Tag Archives: Digital technology

Faith in A Digital Age

This is a series of classes I created for my congregation in January and February 2019 that I captured digitally so that they could be used by other communities or small groups or for members who are unable to be present in class. Below are links to the eight sessions that the class covered.

Week one: Advertising in a Digital Age
Week two: Email, Multi-tasking and the blurring of the work/home divide
Week three: The Internet the Backbone of the Digital Age
Week four: The Impact of the Internet and Engaging it faithfully

Week five: Cell phones and a continually connected life
Week six: Social media and the projecting and mining of the digital self
Week seven: Dating and relationships in a digital age
Week eight: The dangers of a digital age

 

Dangers of a Digital Age

Session 8: Dangers of a Digital Age

This is the final installment of an eight-part series on faith in a digital age. The outline of the series is:

Week one: Advertising in a Digital Age
Week two: Email, Multi-tasking and the blurring of the work/home divide
Week three: The Internet the Backbone of the Digital Age
Week four: The Impact of the Internet and Engaging it faithfully

Week five: Cell phones and a continually connected life
Week six: Social media and the projecting and mining of the digital self
Week seven: Dating and relationships in a digital age
Week eight: The dangers of a digital age

This is a series of classes I’ve been teaching with my congregation that I’ve been attempting to capture digitally so that they could be used by other communities or small groups or for members who are unable to be present in class.

As I’ve looked back over the previous weeks there have been numerous challenges that have emerged along with the opportunities presented by the digital technology we use. As a way of completing these reflections I am bringing many of these challenges and dangers together in a way that I hope can help us reflect upon how we utilize this technology in ways that are beneficial. I will start with things that may seem minor and move towards events that can have catastrophic impacts on the people who use this technology. My intention is not to scare or to prevent people from using this technology but instead to help us use it wisely.

One of the challenges is the limitation of our human brain and its ability to handle the massive amounts of information we receive from both digital and non-digital sources. Our brain does not evolve at the same pace that technology evolves, and we can become overwhelmed by too many competing sources of information vying for our limited attention.  Sometimes we can simply be distracted by the continual availability of entertainment and connection which can take us away from the work and personal connections we want to spend time on. The internet is great at feeding our desire for that which is interesting in the moment and when given the choice between the instantaneous distraction and the more involved effort of thinking and engaging our brain often chooses the distraction and we can spend hours engaged on the internet, our phones or social media and not feel good about the time we used there.

As I’ve looked at some of the narratives that are a part of our life, I mentioned the narrative of scarcity which tells us we don’t have enough. We believe there is never enough time, information, sleep, money and the list can continue indefinitely. When we add in technologies like social media to the already existing temptations of advertising, we are tempted to believe to compare our lives to the portion of other people’s lives that they choose to share. We can believe that our lives are inadequate because we are comparing them to the lives of others and this often happens because of our existing shame narratives about needing to be, for example, more beautiful, wealthier, more powerful, stronger, more successful or popular, or be better parents. I believe this is where the wisdom of the commandments not to covet come in: if we are going to be content it starts with believing that we have enough and that we don’t need to measure ourselves against some unattainable standard to be satisfied. Comparison can be a deadly to personal satisfaction. Part of my job both as a pastor and when I’m counseling people is helping them learn to see that they do have enough and to be grateful for what they do have.

I do believe there are strong pressures for people to remain engaged online and things that make these platforms more addictive. As people wired for connection we go to social media, for example, seeking that connection and there can be a fear of missing out (or FOMO) on the connections that are being made. In addition to this there are several strategies used by digital media to keep you engaged. One of these strategies is the removal of stopping clues, so YouTube or Netflix will automatically play the next video in a sequence and social media sites will allow you to continue to scroll indefinitely. Another strategy that internet platforms and apps frequently use is rewards for continued engagement, so this can be a stream on a platform like Instagram or a reward on a gaming app.

We as human beings were created for rest, what in a religious context we would refer to as Sabbath. The religious idea of sabbath is primarily about rest and not primarily about worship. We do need a break from the continual engagement with the digital world. Sometimes this is to maintain a healthy work/home balance where we set boundaries about when we will respond to work email or messages. Sometimes we set boundaries on our use of the web and our phones for entertainment so that we can focus on either projects and passions or so that we can intentionally spend time with family, friends and acquaintances. Our technology can help us to connect with people across the world, but it can also limit our connections with people who may be in the same room with us. I do think that within families a healthy discussion around boundaries with digital technology and the expectations for connection and engagement is an important discussion.

When the internet was created it was a place where information could flow freely, but with the loss of any type of editorial control there has been a loss of accountability for who is responsible for misinformation, especially when it is deliberately spread. Just because something is shared on the internet does not mean it is true, but sometimes it becomes difficult to differentiate between factual information and someone’s conjectures or opinions. The other struggle is the rapid diffusion of this information across platforms. The spreading of false information can have consequences for people’s reputations and careers. One of the narratives in my country, the United States, is the impact of deliberately distributed false information and their impact on people’s votes in the 2016 and 2018 elections. Like a rumor in interpersonal communication once it is started it can be very difficult to counteract false information once it is distributed online.

