be in a particular place and there to embody the presence and grace of God. It’s a call to locality. Quite simply, it’s a call to the neighborhood.”[6]

Beauty in Our Own Backyards

Christians are called to neighborhoods. We are to imitate our Master who “became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood,” as Eugene Peterson wonderfully paraphrased John 1:14. When we see our place as a stage where the grand redemptive narrative is still playing out, we see that the great things we desire are not elsewhere for us to chase, but that God is making beauty from ashes in our own backyards.


[1] Sally and Sarah Clarkson, The Life-Giving Home: Creating a Place of Belonging and Becoming (Carol Stream: Tyndale, 2016), 36–37.

[2] Ibid., 37.

[3] Ibid., 38.

[4] Campbell and Garner, Networked Theology, p. 5.

[5] Ibid., 84.

[6] Simon Carey Holt, God Next Door: Spirituality and Mission in Neighbourhood, (Brunswick East, Australia: Acorn Press, 2007), 77.

Deep Communion vs. Digital Communication

This is an excerpt of an article by Drew Hunter over at Crossway.


Modern technology is a great tool for keeping up certain aspects of our relationships. Writing emails, sending texts, scanning posts—all of these helpfully complement true companionship. But they cannot fully replace it. These are the shallow ends of relationships. We find these tools convenient, but then we’re tempted to neglect the deeper waters of shared experiences and face-to-face conversation. Very often the way we use technology leads away from, rather than in to, stronger friendships. We often trade deep communion for digital communication.

Technology can hinder friendship in four ways. First, it often depersonalizes communication. We use it to connect, but over time, we feel less, not more, connected. We use it to move closer, but we end up farther away. We trade conversations and experiences for details and updates. We’re more connected to more people more often than ever before, but many of our relationships become more superficial and less satisfying.

Second, technology can disengage us from real communion. Sometimes when we connect with people through technology, we disconnect from those who are sitting right around us. Friends sit across the table at a coffee shop and enjoy friendship, but not with each other—with the friends on the other end of their phones. Once when I visited a workplace, I stepped into a break room and saw six coworkers sitting around a lunch table. The room was silent. Five of them stared at their phones while the sixth looked at her food. She sat at the table with them, but she ate her lunch alone. Surrounded by peers, she had no one to talk to.

Third, technology disembodies conversation. When we engage in person, we experience our friends in unrepeatable and holistic ways. We notice her expressions, intuit her moods, and learn her quirks. Embodied friendship is full of dynamic, realtime, give-and-take interaction. In contrast, digital communication doesn’t demand much more than fingers to flit around a keyboard. This has a place of course, but it doesn’t match experiencing a person’s real presence. For me to see Dane’s head roll back and hear his laugh, to talk through personal challenges across the table with Taylor, to see the romance in Christina’s eyes, to sense the sincerity in Bill’s encouragement, or to pick up the witty humor in Trent’s tone—there is simply no digital equivalent.

Finally, technology creates dependence on less personal ways of addressing personal issues. Confessing sin and admitting failure, or on the other hand, addressing sin and confronting failure—each of these is challenging, and digital communication seems easier. We take time to craft a statement, and we don’t need to worry about immediate reactions. But then we soon prefer to replace a personal meeting with a phone call; a phone call with a voicemail; a voicemail with an email; and an email with a text. Each step smooths the path for the next. Soon we can hardly muster the courage to say anything difficult in person. And without the reassuring eye contact, gentle tone, and responsive clarifications, we often end up adding complications rather than clearing things up.

A Framework for Assessing and Applying Technology

In his landmark book, Technology and the Contemporary Life, Albert Borgmann suggests that instead of living our lives according to the values of new technology, people should determine their values first and attempt to use their tools in service of those values.

This should be what Christians are after.

But how do we do that? How do we determine our values and then attempt to use technological tools in light of those values?

Let me suggest a decision-making framework based on five steps for assessing and applying technology.

