Don’t Drown in the Digital Sea
I am drowning in a digital sea
I am slipping beneath the sound
Here my voice goes to ones and zeros
I’m slipping beneath the sound
The above chorus from the song “Digital Sea” by Thrice expresses the concern of Akiko Busch’s How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a time of Transparency. Busch strikes a cautionary note, part anthropology, and part sociology, about the impact of personal exposure in the digital age upon human identity. Using eclectic examples found in nature and society, she advocates for intentional times of retreat and rediscovery of the benefits of invisibility. Busch asserts, “It is a time . . . to reevaluate the merits of the inconspicuous life, to search out some antidote to the continuous exposure, and to reconsider the value of going unseen, undetected, or overlooked in this new world.” Generally speaking, hiddenness gets perceived negatively, while digital visibility appears normative and desirable in this day. Busch argues that “Invisible presences can have a stature and status of their own.” She articulates numerous benefits of being invisible at times rather than constantly being exposed digitally.
The book’s structure presents a single argument for the profits of an invisible life through personal and societal examples as varied as having imaginary friends, life in a coral reef, and the use of invisible ink. Busch states her book’s goal when she writes, “…my hope is to compile a field guide to invisibility, one to reacquaint us with the possibilities of the unseen world, to reimagine and reengineer our places in it with greater engagement and creative participation.” While not following a more standard structure of parts, the book contains one idea, illustrated and argued with many examples. Busch points out the application of invisibility to the spiritual realm and humanity’s search for meaning when she states, “…the quest for significance mandates that, somewhere along the way, we confront our insignificance.” In the cultural tide that pushes people toward public significance through visible means, could it be that the life we desire must include intentional invisibility? Confronting our insignificance proves challenging on platforms used to communicate our significance.
Busch’s argument for invisibility strikes a tone similar to Simon Walker’s analogy of the front and back stage. Busch’s hidden life sounds comparable to the back stage, where we house all the elements we do not show publicly. The hidden part of us conceals our feelings, dreams, hopes, plans, fears, frustrations, and thoughts. The visible life so common today through digital media allows for an almost constant stream of performances in front of our virtual audience. Busch and Walker both warn of the results of an imbalance between the visible and invisible parts of life. If personal behavior as performance becomes a source to affirm our identity, a life lived networked, constantly connected, and always on the front stage can lead to a dangerous imbalance.
Living in a Mormon-dominated culture, the detrimental results of stressing the external, exposed life over a healthy inner life manifests itself in several ways. Part of the LDS belief system asserts progression eternally and temporally as the outcome of faithful practice. The promise of Mormon faith includes a life that constantly moves forward, circumstances that get better, an income that grows, a family that thrives, to name a few. In this broken world, those promises rarely manifest themselves for long, if at all. If the push of a cultural current always drives toward positive growth, yet on some level but you know that is not reality, how do you deal with it? A few connections drawn between public expectations and private struggle in this culture seem to produce harmful results. Utah leads the nation in the abuse of prescription medication and has the third-highest suicide rate per capita. Numerous LDS people have shared their concerns about the pressures of progression, especially on their youth. “Our kids cannot be honest about their struggles” sounds a common concern often shared privately.
Our ministry context may teach some of the same promises of progression without stating them literally. Is the church growing? Is income up? Are we moving forward? Are we taking the next hill? In contrast, how many questions inquire about the inner, hidden life? My own experience finds that the questions we ask are primarily about the public parts of ministry, not the invisible part. I follow the podcast series “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill,” which details the public failure of more than one Christian church ministry. The podcast posits that what eventually played out publicly resulted from numerous aspects of unhealthy, unchecked back stage life.
I appreciate how Busch recognizes certain unhealthy dynamics of hiding. “I can tell you what invisibility is not. It is not loneliness, solitude, secrecy, or silence.” Sometimes hiding happens out of fear, like vulnerable animals avoiding real or perceived danger. Predators in the wild also hide with the intent to prey. Busch argues for a healthy disconnect from a life of exposure to reap the many benefits found in hidden places. More than any other benefit, she helps us understand the impact of disappearing on our identity. “I am convinced more and more that understanding how to disappear is part of understanding who we are. How to be depends on knowing how to be fully present and how to disappear as well…” May leaders find a healthy balance between their visible and invisible lives.
 Akiko Busch, How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency (New York: Penguin Books, 2019), 9.
 Ibid., 16.
 Ibid., 20.
 Ibid., 195.
 Ibid., 20.
 Ibid, 198.