We both knowingly and unknowingly share a lot of information online and that information is mined for multiple purposes. I do think that we, as a society, need to have a robust conversation about the ethics of data-mining by advertisers, governments, employers and insurance agencies and what right we as citizens have to safe guard this information. I do think a place to begin this discussion could be the fourth amendment to the U.S. Constitution which states:

The right of people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probably cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

While the authors of the Bill of Rights never imagined a situation where people would be sharing information digitally, they were concerned about the fundamental privacy and protection of that privacy against overzealous entities.  I do believe that we should have a right to be secure in not only our persons and houses but also in our digital identity and secure against both governmental and private concerns. These issues will resurface later in our discussion, but I do think we need to be aware of what we have control of in our digital identity and what we do not currently have control of.

Another factor that contributes to some of the issues online is the lowering of social boundaries that people have when communicating through digital technology. Many people feel safer expressing things digitally whether through text or email or on a social platform that they wouldn’t express in direct communication. On one hand this can lead to online bullying or trolling where a person voices some incredibly hurtful and hateful things in a way that may anonymous, things that if said in another’s presence you would have to see their reaction or be vulnerable to their physical and verbal retaliation. One can also experience miscommunication, because we lose all the verbal and non-verbal cues that make up much of communication, where people either read in emotions that are not present or misunderstand attempts at humor. Sometimes with lowered social boundaries people feel free to share too much information (TMI) which can make the person receiving it feel uncomfortable and can present some dangers for the person sharing. Finally, since we are desiring connection, we may be encouraged to do things that are popular and create reaction online. Peer pressure has existed well before the advent of digital technology and has caused people to do things they regret to attempt to fit into a peer group, but with the lowered social boundaries online this can make it easier to make choices that may be popular but have consequences.

Once something is online, we may not have control of that information. Several weeks ago, I listened to Darieth Chisolm’s discussion of how when she left a relationship her ex posted pictures of her online and her struggle to have these images removed. This struggle was enhanced by the involvement of the laws of two sovereign territories and the transnational nature of the internet. I’ve included a link to the TED talk discussion she gave below:

https://www.ted.com/talks/darieth_chisolm_let_s_call_revenge_porn_what_it_is_digital_domestic_violence?language=en

Another situation was with a colleague who had shared information about a superior and a congregation he served in what was supposed to be a closed group on Facebook, but someone in the group commented on it and the information was eventually seen beyond the group and it created a lot of challenges for him in relating to his congregation. Nothing, even when in a closed group, is truly private on a social media site. The other reality is the permanence of this data and that way you share and say can be used against you, even years later.  An example of this which ultimately didn’t hurt the individual but should be cautionary was in the lead up to the NFL Draft last year, a social media post from Josh Allen from his early teenage days, quoting the lyrics from a rap song, used an inappropriate word for a minority group and days before the draft this was shared with the media, which didn’t ultimately impact his being drafted early but perhaps could have. I do know people who have not been offered jobs because of pictures and posts on social media that do not represent who they may be now but are still present online.

The internet has made all types of data much more accessible, and this also can present a danger. One of the news stories going on this week is related to a group placing MOMO videos, a suicide game, in with Peppa the Pig, a show for young children, and other shows and finding a way past the controls that parents may try to establish. Even without the malicious intent of something like the group behind these videos there is the easy access to violent, sexual, graphic, and inflammatory and hateful information online. Even without intentionally seeking out some of these temptations we may stumble upon things we didn’t expect while searching for something innocent.

The internet can also impact our relationships. The ease of access of sexual content online is a struggle I’ve seen played out in couples I’ve worked with where one partner in the relationship feels cheapened or unable to live up to the ideal images that the other person is viewing online. For some people this is viewed as equal to having an affair, while for others they view it less critically, but it can impact the way that couples interact and view one another. With the increased connectivity I’ve also seen people in a relationship either seek out additional relationships or reconnect with an ‘old flame’ online and sometimes this has led to breaking the trust in the relationship either through an emotional or physical affair or sharing negative thoughts and views about their partner. As I discussed when discussing online dating there is also the reality that having a bigger pool of people one could connect with may negatively impact the formation of relationships. The paradox of choice is that more choices do not make us happier and may make us less satisfied with a choice we make because we are continually considering the other possible choices.

Most online platforms use algorithms to attempt to show you more of what they anticipate you want to see, so that you continue to stay engaged on the platform. The danger of this is we can become isolated from differing opinions and this has led to an increase in polarization in our communities. Facebook, for example, will categorize you based on what you block and what you like as Extremely Liberal, Moderately Liberal, Moderate, Moderately Conservative, and Extremely Conservative and attempt to show you more things in your feed that fit your political bias. The struggle with this is when we become isolated from people who think differently than ourselves, we can begin to look upon them as our enemy and begin to demonize them. We can also be surrounded by organizations and groups who continue to push us more solidly into their camp and away from opposing views so that we support them, and we can end up with a bunker mentality where we are surrounded by people who think the same way against a common enemy. On the one hand this plays into the natural tendency for humans to form tribes and groups that we feel responsible for and it can feel very comfortable for people to find others who share their views. On the other hand, it can exert a lot of pressure for us to fit into the views of the group and for the sake of fitting in we may silence area where we disagree or feel uncomfortable. I do think that online, like in public speech, we need to be responsible for our language. Both when I was an officer in the military and in my current role as a pastor, I’ve always been aware of the power of words to do great harm and I continue to try to remind others in the public sphere of the impact of their words on others. This has become harder as the society has become more polarized and pushing against political correctness can become used by people as an excuse for painful and hateful speech.

