The burden of this essay is to argue that while cyberspace technologies do open up profound new possibilities for imagining and inhabiting the world, there is a creational limitation to the human imagination: our bodies. Justin Bailey argues that personhood is always grounded in and governed by norms of embodiment – things like corporeality, locality, visibility, and temporality. This means that even in online spaces, the body continues to act as the arbiter of meaning, and dreams of transcending the body turn out to be mere fantasies. Though humans may attempt to suppress these norms and technologies may undermine them, the norms of embodiment, as part of our creational structure, will continue to work their way to the surface. Living faithfully in cyberspace begins with discerning where the norms of embodiment are already at work, as representative of where God may also be at work in orienting the human search for meaning. Justin Bailey is a Ph.D. candidate at Fuller Theological Seminary.
Introduction: The Modern Cyborg’s Dilemma
In 1996 seven young MIT researchers embarked on an experiment to live as cyborgs. With computers in their backpacks, keyboards in their pockets, and displays affixed to their glasses, they could be connected to the Internet without interruption. While faculty sponsors explained the project in terms of augmentation (increased organization, productivity and memory), the researchers themselves testified to a transformed conception of self. One explained his relationship to the technology like this: “I feel invincible, sociable, better prepared. I am naked without it. With it, I’m a better person.” And yet, the researchers also reported a novel experience of diffusion. Since they simultaneously inhabited the virtual and the physical world, “they could be with you, but they were always somewhere else as well.”1
Does this scenario sound familiar? Twenty years later, the dilemma of a few eccentric researchers has become the situation of nearly everyone in modernized societies. The boundary between online and offline worlds has become increasingly porous. In these terms we are all cyborgs of a sort.
Our ubiquitous screens and unceasing Internet connections raise a question: do cyberspace technologies merely augment our experience of the world, or do they fundamentally reshape us: our imagination, spirituality, and humanity? This essay assumes some version of the latter condition; yet the more interesting question is not whether technology reshapes us but to what extent. One popular book argues that that the Internet is changing the structure of our brains, making it increasingly difficult to sustain depth of concentration or thought.2 Other proposals are even more drastic: virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier warns that we are being coded toward reductive views of personhood. By Lanier’s estimation, unless the Internet is put back on course, our spirituality will “commit suicide” and consciousness will successfully “will itself out of existence.”3
In dialogue with Lanier, I want to test the limits of cyberspace technology and the malleability of human personhood. With Lanier I affirm that technology is never neutral; our gadgets embody and encourage particular ways of imagining and inhabiting the world. Yet while Lanier laments that we are in danger of losing our very selves, my proposal is more moderate. I argue that though cyberspace technologies open up profound possibilities, there is a limitation to the human imagination: our bodies.
Rooted in doctrines of creation, incarnation, and bodily resurrection, Christian theology affirms embodiment as an unqualified good for human creatures. Accordingly, our personhood is always grounded in and governed by certain norms of embodiment – corporeality, locality, visibility, and temporality. This means that even in online spaces, the body continues to act as an arbiter of meaning, and dreams of transcending the body turn out to be mere fantasies. Though humans may suppress these norms and technologies may undermine them, the norms of embodiment, as part of the divine project for humanity from creation to new creation, will continue to work their way to the surface.
The first section of the essay deals with the idea that cyberspace technologies will redefine what it means to be human. In this section I enter into dialogue with Lanier before attempting to address his concerns from the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, which serves as the philosophical foundation of my argument. The second section of the essay surveys research on the status of the body in online spaces in order to corroborate my argument. The final section advocates a theological approach to cyberspace that attempts to locate the norms of embodiment already at work in cyberspace technologies. Here I argue that the success of various cyberspace technologies is due in part to their ability to compensate for embodied norms called into question by other technologies. Successful cyberspace technologies are always funded by some embodied norm, even if other norms are undermined. Living faithfully in cyberspace begins with discerning where the norms of embodiment are at work, as representative of where God’s Spirit may also be at work, orienting the human search for meaning in the direction of its embodied telos.
Contested Personhood and the Power of Computer Scientists
Jaron Lanier’s Computational Realism
When Jaron Lanier’s self-described “manifesto” You Are Not a Gadget was published, Newsweek called him “the first great apostate of the Internet era.” Here was the father of virtual reality pumping the brakes and claiming that his computer science friends were driving the bus in the wrong direction. Although he dedicates his book to these colleagues, his real audience is the everyday user of sites like Facebook, YouTube and Wikipedia (which Lanier calls “Web 2.0” technologies). Lanier’s conviction is that these technologies imprint particular philosophies on the user; indeed, the most important thing about a technology is not what it enables but how it changes the user. He writes:
We make extensions to your being, like remote eyes and ears (webcams and mobile phones) and expanded memory (the world of details you can search for online). These become the structures by which you connect to the world and other people. These structures in turn can change how you conceive of yourself and the world. We tinker with your philosophy by the direct manipulation of your cognitive experience, not indirectly, through argument.4
The result of this tinkering, Lanier argues, is that now “people will accept ideas presented in technological form that would be abhorrent in any other forms” (48). The philosophies enshrined in these new technologies hold a reductive view of personhood, from artificial intelligence models that reduce human intelligence to inputs and outputs, to Facebook, which reduces human friendship to the exchange of personal trivia (68-69). Lanier manifesto warns against the “lock-in” of Web 2.0 philosophies, where these reductive ways of thinking about humanity will become the default social imaginary. Although Lanier believes that in some ways lock-in has already begun, it is not an irrevocable event. There is still time to put the Internet back on course.
