The Soul in Cyberspace: An Interview with Douglas Groothuis
In 1997, Douglas Groothuis (Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary) published The Soul in Cyberspace. It was, as far as I know, the first Christian book that critiqued and contemplated the darker side of computer-mediated communication. Twelve years is a long time when it comes to technology (and digital technology in particular) but I recently read this book nevertheless, and was surprised by just how relevant it is, even today. Though cyberspace has changed and evolved a great deal, almost all of Groothuis’ concerns remain and almost all have grown even more pointed as the years have gone by.
I recently conducted a short interview with him, asking him to reflect on this book, twelve years on.
One of your concerns in The Soul in Cyberspace was cyberspace taking the place of real, face-to-face human contact. You wrote, for example, of those who sought in cyberspace “the emancipation from the drag of the body?” How have your thoughts on this matter developed in the past decade? Have new innovations lessened your concern? Have your concerns been proven at all wrong?
With the rise of social networking—Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, etc.—the temptation to avoid the face-to-face world has increased. There are more toys to distract one from this mode of being. I wrote of simulated worlds in The Soul in Cyberspace, but they had not reached the proportions of SimLife or SecondLife, which are entire “cultures” for the disembodied.
In your book you wrote, “The compulsive search for diversion is often an attempt to escape the wretchedness of life. We have great difficulty being quiet in our rooms. … Cyberspace may be the greatest temptation yet offered to humanity to lose its soul in diversion.” And this was written long before YouTube. Have things gotten any better in the intervening years? Have things gotten worse?
Yes, things are much worse. The diversions are accelerating at an alarming pace. Consider laptops. I recently had to ban them from my classroom at Denver Seminary because so many students were multi-tasking—shopping on line, checking email, and such like—while I was pouring out my soul lecturing. Now that they are illegal, students look at me and at each other more. Somehow, they still remember how to take notes by hand. However, one student admitted using his pocket device to look of the definition of a word I was using. If he could do that, he could also use text messaging and get diverted from the learning environment of the classroom.
Yes, some students will be responsible and only use the laptop to take notes on the template that I distribute or use them for genuine research related to the lecture. But given the pandemic mindset of multi-tasking, I cannot count on this kind of responsible behavior; so I banned them.
Like nearly anyone who writes on technology, you depended a great deal on the insights of Neil Postman and Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan died 29 years ago and Postman died 6 years ago (though his last book was written 10 years ago). Does either man have a successor? Who is advancing their insights to the digital age?
I would add Jacques Ellul to that distinguished roster. He died in the mid-1990s. I don’t discern anyone contributing that quality of insight today—offering anything very original in a constructive sense of social critique. However, Quentin Schulz has brought together many solid insights in his book, Habits of the High-Tech Heart: Living Virtuously in the Information Age.
You wrote, “The digitized word does not abide forever.” Is there a way in which the digitizing of text has undermined, or stands to undermine, the immutability of the Word of God?
Not in the metaphysical or moral sense of Scripture as divine propositional revelation. It is objectively and eternally God’s holy disclosure of convicting, saving, and sanctifying truth. However, digitizing texts can destabilize our sense our awareness of its immutability, since texts can be manipulated so easily when they are in electronic form. Even the ready availability of Scripture on line can subvert one’s consciousness that texts are part of a larger argument, system, and narrative. We are less likely to lose the context when we read Scripture in book form. Nevertheless, having the text available for “capture” does save key strokes in my own writing. But efficiency has its trade-offs and draw-backs—something Americans are always reluctant to admit (or even recognize).
A quote from your book: “The book, that stubbornly unelectric artifact of pure typography, possesses resources conducive to the flourishing of the soul. A thoughtful reading of the printed text orients one to a world of order, meaning, and the possibility of knowing truth.” Is there a way, then, in which the printed word is inherently superior to the digital word? What do we stand to lose as we transition to the digital word?
The printed word, as a unique medium, has strengths (and weaknesses) not shared by the digitized word. I appeal to McLuhan: “The medium is the message.” Or, to dilate a bit: each communications medium shapes its content distinctively and shapes the perceiver necessarily. For one thing, we lose a sense of history when we move from books to screens. Books can be old friends, both the content (which stays in our minds) and the artifacts themselves, which we treasure. For example, I would not part with my 1976 edition of Francis Schaeffer’s The God Who is There, which I read shortly after my conversion. It was that book, those ideas, that sparked my vision for Christian ministry. Moreover, I love the cover of that edition and enjoy looking over the many notations I put into the book through multiple readings. Having the same book in a digital form, while worthwhile in many ways (for example, I could capture text and put it on my blog!), would not be the same. Much would be lost.
