Today’s world is known as the internet age. Children at an increasingly young age navigate electronic devices with ease. Soon we will have a generation that will not know what it is like to live without electronic devices to communicate. This use of electronic devices to communicate has created what is known as a “network society”. In the book, Networked Theology: Negotiating Faith in Digital Culture, by Heidi Campbell and Stephen Garner, “The term “network society” was coined by Dutch media sociologist Jan van Dijk to describe the new form of society he saw developing” (Campbell and Garner 2016, 8). In the network society, it is believed that people function more as connected individuals and less as embedded group members (Campbell and Garner 2016, 9). Some in Christian circles believe that digital media is a neutral tool which can be used for the sake of the Gospel to reach the world. These technological optimists see the positive ways that technology can be used in missions and evangelism as well as church worship (Campbell and Garner 2016, 30). However, other Christians take a more pessimistic view of technology believing that it produces a variety of negative effects including the suppression of individuality and creativity, as well as dehumanizing people and relationships through impersonal communication structures (Campbell and Garner 2016, 31).
The book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, by Cal Newport takes a more pessimistic view of technology believing that digital media is anything but neutral. Newport believes the apps that users of digital media subscribe to are actually designed by tech companies to encourage behavioral addictions through intermittent positive reinforcement and the drive for social approval (Newport 2019, 17). He states, “The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them…was all about: “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?” (Newport 2019, 19). Newport teaches that the user must develop a “philosophy of technology” in which the focus of online time is on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value and then happily miss out on everything else (Newport 2019, 28). Newport then describes three core principles of this philosophy: number one is Clutter is costly, number two is Optimization is important, and number three is Intentionality is satisfying (Newport 2019, 35-36).
It would appear that there are legitimate concerns with the use of digital media in our networked society; however, it is impossible to metaphorically put the genie back in the bottle and ignore the digital world. The question is, can we have maximum theology, using technology or digital media in a way that is useful to the church while at the same time practice digital minimalism? I believe we can. Campbell and Garner suggest a core belief which says our religious community values should inform our media values (Campbell and Garner 2016, 106). This belief encourages us to consider the community we wish to reach with our digital media and examine the effect our media will have on the community. As Christians, I think this means that we are mastering technology and not letting technology master us. The Gospel message should not be cluttered with clever gimmicks to excite the user, but truly minister to those we wish to reach. It requires optimization and intentionality as well as staying true to our Christian values of loving others.
Campbell, Heidi, A., and Stephen Garner. Networked Theology: Negotiating Faith in Digital Culture. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016.
Newport, Cal. Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. New York: Penguin Random House, 2019.