“You’ve Got Self:” How the Internet Cultivates Expressive Individualism in All of Us

Article
03.18.2022

Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception tells a story about a technology called “dream-sharing,” invented at some indeterminate point in the future, that allows participants to enter into one another’s dreams via their subconscious. The main character, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, assembles a team of dream “hackers” to invade the mind of a billionaire business heir and convince his subconscious to break up his father’s commercial empire. In one of the film’s mostly subtly metaphorical scenes, the team visits a chemist who can make an especially potent sedative to allow for vivid and prolonged dream-sharing. The chemist takes the team downstairs, where they’re led to a dimly lit room where dozens of people are sleeping, connecting to dream sharing devices. The chemist explains that these people come to spend hours every day dreaming together, as their subconscious selves construct an alternative life in their dreams. Stunned, the team asks, “They come here to fall asleep?” “No,” the chemist replies. “They come here to wake up.” The dream has become their reality.

There are no real-world dream sharing devices, but there is one real-world technology that connects billions of people in a dream-reality: the Internet.

As Carl Trueman brilliantly lays out in The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, expressive individualism has its origins in a complex collision of history, philosophy, and politics. Today, however, the most powerful vehicle for shaping people in its image is not the classroom or Supreme Court, but the Internet. To see this more clearly, we need to think of the Internet less as a singular tool or hobby, and more like what it is now: an immersive epistemological habitat in which hundreds of millions of people have regular, active membership. The Internet has transformed the way humans read, learn, communicate, labor, shop, recreate, and even “worship.” No other technology is as disruptive to traditional forms of human activity.

Membership in the online commons has formative effects on us, just like membership in a local church. The liturgies of assembled, embodied, gospel worship point us toward one set of beliefs and values, while the liturgies of Internet membership point us toward a different set.

While secular technology critics have been talking this way about digital life for a while, Christians largely have not. Instead, we’ve focused not on the form of the Internet, but on its content, encouraging one another to avoid pornography, slander, and envy on the various website and social media platforms we navigate daily. This encouragement is good and necessary, but much more is needed. Pastors and church leaders in particular need to see online technologies as powerful instruments of personal formation that push us in a certain spiritual and epistemological direction.

Before going further, we should take careful note of something important. The Bible’s vision of human flourishing as divine image-bearers and Christ-followers is a deeply analog vision. By this I mean that Scripture both assumes and prescribes doctrines, attitudes, and practices that are tied to our embodied, physical existence. For one thing, Christians believe that divine revelation is expressed in a physical book, the Bible, and that this book features language with objective meaning.[1] Further, the very first thing we learn from the Bible about ourselves is that we are created in the image of God, male and female. This means that our fundamental identity as people is tied to our bodies. God creates physical image-bearers who have embodied sexual identities, and in submission to God these image-bearers come together to marry, make love, and bear children that fill the earth (with their physical selves) and subdue it. Family is not an abstract concept, but a flesh-and-blood institution that is ordered according to real, embodied persons.

The Internet, by contrast, is radically disembodied. To be online is, in a very real sense, to escape the givenness of created existence. The social critic Laurence Scott writes:

If our bodies have traditionally provided the basic outline of our presence in the world, then we can’t enter a networked environment, in which we present ourselves in multiple places at once, without rethinking the scope and limits of embodiment. While we sit next to one person, smiling through a screen at someone else, our thoughts, our visions, our offhand and heartfelt declarations materialise in the fragments in one another’s pockets. It’s astonishing to think how in the last twenty years the limits and coherence of our bodies have been so radically redefined.[2]

The Internet’s disembodied, “fragmented” character is not merely interesting trivia. It is a massively important part of the way being online shapes our beliefs, intuitions, and habits.

