How do visions of flourishing life converge in the new media landscape? Theologian Angela Gorrell (Baylor University) reflects on the challenges and opportunities of technology and digital life, especially those that reveal to us who we are, who we are becoming, and to whom we belong.
- The purpose of Always On: Practicing Faith in a New Media Landscape
- New media: not just social media, but entertainment, productivity, tools, and more
- How to develop interested conversations about the impact of new media on moral, relational, political, and spiritual life.
- How do visions of flourishing life converge in the new media landscape?
- Understanding (and exploiting) human psychology in new media business
- Seeking joy through affirmation and recognition
- Becoming curious and open to conversations about new media.
- The idolatry of technology
- The chief task of adolescence growing into healthy adulthood: Identity and belonging—Who am I? Whose am I?
- Recognition has become malformed in the new media landscape.
- The threat of diminished humanity through new media
- Being one’s real self online and in-person
- The importance of participation in order to act redemptively online
- Numbness, anxiety, and depression that comes through passivity
- When will you disengage from new media? When will you engage and participate?
- Developing a rhythm of life that appreciates human hybridity of physical and mental mediated life
- Ask: How can I nurture connection in digital spaces in meaningful ways?
About Angela Gorrell
Dr. Angela Williams Gorrell is Assistant Professor of Practical Theology at Baylor University's George W. Truett Theological Seminary. Prior to joining the faculty at Baylor University, she was an Associate Research Scholar at the Yale Center for Faith & Culture, working on the Theology of Joy and the Good Life Project, and a lecturer in Divinity and Humanities at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. She is an ordained pastor with 14 years of ministry experience. Dr. Gorrell is passionate about finding issues that matter to people and shining the light of the Gospel on them. She is currently working on a book that shares findings of the joy project while addressing America’s opioid and suicide crises. Dr. Gorrell’s expertise is in the areas of theology and contemporary culture, education and formation, new media, and youth and emerging adults.
Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. For more information, visit faith.yale.edu.
Angela Gorrell: The reason why flame wars, hostility, the trolling that happens online can happen. The reason why people can say such horrible things to one another, on Twitter, on Facebook, the reason why there is so much bullying among middle schoolers and high schoolers, shaming online, is because we diminish other people's humanness. And it's easier to do it online because when I'm on a social media platform, I can't see your facial expression when I say what I say to you. I can't smell you. I can't see your body language. I don't see your tears. So, I can diminish my sense of your personhood. And in doing that, then I can feel more free to do all these things that I've just mentioned. And so it's a real possibility online to live into and out of a sense of diminished humanness among all of us.
Evan Rosa: This is For the Life of the World, a podcast about seeking and living a life worthy of our humanity.
I'm Evan Rosa, with the Yale center for faith and culture. Mission statements, and vision statements, and mottos can reveal a lot about a company. So, let's read some from tech and social media companies, since that's what we're talking about today: technology, digital life, and new media. And why not make it a pop quiz? My fellow hot shots. I'll read the statement before identifying the company. So here we go.
Here's the first one: To give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly without barriers in ways that improve and not detract from a free and global conference. Think about it. Twitter. Second: To capture and share the world's moments. Instagram. Number three: To inspire creativity and bring joy. That's TikTok. Another one: To develop a people-centric cloud service that transforms the real-time collaboration experience and improves the quality and effectiveness of communications forever. Zoom, and just reading and it gives me PTSD around zoom fatigue. Having another one: To bring the world closer together. Of course, you know, that's Facebook. And finally: Don't be evil. Now, you might've said Google. And if so, you'd be right. That is until 2018, when they very quietly changed it to: Do the right thing.
