Friday, August 18, 2023

Too Hot to Handle: Screened Out

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

I don’t spend a lot of time browsing the The New York Times, but this article was worth a few minutes. Nellie Bowles describes an increasingly common phenomenon: screens everywhere you go, doing almost everything people used to be paid to do. Touchscreens provide a consistent user experience, don’t take sick days, don’t unionize, and the hourly cost of maintaining them is considerably less than that of employing a person. For all but the wealthiest couple of percentiles of society, technology has become the go-to substitute for human contact.

Tom: Now, a screen may be imposed on you because that’s the only way a company will now do business. In such a case, you have no choice about engaging with technology if you want to remain a functioning member of urban society, like it or hate it. But here’s the thing: even when given an option, some people seem to prefer a screen to dealing with another human being directly.

To me that’s weird. To GenZ, not so much. I’m wondering if there are spiritual implications worth exploring, IC ...

Immanuel Can: I’d be very surprised if there weren’t. Where do you want to start, Tom?

The Virtual Soulmate

Tom: Well, I found the story of Bill Langlois and Sox quite moving. This is a lonely, housebound older man on a fixed income using the only cost-effective service available to him. At Bill’s level of functionality, it’s cheaper to equip him with a virtual companion than a real one, so his access to nurses and caregivers is through the medium of a cartoon cat who shows him pictures from his wedding, discusses how his Boston Red Sox are performing, and plays him his favorite songs. Mr. Langlois says, “I found something so reliable and someone so caring, and it’s allowed me to go into my deep soul and remember how caring the Lord was.”

The problem is, IC, it’s not real. It’s a bunch of minimum-wage caregivers in some far-off country responding through a cheap interface whenever they can manage to get around to it between their other obligations. But what Sox actually is and how she appears to Bill are two very different things.

IC: Yes, that’s very strange, isn’t it? Let’s think about this.

Incarnation and Pixilation

What would lead us to think that virtual “relationships” were not what God had in mind for us? Is there anything of biblical substance that we can put behind our kneejerk concern?

Tom: Well, the first thing that comes to mind is not what you might call a biblical argument, but it’s a logical one, so I hope you’ll forgive me for interjecting it. That is this: For more than 99% of human history, a virtual relationship was completely impossible. The technology didn’t exist. That doesn’t tell you it’s wicked, of course, but it should cause us to consider the possibility that from the Divine perspective, a virtual relationship is neither obligatory nor in any way significant. And if it’s neither of those, then it’s probably a distraction, not a benefit. When poor old Bill Langlois tells a New York Times reporter that Sox has caused him to “remember how caring the Lord was,” it’s quite a horrible confession. What it tells us is that in his desperation for contact and validation, he’s accepted a cheap counterfeit in place of a real relationship.

Were you thinking of something in particular?

IC: One thing that occurs to me is the Incarnation. When God the Father desired to establish a relationship with mankind, he did not resort to mere messages sent from afar, and certainly not to avatars or imaginary beings. He spoke to us by sending us his Son, the most eloquent articulation of his own nature. And he sent him in the flesh, to meet with us, and to be where we were. Christianity is an incarnational belief: it’s about the Word actually being manifest in flesh, not a message by pixilation. Bodily presence is important.

Sending Humanity the Real Deal

Tom: That’s good. Hebrews also says of Christ that “he had to be made like his brothers in every respect.” God was not interested in sending us a facsimile, but sending humanity the real deal. So you’re right: bodily presence matters in establishing real relations, and God was very much aware of that in his plan of salvation, and also in placing the members of Christ into an interconnected Body.

Tell me, would there be anything wrong, IC, in accepting the benefits that can come from a virtual relationship if, like Bill Langlois, you’re housebound, poor, and have few other options? I trust even Bill would agree that a real relationship with a caring human being would be preferable, but he’s not being offered that option in today’s world.

IC: I don’t know. I do know that an incarnated relationship is overwhelmingly preferable, being the really Christian option — and something needs to be said about local Christians losing track of a needy brother. But supposing Bill’s situation to be unalterable, I would be reluctant to tell him he was obligated to stop it.

Inquiring Minds Want to Know

Any idea yourself?

Tom: Well, personally I think it’s just fine in a situation where human contact is genuinely prevented through no fault of your own and there are no other options. But is that always the case? I think not. As you point out, where are Bill’s fellow Christians? That’s a curious matter. He’s 68, not 98. They’re surely not all dead. Furthermore, Bill’s wife is “out of the house most of the time”. That little revelation is not explained. Actually, it sounds to me like the Times is using a story of a man in an atypical personal situation — one that may not only be preventable but may also be quite dysfunctional — to stand in for a whole generation of computer users who, it is alleged, are being shunted on to computer screens against their wills when they would rather have real people to relate to.