Consider now three distinct “digital liturgies” that shape all of us in the image of the disembodied Internet.[3]

  1. “My Story, My Truth”

Online technology’s flattening, democratizing character means that the most valuable social currency is not expertise, wisdom, or character, but story. When a truth claim goes up against a narrative, the narrative wins every time. Personal experience is the authoritative norm in digital discourse, and in many cases no amount of evidence or argument can trump it. To suggest that someone’s story may be relevant but not necessarily authoritative is often seen as a grossly unacceptable attack on their personhood.

The power of individual story to provide justification for desires and thwart any criticism is powerfully evident to Gen-Z. In her book Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, journalist Abigail Shrier describes how large and growing numbers of teen and preteen Americans are learning to question their given gender through transgendered influencers, particularly on YouTube, Reddit, and Tumblr. The influencers differ in personality and approach, but one message virtually all of the them have in common is: Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that you aren’t trans. They don’t know and can’t understand.

When coupled with the immersive, disembodied character of the Internet, this is an enormously powerful message. The Internet requires constant curation, which means that online existence can and must be continually tweaked so that nothing that convicts or unnerves us need be seen. Social media algorithms encourage users to go deeper into their wildest and most fringe interests, because it is those interests that fuel prolonged activity on the app. And all of this descent into the depths of our own emotional and psychological states happens away from the observation and help of others in our lives, as the technology isolates us and digital culture insists that it alone is a safe place for us.

But according to Scripture, neither you nor I are the final interpreters of our own experience. Rather, we are finite creatures with limited vision. Our experiences certainly matter, but they are not ultimate. Because we belong to a Creator rather than ourselves, it is his Story that infuses meaning into ours. His Story reveals a meaning to our lives that we receive and instead of create, including a redemptive meaning to our suffering. His Story also places us in a community of people close to us, not “influencers” with a lifestyle to sell but fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters by whom we truly are seen and known.

2. “If It Doesn’t Feel True, It’s Probably Not”

As the internet has escaped its physical tethers and become a mobile, ambient habitat, it has altered not only our sense of self but our sense of truth. By continually stressing our reservoirs of attention, digital culture primes us to form our beliefs based on immediate intuition. Our desire to think deeply is compromised by the internet’s tyrannical novelty and immediacy, and as our desire to think deeply gives way, so does our ability.

This was the conclusion of Nicholas Carr in his monumental 2010 book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, which every pastor should read. Carr presents compelling evidence that the kind of reading and learning we do online is very different than the kind we do offline, and that the Internet is by its nature an epistemological architecture that conditions us away from deep thinking.  “The Net is, by design,” Carr writes, “an interruption system, a machine geared for dividing attention.”

Psychological research long ago proved what most of us know from experience: frequent interruptions scatter our thoughts, weaken our memory, and make us tense and anxious. The more complex the train of thought we’re involved in, the greater the impairment the distractions cause.[4]

Carr concludes:

Given our brain’s plasticity, we know that our online habits continue to reverberate in the workings of our synapses when we’re not online. We can assume that the neural circuits devoted to scanning, skimming, and multitasking are expanding and strengthening, while those used for reading and thinking deeply, with sustained concentration, are weakening or eroding.[5]

The theological implications of this are serious. The Bible is not a simplistic revelation. Correctly interpreting Scripture and applying its story and promises to our lives requires mature thinking. The church’s teaching on sexuality, for example, is rooted in a rich metanarrative of divine design and human nature. In the disembodied avatar-halls of the Internet, it’s not just that these ideas are unpopular, it’s that they require a kind of sustained, careful, big-picture thought that the Web actively undermines in its users.

In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis’s titular demon advises his protégé to avoid trying to argue with humans. Instead of debating whether such and such religious claim is objectively true, Screwtape urges Wormwood to press jargon on his “patient.” “Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true,” Screwtape writes. “Make him think it is strong or stark or courageous, that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.”[6] Lewis knew in the 1940s what the Internet age has proved: careful, clear, deep thinking is conducive to Christian faithfulness, but impressionistic, knee-jerk reaction is not.