Lanier’s manifesto is refreshing for its rejection of a hard “metahuman technological determinism” since “the net doesn’t design itself. We design it” (55). Yet he maintains a soft technological determinism insofar as he implies that if things are allowed to continue on the current trajectory, the most fundamental aspects of existence hang in the balance. Lanier calls for course correction because he believes that “the future of religion will be determined by the quirks of the software that get locked in during the coming decades, just like the future of musical notes and personhood” (18). Religion, music, and personhood are determined by the quirks of software? This provocative claim begs for further investigation.
Unlike some technological Luddites, Lanier’s question is not whether we will love our gadgets more than people. His question is rather, “what is a person?” How do our gadgets change the way that we construe personhood? For Lanier, personhood seems to be simultaneously mysterious (as if bestowed) and malleable (as if constructed). Lanier is convinced that a person is “not a pat formula, but a quest, a mystery, a leap of faith” (5). Because personhood is so mysterious any attempt to codify it into software is necessarily reductive. Yet Lanier also believes that personhood is ultimately malleable. This leads to an awkward and apologetic shuffling between two levels of argumentation: the second floor, where Lanier takes a “mystical” view of human beings and the first floor, where Lanier advocates for methodological materialism, since positing a mystical plane declares in advance “what you will and will not be able to explain.” Lanier admits that he is “contradicting” himself but only because of the different aims in his specialized work with scientists and his generalized work making tools for humanity. “Perhaps it would be better,” he writes, “if I could find a single philosophy that I could apply equally to each circumstance, but I find that the best path is to believe different things about aspects of reality when I play these different roles or perform different duties” (154).
In order to maintain the mystery of personhood within his materialistic framework, Lanier calls for “realistic computationalism.” This means that human beings can be thought of as very advanced computers, as long as we eschew comparisons to our current computer models. Compared to our “just-designed-yesterday” inventions, “the cybernetic structure of a person has been refined by a very large, very long, and very deep encounter with physical reality.” This means that we might never know the specifics of personhood from a computational point of view, but while we are trying to figure things out, we can allow provisional and plausible computational creation myths to “stand in for awhile” (157).
In the absence of a concrete faith, grounded in revelation (which Lanier believes would shut down scientific inquiry), this is perhaps the only route left open to him. Certainly, Lanier wants personhood to continue to be imagined in ways that respect its mystery, its irreducibility, its je-ne-sais-quoi. Yet within a computational framework, he is obliged to put his faith for its preservation in a human agency that he also believes is ultimately at the mercy of the coders and computer scientists, who hold the real power in directing humanity.
I want to counter that our bodies provide God-given, creational limitations to the human imagination, and that these limitations are a gift. Thus, while personhood is not so fixed as to shut down further inquiry, it is grounded in and governed by what I am calling “the norms of embodiment” (what I mean by each of these terms will be discussed in section 3). If these creational limits exist, personhood will at a certain point refuse to be reduced, and consciousness cannot be willed out of existence no matter how hard we try. This also means that even in online spaces we should expect the body to ground human meaning, a consensus that is being borne out across multiple fields of Internet study (section 2). Yet first it is necessary to situate Lanier within a larger philosophical discussion on embodiment.
Disembodiment: Dreamers and Dissenters
The dream of disembodiment figures significantly in philosophy: it is at least as old as Plato, for whom corporeality was a necessary burden, such that the body was spoken of as the prison house of the soul. Christian Platonists like Augustine rejected this picture, at least officially. The central doctrine of Christianity, after all, was that God’s Son had become flesh in order to renew embodied humanity. As Augustine writes, Christ “appeared to men not merely visibly – for he could have done that in some ethereal body adapted to our weak powers of vision – but as a true man. The assuming of our nature was to be also its liberation.”5 Thus, although the body is subject to seduction by temporal pleasure, the embodied structure is good, and it finds redemption and fullness through the salvation brought by Christ:
When the soul has been regenerated by the grace of God and restored to its integrity, and made subject to him alone by whom it was created, its body too will be restored to its original strength, and it will receive power to possess the world, not to be possessed by the world.6
Nevertheless, the Platonic tendency to deprecate the body was hard to shake. For Augustine, although it is clear that the body is not intrinsically evil, it is also clear that the mind is “better than the body,” meant to rule over it, the way a charioteer controls his chariot.7 This is representative of a developing tendency within Christian thought for constructing a hierarchy of mind over body that corresponded to the biblical opposition of spirit and flesh. Among other things, this meant a preference for intellectual contemplation over bodily sensation, where the latter is considered untrustworthy if not dangerous.
The cognitivist legacy came to a head in Descartes, who by grounding his existence in his act of thinking alone seemed to suggest that the mind and the body are only contingently related.8 Descartes posited that humans have a mental representation of the world in our minds that allows us to create rules, make inferences and act. The Cartesian legacy is one in which the body, though “tightly bound” with the mind, is theoretically dispensable.
