This post is in response to another one, by my colleague Chris Wilterdink over on globalyoungpeople. Click that link and go read it. Chris's post provides a really helpful and easy to follow summary of recently released marketing research about teens and young adults, conducted by MTV. And then he offers some preliminary reflections about ways these findings may apply to ministry with youth more broadly. His observations about how churches and ministries with youth might look at how they're using social media platforms is particularly valuable.
My post won't make a lot of sense unless you read his first. So go do that. Then come back and read the rest of this. I'll wait!
(WAITING-- Yes, I mean it-- go read his post first!)
Okay. So maybe I've been reading too much James K.A. Smith and Brad Strawn of late (both in Kindle editions, btw), but after I read Chris's post this morning I couldn't help but find myself feeling at once awestruck and deeply concerned about the degree to which the media and entertainment culture is not only seeking but succeeding at being the primary formational platform and community for all of us, and not just the "younger Millennials."
Think about it. The folks being described in the MTV study are using smartphones to connect via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, as well as Pandora (and/or Spotify) and SnapChat (not mentioned by MTV). These smartphones are constantly on their bodies, if not in their hands.
Well, let me be more personal-- on my body and in my hands, too. The embodied practices that become nearly if not actually automatic for those of us (myself included!) who are "always online" are impressive and multi-layered. We often respond almost immediately to notifications the smartphones or tablets or notebook computers give us (a sound, a vibration, a blinking light, or a highlighted tab in the browser). Even if there's been no notification, we're likely to "check in" anyway, multiple times an hour, just in case we missed something or have something we think we "have" to say or share. Our eyes are fixed on screens, and our hands on manipulating images and (usually) virtual keyboards almost constantly. Being almost constantly "in the flow" of all of this makes us feel "good" and "part of it all." And being away from "the flow" for too long makes us feel anxious, sometimes distractingly so.
And that's just in terms of our practices with the hardware itself, not counting the bodily and mental ways we interact with the software that presents our "virtual connections" to us. How "we" are on Facebook may differ subtly or substantially from how we present ourselves in the idioms of Twitter, SnapChat, Instagram, or Tumblr.
To be sure, this is a very limited kind of bodily formation-- focused on
eyes and hands and perhaps ears, or that sometimes "phantom" vibration wherever our devices are pocketed. Perhaps with the exception of what we
might occasionally "perform" for SnapChat, Vine or the brand new
Instagram Video, the rest of our bodies are almost completely "out of
it." (To be sure, much the same could be said for the personal computer,
on which many of us do the vast majority of our actual "work" these
And so it's a formation that says, for the most part, that what
matters most are our ideas and feelings that we might express best,
perhaps, with few if any other bodies around us with whom we are interacting in real time, and not how we interact
with each other with our whole bodies. Gnostic formation for the 21st
But that's not all for many of us. We're not typically interacting with just one screen at a time. Add to that tablets, notebooks, netbooks, ultrabooks, "phablets," or for the "chosen few" Google glasses.
More and more of us, of many ages, are always on, and often available and interacting through multiple screens at once. It's media multi-tasking on full display, with all the unintended consequences that entails (click the link). Put us in a room with each other, without these screens, or without wi-fi or cellular data, and we hardly know how to act.
As I wrote to Chris after reflecting on this, we're looking at perhaps the most successful channel for hijacking the dopamine systems of our brains yet devised.
And, as I went on to say, that's a huge challenge for the church-- one we've probably not quite gotten our minds around just yet.
Here's why. Dopamine does not build community. And it
does not generally reinforce those behaviors that are conducive to
sustainable community. It gives us individual highs that, in the end,
actually isolate us rather than bind us to others. It makes us feel good-- for a moment-- but does almost
nothing to enable us to DO lasting, sustainable good in the world. And not long after the "moment," as I've already described above (and probably a lot of us can relate to!), it leaves us feeling anxious.
If this pattern of "feeling good" and then "feeling anxious until you can do X again" sounds like addiction, that's because that's exactly what it is. The old phrase "Crackberry" to describe someone in the late 1990s and early 2000s who couldn't stop checking email on a BlackBerry device was not inaccurate. It is dopamine channels that primarily mediate
addiction in the brain and body. It is not simply alcohol or cocaine or
methamphetamine that hooks us, but the dopamine these substances cause
our bodies to transmit, uptake and release in excess.
So, these instant-on, always on channels of formation and
communication that are "native practices" among many of us (and not just
millennials!) have powerful implications for our formation. Indeed, to the degree we are participating in them, they are forming us. Profoundly.
But the question is, formation to be and do what?
These screen-mediated technologies are brilliant at
generating interest and keeping people connected to the entertainers and others
they "follow" in consumeristic fandom.
But how does the near-constant hijacking of our dopamine systems do much, if anything, to help us be or form others as disciples of Jesus Christ?
How does a richly (if also narrowly) embodied formational process that keeps us locked into pursuing our own individual (and disconnecting!) dopamine highs, help us "to be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood?"
I would like to put a word out there to describe this "other" formational process in which so many of us are so constantly embedded we may barely even notice it: "daemonic." I use that in its etymological sense. "Daimon" in Greek means "other." More specifically, it means an "other" that exerts controlling influence in our lives, that "colonizes" us and directs us toward its own ends.
And Chris and I would like to pose some more big questions in response to all of this.
1) How do we help ourselves and our congregations and discipling communities acknowledge the power and the challenge this "daemonic formation" is having on ourselves, and especially on children, youth and younger adults whose greater neuroplasticity may make them even more susceptible to while also unaware of what it may doing to them?
2) Related to that, how do we shine light on the degree to which while it appears to be connecting us to others, it is often actually further isolating us from real community and intimacy in real-time face to face relationships? (See Sherry Turkle's research and findings on this in her 2012 book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other).
3) What does it look like, in this environment, for the church to step up and take seriously its role as body of Christ, actively calling and inviting and helping others answer the call of Jesus not simply to "friend" him or "follow him" (as on Twitter, Instagram, etc), but actually to follow where he leads, and so to "serve as Christ's representatives in the world"?
4) And related to that, given how profoundly the "daemonic formation" generates consumeristic fandom, what does it take for us instead to be generating actual discipleship to Jesus, where people grow not in admiration of their "idols" but in holiness of heart and life?
I'm no Luddite, as any of you who know me or have seen me interacting via email or social media know. I'm very much enmeshed in the very issues I'm asking about. And that's why I'm asking.