3. “Anything That Makes Me Uncomfortable Should Not Exist”

Much like how the invention of the automobile not only allowed people’s traveling desires but also created and cultivated them, the Internet’s curated environment both allows people to remove what they dislike and cultivates a sense that whatever they dislike ought to be removed. Among the many dynamics at play with things like “cancel culture,” one of them surely is the way Internet technology has lowered our tolerance for things we would like to remove from our screens. The obnoxious email can be deleted, the boring timeline can be refreshed, and the offensive interlocutor can be muted. This perpetual ability to customize what we consume, thanks to the Internet’s disembodied nature, trains our consciences in a liturgy of aversion.

Intuitively, we feel that the Internet connects us to people and ideas that we otherwise would not see, and there is indeed truth to this. But it’s also true that the form of the Internet actually allows us, in a very powerful sense, to escape anything we encounter. The form of digital technology keeps us at a safe distance from whatever we might object to, even whatever may be for our ultimate good.

In a 2016 essay for First Things, Marc Barnes described watching visitors at an art museum. They barely looked at the timeless pieces before them, almost automatically pointing their phone cameras at the art, taking a picture, and then moving on. “The click offers us a way out,” he writes. “What does not come naturally can always be aped technologically, and the act of taking a photo mimics the moment of emotion. . . . We achieve through the lens what we cannot achieve through the heart: a moment in which the object penetrates and changes us according to its own value.”[7]

Theologically, the ability to curate our reality cripples our capacity to follow the Bible’s commands to live counter-intuitively. We’re taught to love our enemies, to submit to those in authority, to deny our sinful instincts, to receive a faithful rebuke, to confess our sins, and, perhaps hardest of all, to forgive those who sin against us. None of these practices are celebrated in mainstream online culture, and several of them are considered active evidences of abuse. Why? Because within the moral logic of the Internet, the user is always in control. To follow any of these biblical commands is to concede pride of place in our own story, and the first-person, highly curated, totally customized experience of online life is simply not compatible with this.

Conclusion

Expressive individualism’s primary channel of personal formation is without a doubt the Internet, which through its nature trains us in these digital liturgies that undermine biblical faithfulness. So what should we do? Should we delete our accounts, cancel our subscriptions, throw out our laptops, and reject the online world? The temptation is strong, and admittedly there are ways that Christians need to seriously rethink automatic acceptance of and participation in these environments.

But we ought to remember that Jesus prayed for his disciples, not that they would be taken out of the world, but protected from the evil one. (John 17:15) These digital liturgies do not exist ultimately because of the Internet, but because of the world, which will always express rejection of revealed truth through whatever media are available. The answer cannot be to leave the world, but to participate in the creation of a new one.

Christians will not always successfully resist these digital liturgies, but they will resist them best together. The Internet’s most important feature is also its most important weakness. Disembodied “community” does not satisfy the soul, does not cure loneliness, and does not instill a sense of cosmic justice. Only worshipful practices of the local church, through which the Word renews our mind, can do this. As Christians remind each other of the gospel, we will build in one another the capacity for richer joys, deeper identity, and lasting meaning that digital technology promises but never delivers. The permanence of the gospel, revealed in a book, proclaimed by a community, and demonstrated through love, is more than enough ballast for screen-weary souls.


[1] By “objective” I do not mean to underestimate the difficulty of discerning meaning or the role of interpretation. I simply mean that the language in the Bible is real language, put there by rational humans, and discernible by the same.

[2] Laurence Scott, The Four-Dimensional Human: Ways of Being in the Digital World. (New York: W.W. Norton, 2015), 4

[3] Portions of this section are adapted from an essay I wrote for Desiring God, “Constantly (Dis)Connected” https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/constantly-disconnected

[4] Nicholas Carr. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010), 132.

[5] Ibid., 141

[6] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters. (New York: HarperCollins, 1942)

[7] “Click Fix,” First Things, May 2016 https://www.firstthings.com/article/2016/05/click-fix

By:
Samuel D. James

Samuel D. James is associate acquisitions editor at Crossway Books, and publishes a regular newsletter called Insights.

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