I do think it is helpful to be aware of how we are using these technologies and how they impact our lives in positive and negative ways. The above discussion engages some of the negative aspects of the digital technology and I didn’t discuss the ways criminals use it for everything from scamming to human trafficking but while I think it is important to be aware of the dangers of the technology, I think it is also important to state that there are several positive features. I use digital technology frequently to communicate, to share ideas and information, and to stay updated on what is happening with the people and events that are important to me. I use all these technologies, but I do intentionally set boundaries on my interactions with the internet, my email, my cellphone and social media as I attempt to live a life that is fulfilling.

The Internet the Backbone of the Digital Age

Session 3: The Internet the Backbone of the Digital Age

This is the third part of a now eight-part series on faith in a digital age. It expanded due to the richness of the discussion on the internet and the amount of material I couldn’t cover in this first week. The outline of the series is:

Week one: Advertising in a Digital Age
Week two: Email, Multi-tasking and the blurring of the work/home divide
Week three: The Internet the Backbone of the Digital Age
Week four: The Impact of the Internet and Engaging it faithfully
Week five: Cell phones and a continually connected life
Week six: Social media and the projecting and mining of the digital self
Week seven: Dating and relationships in a digital age
Week eight: The dangers of a digital age

This is a series of classes I’ve been teaching with my congregation that I’ve been attempting to capture digitally so that they could be used by other communities or small groups or for members who are unable to be present in class.

The internet is the backbone, the infrastructure that makes the digital age possible. My children have never known a world without the interconnections that the internet makes possible, but I still think the internet is a mystery to a lot of people. The internet is simply a set of interconnected servers and computers that enable data to be exchanged both over hardwired connections and wirelessly. For a simplistic illustration think of phones: when I was growing up, I had a large number of phone numbers memorized and there were large phonebooks that gave me both the business and personal numbers I needed. If I wanted to talk to somebody, I would enter the phone a seven-digit number for a local call (eleven for a long-distance call 1+an area code+ the seven-digit phone number) and I would be connected to the proper phone in the proper house. Now with my cell phone I remember many fewer numbers, they are stored in my contacts. I can go to the contacts and select, for example, work and the phone translates that into the number 972-569-8185, or I can say to my phone “call work” and it will dial this same number. With the internet it works in a similar manner, if I type into my browser http://www.rejoicefrisco.com it automatically goes to a registry and translates this into a long numerical address which tells the computer the location on a server that I want to see. It goes to a space on the server and translates the data that has been stored there into a visual page. The way the internet is designed allows for multiple pages and places to be linked together and displayed on in a user-friendly way but the internet itself is just the backbone, it is just the structure that everything else we use it for is built upon.

Even though we say the internet is ‘just’ the infrastructure this infrastructure has changed so much of how we live and engage our world. One of the big stories the week before I presented this was the multi-billion dollar divorce of Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon, a company that wouldn’t have existed without the internet and the capabilities it provided. Amazon is significantly larger than its next largest competitor, Walmart. Many of the traditional retailers have been heavily impacted by this change. Sears is celebrating 125 years of business this year but also is in the process of being liquidated because the world has changed around it and it isn’t hard to think of the number of stores that no longer exist. It has changed the way we think about the need for a physical place to do business, to bank, and many other things.

We use the internet for a wider range of things from communications, to shopping, to getting news and information, to watch sports or entertainment programming, and many more things. We use it to monitor information and it also watches us (this is where many of the cookies on your computer come from). It is what most of the aps on our cellphones access to be useful and it connects us not only through our computers but through all our devices. As we enter a time where people have smart houses and smart cars, they are also continually transmitting information to servers which monitor these things. As we discussed in advertising, we can give up our information without thinking about it and often for a benefit (a lower insurance rate for example if they can monitor our driving behavior) but it is worth thinking about what that information is worth both to you and the person gathering it.

Most people realize that just because something is on the internet that doesn’t mean it is true. Yet, there are many things that people accept that may not be true for various reasons (confirmation bias and misplaced trust are just two examples) . The internet has no editor, no one to go back and verify the factuality of a page or article. Now an individual site may have its own controls: if you go to a news site, they have an editor or something like National Geographic would, but many sites do not. It is a great place to get information out quickly and easily and that is a great freedom. The internet makes this site possible but there is no editor other than me. There is no ‘peer review’ that we would see in the academic world where an article would be placed out with a claim and then be reviewed by others in the field to see if the claim can be verified: this is how everything from science to theology and biblical studies worked for years. The internet doesn’t do this.

There have been some creative ways to get around the lack of an editorial or peer review structure and a good case to think about this is Wikipedia. In the early 1990s Microsoft decided they were going to reinvent the encyclopedia with Encarta, a resource that they put their significant resources behind at the same time a small startup called Wikipedia entered the landscape. Encarta went with the traditional, but cumbersome peer review method to create its encyclopedia the way organizations like Encyclopedia Britannica had done in the past but Wikipedia allowed the community to create and comment on articles creating an agile and quick way of updating information. Microsoft eventually gave up on Encarta and Wikipedia has proven, through allowing others to critique articles, to be as accurate as the older peer review methods had delivered in the past.