There's a lot of moral assumptions, political assumptions, psychological assumptions, and maybe even spiritual assumptions loaded into these statements, and not just implicitly. TikTok is trying to bring you joy. Facebook is bringing the world closer together. Google's motto is a command: Do the right thing. They feed us a vision of flourishing life in these statements. And fair enough, we should seek joy. We should do the right thing. We should share ideas for the sake of truth seeking conversation, connection and close belonging. These things are surely, closely tied to our highest good, but I don't need to tell you that the mere use of new media technologies is insufficient to form good media habits, despite their moral and virtuous mission statements.
These products seldom seek user virtue as much as they're seeking simple shareholder profit and market share. But maybe even more challenging and troubling is that these products can scarcely be called products anymore. It's more like the atmosphere we breathe in which we move and have our being.
This kind of atmospheric, digital haze is what our guest today noticed as a graduate student of theology. Angela Gorrell is assistant professor of practical theology at Baylor University George W. Truett Theological Seminary, and author of Always On: Practicing Faith in a New Media Landscape. If we were always on before the pandemic, then we're always, always on now, sometimes too frightening and truly mind-numbing degrees. I need to give someone a hug, people.
Angela was associate research scholar at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture until 2019 and has remained a friend and close collaborator. Thanks for listening to my conversation with her today.
Angela, I'm so glad you joined us for this episode of For the Life of the World. Thanks for being here.
Angela Gorrell: Yeah, thank you for having me. I look forward to talking with you.
Evan Rosa: So, you've written Always On: Practicing Faith in a New Media Landscape, and it sure is a new media landscape these days. I think, I can only assume that, when you wrote this book, you did not predict a pandemic that would really end up making all of us even more dependent on digital social technology.
Angela Gorrell: Right.
Evan Rosa: And I wonder if you'd give us some context for both the originating purpose of the book in your mind, and then how that's changed in this environment.
Angela Gorrell: Yeah, certainly. In earlier this year, early, early 2020, when the pandemic hit and then everyone was online constantly, a couple of people asked me, "Do you think you're a prophet or something because you wrote this book and called Always On, and it came out a year before this, and now we're all literally on all the time on technology. It's the only thing that we can be doing and using to talk to each other?"
Evan Rosa: Yeah.
Angela Gorrell: I could have never imagined, certainly not in 2017, when I began to write this book that this would be the case for 2020. I wrote this book because when I was doing my PhD work, I was also a minister to youth and families at a church. And one night, in the basement, which is basically where all youth groups meet—in a basement somewhere, they're like, "this is a room that you all can have"—and I noticed how many cell phones were appearing in the room with me. And I I'm looking at all of them using these cell phones and I'm thinking, "how is this impacting their sense of identity formation, like who they are and who they're becoming? How is it impacting their relationship to each other? How is it going to impact their religious practices?"
And so, I decided one Sunday night while hanging out with a bunch of middle schoolers and high schoolers in a church basement, I think I need to dedicate my PhD studies to thinking about the relationship between Christian education and formation in social media—or, even more largely the church, especially in the United States, because that's where I live and work. The church in the United States and social media.
And so, as I did, I realized that when I wrote my dissertation and did a national survey with almost 1500 people, I realized in coding the data for this survey in trying to understand what I was getting from people, that people were using social media multiple times a day, and yet many of them had never had a conversation about it in church, or with other people. Many of them, when I ask questions in the survey, like "does your new media use help you to love God or love other people," people responded to me with things like on a regular—many, many people said things, like "no one's ever asked me that before," "I've never thought about that before," "I've never—oh, that's an interesting question."
I realized that there were very few Christian communities, very few spaces in the United States where people were being encouraged to think critically, not alone, like theologically about social media and their engagement with it. Very few people were being asked to really reflect on how it was impacting them. And so I wrote Always On, to be able to help communities that are doing life together, to be able to think critically and theologically about all different sorts of new media.