When considering the use of any technology, Christians should be LEDERs, meaning they should:

  1. Learn broadly
  2. Evaluate biblically
  3. Discuss communally
  4. Engage skeptically
  5. Revisit regularly

Step 1. Learn Broadly

When beginning to think through any form or application of technology, the first step is to learn broadly. To learn broadly about a subject is to study it generally and widely.

This means Christians should be well-informed about new and old forms of technology.

Too often we make assumptions about technology because of our personal views, which lead us to make uninformed decisions that are either isolationist or overly accepting, neither of which is healthy.

Christians should be learning broadly about the technological trends shaping the world around us, or else the world will shape us without our knowing.

Step 2: Evaluate Biblically

As believers in the God of the Bible, Christians must submit all of their thinking and behavior to that described in the Bible.

This means returning again and again to the Scriptures to see what Christian doctrine teaches us about our identity and values.

The Bible has much to say about who Christians are supposed to be and what is supposed to mark them, from compassion for the poor to those who hold marriage to be sacred, and much, much more.

God is not silent on His values, either. Most notably, he handed down ten values (called “commandments”) written in stone to reflect their never-changing nature (see Exodus 20).

So while the Bible is seemingly silent on virtual reality or artificial intelligence, it is not silent on technology, values, morality, and identity.

As we have seen, technology brings with it morals and values of its own. The Christian’s job is to see where there are areas of overlap or incongruence, and then act accordingly.

John Dyer sums this up well:

“Christians who live God-honoring lives in the digital world are those who can discern the tendencies built into all technology and then decide when those tendencies are in line with godly values, and when those tendencies are damaging to the soul.”

Step 3: Discuss Communally

God’s people were never meant to exist alone. They were always meant to live in loving, sacrificial, and social community.

When it comes to evaluating technology, that community can be a source of wisdom, insight, and discernment that proves invaluable to a Christ-follower seeking to live faithfully in the digital age.

This can take the form of simple conversations with one’s small group or fellow believers, more formal conversations with pastors or denominational leaders, and especially within the context of one’s own family.

Technology is too complicated and its implications are too broad to try and come to conclusions on our own.

God’s people must consult the best of familial, ecclesial, denominational, and historical wisdom to help them navigate technological considerations.

Step 4: Engage Skeptically

Once a Christian has learned broadly about a technology, evaluated it biblically, and discussed it within their community, they should have the information needed to determine how, when, and how often they will engage with it.

Regardless of what conclusion is arrived at, it would be wise to engage with the technology in question skeptically. The reason for skepticism is because technology’s values are usually opposed to Christian values.

While this does not always have to be the case, the reality is that humanity is sinful. John Dyer explains,

“What the Scriptures call our ‘flesh’ is that part of us that is always bent towards self, at the expense of others and the exclusion of God. Our flesh, then, will always gravitate towards technology that favors the individual over the group.”

Just as Jesus did not entrust himself to men because he knew what was in their hearts (John 2:24), Christians should not entrust themselves to, or give themselves over to, technology, because they know its natural bent.

They should engage it skeptically, asking questions along the way about its effects on themselves, their families, their community, and their society.

This does not mean one cannot find true joy in using technology, but that one should be wise about its uses and effects.

Step 5: Revisit Regularly

The last step in applying technology to the life of a Christian is to revisit its use regularly.

If steps one through four above were followed, one would have entered into (or continued) a relationship with a specific technology skeptically, questioning its use along the way.

Such questioning should be revisited regularly. Once you adopt a technology, you have ample experience to reflect on its positive and negative effects.

For example, you can reflect on how it has affected you emotionally, mentally, relationally, physically, and spiritually.

One way to help sort this out is by limiting or abstaining from the use of the technology for a time. Removal of the device or tool will highlight the value assigned to it.

Conclusion

Using some sort of framework, whether the LEDER framework I’m suggesting or some other system, can help us from being blown about by cultural winds. Each technological tool has values that may work against those encouraged in the Bible.

There may be healthy and helpful ways to engage technology without compromising our values, but without thinking through our relationship with these tools, we will find we are compromising our values as a result of unhealthy and unhelpful relationships with the technology of our day.