Trust is a central issue in the evaluation of a source. If you are reading this as a blog or watching the video of this presentation and you don’t know me personally then you have to evaluate, “do I trust Neil as a presenter or not?” “Is the information he is giving me accurate or not?”

The internet has also proved a challenge for a lot of traditional businesses and industries. If you are still functioning as a business or an organization, you have probably adjusted how you work due to the internet. Many customer service related jobs have disappeared and have been replaced by technology or been relocated into central warehouses for an organization or in larger online companies like Amazon or Zappos. There has been a way people think of the need for a physical place. Even in the world of religion it has changed the way people think of the need for a physical space. One of my realization as I’ve been experimenting more with placing more video and discussions on the internet is that many people have watched many of these videos before ever considering coming to my congregation.  Even if people never do come my hope is that I am making a positive impact for them, but could you imagine a virtual church? I know some people who are trying to do this, to replicate a church experience for people who for various reasons may not want or be able to come to a traditional experience of worship.

The church has always been a community that was connected even when its leaders couldn’t be present. The apostle Paul is the first we see this type of attempt to maintain a presence in his communities even when he couldn’t be there physically. The letters to the church in Rome, Corinth, Philippi, Thessalonica and more were attempts to influence and impact a community when he was physically somewhere else. We have always used the technology of the day to attempt to transmit the faith across distance. In my own tradition, the Lutheran tradition, Martin Luther benefited from the invention of the printing press approximately fifty years before the reformation began as a way of transmitting his thoughts, protests, sermons and teaching material from Wittenberg across much of Europe. Several large churches have developed satellite congregations connected by video with the central pastor/preacher who is the charismatic leader of the community. Even among traditional churches, like the one I am a part of, there is an increasing realization that for many of our smaller communities we may need to think creatively how they can continue to worship and be connected with the larger church with limited resources.

I’m indebted to Deanna Thompson’s honest reflections in The Virtual Body of Christ in a Suffering World which reflects on her own experiences with technology while she was dealing with treatment for cancer. Technology enabled her to remain connected with people when her physical body was unable to have sustained conversations and it allowed her to not be defined by the look of pity that she would see from people when they would visit her. CaringBridge, a website for giving medical updates on someone undergoing treatment, allowed her to pass on information about her treatment to a wide range of people and to receive messages from an unexpected number of people who were praying and sending thoughts. Through technology she was able to communicate in ways that reflected her normal intelligence and wit because she could communicate on her own terms. As she writes:

What I wrote and published online still sounded like the me I was familiar with, the me that was not wholly overcome by the stigma and diminishment caused by advanced stage cancer. (Thompson, 2016, p. 63)

When we are sick, we may lose our self-image as a person who can contribute, who has a voice.  The internet can provide means of communicating that may be harder face to face.

There is a lot more I want to discuss in relation to the internet and some things I plan to discuss next session include:

How does the ease of information availability change the way we store information in our memory?

Many facts we need background information to even understand the answers.

Lack of ‘stopping clues’ designed into many aspects of the internet and how we can lose time by not stopping at regular intervals

How I attempt to use the internet in various ways and some boundaries I set

From a faith perspective we are going to think through some parts of the sermon on the mount and what that might have to say about how we interact online

We will also think about how we can do ancient things like prayer, connection, teaching and maybe even worship in a connected age.

Finally, we will think about the online identities we construct and how they connect to our physical identities.

Discussion questions:

What do you use the internet for? How frequently do you use the internet?

How do you use the internet to communicate and connect with other people?

What are some changes you’ve noticed happening because of technology?

What are some of the strengths of connecting with people across the internet? What are come of the challenges of connecting with people across the internet?

What are your thoughts about a virtual faith community? What would be some benefits and some challenges to your understanding of what it means to be faithful?

Why would people seek out a virtual church community rather than a traditional community of faith?

Have you ever used technology to communicate when you were physically unable to be present with someone? How was the connection you felt over the distance?

Email, Multi-tasking and the blurring of the work/home divide

Session 2: Email, Multi-tasking and the blurring of the work/home divide

This is the second part of a seven-part series on faith in a digital age, the first session was on advertising on a digital age. And the outline of the series is:

Week one: Advertising in a Digital Age
Week two: Email, Multi-tasking and the blurring of the work/home divide
Week three: Advent of the internet and a connected age
Week four: Cell phones and a continually connected life
Week five: Social media and the projecting and mining of the digital self
Week six: Dating and relationships in a digital age
Week seven: The dangers of a digital age

This is a series of classes I’ve been teaching with my congregation that I’ve been attempting to capture digitally so that they could be used by other communities or small groups or for members who are unable to be present in class.

I remember in the 1970s and 1980s when I was growing up the promise that technology would enable us to work fewer hours and spend more time at home with people doing what we enjoyed. One of the cartoons of that age, the Jetsons, the father only worked a couple of hours at a very leisurely pace and then came home and spent almost all of his time with his family. The reality is that people are not working fewer hours, they are working more hours than previously. The quantity and quality of work an individual person can produce has increased dramatically due to technology but now we are expected to do more work with fewer people. We do less physical work than we did a generation ago but our time at the office or engaged with work related items has increased dramatically.