New media is this very large category that includes the devices that we use, like laptops and cell phones. It also includes streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, the practices that we do in a new media landscape, like blogging and posting and updating, uploading. And then also social media is a part of the new media landscape as well. It's a segment of it. And that includes everything from YouTube to Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, etc. And so, I wroteAlways On to help people to have what I call an interested conversation about new media. I'm encouraging people in the book that become interested, curious about how it's impacting them, how it's impacting their relationships, how it's impacting their religious practices. Basically, the curiosity that I had, during my PhD studies, I'm encouraging all people to have, and to really take a long, hard look at our relationship with new media and to ask, "How is this changing what I think about myself and other people, changing what I do every day, changing how I see, changing how I relate to other people who are both, maybe, in both positive ways and also in harmful destructive ways. And what might I do to have a healthier relationship with new media?" Those are some of the hopes that I had and why I wrote the book.
Evan Rosa: Yeah, I wonder if we could talk a little bit about this, the way in which if we view ourselves as technicians, people that have produced technologies. We've made this technology, but now, we're really in a position to see that the technology we've made is now making us in return. It's shaping us in ways that probably no one, no one expected, especially not down to the user level. The technology user is being very deeply shaped by that technology. And I wonder if you'd just talk a little bit about the sort of forcefulness of technology to have an impact in that way, that it almost gains a kind of agency that can impact us, and without being reflective, without being curious and interested. As you say, we're subjecting ourselves to a sort of formation that is not guided by our most deeply held values.
Angela Gorrell: Right. Yeah, so many people, I think, especially when I did my initial survey of people across the United States, what I sense from people as if they believed that social media—that they use social media, and that they were able to determine its impact in their life and especially on their faith.
What they did not seem to be able to articulate was how social media used them. And so I really wanted to be clear in the book. Though I try to both talk about new media as possibilities and its profound brokenness, I really try to help people to understand the ways that new media uses us. The ways that it presses upon us. It shapes our values, our convictions, our practices so that it is a very formative thing. And the people who created social media platforms and other forms of new media that we use today, I don't know that the majority of them ever imagined that they were doing that. I don't know that they really set out to say, "we want to fundamentally change how people do their lives every single day, and damage them especially."
But I think that what happened was as they created media and realized they needed to make money off of it—because the money is what we all need to be able to survive and to live—they realized, "Oh, we can make more money off of it if we can get people to be on it longer." And so then they began to explore human psychology, and they began to think about, "Oh, what causes human beings to want? What would keep their attention? What would get their attention? And then what would keep it, and help us to make money off of having them be online." But basically in doing that, they didn't realize that they were playing into using some of the most vulnerable, most human aspects of who we are: our desire for connection with other people, for affirmation, for being seen, for being loved, for being, having friends. They were using those things, our desires for those things, very human things, to make money. And the more that we were online, that we've been online and are online, the more over time that we longed for affirmation, for recognition, for collecting friends, collecting followers, you know, the more that social media can represent for us how well our relationships are going, as they began to make money off of our attention and keep it longer and longer, the more we began to associate our relationships and our sense of connected to other people, our connectedness to other people, with the numbers we were seeing online, with the replies that we were getting, the message that we were getting.
Evan Rosa: One of the creators of the Facebook "Like" button came out a few years ago by saying, "This is addictive technology that really, despite whatever the intentions behind it originally, does in fact exploit the human psychology. It really embodied psychology as well in the ways that the use of such a simple feature and the way that we react to that feature—when we see a certain number of likes, or we see the reaction and we see sort of signs of connectivity, signs of human connection—what it does to us is it keeps us hooked.
Angela Gorrell: It's interesting because a lot of the social media platforms that exist today have really incredible missions. If you read their mission statements, if you read the goals of their organizations, everything from Twitter to Instagram, to YouTube, it's really amazing what their actual mission is. And yet their desire to make money, I think, has thwarted their mission, their aims. Even though their desire in many ways to bring people together and to help people to learn and to grow and to understand people who live in other places and look different than us and all this sort of stuff, these really good aims that they had are thwarted oftentimes by their greater desire to make money.