Operating on Cartesian assumptions, early purveyors of artificial intelligence began forecasting that we would soon find a way to make the body actually dispensable. Parallels were drawn between the human mind and computers since both were “symbolic representation systems” governed by rules that drive actions. In 1965, a leading computer scientist predicted machines would “be capable, within twenty years, of doing any work that a man can do.”9 Fifty years later, the rhetoric of inevitability continues. In describing my argument to a colleague, I expressed doubt that robots would ever be able to do all that humans can do. His response: “Give it ten years.”
Yet philosopher of technology Hubert Dreyfus has argued that most models of artificial intelligence are doomed from the start precisely because they adopt a Cartesian model of mental representation, neglecting the importance of the body.10 Dreyfus points to the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty to fill this gap, and I want to offer a brief sketch of Merleau-Ponty’s thought as a philosophical ground for my argument.
A Sketch of Merleau-Ponty’s Thought
Merleau-Ponty’s salient point is that the body is our anchor for making meaning in the world: “rather than a mind and a body, man is a mind with a body, a being who can only get at the truth of things because its body is, as it were, embedded in those things.”11 The shift from “and” to “with,” though subtle, is crucial. Merleau-Ponty’s point is that cognition is always embodied cognition; embodiment is the condition of possibility for consciousness of the world.12
Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy attempts to do justice to both the subjective and objective poles of bodily experience. He rejects behaviorism, which in treating the body as an object holds that mental phenomena are caused by the involuntary reflex of the senses to outside stimuli. For Merleau-Ponty, our ability to organize the flood of stimuli is preconditioned by a prior search for meaning: “a stimulation is not perceived when it reaches a sensory organ that is not ‘attuned’ to it. The organism’s function in the reception of stimuli is, so to speak, ‘to understand’ a certain form of stimulation” (77). In other words, when my eye follows a squirrel running across my yard, causality alone does not explain my response; my response only makes sense because my body is “always and already interrogating the world.” This means that environmental causality is circular, where the body “provides the reflex with its original significance.”13 Thus we cannot say that perception of the world is merely instinctual, since it is part of the body’s search for sensory significance.14
By the same token, Merleau-Ponty rejects the idea that our perception of the world is merely intellectual, since intellectualism treats the body as no more than an extension of the thinking subject.15 Given intellectualism, the body only moves upon carrying out the instructions sent to it by the mind: when I prepare to enter a low doorway, for example, my mind quickly measures the distance, makes mental calculations and then sends commands to my body to adjust accordingly. Merleau-Ponty argues that the reality of bodily perception is much more organic: I duck because I am immediately and tacitly aware of the relation of my body to the doorway. This does not mean that perception of the world has been relocated simply from the mind to the body; it has been relocated to my body embedded in the world. As Charles Taylor puts it, “The locus here is the ability to move-in-this-environment. It exists not just in my body, but in my body-walking-the-streets.”16
Two technical terms are worth mentioning here: the first is the “body schema,” which for Merleau-Ponty replaces the Cartesian model. The body schema is our tacit knowledge of our immediate relation to the world and what possibilities exist (102). The body schema, which exists on a precritical level, is constantly adjusting throughout our physical interaction with the world: simple examples are our spontaneous adaptations made in keeping our balance or the acquisition of new skills that become so integrated that they can be performed intuitively, even mindlessly. The second technical term is the “virtual body,” the imaginative capacity of the body to consider innovative ways of inhabiting the world (260-261). While the virtual body explores imaginative possibilities, the body schema grounds possibilities outside of my own subjectivity, since the body schema is responsive to the physical world, “which flows through me without my being its author” (224). Samuel Todes builds on Merleau-Ponty’s work, adding that even as the body experiences imagination-limiting structures in the world, the body itself has a limiting structure: a front and a back, a greater facility moving forward than backward, as well as other narrowly prescribed ranges of motion.17 The result is that as Taylor writes,
The most primordial and unavoidable significances of things are, or are connected to, those involved in our bodily existence in the world: our field is shaped in terms of up and down, near and far, easily accessible and out of reach, graspable, avoidable and so on.18
We make sense of reality as we alternate between our actual position in the world and embodied possibility, between the customary body schema and the virtual body. As the virtual body imaginatively interrogates physical reality, we develop a grip on the world around us. So Merleau-Ponty:
My body is geared into the world when my perception provides me with the most varied and the most clearly articulated spectacle possible, and when my motor intentions, as they unfold, receive the responses they anticipate from the world. This maximum clarity in perception and action specifies a perceptual ground, a background for my life, a general milieu for the coexistence of my body and the world. (261)
Our active, imaginative embodiment is the ground of us being able to make meaning of the world. It is only once we have seen the irreducibility of our bodily embeddedness that we can begin to think about what it might mean to extend oneself into online spaces.