Email starts out as a tool in the business, academic and military. Originally it took a dedicated network of terminals connected to a larger computer and I remember at Texas A&M when I was a student in the early 1990s logging in on a ‘dumb terminal’ to check my email for assignments from class. Email was much less convenient but it was also limited to devices connected into the main server and so your email for work stayed at work. Email would soon evolve to become far more connected and capable and this would create both new possibilities and new challenges.

One of the benefits of email is it is free. Now understand it is free because someone else, either the office or school we are associated with or advertisers have paid for the servers and infrastructure required to make the email possible. Yet, it is free which, unless you are the postal service and have seen electronic communication eat into the volume you deliver, is a good thing. Email is also able to carry immense amounts of information. For example, my congregation sends out a weekly email to the congregation which includes documents, links as well as highlights of events occurring each week.

One of the realities of email is that we get overwhelmed with information. Most people can relate to the experience of opening your email account and checking many of the emails to delete even before you open them. We are exposed to a lot of information and it becomes overwhelming and so we have to learn how to filter what is vital, what is important and what is not important. We have always sorted, even before email we would quickly sort our postal mail and determine what was trash and what was worth opening. Yet, even once we open an email, we quickly see what we think may be important and one of the realities is that information often gets missed. For example, the synod (the higher body over the churches of my denomination in the North Texas-North Louisiana region) sends out a weekly email update which includes events occurring in the region and if something is not in the first several events there is a strong possibility that I may have stopped reading at that point. We have become so overwhelmed with information that we have to find ways to limit so that we can focus on what we believe are the important things.

In any technology that communicates by text one of the things to understand is we do not have a number of the physical clues from voice and body language that we use to insert the emotion accurately into a message. Most of the information we take in when we speak to another person is non-verbal and so it is easy with text-based communication to misinterpret the emotion of the sender. For example, let’s assume that I was in an accident prior to arriving at the office and the first email I read I assume that the author is yelling at me. Now the way the email is worded may lead to this interpretation but it may also be about my own shame or anger at being in an accident. I may transfer my anger with the person I had an accident with to the sender or if I am ashamed of being in the accident, I may feel that I deserve to be yelled at. But these may have nothing to do with the intent of the sender, they are things I have read into the text message.

One of the other things it is easy to do with email is to send a message to more people than you intend or the wrong person. Many people can relate to times where they intended to forward a message and replied instead or they wanted to reply to an individual and they unintentionally hit the reply all response on the message.

People could reach out for work related things by phone long before email, but email was really the first area where we see an increasing tendency to take work home with us. We became available to people from the office, once email was connected via the internet, twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week. I know many people will take their email with them on vacation and respond to it, or they may attempt to respond to email in the evening or during a meal. This can become an unhealthy dynamic for us as individuals and for our relationships.

Email was one of the first areas where we saw the advent of digital multi-tasking. Especially with the advent of push notification we see email constantly interrupting our day. So, most people who have outlook or another email device on their computer and phone will receive a pop-up whenever an email comes in and our eyes are immediately drawn to it and we make a decision whether to open the email or allow it to sit until a later point. Yet, even the reality of looking at the pop-up and making a quick decision has taken us away from the work we are doing and those who study efficiency have seen a drop in efficiency from these frequent interruptions. It takes our mind time to switch between tasks and to engage what is being asked of it and then to re-engage what we were working on initially. Multi-tasking doesn’t make us more productive or efficient, it actually is a productivity killer. It is like when your computer has multiple tasks open the available memory and processing capability it has is reduced for any one task so it runs slower. Computers have evolved quickly to be able to increase their processing capacity but the human brain cannot evolve in the same way. We simply were not made for a world of continual interruption.

In our culture we seem to value being busy. I’m guilty of answering the question, “how are you doing?” with the word busy and sometimes we wear our constant activity as a badge of honor. ‘I’m really important because I am always busy.’ Yet, I think we need to talk about the reality that people use being busy the same way they use drugs and alcohol—as a numbing device. If I am busy doing something that has meaning to my life and my relationships that a good thing, but if I am busy so that I don’t have to think about the brokenness in my life or my relationships or so that I can avoid difficult conversations and feelings then we are using our activity to keep us numbed.

One of the other things that can happen with all of these technologies is if we don’t set our own healthy boundaries, we will allow the person with the least healthy boundaries to determine how much of our time they can demand. The person who believes they need verification from you or your attention to validate their importance can take time away from the people in your life who truly are important to you or the things in life that give you value and meaning. I will talk about some of my own values below but I think it is a very healthy thing to reflect on how we use any technology and when are the times we feel like it is impacting our life, health and relationships in a negative way.

Is checking an email a bad thing? No, but sometimes the way it dominates our life can be. I know there are times when I spend multiple hours responding to emails after a weekend and that is time that is taken away from being present with other people, doing the work I need to get done on a weekly basis and doing the creative work that brings life and joy to my life. One of the questions to ask is, “Is this a productive use of my time.” Frequently it can be, but it will not always be. If your answer to the question of the use of time being productive is frequently no, then it may be time to look at establishing some boundaries and thinking how you might limit the amount of time you spend with email or any other item.