Evan Rosa: And that one of the ways that you talk about a connection point here between media and human flourishing in the book, as you say, "visions of the good life converge in a new media landscape," we're talking about one of the ways that this emerges, and it's something like the question of how our lives online and the particular products that we use, sort of betrays our deepest sensibilities about how we view the good life, what we think a good life is and what we even think is worth wanting in the first place. And I wonder if you could talk about what you mean by that visions of the good life converge in a new media landscape.
Angela Gorrell: Every vision of a good life has a sense of how life should be led, how life should feel, and in a sense of what we should hope for as we live. In a new media landscape, both as new media was being created and also as we continue to use it, what we're seeing is a sort of vision of a good life emerging that's really centered on a good life feels happy. You lead a good life when it's a life that is successful, happy. It is noteworthy. Being ordinary is terrifying today.
So it's extraordinary. It has an impact. It's recognized by other people and what we should hope for then is affirmation, recognition, and ultimately, success. And so, in a new media landscape, not only are these things being desired, but they're being even more deeply embedded in our imaginations, as like this is the good life.
And if we don't have these things, like if my life doesn't feel happy, then it's not good. If my, if I'm not getting these things that I'm hoping for, my life's not noteworthy. If I'm not truly successful, or especially when I fail or I make mistakes or life doesn't turn out the way that I was hoping, then suddenly we have an identity crisis. Or if I'm not being recognized by other people in the ways that I hope to, especially if I think that I'm being true to myself, if I'm being authentic and then that's not recognized in a way that feels good to me or at all, if it's ignore, then we have this sense that "my life is not worth living; my life isn't good." So I will say that this is true, both in digital spaces and in person. We can have this malformed division of a good life, not just online, but we fill this all the time.
So this is very much a hybrid thing that's happening. This is happening. This sense that our lives should be happy and successful all the time and that we should be aiming for recognition all the time. That's also in in-person spaces. That's in colleges, in high schools, in, in our workplaces, all this kind of stuff. But as Christians, when we look at the life of Jesus, when we look at the teachings of Jesus, we get a different vision of a good life. We all the sudden are open to the idea that, "Oh wow! Life can—if even if it's not happy it can still be good." We look at the range of emotions that Jesus felt. When we look at the biblical narrative, it seems to me that joy is a better sort of—we have more of a sense that a life is good when it's joyful.
And joy is different than happiness from a theological perspective, from a biblical perspective, because joy is circumstance agnostic. Life can be going really well and we can be joyful. Life can be going really poorly and we can be joyful. Joy is not naive. It doesn't ignore what's happening around us. Also, when we look at Jesus's life and teachings, we get a sense of the conditions of a good life, of what we should hope for. And it's different than the other sort of things that we're hearing both online and in person. A life, a good life, according to Jesus, is not a life that's centered on affirmation and recognition of ourselves. A good life, a life led well is not a life that is all about money and collecting friends and followers and all this sort of stuff.
We have a sense that a good life is about love, peace, righteousness, justice, healing. We look at Jesus's life and he wasn't walking around trying to get affirmation, recognition from other people. He was walking around affirming and recognizing other people. And so I think as Christians, when we can have meaningful conversations, like me and you are having right now, about these contrasting visions of the good life, the vision that were being presented in our workplace, in our school, in our friend circles, on social media, on television in movies, and then the good life that the life and teachings of Jesus represent, we can say, "Oh, you know what? There's actually contrasting visions here." And so then we can ask ourselves, "How do I live toward a Christian vision of a good life, both in-person and online in 2020?"