Extending the Body Schema
Merleau-Ponty writes that external objects can be incorporated into the body schema. In an example with which we all can relate, he writes: “the student who learns to type literally incorporates the space of the keyboard into his bodily space” (146). We can “habituate” ourselves to things like hats, canes, and automobiles, meaning that we “take up residence in them, or inversely… make them participate within the voluminosity of one’s own body” (145). Notice that it is the fact that the body is being extended that allows us to find meaningful spaces outside the body:
Our body is not merely one expressive space among all others…Our body, rather, is the origin of all the others…it projects significations on the outside by giving them a place and sees to it that they begin to exist as things, beneath our hands and before our eyes. (147)
The relevant question for our purposes is this: can a person habituate herself not just to a keyboard but also to a virtual world, so that the virtual space is integrated into the body schema? It would seem so. Merleau-Ponty writes:
The body is our general means of having a world. Sometimes it restricts itself to gestures necessary for the conservation of life, and correlatively it posits a biological world around us. Sometimes, playing upon these first gestures and passing from their literal to figurative sense, it brings forth a new core of signification through them – this is the case of new motor habits, such as dance. And finally, sometimes the signification aimed at cannot be reached by the natural means of the body. We must, then, construct an instrument, and the body projects a cultural world around itself.…The body, then, has understood and the habit has been acquired when the body allows itself to be penetrated by a new signification, when it has assimilated a new meaningful core. (147-148, emphasis added)
With our body as the anchor, we can instrumentally extend our embodiment, projecting a new world around us. Yet the corollary of this is that due to the limiting structure of the body, the further the body is extended, the more we lose the sense of grip that is so essential for making meaning. Indeed, tools meant to amplify certain bodily skills often numb the body part they amplify.19 As Kierkegaard reminds us, what is gained in extensity is lost in intensity.20 This should moderate both our optimism and alarmism on how far we can extend the body schema in online contexts.
What might Merleau-Ponty and Lanier say to each other? My guess is that Lanier the mystic would resonate with Merleau-Ponty’s project even as Lanier the computer scientist would reject Merleau-Ponty’s “magical” description of bodily apprehension.21 On the other hand, Merleau-Ponty might affirm that Lanier is on the right track in that his realistic computationalism is rooted in the encounter of human bodies with the physical world, rather than an intellectualist account of information processing (though Lanier waffles on this).22 Yet nothing about Lanier’s account treats embodiment as a necessary condition of what it means to be a human person.
Perhaps the most fitting representative to respond to Lanier is Dreyfus himself, whose critique of artificial intelligence models draws heavily from Merleau-Ponty. Like Lanier, Dreyfus worries about the potentially harmful effects of the Internet, including that time spent online may undermine our ability “to get a maximum grip on the world that gives us our sense of the reality of things.” But whereas Lanier seems to believe that we are in real danger of giving up our grip in favor of algorithms that “understand us better than we understand ourselves,” Dreyfus is skeptical: “the Net’s greatest advantage, freedom from the limits imposed by our bodies, is, ironically, its Achilles heel.”23 Dreyfus argues that body-based meaning is too essential for humans to give it up willingly:
In cyberspace, then, without our embodied ability to grasp meaning, relevance slips through our non-existent fingers. But how then do people ever find what is relevant to their concerns? [They find it because]…the world is not a meaningless collection of billions of facts. Rather, it is a field of significance organized by and for beings like us with our bodies, desires, interests, and purposes.24
Put another way, if our bodies are so central in meaning-making, the way we have organized the world is based on our embodied experience. Thus we should expect the body to continue to play a significant role when transported into online contexts.
In this first section of the essay I have tried to situate Lanier’s concerns over the reduction of personhood in a larger discussion on the importance of the body. By focusing on the irreducibility of embodied personhood, I am not arguing that our conceptions of personhood and personal identity are unaffected by time spent online, only that the body is not in real danger of being transcended. This corroborates my theological claim that embodiment is an unqualified good of creaturehood, and that creational structure grounds human exploration even as the Spirit of God guides us toward embodied norms. The next section of the essay seeks further to substantiate this claim from recent literature on embodiment and cyberspace, before asking just how much power cyberspace media has in redefining something as fundamental as personhood.
The Status of the Body in Cyberspace
What is actually happening to the body in cyberspace? Since the earliest days of the Internet, enthusiasts have wondered about the potential of cyberspace for transcending the body. William Gibson, who coined the term “cyberspace” in a 1986 novel, depicts a protagonist who “jacks in” to a Matrix-like deck that projects his disembodied consciousness into a “consensual hallucination.”25 Within 10 years, the conception of cyberspace as a place where one could leave the body behind had taken root. The Internet was framed as a matrix of minds.26 In fact, some argued that online, embodied difference might no longer matter: without markers of gender, race, or sexuality, Descartes’ dream of pure minds could finally be realized.27 Some hoped that this could mean the end of difference-based discrimination, and that digital technology would be “a natural force drawing people into greater world harmony.”28 Others more moderately suggested that the Internet would lead to profound possibilities for body-transcending identity experimentation. If life online did not mean the end of discrimination, it would at least lead to an increase in empathy.29 Still others of the Net’s more revolutionary supporters went a step further and argued that beyond body-based difference, embodiment would soon no longer be necessary. Human consciousness could continue to live in the cloud as symbolically represented brain waves, leaving the body to be upgraded, replaced, or simply abandoned. Elaine Graham signaled an era of post-humanism, where “the contours of human bodies are redrawn: they no longer end at the skin.”30
Yet as the field of Internet studies has matured, researchers have consistently found that the body is not so easily transcended. One of the most frequent opening salutations in Internet’s early days was “asl”: age, sex, location. Far from trying to interact as pure minds, participants were consistently trying to get a better grip on the identity of the people with whom they were conversing, using traditional markers. After surveying studies on computer-mediated communication, one researcher concluded: “There comes a point at which users crave information about traditional markers of the body.”31 Furthermore, though some users were deceptive about these details, outrage over being misled about someone’s “true” offline identity illustrates “how the body functions as the final arbiter of truth, authenticity and meaning.”32 Even the relatively novel concept of an Internet “troll” suggests that embodied interaction is the standard by which civil online engagement is measured. A troll, after all, is a person who says something under the protection of online anonymity that he would never say if bodily present. Despite Lanier’s fears that the Internet may become a place where everyone’s “inner troll” is unleashed, this is unlikely to occur as long as the norms of embodied interaction continue to distinguish sites where true dialogue takes places from the haunts of hobgoblins (something that is only accomplished by the work of engaged and embodied human moderators!).
