The Power of ‘Intellectual Technologies’

Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception is a brilliant, often uncomfortable portrayal of a future world where sophisticated technology has unlocked the ability for people to escape reality. Through a fictional “dream-sharing” device, the characters in Inception can create, manipulate, and even invade people’s dreams. At one point in the movie, the heroes visit a scientist with the skill to make a sedative that allows for even more powerful and vivid dream-sharing. Upon seeing dozens of people in the scientist’s basement sleeping on beds, connected to the dream-sharing devices, one character asks, “These people come here to fall asleep?” The scientist answers, “They come here to wake up. The dream has become their reality.”

The writers of Inception used a science-fiction context to make a profound observation about human nature. If we can, we humans will tend to use our technology to put the world God has given us at a distance, and flee into an alternative reality that suits us. Although dream-sharing is the stuff of fantasy, there are indeed sophisticated technologies that bestow a godlike ability to create and inhabit our own universe. In fact, one of these technologies is probably in your hands or your pocket right now.

The Web, the smartphone, and social media together make up nothing less than a cultural revolution. For hundreds of millions of people, they represent the primary point of interaction with the world. We now work, learn, listen, debate, recreate, and even worship through the Internet. Given the radical novelty and enormous imprint of this technology on nearly every facet of our lives, shouldn’t we regularly be asking questions like, What kind of medium is this? Is there something here that may be influencing me at a near-undetectable level?

In fact, the answers to these questions may distress us.

Our Digital Dreamworld

The same year that Christopher Nolan fictionalized a world of escape into dreams, cultural critic Nicholas Carr published his manifesto The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Carr’s thesis is simply articulated but breathtaking in its implications: the Internet is an intellectual technology that is radically altering how we think, read, and communicate. Carr suggests that, whereas much technology (such as the plow or microscope) “extends our physical strength” into the outside world, intellectual technology — such as a clock, a map, or the Internet — directly reshapes how we think. Because of this, intellectual technologies make deeper and more permanent changes in what we believe and value. Carr writes,

Every intellectual technology . . . embodies an intellectual ethic, a set of assumptions about how the human mind works or should work. . . . The intellectual ethic is the message that a medium or other tool transmits into the minds and culture of its users. (The Shallows, 45–46)

As Carr goes on to show, the Web expresses its intellectual ethic in definite ways. Reading a physical book trains the human brain in the skills of quiet and focus, but the Web’s use of hypertext and distraction trains us in the behaviors of skimming, superficial comprehension, and flimsy, impressionistic interpretation. Online, it is very difficult to follow one train of thought deeply or be present for one particular experience or moment, because the Web’s structure emphasizes relentless novelty and diverse input (creating what Carr refers to as “the juggler’s brain”).

Carr’s analysis makes sense of a problem that many of us have. We feel that our phones, our apps, and our browsing are somehow hijacking our ability to read a book for more than few minutes at a time. We sense a diminished capacity to lose ourselves even in moments of true joy. We can detect an angrier, more defensive edge to many conversations even within the church, as people increasingly seem to talk past one another and retreat into competing enclaves that reinforce their opinions. Yet we are often unable to name this problem, and as a result, we’re too frequently left in a muddle of guilt and frustration.

Unfortunately, Christian approaches to this dilemma often settle for generalities. Like the teenage couple that just wants to know how far is too far, believers immersed in the world of the Internet often just want the bare minimum that can appear to “balance” screen time with private devotions or the weekly Sunday service. But this isn’t enough. The challenge before us isn’t to figure out how to inject a little bit of Jesus into our digital dreamworlds. It’s to wake up.

Wisdom’s Wake-Up Call

The book of Proverbs offers an especially compelling wake-up call:

Does not wisdom call?
         Does not understanding raise her voice?
On the heights beside the way,
         at the crossroads she takes her stand;
beside the gates in front of the town,
         at the entrance of the portals she cries aloud:
“To you, O men, I call,
         and my cry is to the children of man.
O simple ones, learn prudence;
         O fools, learn sense.” (Proverbs 8:1–5)

“Every wise word or action has one thing in common: a deep resonance with God-centered reality.”