So, as a pastor and I want to help us think through this from a faith perspective and help us to imagine how we might live a good life. I will also share some of my own boundaries below that have come through my own wrestling with these issues. I’m not perfect at this, I continue to have days or weeks where I am not as diligent or healthy as I would like to be. To begin examining this question from a faith perspective I am going to start with the two great commandments. Here is how the Gospel of Mark tells the story where the two great commandments are introduced:

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one: you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these. (Mark 12: 28-31)

I’m going to focus in on the second commandment, and in particular the second phrase. If we are going to love our neighbor as we love ourselves it means we need to be able to love ourselves. It is hard to love your neighbor more than you love yourself. When we are not taking care of our needs we often reply in anger, frustration or in resignation that this is one more person who is taking us away from what we want to be doing. We set boundaries so that we can be present with our neighbor. To be able to be present with another person is one of the greatest gifts we can give them.

For me this also goes back to my baptismal identity. In my baptism I am reminded that God values me for who I am, not primarily for what I can do to earn God’s love or favor. God’s grace frees me from this continual seeking to be good enough in God’s eyes and my baptism reminds me I am already loved and valued. I have a plaque on my wall that came from my advisor in seminary which reads:

Neil Eric White, remember you are a baptized child of God; for that is the basis of everything else you will become.

My value does not come from how busy I am but from who I am as a child of God. There are times when I forget this and I get caught in the trap of looking important and busy. Yet, I am valuable not because I am busy but because I am a person created in the image of God.

A part of our identity as humans is that we were created for connection with God and with one another. That is one of the things I take away from the narrative of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2 and 3. One of the predictors of an early death is the lack of strong interpersonal connections with family and a network of friends. We need interpersonal connection and technology can help facilitate that and it can also take us away from acknowledging the humanity of another person. Have you ever been interacting with someone when they suddenly interrupt the conversation to interact with their email or their phone? Or have you talked with someone and they never looked away from their email during the entire conversation? How did that make you feel?  It can make you feel unseen, unvalued and unloved. For parents I think this is one of the places where our messages can speak louder than any words we say: our children watch us to see a model of what is important and how they will interact with the world. If they see us modeling that email or work is more important than their conversation, playing with them, and physical signs of affection then they will also look for meaning and value in their work and electronic devices.

Here are some of the boundaries I use as a person who has thought through some of these items from the perspective of faith and seeking a better life: I include these a descriptive and not as prescriptive, they are what I do and I would invite you to think about how you might set your own boundaries.

  • I attempt to engage email in a couple blocks during the day. Typically, I try to respond to email in 24 hours if a response is needed. My normal pattern is once when I begin my work day, once before lunch and once later in the afternoon.
  • I do filter based on who an email is from and the content of the title whether I even need to open an email. Do I occasionally miss something? Yes, but I am willing to risk missing something for the time and the freedom I gain from this.
  • I do not open email on my day off unless I feel it is something that needs a quick response or something that will cause me anxiety not to respond to.
  • I do set aside times to be present with people and if I am present with someone, I will not look at my email or my phone until that time is over. I also do not check email or phone when I am out on a date with my wife, when I am working out or working in the yard. It can wait
  • Between 9 p.m. and 8 a.m. I typically don’t check email and I assume any type of communication I receive needs to be an emergency. If it is not an emergency, I attempt to let the person know politely but firmly that this is not an emergency and when they should contact me.

I do believe that we as people were created for rest, that we need a Sabbath and that means finding a way to be away from the demands of work for a time. My hope in this is that we can be both curious but also to provoke some challenging conversations about the values we have and the type of life we want to live. I don’t think of email as a negative thing, but I do know it can be used in a way that is detrimental to our lives, our health and our relationships. I do this as a way to model not only for my congregation but also for my children what is important. There is a phrase I learned from my mentor in seminary that says, “Don’t worry that your children aren’t listening to you, worry intently that they are watching everything you are doing.” If we say we want them to value other people and then we check our work email or our personal email instead of interacting with them they see where our true values are and they will emulate that. If we use digital technology and devices as a way to entertain and distract them while they are young don’t be surprised when they use them to stay entertained and distracted when they are older. They often learned their behaviors by modeling what we ourselves have done.

Discussion questions:

List the positive and negative aspects of email.

How do you feel when you are interrupted when you work? Do you feel like email is an interruption?

Have you ever used being busy to avoid a hard conversation or to avoid thinking about brokenness in your life or relationship? Has email become something you are addicted to checking?

Do I model using technology in a way that I would want to model for my children?

What boundaries would be healthy for me to set around my work? My response to email?

Do you feel like your email overwhelms you with information? Are there ways you can limit the emails you receive or filter them more efficiently?

How do we show another person that they are important to us?

Advertising in a Digital Age

This is a series of classes I’ve been teaching with my congregation that I’ve been attempting to capture digitally so that they could be used by other communities or small groups or for members who are unable to be present in class.