Moreover, research has found that while identity experimentation does occur in online spaces, it is not as drastic as originally imagined. While early research suggested that users were beginning to see real life as “just one more window” among many virtual spaces, as Internet access went mainstream, this became the exception rather than the rule.33 Overwhelmingly, the reverse was true: cyberspace was “one more venue in which to codify our offline identities.”34 Correspondingly, research into online religion has found that despite fears of disembodied spirituality, most online congregants were significantly involved in offline communities. Campbell writes that
Community online served as a “supplement, not substitute” for offline church involvement, as members joined online communities in order to meet specific relational needs, yet recognized that they could not fully meet social needs and a desire for shared embodied worship experience in this context.35
Again, this is not to say that going online has no effect on religious practice. In discussions of cyber-religion, a distinction has emerged in the research between “religion online” and “online religion.”36 While the former explores the extension of religion into the virtual world, transcending conventional limitations (such as authoritative gatekeepers), the latter represents how the Internet has facilitated “new forms of religiosity and lived religious practices.” Yet this is hardly a clean-cut division; in fact researchers often focus on the reciprocal relationship between the two spheres, as participants try to bring holism to their lived experience.37
In light of recent research, some theorists have taken a more moderate path, making a distinction between embodiment and corporeality. Young and Whitty summarize this approach: “What we are presented with is a description of a self that transcends the physical body, but not embodiment.”38 The idea is that as users online construct online personas, they are free from corporeality but not the need for some form of embodiment. Indeed, the construction of an avatar signifies the importance of some form of a body to fully inhabit the online world.
Meanwhile other researchers question whether even corporeality is transcended online. Far from escaping the limits of bodily-based difference, researchers consistently find that “cyberselves” almost invariably reinforce culturally prescribed standards of beauty.39 Thus, when users are allowed to create virtual bodies, their avatars often resembled their offline selves, only with exaggerated markers of “gender, race, and youth that they lack in the world of corporeal physicality.” Laura Robinson writes:
Male characters are constructed with hulking, muscled bodies, while female characters are given lithe bodies such that these cyberbodies appear ‘masculine or feminine to an exaggerated degree’. The virtual construction of breasts and muscles compensates for the loss of materiality engendered by the virtualizing of the body.”40
I want to pick up on this idea of compensation in a moment, but for now the point is that even in secondary worlds, body-based difference is taken quite seriously. The centrality of our bodies in meaning-making pushes back against technological determinism in both its hard and soft forms. The assumption that technology in general and communication technology in particular is the most important causal factor in determining the structure of society (or the mind) proves to be overstated.41 This is not to say that technology is neutral or that its use does not exert a powerful influence on its users. It is rather to say that technology may be a necessary condition for changing a social imaginary but is not a sufficient condition. Technology changes us as we use it for certain ends, which are preconditioned but not wholly determined by the technological form itself.
It is possible, after all, for technology to undermine aspects of embodied life without fundamentally diminishing it. Sherry Ortner argues that there is always a reciprocal effect in which culture forms social actors, but social actors “through their living, on-the-ground, variable practices, reproduce or transform – and usually some of each – the culture that made them.”42 The fact of digital distraction rarely exempts us from regular physical interaction with the people that we see at work, church, school, gym, or grocery store. Our responses to each of these embodied domains form us deeply as well, becoming part of a larger narrative in which we pursue a meaningful and integrated life.
Interestingly, Hojsgaard and Warburg point to three waves of research on the relationship of religion and the Internet, which may be broadly representative of Internet studies in general. The first wave focused on the seemingly limitless possibilities of the Internet, leading to either utopian or dystopian forecasts of the future. The second wave was “more realistic,” and focused on the agency of people who were using technology to create new practices and forms of life. The third wave is focused on developing larger interpretive frameworks and to analyze how the ubiquity of the Internet in everyday life is influencing online and offline practices.43
Technology is always placed into the hands of cultural agents whose use creates a virtual cycle of appropriation and innovation. The things we make play a role in making us, but unlike computers, we are not passive, waiting to be encoded. As I will show in the next section, we are active participants pursuing online and offline projects that have varying degrees of compatibility with God’s kingdom project. And God’s project for human persons, from beginning to end, includes embodiment.