You said “Ours is an age infatuated with, addicted to, and voraciously hungry for ever-increasing doses of information.” Is this hunger for information in some way dangerous to the soul?
Yes, since we have limited capacities for knowledge and wisdom. Knowing what matters most—truths about God, ourself, and creation—takes time and effort. Being awash in information is not the same as gaining knowledge (truth received in a rational way). Americans are usually well-informed ignoramuses. We have oceans of facts or information at hand, but little knowledge. Wisdom is the proper use of knowledge. Americans typically have no idea how to handle all the data thrown at them: the more information, the less meaning.
“Instant access to all kinds of information may corrode a sense of coherence and meaning if the information is not put into an appropriate framework.” Postman makes the point that once we commit ourselves to technology, we feel that only technology can solve our problems. Has technology come up with an appropriate framework to understand and use information? Or do we need to look for solutions outside of technology?
Technology cannot explain itself sufficiently and does not attempt to do so typically. We get so immersed in the use of technology (and there are so many new gizmos to figure out) that we fail to ask questions about the meaning of technology: What does it do to our sense of self, of others, of God, of time, of death, of politics, and much more.
If our sensibilities are set by the capacities of hypertext, we may begin to relinquish our grip on the very notion of authority. Has hypertext changed the way we perceive authority? Has it changed the way we read and interact with text?
We tend to skip around instead of reading from point A to Z. This makes for superficiality and incoherence. We get a data-fix and move on. Moreover, most on-line text is surrounded by flashing, moving images that distract us from text qua text.
You wrote the book before anyone had heard of social media. Yet you said, “the notion that ‘community’ can thrive in cyberspace challenges the very meaning of community and the nature of our sociality.” You found it contradictory that the technologies that have isolated us from personal contact (radio, television, computer) could bring us into a global village of intimate connection. Have the years between then and now proven your fears correct? Has cyberspace brought us some kind of community? Or has it endangered true community?
Some technologies can further significant human encounters not available otherwise. For example, I met two wonderful young people in Hungary in 2007 at a conference. My emails, Skype (which I have only done once!), and instant messages have been meaningful because I met them face-to-face previously and because these technologies provide a kind of communication not possible otherwise. However, if these technologies did not exist, I could still write letters—which is becoming a lost art, sadly.
But overall cyberspace (and hardly anyone calls it this any more) has diminished community if one means by that embodied relationships bound by troth, friendship, citizenship, and physical proximity. People practice an “absent presence” constantly as they talk on cell phones while checking out at the supermarket or at Starbucks, as they send text messages during classes instead of attending to teachers and students, as they play video games instead of getting to know their spouses and children. One could go on.
This seems very perceptive in light of what I see on the Net today: “The soul in cyberspace may easily habituate itself to browsing, data-surfing, and skimming in exchange for analysis, reflection, and discourse.” Is there something inherent in the digital medium that leads us to browse, to skim, to reject real analysis, reflection and discourse? Is there anything we can do about it or is this just the nature of the beast?
I think I covered the problem above. What we can do about it is to create engaged classrooms, discussions, church services, and reflective reading of significant texts, especially the Bible. This means putting aside multi-tasking and immersing oneself in propositional communication of various forms. One illuminating exercise I require of my students is to abstain from one major electronic medium for ten days. This reorients their awareness and shows them the possibilities for unmediated communication—and for silence.
As I understand it, the ultimate purpose of your book was to try to understand how this medium of cyberspace shaped us, our families, our churches, our nations, our world. In the front of the book I jotted this, my one big takeaway from the book: “Christians are specially equipped to think rightly about technology.” Is this the case? What do Christians stand to lose if we do not understand the effects of technology in each of these areas? What do we stand to gain?
As recipients of salvation by God’s grace in Christ, we can gain a proper relationship to God and a proper perspective on God’s world. But this is not automatic. Sadly, for many reasons, Christians are often the least reflective people about technologies. Our populism and pragmatism get the best of us and we fail to step back and ask the more philosophical and theological questions of our technologies. Yet Christians should ask God to grant them wisdom to discern God’s kingdom purposes for technologies. If we fail to gain discernment, the result is simply worldliness: we engage technologies in ways that undermine virtue, make us less sensitive to good, evil, and God himself. These are no small perils. See Romans 12:1-2; I John 2:15-17; Hebrews 5:11-14.