Evan Rosa: So let's talk even more about recognition and affirmation. And let me just sort of frame it by saying—and one of the ways that I've come to think about, at least some use of technology, is through the lens of idolatry where you can make an idol out of almost anything. So a lot of it has to do with human intention and the way that we regard certain things. And I wonder if what makes us so susceptible to the kind of despicable framing of social media, as trying to secure success, trying to secure fame, trying to appear to be a particular kind of beautiful, a particular kind of attractive. It really suggests that there's some deep, deep longing in the human heart for connection and for recognition. And that recognition in and of itself is not a bad thing. In fact, it's deeply important to the concept of a self and a healthy, flourishing self, a joyful self even, that even through suffering, we can find ourselves recognized by God and by others that mourn and grieve with us. Right. I don't know if that particular, framing of it as idolatry connects as much with you, but let's talk about that particular aspect of connection and recognition. I wonder if you'd like to talk about its place in human psychology and how do you think about recognition and our social nature.
Angela Gorrell: Yeah, I think that this is one of the most powerful conversations that you can have in a Christian community. It is this conversation about recognition and about where, how do I—because the chief task of adolescents, of youth growing up into healthy adulthood is being able to answer the question "who am I." The chief task of adolescence is identity formation, a sense of "who am I," "who or what are my values, my convictions," and "whose am I." As Christians, we want to help people to understand who they are as children of God. And central to youth becoming healthy adults is this ability to say with confidence "this is who I am" and to form an identity. That's the chief task about adolescence.
And in order to do that, it's very important that as we live out our values, as we state our convictions, as we engage in particular activities and disciplines, practices, extracurricular, things in our lives, as we do our lives, lead our lives, as we share who we are with other people, when people recognize us, and say, "Yes, I see you. Yes, Angela, I recognize that is a part of your—that you're passionate about this. I sense this value of yours and I affirmed that." That is a very healthy thing. Absolutely, right? So recognition is a very human need. And it's critical for identity formation. And what has happened at a new media landscape is that that has become malformed so much.
So, what we have to do in Christian communities is we have to talk. It's very important that we talk about what is malformed, like what's going wrong. And the more that we—what we find in research with young people is the more that you uncover, the more that you pull back the curtain, for young people and for adults in my experience, in workshops, in classes, in seminars, the more that we pull back the curtain and realize, "Oh, this is what's happening. My sense of what I want to be recognized for is being malformed. I don't need that kind of recognition. It's not actually like aiming for this sort of recognition—or recognition in this way is not going to help me to feel more confident as a human being. I'm not going to be the healthiest version of myself. That's actually unhelpful for my sense of who I am. The kind of recognition that I need is—and we have to be able to articulate that together, talk about that together: what is the difference between recognition on social media and recognition from a Christian perspective?
We have to be able to articulate that together. And as we talk about the difference in those kinds of recognition, then we can begin to talk together as a community and in relationship with each other. "Okay. Well, how do we live into healthier versions of recognition among each other? How do we help each other to see us as God sees us? How do we relate to each other in ways that are loving, that are healing, that our whole?"
And I think that's the kind of—that's how I want to change the conversation. I want to disrupt it. And that's the thing. I think I have found that the more that we pull back the curtain, the more we help to unveil what's actually happening in a meet new media landscape, the more empowered people feel about their relationship to social media. And they realize when they're online and they begin to feel a certain way, especially if it's a negative way. If you're online and you begin to feel jealous, to feel a sense of low self-worth. If you begin to feel depressed, lonely, anxious, then you can ask yourself, "Why am I feeling this way?" And then you can get offline and do something else. Or you can also, you can challenge those feelings and say, "Oh, it's because I'm comparing myself to this other person, curated life. Oh, it's because I don't really know this person and they're responding to me." We can start to critically examine what's actually happening and why we're feeling this way.
There can be wisdom in reflecting on our feelings and what's happening that grows in us. And that's what I really am trying to nurture in Christian communities, is saying, "This is not a one-time thing where you just do a series on social media, like four weeks, and you're like, 'Hey, we've covered the topic.'" I'm saying this has become a regular part of our lives. And so parents, educators, Christian leaders, pastors, social workers, psychologists, people in all sorts of helping professions really do have to come together and decide we're going to help people to think critically. And if we are Christians to think theologically about new media. And we have to really think long and hard about what kind of relationship we want to have with it, and how we're going to relate to each other in healthy ways, in a new media landscape.