Explaining the Norms of Embodiment
At this point I would like to unpack my phrase, “the norms of embodiment”: corporeality, visibility, locality, temporality. By “norms” I mean regulative principles that reflect the structure of creation and set the course for God’s continuing work. Here I am following the neo-Calvinist understanding, as summarized by Robert Goudzwaard:
The purpose of norms is to bring us to life in its fullness by pointing us to paths which safely lead us there. Norms are not straitjackets which squeeze the life out of us….The created world is attuned to those norms; it is designed for our willingness to respond to God and each other.44
By “corporeality” I mean the presence of a material body that is directly apprehensible by corporeal others. By “visibility” I mean that I am seen and held accountable to my presence; I am not anonymous. By “locality” I mean that I am in this particular place and not in another place. By “temporality” I mean that I am a being that experiences the succession of time. All of these aspects entail but do not exhaust what is meant by embodiment.
As part of humanity’s enduring creational structure, the norms of embodiment set the course for the continuing work of God’s Spirit to bring about God’s good purposes in creation. This means that humans can dream about disembodiment, but embodiment will keep working its way to the surface, so to speak, because the creational structure is being brought to fullness in Christ through the Holy Spirit. We cannot escape embodiment because the redemptive project of God involves the redemption of bodies:
For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. (Rom. 8:20-24)
God has been interested in bodies from the beginning, so much so that God’s Son took on a human body to redeem us as embodied beings from “the bondage of decay.” So Irenaeus: “[He] because of his immeasurable love became what we are in order to make us what he is.”45 This perfected body, Calvin points out, does not entail the absorption of our nature into God’s nature. Rather it is to “put off all the vices of the flesh,” to be “partakers of divine immortality and the glory of blessedness” and so to become “in a way one with God” but only “so far as our capacity allows.”46 To be human is to have limited capacities. It is to continue to be a creature, not the Creator. Even when we are liberated into the “freedom of the children of God,” it will not be freedom from embodiment. Embodiment is an unconditional good of creaturehood.
Locating and Celebrating the Body in Online and Offline Spaces
Thus, while certain norms of embodiment may be undermined by life online, the body funds life online just as it does life offline. This resonates with the argument of William Dyrness, who writes: “Modern people harbor the idea that they can do anything they like with their world. But this is an illusion. We can make something of our world, but not anything we like.”47 Applied to cyberspace, this means that “any value that the Internet might have works off the spiritual capital of actual communities and relations between embodied persons. It cannot replace these.”48 It is precisely because embodiment is, as Merleau-Ponty put it, the basis of us “having a world” that we should expect the body to continue to assert itself amidst new cyberspace technologies. I interpret such bodily assertions as common grace, sites of God’s sustaining and directing activity. The key is discerning where this is taking place.
Technologies can never replace fully embodied presence and so the relative success of various media will be funded in part by a celebration of norms undermined by other technological forms. The further the body schema is extended, the less intensely we can grip reality, leading to an illusion of disembodiment and disconnection for which other technologies then attempt to compensate. To discern the body in online spaces requires locating which norms of embodiment are undermined, and which norms are compensating for their loss.
Communication technologies thus are not created merely as supplements for offline life, but as complements for each other (see figure one). For example, analysts argue that the success of multi-user domains like Second Life is connected to the fact that everything happens in real human time. So Ikegami writes:
The real-time nature of avatar communications is less attractive for most modern people, who are always busy and on the move, and who do not want to be tied down to their computer for any length of time…the real-time coexistence requirement in fact makes the experience of communicating with others much more intense, deep and personal.49
The human connection that is lost in the absence of a physical body is moderated by the fact of “real-time coexistence.” To put it another way, in Second Life corporeality may be undermined, but temporality is celebrated.
By contrast, Facebook gives the illusion of transcending time: our online “timeline” is indexed and searchable at any moment, continuing even after our death, and undermining the norm of temporality. But Facebook trades on the norm of visibility: it taps into the need to be seen and known. Does Facebook reduce “being known” to the exchange of personal trivia? Perhaps. But I would argue that its value trades off the accumulated markers of visibility. As Niklas Serning writes: “Facebook alienates and shames, but it also validates, comforts and supports.”50 To provide a further contrast, Snapchat enable users to record and send short videos (“snaps”) that are immediately destroyed upon viewing. This medium undermines visibility; indeed, in its early days it was notorious as the technology of choice for “sexting.” It is funded, however, by the norm of locality. Unlike most online spaces, where your browsing history, preferences, and timeline are archived in perpetuity, Snapchats are only meant to be experienced once, in a particular time and place. To put it in chart form:
The constant creation of new media that compensate for undermined norms signifies that people are not just passively being led in the directions forged for us by our technologies; they are actively using diverse media forms to create a meaningful life as embodied beings.51 We would do well to create, celebrate, and appropriate technologies carefully, discerning where norms of embodiment, and behind them, God’s Spirit, is at work. Christian appropriation of Facebook, for example, should include not just a wariness of its tendency to displace us from time (or to waste our time!) but also a willingness to take seriously and engage the faces of those who become visible there.
