Restless Devices by Felicia Wu Song, Professor of Sociology at Westmont College, is a book published in 2021 by IVP Academic. The purpose of the book is clearly stated in the subtitle: “recovering personhood, presence, and place in the digital age.” While engineers build our digital tools, I am grateful for wise social scientists like Felicia Wu Song who can help us understand their wider impact. This timely book not only illuminates the challenges of a society saturated by digital technology but also points a way forward with practical guidance for living faithfully in a digital age. I’m grateful to have connected with Felicia several years ago and for the opportunity to chat about her recent book and how we can better imagine the kind of life we hope to live in the digital age.
DCS: What motivated you to write Restless Devices?
FWS: Over the past few years, more and more of us have felt overwhelmed and exhausted by the digital demands in our lives. And despite how much we may want to reduce the pervasiveness of the digital in our lives, most of us feel stuck. Restless Devices emerged out of a desire to offer a sociological description of how external forces make it difficult for individuals to exact real change in our digital lives, and then explore how the theological resources and practices of historical Christianity can help us imagine a path forward for living more deeply into our personhood.
DCS: In your book you suggest that technologies are shaping us through the digital habits and practices they foster. What are some examples of current technologies and how they form us?
FWS: The sheer ubiquity of devices and digital services has normalized the state of being permanently connected. Not only are more of us almost constantly checking our screens, but even when we aren’t looking at a screen, we’ve cultivated a mode of consciousness that is always aware and curious about what is transpiring online.
Similarly, because our devices offer a constant stream of novel content and stimulation, we can grow accustomed to relying on them when we are bored, feel awkward, or simply want to avoid any social interactions. In such a way, we can come to forget (or never get to even learn) how to cultivate an inner life that is grounded in stillness and calm OR how to be open to what in-person encounters can unexpectedly bring.
DCS: Your book includes some practical guidance for living faithfully in a digital age. Can you share a few of the practices that you describe in your book? What role does the church have in all this?
FWS: Being intentional and committed to creating sacred spaces and sacred times can be a productive exercise to practice. Cultivating a sacred space for rest (e.g., a bedroom) or communion (e.g., a dining table) is a positively-directed way of building a life that honors who we are as human beings. It isn’t so much about “getting rid” of technologies, but more about protecting the depths of our rest and celebrating the precious times we can enjoy with each other over a meal. Committing to sacred times like fifteen tech-free minutes after we first wake up (or before we go to bed) similarly signals to ourselves the significance of being wholly grounded in our own being during those waking or resting moments.
Theologies of time, embodiment and communion can help ignite the imagination about what is sacred and deserving of protection in our experience of personhood. Churches can encourage its members to identify and cultivate these sacred spaces and times in their own households, but also consider what aspects of their life together as a church community are deserving of such freedom from the digital as well.
DCS: Do you have any advice for Christian engineers and computer scientists who are contributing to the design and development of new digital technologies?
FWS: I hope creators of tech can always be curious about which assumptions about the human condition are built into the ways that we define problems to solve or limits to overcome. As people of faith, it seems we must honestly grapple with what aspects of our human condition are a part of our status as creatures (and therefore, not God) and which aspects of our human condition deserve thoughtful intervention in undoing the harm and inequalities rendered by the brokenness and tragedies of our world. While it is natural to draw from one’s own experience to define problems and seek solutions, I encourage engineers and computer scientists to spend more time bearing witness to a wide range of people’s experiences in order to be fully aware of how technologies might differently impact a wide range of people’s lives.
DCS: Thank you for taking time to share these insights—and for your book. People working in computer science and engineering need philosophers, theologians, and sociologists like yourself to help us discern how to shape our tools to promote genuine human goods. Thanks!