It rained one morning this week. I moved back to Texas last year partly because of the rainstorms. It’s definitely raining here, glorious, as it’s really meant to be. It explodes, hammers, roars, thunders, and then suddenly moves on. I stepped onto my back porch not wanting to miss the show.
I sat in silence, smelling that indescribable smell of rain and stretching out my hands, palms open in prayer, the same position I take in church to receive Communion. The physicality of the experience, the sensual pleasure of sounds, smells, touch and sight, was deeply humanizing. That’s what I was made for in the truest sense of the word. I have to notice the rain. I was made to love it.
We are creatures created to encounter beauty and goodness in the material world.
But digitization is changing our relationship to materiality – both to the natural world and to human relationships. We are being trained by technology (and tech companies) to spend more time in front of screens and less time perceiving and interacting with this touchable, smellable and tactile world. Social media in particular trains us to perceive the big, loud, urgent, trendy and distant and therefore to miss the small, silent meaning of our near and limited embodied lives.
I was rereading Michael Pollan’s 2008 book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. In it he writes how and what we eat was historically embedded and determined in community, religious practice, nature and culture. Then came an industrial revolution in the American food industry, which peaked in the second half of the 20th century. Technology promised to improve our health and our diet. Not only has this changed how food is grown, but we’ve also begun to redesign food to supposedly keep the bad things (like saturated fats) out and boost the good things (like vitamins).
Industry promised a glorious new age. It has delivered on some of its promises: food is plentiful, cheap, and always available (no need to wait for the growing season or worry about Twinkies expiring). But obviously this revolution is having a huge impact both on the country through environmental degradation and on our physical health and well-being. Pollan writes, “The chronic diseases that are now killing us can be traced directly to the industrialization of our food.” His advice is to return to old ways, to wisdom, to reclaim enduring, shared eating habits. He calls us back to “history and culture and tradition”.
Reading about the early promises of industrial foods, it seems so naïve now. And also hubris. How could so many people be persuaded that we can change something as basic as human beings like food without huge unforeseen consequences?
I mention this because I can’t help but draw an analogy with our current technological revolution: the rise of digitization and social media. This time the industry is reshaping our social and community life. We were told that social media would create deeper connections, that it would help spread democracy, that it would end loneliness.
However, what we are beginning to see is that the material world is receding and becoming less real to us, while the digital world is taking more of our imagination and time. This has devastating consequences.
In an April article on adolescent mental health for The Times, Matt Richtel wrote: “Recent studies have shown that teenagers in the United States and around the world are increasingly reporting feeling lonely, even at a time when their internet use is skyrocketing is.” He quotes psychologist Bonnie Nagel, who said teenagers “hang out” online with friends, but “it’s not the same social connection that we need, and it’s not the kind that keeps you from feeling lonely. There is ample evidence that this is also true for adults.
Both Richtel’s article and another article published by The Times the same week highlight the emerging trend for people to have romantic relationships with fictional characters rather than humans. There is evidence that teens consume more pornography despite having less sex. In an article for The Atlantic, Derek Thompson highlights the growing concern that screen habits are crowding out positive experiences for children, noting that compared to the early 2000s, teenagers are less likely to “go out with their friends, get their driver’s license, or play youth sports.” .” They’re also less likely to get enough sleep.
“Children today spend less time outdoors than any other generation,” reports the National Recreation and Park Association, “spending only four to seven minutes a day in unstructured outdoor play while spending an average of seven and a half hours in front of electronic media. ” I recently noticed that I can recognize more apps by sight than tree species.
We were created to enjoy the physical presence of other people. We were made to enjoy rainstorms or sunshine or walks in the woods. We were made to enjoy tangible things. We cannot escape or overcome this need through technology. Our attempts to do so go against our deepest human needs and desires.
Claims that we can fundamentally change the way people learned, lived, and interacted with one another in essential institutions and activities such as education, worship, friendships, dating, community, work, and parenting, without major unforeseen social consequences, smacks of it Hubris and reductionism that prompted us to throw away apples and make way for processed fruit snacks. But instead of leading to an increase in heart disease and cancer, this revolution is leading to social disintegration and pathologies of the soul.
As I read Pollan, it strikes me that there is something irrevocably mysterious about the way food nourishes us. Pollan points out that traditional ways of eating are good for us in ways scientists don’t understand. He says oceans of ink were shed when he analyzed the Mediterranean or French diet “in hopes of identifying the X-factor of their health”. But the ‘whole’ of traditional food is ‘obviously greater than the sum of its parts’. It simply cannot be reduced, measured and constructed without losing something essential to health.
In the same vein, I think we’re finding that there’s something intrinsic and mysterious—dare I say sacred—in people’s face-to-face interactions and with the natural world that just can’t be replicated in virtual reality.
So what do we do? In his book, Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk and True Flourishing, Andy Crouch writes: “For those of us who are cloaked in wealth and intoxicated by our technology, perhaps the two best starting moves are to move into the Nature – the world of stars, snow and rain, trees and deserts – and into the relational world – the world of real bodies and heartbeats, hands and faces.”
Just as humans have worked to revive slow, unprocessed, and traditional foods, we must fight for the tangible world, for enduring forms of interaction with others, for wholeness. We need to reconnect with material things: nature, the soil, our bodies and other people in real life. It doesn’t have to be big and dramatic. We don’t have to throw our computers into the sea en masse.
But we have to consciously defend ourselves against the siren song of digitization, which on the whole promises far more than it can deliver. We must be careful and wise when it comes to introducing devices into our lives that will fundamentally change the way people have always interacted. We must first and foremost immerse ourselves in the natural world and embodied human relationships, with all the complexities, challenges, inconveniences and pains that this entails.
Watch the rain for 10 minutes. Go for a walk with a friend. Get off social media and meet a neighbor. Keep your kids offline. Stick your hands in the dirt. Play an instrument instead of a video game. Turn off your smartphone and have dinner with others at a table. Seek beauty and goodness in the material world and find joy there. The way back to ourselves, as individuals and as a society, leads through old, earthly things.
The New York Times