Session 1 of Faith in a Digital Age:Advertising in a Digital Age

We live in a digital age. Some may long for a time prior to the advent of the digital age but the revolution of how we interact with others and the world around us caused by the digital age is not going to disappear. Digital technology has impacted so many areas of our life: how we shop, how we interact with one another, how we date, how we get our news and many, many other areas we’ll explore in these sessions. Digital technology is not ‘good’ or ‘evil’ but they can certainly be used in positive and negative ways. One of the questions that religion should help us answer is ‘what does a good life look like?’ As we engage the various aspects of the digital technology that we interact with we will be wondering together what does a blessed or good life look like in a digital age.

One of the hard parts of this discussion is that it will impact different generations in different ways. I remember the first computer that we had in our home, the first dial-up modem, my first email account, the beginning of the internet, the wide dispersion of cell phones and then smart phones but for my children who are entering adulthood they have never known a time without these things. One of the things you will frequently see in these discussions is people belittling or criticizing another group, think of how many posts on social media you may have seen about: what is wrong with millennials, young people, old people, technophobes, people addicted to technology. These not only tend to make broad generalizations about an entire group but they also tend to be shaming and shut down any real conversation. I want to enter this with a sense of curiosity, not because I want to adopt uncritically these technologies but instead, I want to think about how they may be used to enhance the life I want to live. I am a leader of a Christian community so I am also thinking through this in a manner that attempts to use the resources of my faith to think through how we might live a good life in our time.

The outline of the discussions is:

Week one: Advertising in a Digital Age
Week two: Email, Multi-tasking and the blurring of the work/home divide
Week three: Advent of the internet and a connected age
Week four: Cell phones and a continually connected life
Week five: Social media and the projecting and mining of the digital self
Week six: Dating and relationships in a digital age
Week seven: The dangers of a digital age

We are beginning with advertising. You may ask why are we beginning with something that has been around since long before the digital age, yet advertising underlies the digital age. Google, Yahoo and Facebook are all advertising companies.  Advertising pays for the digital age. If you get something for free it is probably because you are being advertised to and advertising is paying for the content. Advertising is not a new thing, advertisers have paid for radio and television content for generations. Advertising is not an evil thing, the reality that you are seeing this in a digital environment is mainly because the platform is financed by advertising. Advertising has been around for a long time, since people would put out a sign pointing to one person’s booth at a fair or one person’s farm to trade for products. Yet, advertising is much more connected than it was in its origins. Advertising attempts to sell you a story, not primarily a product. Humans are hardwired for story, it is how we make sense of our lives and our worlds. Advertising attempts to sell you a story in which the product is a critical piece of that story.

I would encourage you to think about a show that you watch and what is advertised to you. If you watch a Hallmark Christmas movie you will be advertised different products and stories than if you are listening to sports radio, a television sitcom, a science fiction show, a sporting event, or an award show. It is a revelatory exercise to pay attention to what is being advertised and the stories the ads are telling and what they say about what the advertisers think about you as a viewer. What are the emotions being pulled upon, the insecurities being exploited, the desires being projected? Who do the advertisers say you need to be?

Advertising works, even if we don’t believe that it does. Advertising even becomes a part of our culture in surprising ways. A quick example from 2018-2019, if I were to say, “dilly, dilly” most people would reflect back to a series of commercials for Bud Light. The commercials are short stories set in a fictional kingdom with a vain king, they are humorous and Bud Light keeps them on because they work. Nike and Gillette have recently generated controversy with their advertising but they are a part of the conversation of our lives.

Advertising may make us realize things we never knew we wanted. That is not necessarily a negative thing. I share the example in the video of Christmas shopping and being presented with ideas for my sisters, my wife, and my kids that I think they will enjoy. Advertising has introduced me to new authors who are writing in a field similar to authors I enjoy and whose work other readers have enjoyed. But when advertising begins to make us feel insufficient or encourages to go beyond the limits, we would otherwise stay within it is a problem. I started this class right after Christmas and Christmas can be a beautiful time for people but I also know people who come out of Christmas stressed because they attempted to create a Christmas that matched the stories of advertising and they will be paying for that for the next six months. Advertising can make us feel like we are not doing enough or that we are not living out the story we should be living.

Seth Godin writes in his short and entertaining book about advertising All Marketers are Liars:

All marketers tell stories. And if they do it right, we believe them. We believe that wine tastes better in a $20 glass than a $1 glass. We believe that an $80,000 Porsche Cayenne is vastly superior to a $36,000 VW Touareg, even if it is virtually the same car. We believe that $225 Pumas will make our feet feel better—and look cooler—than $20 no names…and believing it makes it true. (Godin, 2005)

If I were to pour an expensive bottle of wine in a solo cup and in a crystal glass, I assume that it probably tastes and looks better in the crystal glass. I believe that a soda is worth more when I go to a movie, a restaurant, or to a sporting event than I would pay for it at a gas station or a grocery store, but it is the same soda.

What are some ways we can think about this as people of faith? Well probably the natural place to start is the ninth and tenth commandments:

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. (Exodus 20:17)

One of my realizations in studying both Exodus and Deuteronomy where the commandments are listed is that for the people of Israel were expected to create a different kind of society than what they experienced in Egypt. In Egypt it was a society where a small number of people had a large amount of the wealth and power and where many people were enslaved to pay for the wants and desires of this small group. Israel was always supposed to be something different, a society where everyone could recline under their own fig tree or grape vine. A society where everyone had enough to live on and provide for their family. One thing that would destroy this community would be to see what the neighbor had and to determine that I needed what my neighbor has to be satisfied. This is where a lot of conflict can emerge from and it can create in us a sense of scarcity and dissatisfaction. We often compare our lives to an aspect of another person’s life, and never their entire life and that comparison often makes us desire what the other person has and not be satisfied with what we have.

