Author: Felicia Wu Song
Publisher: IVP Academic
Publishing Date: November 30, 2021
Pages: 232 (Paperback)
When he was small, my son was in love with his chocolate Labrador stuffed animal. He took her everywhere (that she was allowed). He loved that stuffed animal—his comfort object. Children tend to outgrow their comfort objects as they get older, but recently, I’ve begun wondering: has my phone become my (adult) comfort object? Not only do our phones serve as our telephone (that old-school device for voice-to-voice communication), they are also our navigation aid, our portable music player, our entertainment device, our internet access point, and our camera. They allow us to distract ourselves and to connect with others. Constantly. In the beginning, this ubiquity seemed like a boon, but in recent years, more and more people have started to raise concerns about the seemingly inextricable role of our device and the types of connection it facilitates in our lives. It is into this conversation about constant connectivity that sociologist Felicia Wu Song brings the insights of her new book, Restless Devices: Recovering Personhood, Presence and Place in the Digital Age.
Shortly before Restless Devices came out in 2021, a group of attorneys general from 11 states launched an investigation into whether Instagram, a social media service owned by Facebook (now Meta) “for promoting its social media app Instagram while knowing of mental and emotional harms caused by the service.” 1 Unfortunately, this is not a first but rather part of an emerging pattern, a string of concerns raised by Silicon Valley whistleblowers about the intentional (or at least known and ignored) negative psychological and social effects of social media. While this event occurred after Song’s manuscript had been completed, it would fit right in to the first section of her book, where she uses a sociologist’s lens to explore first the biases and values embedded in our technologies (social media being one of many), then the questionable techniques and intents of the tech companies (focusing mainly on social media), and finally on the ways that the tech companies have focused on industrializing and commodifying our relationships as they are mediated through our technologies (particularly social media).
“Song joins a growing list of authors offering ideas about why and how to address the increasingly evident challenges of our digital age.”
Song joins a growing list of authors offering ideas about why and how to address the increasingly evident challenges of our digital age. I found her focus on relationships and community to be the most compelling and differentiating feature of her introduction to the topic. For example, in the third chapter, “The Industrialization of You and Me,” she draws inspiration from the slow food movement and considers how social media has industrialized our relationships, not unlike how McDonalds industrialized fast food. Identifying four “industrializing drives” (72) for social media, she makes arguments for how each one has contributed to forming (or mis-forming) our identities and social lives. “We are prone,” she notes, “to believe that we need to quantify, perform, reify, and control in order to maintain our sense of self.” (86) Pointing to observations by Tish Harrison Warren that we are formed more by our habits of consumption than by the economy of the Eucharist, Song observes that “unfortunately for those who profess to follow Jesus Christ, the muscles and social senses that we exercise through social media’s quantified performative self are totally different from those muscles and social senses that attune us to who we actually are as sons and daughters of the living God.” (86) We should then, she asserts, “be imagining more deeply how we can interrupt these industrializing tendencies of social media in our lives, and vigilantly stake out a theologically informed vision of what it is to know and be known, so that one day we can turn to those around us and say: come, taste and see that the Lord is good.” (89)
The second part of the book invites the reader into that work of imagination. Beginning by helping the reader create a theological anthropology, that is “a vision of who we are as human beings and what we think we are doing here,” (105) she writes: “every age is defined by a social imaginary…a kind of story that a culture tells itself about what we believe to be our human condition and how we ought to live life together. The digital that envelops us tells a distinctive story.” (99) To jumpstart the imagining, Song juxtaposes the practices encouraged by the digital imaginary with those encouraged by historic Christianity’s practice of corporate confession, and observes “the rewards of affirmation begin to feel paltry and thin against the sheer magnificence of what is promised in the ritual of confession: to be invited to freely admit our failures and discover that we are still loved and welcomed.” (100) This sets the stage for the profound observations that we were created for communion but are settling for connection (Chapter 5) and that our digital habits and practices are actually liturgies that form us and our vision of the good life (Chapter 6). Drawing heavily on James K.A. Smith’s philosophy of Christian formation, Song exhorts readers: “If we had the courage to try, I believe we could creatively generate feasible counterliturgical practices when we stop thinking about how to limit our technology and spend more time investing in how to get serious about practicing our humanity–recovering our sense of presence and place in the fullness of our bodies and our relationships.” (145) The last three chapters lay groundwork for imaging counterliturgical practice in different areas of our lives, taking in turns our inhabiting of time (Chapter 7), space (Chapter 8), and the sacred (Chapter 9). Over and over again, Song returns to a central theme of Christianity: ours is an embodied religion that has “real-world implications for how we live.” (105)
“…Song’s book is insightful, particularly as it feels more like it’s trying to motivate cultural change in the church rather than to facilitate individual change.”
While there are a few concrete suggestions for practices in each chapter, Song purposefully stays away from being prescriptive, focusing mostly on the “what-if” rather than the “how.” The “Freedom Project” exercises sprinkled throughout the book invite the reader to make small, short-term modifications to their digital practices and observe and reflect on the results. The last Freedom Project exercise invites participants to imagine alternative futures, but (again, by design) refrains from making specific suggestions. Throughout the imagining and the putting into practice, as in the first part of the book, Song emphasizes the importance of embodied community, and she encourages readers to enact the Freedom Project with others. Overall, Song’s book is insightful, particularly as it feels more like it’s trying to motivate cultural change in the church than to facilitate individual change.
If you are beginning to feel that your phone encourages you to be present with it rather than with people around you, and you want to explore change possibilities, this book is for you. If you’ve tried and failed on prescriptive digital detox plans in the past, this book is for you. If you’re wondering about how your digital habits might form (or mis-form) your desires, this book is for you. If you are wondering how to make the Church relevant in the 21st century, you should DEFINITELY read this book.