Evan Rosa: Yeah, you talk about one chief challenge of the new media landscape as diminished humanness. And I think that sort of diminished humanity is on display here in what we're talking about right now. And that something about the social media landscape in particular, where there's a lot of interaction with other real people, but in their online—the online expression of themselves, their avatars, their handles and their mode of being on social media. It seems to me that you're right on the money here with talking about diminished humanity, and that being one of the—really the most dangerous aspects about an unreflective, inattentive approach to online life. Say a little bit about what you mean by diminished humanity here, and how that is like a sort of averse to the potential for connection.
Angela Gorrell: There are spaces, there are physical settings that diminish humanness, for the purpose of being able to treat people differently. So prisons are one of those spaces. Prisons are physical settings where people's humanity is diminished by taking their names and turning them into numbers, having them wear all the same clothes, that there's no distinguishing factors between them. It's this whole setting that's designed, whether people realize it or not, to diminish humanness, that you can treat people in a certain way.
Because once you diminish people's humanness, then you can lock them in a place. You can tell them what to do. You can do strip searches, these sorts of things because you can control them. If you, if you can't diminish their humanness, you're not going to be able to do that because you're also a human being. And that's why people could do the horrifying things that they did in concentration camps. Because what they did was separated in their mind. They said, "You're less human than I am. I'm going to diminish your community entity so that I can do these things to you."
And the reason why flame Wars, hostility, the trolling that happens online can happen, the reason why people can say such horrible things to one another, on Twitter, on Facebook, etc, through Snapchat, the reason why there is so much bullying among middle schoolers and high schoolers, shaming online, is because we can create a sense where we diminish other people's humanness. And it's easier to do it online because when I'm on a social media platform, I can't see your facial expression when I say what I say to you. I can't smell you. I can't see your body language. I don't see your tears, so I can diminish my sense of your personhood. And in doing that, then I can feel more free to do all these things that I've just mentioned.
And so it's a real possibility online to live into and out of a sense of diminished humanness among all of us. It's easier online to talk to people in the ways that we do because of this idea of we divide our in-person experiences from our online ones. And people use the phrase in real life, IRL, to describe our in-person lives or in-person experiences. And by doing that, what we say is like, "Oh, well, the online is not real. It is, you know, because it's, quote unquote, virtual, it's not really me, or it's kind of me or this or that." And we also, in doing that, can diminish our own humanness and others online. So we have a sense that how we're being online, how we're sharing online, how we're talking to other people online, is not really me, or "I'm different online than I am in person. It's not my real life." And that makes it easier to mistreat each other.
Evan Rosa: Not to be too hard on all of us here, but there's a kind of groupthink that comes along with, like accepting that level of transparency about who we are, or accepting that kind of diminishment. There's a kind of sadness that I feel when I observed this aspect of even my own online life, which is that I've accepted a diminished version of myself. And I am willing to attempt to interact and be recognized and connect with others using that diminished version. Like anybody else, I feel that kind of desire for connection. I feel that need for relatability, evermore now that I'm an extrovert in quarantine pandemic life.
And that's—there is certainly the diminishment that occurs through the personal evil that we encounter in human capacity to do harm to each other online. But there's also that kind of diminishment that comes in a kind of "we're willing to do with so little and present ourselves in such a diminished capacity."
Angela Gorrell: What we're saying in research is that in doing that, we not only can hurt our relationships with other people, but actually these are the very things that contribute to loneliness, depression, and anxiety in digital spaces. When we get online and we passively scroll, for boundless, open amounts of time, copious amounts of time, when we passively follow other people that we don't see on a regular basis in person, or that we don't know very well, or we don't know at all like a celebrity, these are the sorts of things that, we're seeing, nurture depression, loneliness, and anxiety in us.