12 responses to “Don’t Drown in the Digital Sea”
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Nice connection with Simon Walker, I didn’t think to make that comparison. Busch makes some good points but I never felt like she really got to the bottom of how to correctly interact with technology. Granted, it’s not an easy determination to make but there is so much good that comes from technology. If I go for a walk out in nature by myself, that won’t necessarily help me. It was a good book all and all, and I’m glad it was included on the list for this semester, but it lacked depth. On the upside, I will stop watching so many tic toc videos.
Roy, I really appreciate your use of the words “eclectic” input and “intentional” retreat. They create a very powerful impression. The concern of your LDS community and the impact of technology on their youth reminds me of the struggle Ukrainian immigrants had in the early 90s. It was like a culture clash. I also saw similar impact and concern in Poland in the mid 90s as the country transitioned from Socialism to a free market society. The fast pace changes were overwhelming and intrusive. They didn’t know how to find the restorative peace of invisibility. It was too much, too quickly. They didn’t have any experience to find the margins in their day or the ability to choose to retreat.
Denise, our church took teams to Ukraine in ’94 and ’95 and so much of what you describe was true there as well. As repressive as the socialist/communist regime had been, new found freedom created anxiety and restlessness in so many. I love that part of the world and hope to return one day soon!
Roy: What an interesting observation about how many of the questions we ask in ministry are focused on the outward and not the inward. In your current role, does this give you thought for other questions to begin incorporating that could target the inward health?
Kayli, yes, we have put in place a regular pattern of asking all our staff how things are going. Those meetings are gender specific so it doesn’t get weird for anyone. As we’ve done that, I feel we’ve done a much better job caring for our own staff rather than having them simply carry out a job responsibility. My thought about that my post comes from that step we’ve taken.
Roy, much thanks for your analysis of How to Disappear and you compare Busch and Walker. Indeed very often maintaining a front stage lifestyle relies heavily on social media and should be avoided at all costs. However, an area of concern for me is how Busch includes solitude and silence in describing what invisibility is not (page 20). While I agree that too much solitude or silence is not advisable, I can’t help but notice that Jesus had significant seasons of both, for instance during his 40 days of fasting. Do you think solitude and silence should be excluded from invisibility, or is this simply a matter of balance?
Thanks for your question, Henry. I do believe it’s a matter of finding balance. I believe part of balance is having accountability in your life – someone trusted who can speak the truth to you when needed. So many sad stories of people losing their ministry include a lack of accountability.
Roy, excellent post. You did a great job of connecting with the text and bring it front and center. Thank you. I also appreciated the connection to Walker regarding the front and back stage. Well done. I would concur; in my opinion, there is a real connection. I wonder, it seems that media is not going to go away, so is there a way of bringing genuine rawness into the mix, or is that also self-promoting?
Eric, I think there’s a place for rawness or authenticity for sure. I fear that some know that’s expected and, thus, create a fake version of authenticity, if that makes sense. So, if I create an identity that looks raw but is just a creation, it would be self-promoting in that case. Authenticity is great if it’s really authentic. Part of my pessimism around this comes from working with a staff member long ago who loved to say “I’m just real” but, it turns out, he was not real at all and led a secret life that cost him his marriage and ministry. I’m not sure how to solve that but I do know the younger generations are very good at spotting a fake.
Roy, thank you for your very thoughtful engagement with Busch’s writing, connecting it with Walker, and for your questions around what we emphasize in our church communities (external vs. internal questions). You’ve mentioned in the past some of the work your team is doing to change how you all evaluate your work. How are internally vs. externally focused questions a part of your team’s current reflections? What questions would you want to add–if any?
Elmarie, we meet with all staff regularly and have incorporated questions that ask about them and their life rather than just ministry related questions. Those meetings are gender specific and the results of that have led us to care much for our own staff. We ask: How are you doing? How is life at home? What do you need from us professionally or personally? In trusted relationships, those questions, over time, get honest answers. The church board does that with me as well.
Roy thank you for your sharing the connection with the LDS community and the challenges therein. One thing I would say is that it is not just LDS youth who find it difficult to be honest about their struggles. If we are honest, most people in church don’t reveal struggles very well. How often do we hear that the church gives the impression to those on the “outside” that the church is made up of people who think they have all things together…..most likely due to the ways we shame others for their sins? I think the church in general has unhealthy invisibility down pat.
You lifted up this quote of hers…“…the quest for significance mandates that, somewhere along the way, we confront our insignificance.” I wonder though if insignificance is really about invisibility? How would you compare/contrast these two as they relate to leadership?