While it may be tempting to think that the intellectual ethic of the Internet is so far removed from the experience of the biblical authors that they offer nothing to guide us, this would be a profound mistake. Lady Wisdom calls out to digital sleepers, inviting them to feast at her house. This is an invitation we need, because it’s precisely wisdom that our screen-addled age lacks. Wisdom, after all, is nothing less than the habit of living in accordance with what’s real. The God who really exists and the world he really made require us, as some theologians have put it, to “live with the grain of reality” rather than against it. While living wisely has many different facets, every wise word or action has this in common: a deep resonance with God-centered reality.

The connection between wisdom and the real physical world is clear in Proverbs 3:19–20:

The Lord by wisdom founded the earth;
         by understanding he established the heavens;
by his knowledge the deeps broke open,
         and the clouds drop down the dew. (Proverbs 3:19–20)

And in Proverbs 8:27–31, Lady Wisdom beautifully sings of how her handiwork is permanently engraved on the creation:

When he established the heavens, I was there;
         when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when he made firm the skies above,
         when he established the fountains of the deep,
when he assigned to the sea its limit,
         so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
         then I was beside him, like a master workman,
and I was daily his delight,
         rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
         and delighting in the children of man. (Proverbs 8:27–31)

Wisdom is no mere grab bag of helpful quotes or memorable witticisms. Wisdom is the “master workman” through whom the whole (real!) universe was brought forth. Wisdom finds delight in the Creator’s inhabited word and in the humans who reflect the Creator’s glory throughout the cosmos. Wisdom, in other words, is deeply awake to the sheer wonder of the world and the people God has made.

“Wisdom is deeply awake to the sheer wonder of the world and the people God has made.”

In applying Carr’s insights about “the intellectual ethic” of the Internet to the biblical teaching of wisdom, I’ve come to refer to the disembodied character of the Web as a set of “digital liturgies.” Like a church service, the Web is a spiritual habitat that works on our minds and hearts to incline us to think, feel, and believe in certain ways. Why is it so hard to think well? Because the digital liturgies of distraction and novelty are crippling our capacity to grasp big, non-Instagrammable truth. Why is it so easy to feel more unified with online personalities than with the people in our actual home or church? Because the digital liturgies of custom-made identities and curated timelines tell us we should be able to be only what we choose to be. Immersed in these technological narratives, our default is to make the dream our reality.

Paths of Resistance

How can we, through wisdom, resist this?

First, we can structure our lives deliberately to give weight to the people, experiences, and things that are physically real. The habit of morning devotions may seem quaint, but it’s a habit passed down by saints who have experienced its power. In a world of unending ephemera, God has given us permanent words to anchor, convict, and comfort us.

We can also deliberately break our relationships out of the digital prison. A phone call or lunch date connects us to each other much more than a direct message or a “Like.” A good book or hands-on hobby will refresh us after a day in front of a screen much more than hours of streaming or scrolling. Getting outside, with no intention of leveraging the experience for social media applause later, puts us in the path of wisdom by reminding us that God’s world is much bigger than our heads.

Second, we can actively cultivate the habits of deep thinking and winsome speech that the Web erodes. Before the latest news headline or theological controversy drives you to Google, looking for quick reads you can use to jump in the fray, consider taking a few weeks to work through a book or meaty essay that will genuinely enlighten you. Resist the temptation to seek admiration by being the fastest, smartest, or most sarcastic online critic, and redirect that effort toward the kind of comprehension that John’s high Christology or Paul’s precise theology demands.

Finally, we can consider practical measures that keep the world of the Internet playing second fiddle in the daily rhythms of our lives. In his book The Tech-Wise Family, Andy Crouch commends regular tech-free stretches: one hour per day, one day per week, and one week per month of deliberate withdrawal from the most immersive and addictive online activities. Cal Newport outlines a more rigorous “digital detox” in his book Digital Minimalism that can help us rediscover which technologies actually serve our values, and which ones simply keep us hooked. Find an approach that works in your and your family’s season of life and that will help to incline you toward God’s wisdom rather than the un-reality of the Web.

serves as associate acquisitions editor at Crossway Books. He lives in Wheaton, Illinois, with his wife Emily and son Charlie.