More significantly, new technologies also point to the gaps inherent to all human communication. John Durham Peters argues that problems in communication are fundamentally intractable, a “permanent kink” in the human condition: “the dream of perfect communication … recapitulates the dream of telepathy, a meeting of minds that would leave no remainder. … communication as bridge always means an abyss is somewhere near.”52 Peters writes that we should not fear such abysses, because communication breakdown invites us not only to imagine new ways of relating, but more fundamentally to recognize our creaturely limits:
The failure of communication…allows precisely for the bursting open of pity, generosity, and love. Such failure invites us to find ways to discover others besides knowing. Communication breakdown is thus a salutary check on the hubris of the ego. Communication, if taken as the reduplication of the self (or its thoughts) in the other, deserves to crash, for such an understanding is in essence a pogrom against the distinctness of human beings.53
Peters’ solution is to define communication not in terms of “reduplication” but as “establishing ways to share one’s hours meaningfully with others,” which is “sooner a matter of faith and risk than of technique and method.”54
If Peters is right, communication technologies are ultimately emblematic of the human quest for a meaning-full life and any engagement with them must situate them in terms of the larger search for meaning. How do we share our hours meaningfully with others? Made in the image of a triune God, that is what we deeply desire.55 Yet our embodied finitude sets the terms of engagement, even as in our fallenness we believe ourselves capable of traversing the gaps. When we use technology with such hubristic hopes, idolatry is near and the result can only be a greater sense of alienation and disintegration. Indeed, it is reasonable to argue that the use of so many different media may fuel the fragmentation that is already endemic to modern life. But if certain technological forms undermine the norms of embodiment, there are numerous offline tonics to this problem. Part of “keeping in step with the Spirit” is choosing practices that celebrate our fully embodied lives. These embodied practices, performed according to liberating norms with embodied others, may include but are not limited to: preparing and sharing meals, making love, playing sports, greeting with a holy kiss, exercising, going to concerts, kneeling to pray, going out for a drink, gardening, learning to dance, singing, wrestling with one’s children, painting a fence, taking a walk, taking Communion, serving the hungry, comforting those who mourn, and visiting the sick. These last few practices are worth lingering over. Our screens sometimes insulate us from regular contact with the difficult and disruptive aspects of the human condition, things like sickness, poverty, and death. Sharing space with hurting bodies may have special power in undermining the unrealistic expectations we place on technology for transcending our humanness.56
Conclusion: Between Instrumentalism and Determinism
Neil Postman has written of “one-eyed prophets” who only see half the technological picture, either only the burdens or only the blessings that new technologies will bring to the world.57 With every new technological innovation, this scenario plays out afresh. One-eyed technological determinists speak of how the new medium will “change everything” for good or for ill; one-eyed technological instrumentalists maintain that our innovations are simply tools to be used for good or for ill.
This essay has tried to keep both eyes open, walking between the naiveté of instrumentalism and the inevitability of determinism. My argument has been that despite the directions that new technologies chart for humanities, certain aspects of our humanity remain anchored in our embodiment. This means that to Lanier’s question, “what is a person?” we can agree that a human person is “not a pat formula, but a quest, a mystery, a leap of faith,” but we must also add, “a body, created by God.” As created beings with finite bodies, we are not free to imagine and inhabit the world however we wish. This is a gift. Our bodies give a meaningful shape to our lives, including our lives online.58
Cite this article
- This story is related in Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic, 2012), 151–152.
- Nicholas G. Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011).
- Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2011), 20.
- Ibid., 5–6. Subsequent references will be cited in the text.
- Augustine, “On True Religion,” in Augustine: Earlier Writings, trans. John S. Burleigh (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953), 239.
- Ibid., 246.
- Ibid., 268-269.
- In actual experience, Descartes acknowledges a tighter connection: “I am not present in my body merely as a pilot is present in a ship; I am most tightly bound to it, and as it were mixed up with it, so that I and it form a unit.” Despite this unity in perception, the body’s experience in the world is ultimately mediated through the rational mind. René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy: With Selections from the Objections and Replies (London: Oxford University Press, 2008), 81.
- Quoted in Hubert L. Dreyfus, What Computers Still Can’t Do: a Critique of Artificial Reason (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992), 129.
- Harry Kreisler, “Meaning, Relevance, and the Limits of Technology: Conversation with Hubert L. Dreyfus,” Online Video, YouTube (November 2, 2005), http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JgbEnvVfqaU. See also Dreyfus, What Computers Still Can’t Do, 235ff.
- Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The World of Perception (London; New York: Routledge, 2004), 43.
- Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Donald A. Landes (Abingdon, Oxon; New York: Routledge, 2012). Subsequent references are cited in the text.
- James B. Steeves, Imagining Bodies: Merleau-Ponty’s Philosophy of Imagination (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2004), 17. See also Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Structure of Behavior (Beacon Press, 1963), 9–15.
- While the body can be seen and discussed empirically as an object, it usually “hides itself” and acts as the locus of the perceiving subject. Merleau-Ponty is interested in this continual interchange between the two poles, our “betweenness” as we try to make sense of the world. See James K. A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 43–44.
- So Smith: “Our being-in-the-world is between instinct and intellect.” Ibid., 43.
- Charles Taylor, “Merleau-Ponty and the Epistemological Picture,” in The Cambridge Companion to Merleau-Ponty (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 34.
- Samuel Todes, Body and World (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001).
- Taylor, “Merleau-Ponty and the Epistemological Picture,” 46.
- Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (London: Routledge, 2001), 63–70.
- Søren Kierkegaard, A Literary Review, trans. Alastair Hannay (London: Penguin, 2001), 68.