But how realistic is that? My own experience is that, other than out in the business world and in retail, where technology is constantly replacing people with screens very much against their will, intensive engagement with technology in our homes is entirely voluntary. Where people are living in virtual worlds instead of real ones, it is almost always a matter of personal preference rather than necessity. Rich and poor, people are opting out of real relationships in favor of virtual ones, and doing so of their own free will. Am I wrong?

IC: No, no … you’re quite right. The problem with an anecdote is that people can too easily mistake it for data — the atypical for the typical — and Bill’s certain not an “everyman”. We can’t safely just generalize from his very unusual case to the situation of average Christians. And as you say, there are features of the described “Bill” situation that suggest his own anxieties may be self-chosen or even self-inflicted. We don’t have enough details to be sure.

A Virtual Mess of Pottage

One thing seems quite certain, though. Developing affectionate delusions for onscreen entities is unhealthy, and using them as substitutes for real human contacts isn’t just toxic … it’s immoral. Because in that case, one is dismissing, alienating or avoiding real people in order to be engaged with fake constructs. That’s the kind of trade-off that common sense won’t even approve. But what the Lord who died to save living human beings thinks of it … well, we can easily guess.

Tom: Well, on top of that, it’s delusional. The virtual world is not the real world. This is one of the things e-celebs — YouTube commentators and vloggers — are having to deal with on a regular basis these days. There are viewers who follow them so regularly and attentively that they start to believe they are significant part of the e-celeb’s life just because they have made the e-celeb part of theirs. So they become quite bent out of shape when their personal letters do not get a response or their gifts are returned unopened. They become cyber-stalkers and all kinds of weirdness.

It makes me wonder how so many of us have become so lonely, so disconnected from other human beings, and so susceptible to being emotionally moved by algorithms, interactions with minimum-wage drudges working overseas, or people we don’t really know at all performing in an environment that grants us the illusion of intimacy on the basis of nothing more than participating in a running chat session.

Priorities, Priorities

IC: Okay, let’s talk practically. As Christians trying to live in a daily way, what can we do to do better than this?

Tom: One thing I’d love to see among Christians is that we all agree that when we’re together, everybody puts their gadgets away. Leave the phone in your jacket pocket in the front closet. Leave your tablet in the trunk of your car. I’m really tired of sitting down to talk to the top of my fellow-Christian’s heads as they stare goggle-eyed at their iPhone, especially in the middle of a meal. If you can’t do it out of common courtesy, do it out of love. If whatever you’re doing is that important that you can’t stop doing it, go do it elsewhere. I’m seeing people texting in church meetings. I mean, come on.

IC: Right. Good. Maybe a good axiom is, “Never look at a screen when you have a real person present.” It’s not Christian to deny the importance of a person whom God has brought into your presence. We need to be prioritizing the opportunity, attending to the person, and responding to the opportunity. So turn off your phone, or leave it at home. Human beings got along without those things for thousands of years … you can do it for an hour or two.

Meditation Hesitation

Tom: Especially during family meals. Secondly, it’s possible to use these things without being used by them. There are times you may have to reachable for work, or have an emergency going on, and want to have a phone nearby. But if we’re honest, that’s not all day every day. To live any kind of mature Christian life, it’s necessary to have periods of prayer and deep thought, where you work through with the Lord what you believe about this or that, or try to determine what he would have you do. I won’t call it “meditation”, because that can have a negative connotation.

IC: Well, Eastern, mystical meditation is mind-emptying reflection on nothingness; but Christian meditation is full-minded, content-rich preoccupation with God — not the same things at all. I should probably do a post on that one day.

Tom: You should indeed. What is important, though, is that we not allow ourselves to be constantly interrupted by technology while we’re doing those things. The principle is “go into your room and shut the door”. If we won’t set boundaries for the world’s incursions into our heads, we are not just making it harder for ourselves to work things out before the Lord, we are actually being quite demeaning and insulting to him. We’re telling him he’s less significant to us than the interruption. That’s First Commandment territory. We need to be careful about that.

I Guess It’s Just Been Wasted Time

IC: There’s a specific danger to the Christian that does not exist for the unbeliever — the danger of wasting time. For an unbeliever, time is a thing to be used up in pleasures, distractions and creating personal feelings of happiness, perhaps; and being absorbed in fake realities for long periods of time can aid that project. But that project is trivial, and is for people on the road to death. For the Christian, time is precious. The fields are white for harvest, and time needs to be invested in the Lord. Thus, for the Christian, time-wasting is an immense tragedy, because something precious, potentially spiritually rewarding and in short supply is being traded off for things that, if we are honest with ourselves, we know are utterly worthless — not necessarily actively evil, of course, but rather of no value on the eternal scale.


  1. I am surprised you are not seeing the trend with all your analysis. The screens will be sorely needed since evidently we are heading towards the Matrix, growing and being pickled in vats because it is too much exertion to lift your arms and legs.

    1. Good thing someone else is on top of it then ...