And so it really is a matter of not only changing our mindset about digital spaces and realizing, "This is the real me. These are real people that I'm interacting with. And also I need to think..." And then making the shift in our practices. "I don't want to just boundless—I don't want to scroll for copious amounts of time. I'm going to get online and I'm going to be online for this amount of time. And as I'm online, I'm going to engage and participate in conversations."
Research has shown that the more we participate online—actually reply to people, message people, post our statuses, those sorts of things—the more connected we're going to feel with other people. And the more that we're actually going to get a healthy sense of self after we leave digital spaces. It really takes participation, and engagement and an effort. And then as Christians, as a Christian myself, it means taking some of the practices—some of the activities that I would do online—and really thinking about them from the perspective of my faith.
I tell people when I get online, I always look for someone to rejoice with and someone to mourn with. That's become a regular habit in my life. Something that immediately nurtures a sense of my own humanity as I get online and other people's. And so I'm literally actively looking for who can I celebrate with today and who am I. And not just using an emoji to do that, but responding to them with words, with sentences, sometimes an extra text or a phone call or a message. Sometimes it means sharing their status update as my own and saying like, "I rejoice with this person." my step sister the other day celebrated five years of sobriety, so I shared her post and just rejoiced with her on social media in her five years of sobriety. I'm so proud of her. And then, it's also looking for people to lament with.
And it's important that when we encounter suffering online, that we don't just keep scrolling or we don't put a sad emoji and then keep scrolling. We need to realize, like, this is where we begin to really think about this stuff from a faith perspective and say, "Okay, let's recall the story of the good Samaritan here. Like if someone's lying in a ditch, I can't just walk by. I can't just keep scrolling. I actually have to respond. As a Christian, my call to faith is to respond meaningfully to this person that's hurting." But we encounter so much suffering online, especially in 2020, that it's very easy to both succumb to empathy burnout where we just keep scrolling and just think, "Ugh, another headline, another status update about someone dying from COVID, another person who's annoyed with this, another person who's lost their job... Wow, the world is so sad." And then just move on. But that's the sort of stuff that we have to shift: how we're seeing other people online and what we're doing online. And as I have slowed down, and as I have spent less time online and been more intentional about how I spend my time online, the better I think I have felt about my social media experience.
Evan Rosa: Yeah, there's a numbness that comes with that form of diminished recognition in this case. You're not being fully attentive to what you're observing. You're not allowing the information to penetrate your mind, your awareness and your understanding to the appropriate level. But because of the almost boundless and infinite—people call it doom-scrolling for a reason. It just sort of has a very dreadful feeling that follows that kind of practice.
But I love this slowing down where the slowness encourages an increased level of agency on your part, deeper level of engagement. And that takes the discipline of first acknowledging a limitation as good, and then living into that limitation. And these are not easy things to do because it requires a sort of pressing back against the technology itself.
Angela Gorrell: Right, this is really hard work. And I think that people read Always On or come to a workshop of mine where they want me to just be like, "Here's how to exist in a new media landscape in five easy steps?" And it's not like that because everyone—at the end of Always On, I really encourage people to develop what I call a rhythm of life, which is drawing on an ancient Christian practice of having a rule of life, but specifically for their technology, for the technology that they engage in, and just fully asking a few questions to yourself and saying, "Okay, when am I going to disengage from technology every day? When am I going to do it each week? When am I going to do it each year?"
And for me in my personal life, I don't get on social media in the mornings. I don't find it to be productive or generative for my day. And then I try to stop using social media an hour before I go to sleep at night because if you were to find really—if you were to encounter something that was, for example, going to make you really angry, it's going to be hard to sleep that night. And so I try to not—I don't use email on Saturdays or Sundays. And then there's at least one or two weeks, every single year where I don't use email and I don't get on social media. And I go, usually for me, it's hiking and camping, with my husband.
And so, those are for me—so one of the questions at the end of the book is when will you disengage from social media. But then there's other questions around how will you engage with it. What kind of person do you want to be when you're online? These are the sorts of things that people feel like, "Oh, I don't have time for this." And I'm saying, "You must make time for thinking about these sorts of things because it's linked to your spiritual, mental, emotional, and relational health."