- “Magic” is a common way that Merleau-Ponty describes the relationship between our body and our cognition of the world, a fact that has not endeared him to cognitive scientists. See Hubert L. Dreyfus, “Merleau-Ponty and Recent Cognitive Science,” in The Cambridge Companion to Merleau-Ponty (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 132.
- Lanier writes that what was once abstractable bits of information is now experienced by humans as non-abstractable reality. Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget, 157.
- Hubert L. Dreyfus, On the Internet (London; New York: Routledge, 2001), 6–7.
- Ibid., 26.
- In the book, after the main character attempts to steal money from his employers, they remove his ability to jack in, and Gibson writes: “For Case, who’d lived for the bodiless exultation of cyberspace, it was the Fall….The body was meat. Case fell into the prison of his own flesh.” William Gibson, Neuromancer (New York: Ace Books, 1984).
- Steven Johnson, “Wired 11.06: Mind Share,” Wired Online, accessed November 27, 2013, http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/11.06/blog_spc_pr.html.
- See Garry Young & Monica T. Whitty, “In Search of the Cartesian Self: An Examination of Disembodiment Within 21st-Century Communication,” Theory & Psychology 20.2 (2010): 217–218.
- Nicholas Negroponte, Being Digital (New York: Vintage Books, 1996), 230. Negroponte writes: “A new generation is emerging from the digital landscape free of many of the old prejudices. These kids are released from the limitation of geographic proximity as the sole basis of friendship, collaboration, play, and neighborhood.”
- Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995).
- Elaine L. Graham, Representations of the Post/Human: Monsters, Aliens, and Others in Popular Culture (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2002), 4.
- Megan Boler, “Hypes, Hopes and Actualities: New Digital Cartesianism and Bodies in Cyberspace,” New Media & Society 9.1 (2007): 140.
- Ibid., 157.
- Sherry Turkle, Simulation and Its Discontents (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2009).
- Laura Robinson, “The Cyberself: The Self-Ing Project Goes Online, Symbolic Interaction in the Digital Age,” New Media & Society 9.1 (2007): 101.
- Heidi A. Campbell, “Understanding the Relationship between Religion Online and Offline in a Networked Society,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 80.1 (2012): 69.
- Heidi A. Campbell, Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds (Abingdon, Oxon; New York: Routledge, 2013), 2.
- Campbell identifies five key traits at this intersection, which she names “networked religion”: networked community, storied identities, shifting authority, convergent practice, and multisite reality. Campbell, “Understanding the Relationship between Religion Online and Offline in a Networked Society.”
- Young, “In Search of the Cartesian Self,” 219.
- Researchers studying text-based “cybersex” noted the conspicuous absence of “fat, ugly, persons with pimples, small breasts or tiny penises.” Dennis Douglass, Mark Edgley, and Charles Waskul, “Cybersex: Outercourse and the Enselfment of the Body,” SYMB Symbolic Interaction 23.4 (2000): 390.
- Robinson, “The Cyberself,” 99.
- Anthropologist Ruth Finnegan has argued vigorously against this technological assumption, arguing that technology is an “enabling factor” that opens up opportunities that a society may or may not take rather than determining the consequences by itself. Ruth H. Finnegan, Literacy and Orality: Studies in the Technology of Communication (Oxford, UK; New York, NY, USA: Blackwell, 1988), 38.
- Sherry B. Ortner, Anthropology and Social Theory: Culture, Power, and the Acting Subject (Duke University Press, 2006), 129.
- Morten Hojsgaard and Margit Warburg, Religion and Cyberspace (London: Routledge, 2012).
- Robert Goudzwaard, Capitalism and Progress: A Diagnosis of Western Society, trans. Josina Van Nuis Zylstra (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1997), 243.
- Irenaeus, Irenaeus of Lyons, trans. Robert McQueen Grant (London: Routledge, 1997), 164.
- Commentary on 2 Peter 1:4. Jean Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul to the Hebrews and the First and Second Epistles of St. Peter, ed. David W. Torrance (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1963), 330.
- William A. Dyrness, The Earth Is God’s: A Theology of American Culture (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997), 68.
- Ibid., 76.
- Eiko Ikegami, “Visualizing the Networked Self: Agency, Reflexivity, and the Social Life of Avatars,” Social Research 78.4 (2011): 1159–1160.
- Niklas Serning, “Towards the Cybernetic Mind,” Existential Analysis 23.1 (2012): 12.
- Users of Snapchat, for example, have already found ways to preserve and retrieve previously deleted “snaps,” bypassing the pre-set controls.
- John Durham Peters, Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 16.
- Ibid., 21.
- Ibid., 30.
- See Zadie’s Smith comment that Mark Zuckerberg uses the word “connection” the same way that a Christian uses the word “Jesus.” Zadie Smith, “Generation Why?,” New York Review of Books 57.18 (2010).
- Credit for this insight goes to my friend Matt Whitman.
- Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 5. Ironically, Postman is in my opinion emblematic of soft technological determinism. Postman concedes that his own work falls closer to this negative side, which he considers the lesser of the two errors.
- I am indebted to Bill Dyrness, Joshua Beckett, and Matthew Franklin Jones for comments on an earlier draft of this essay.