I alluded to scarcity above and I think it is important to realize that one of the dominant stories of our culture is a story of scarcity: of not having enough, of not being enough. One of the places I think we as people of faith frame this discussion wrong is, we think of the opposite of scarcity being abundance (more than I could possibly desire) but the opposite of scarcity is having enough. If we only think we will be happy when we have more than we can imagine we will never be satisfied. We will never have enough money, power, looks, success, fame or status. Every time we reach a place where we once said we’d be satisfied, we move the bar to a new place where we will be happy when we reach it. There are entire industries set up to feed upon our fear that we don’t have enough. Americans in general struggle with depression more and are more in debt than at any time in previous history and I believe that this is partially related to attempting to keep up with the projection of who we should be.

Lynne Twist writes in the Soul of Money about the “great lie”:

For me, and for many of us, our first waking though is “I didn’t get enough sleep.” The next one is “I don’t have enough time.” Whether true or not, that thought of not enough occurs to us automatically before we even think to question or examine it. We spend most of the hours and the days of our lives hearing, explaining, complaining, or worrying about what we don’t have enough of…Before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor, we’re already inadequate, already behind, already losing, already lacking something. And by the time we go to bed at night, our minds are racing with a litany of what we didn’t get, or didn’t get done, that day. We go to sleep burdened by those thoughts and wake up to that reverie of lack…This internal condition of scarcity, this mind-set of scarcity, lives at the very heart of our jealousies, our greed, our prejudice, and or arguments with life. (Brown, 2012, pp. 25-26)

Part of a good life is learning to say I have enough. Now I have nothing against a person deciding to buy a new home, a new car, new clothing or any other item but the danger is when we believe that our happiness is defined by acquiring these things. When we have a mindset of scarcity we will never have enough and we will never be enough. One of the things gratitude makes us realize is that we have and that we indeed are enough. It begins to challenge the great lie that our life is lacking something that will make us complete or whole or that some other story will grant us our happy ending.

Ethically we need to talk about advertising in a connected world. You’ve probably had the experience of looking at something online and suddenly ads for that item and related item are everywhere in your social feed, your email, on websites and more. Or, if you have a device like an Amazon Echo or Google Home you may talk about something in conversation and find that advertisements for that item suddenly popping up. We give up our information pretty freely in a digital age.  For example, my grocery store has a shopping card which tracks what I buy and where I buy it in exchange for deals and discounts. But are we OK with some reading my email, browsing history, listening to my conversations and gathering my information?

If you think advertising doesn’t work on you and impact how you think about things you are deceiving yourself. It has been proven that those who believe they are impervious to advertising messages are the most likely to be influenced by them. This can have some profound effects on the way in which we interact with our world and with other people.

A final area I want to encourage you to think about is advertising in relation to politics. One of the dangers of targeting political advertisements and messages is that we can become surrounded by an echo chamber of things that fit our own political leanings. Your social media, for example, knows your political leanings based upon who you follow, what you click and what you say and it will continue to show you more of what it thinks you want to see. The danger in this is we become isolated from people who think differently than us. One of the gifts of Rejoice Lutheran, where I serve as pastor, is that we have a wide range of political opinions inhabiting (sometimes unaware of the differences) in the same space and it is one of the few places in our culture where we may be surrounded by people who think differently. In a world of political polarization, we need to be aware that one of the stories we will encounter is attempting to solidify our affiliation with a political group or view in contrast to others who may think differently.

Stories speak to not only our logical portions of our brain but to our emotions are well. Advertisers play on emotions which include: fear, hunger, desire, comfort, pleasure, the desire to belong, attraction, competence/intelligence, love, stress, jealousy, insecurity, image, connection and the desire for success. Using emotions is not necessarily a negative thing either, I use emotions all the time when I preach for example as I attempt to provide a fuller experience of what a text may be pointing to. We are emotional and rational beings and I’m reminded of the proverb about people being ‘emotional beings who sometimes think rather than thinking beings who sometimes emote.’

Discussion questions:

List the type of shows you watch. What is advertised during these shows? What does that say about you as listener/viewer? How did they make you feel?

List the positive and negative things about advertising. Somethings may end up being positive or negative depending on the situation or the viewer.

Think of an advertising catch phrase like “dilly, dilly” or “just do it.”  What are they advertising? What stories did they use? Why do you remember them?

What are you grateful for? Do you celebrate the things that you have or is it easier to desire the things that you don’t have?

Talk about a time where you purchased something and it didn’t live up to your expectations? How did you feel? Were you angry with the advertiser or yourself?

What do you think about organization mining your email, browsing history, listening to your conversations and monitoring your purchases to target advertising to you? What are some potential problems you see with this practice?

Do you think advertising is having a negative impact on the political process in this country? If so how?

Can you think of an advertisement that made you feel like you needed to change something about yourself? Did you purchase their product? Why or why not?