Evan Rosa: So thinking in terms of a rhythm of life is your recommendation for finding a way into a form of healthy engagement with new media and being a presence for healing. You acknowledge the ways in which our online lives and our in-person lives are hybrid. That reminds me that we are very much hybrid beings ourselves. We are embodied and we have mental life. And establishing these kinds of rhythms can be so fruitful for encountering a kind of flourishing space in whatever corner of life we are in, whatever expression it might take, whether it's at root embodied, when we're in person with people, or whether it's mental, and mostly, online. I wonder if you could close by just talking a little bit more about that hybridity and thinking about how that connects to one's overall sense of human flourishing.
Angela Gorrell: Yeah, I think that the more that we think about our in-person and online lives as being connected with each other, the healthier we're going to be as well, that our digital experiences and conversations flow into our in-person experiences and conversations and vice versa. They're deeply interconnected.
And the thing is though, that in many ways human beings have always lived hybrid lives, especially since we began letter writing. Letter writing is a mediated form of communication. And so when we were writing letters to people, we were sharing with them what was happening in our in-person lives and then sending it away to them. So there was like hybridity even back then.
But the more that we can think now—definitely the pace of this sort of hybrid lives that we're living is much faster. We're living with—we're communicating in multiple modes, way more than we used to. So it's definitely different, but I'm saying that we've been living sort of hybrid lives for a long time. So I just want to make that point and just say that the more that we're able to make sense of the relationship between the digital spaces that we enter into and the physical setting that we enter into, and the more that we're able to think about our relationships as being hybrid and then our ministry as being hybrid— if we're in ministry at some sort or thinking about, our work as being hybrid, all these sorts of things—the more that we're able to think and ask the question, "Okay, how do I live into the person that I want to be like in a hybrid world, in the hybrid world that we live in? How do I— who am I trying to be?" What are the sorts of characteristics and attributes that I want to define my life? And how do I live into being that person, both in person than online? How do I lead my life in a way, similarly, in digital spaces as I do and would want to in like the most healthy in person conversations and relationships?"
And so really just thinking about what that looks like and trying to have it flow back and forth. I think what I've seen over the last few months in the pandemic that's been most disappointing to me and what I'm really hoping from people in the coming months, is the ability to bring what we can often see in in-person experiences with people like compassion, healing, active listening, love, hope, into our digital conversations. Because we're not seeing each other in person as much right now, we have to learn how to integrate and even into the future, we have to learn how to integrate those very human needs and things that we do in person into digital spaces.
It is possible. It's possible to open up a conversation in digital spaces with active listening, with compassion, with love, with storytelling, with engagement. It's meant to be dynamic and interactive and to nurture connection. And so that's really the hope that I have for people is that we'll be mindful and really be asking ourselves, "How do I nurture connection in digital spaces in the coming months in meaningful ways?"
Evan Rosa: And that's going to require a kind of imagination and a rhythm of life, as you talk about, and a commitment to really being there and showing up. And I'm really grateful that you have been sort of presenting that message because it's easy in an environment like this to allow a kind of despair around the future of our world to overtake us, and to kind of settle for a sort of imitation of life. But we've got to continue pressing forward, and I'm so grateful that you are a representative for that, that kind of movement into life and flourishing. So thank you for writing this, Angela, and thanks for joining us on the podcast.
Angela Gorrell: Thank you so much for having me and just for—yeah, it's been a great joy to have a conversation with you today. And I'm leaving this conversation with more hope too.
Evan Rosa: Awesome. Thanks.
For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture at Yale Divinity School. This episode featured theologian, Angela Gorrell. I'm Evan Rosa, and I edited and produced the show. For more information, visit us online at faith.yale.edu. New episodes drop every Saturday and you can subscribe through any podcast app.
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