A Feature Review of
Reconnect: Spiritual Restoration from Digital Distraction
Reviewed by Paul Gregory
I’ve considered deleting my Facebook account numerous times over the past ten years. I’ve even gone as far as looking up instructions on how to save my pictures, posts, and other content. I write these words only minutes after checking the latest posts to my Facebook page. Anyone tracking with me? Have you unsuccessfully tried to limit your use of social media but can’t seem to crack the code for doing so? Don’t fret too much, as you are one of many searching for a more balanced diet of technology and social media. Ed Cyzewski’s Reconnect: Spiritual Restoration from Digital Distraction offers the reader a comprehensive critique of social media technologies, as well as the ways in which they affect our spiritual practices (and lives). The book also contains insightful everyday suggestions (see “Starter Guide” chapters) to reduce one’s use of these technologies.
The Decline of Social Media
[A Reading Guide]
The structure of Reconnect is clear and concise and Cyzewski’s writing is down to earth and honest. The first three chapters of the book focus on technology, both past and present. The author writes of the positive and negative goals of technology, the ways in which technology alters our lives, as well as the manner in which technology hinders our spiritual lives. Chapter four is a discussion about the role of technology in the church, especially the extent to which social media enhances and hinders its ability to genuinely connect with people. Chapter five discusses the goals of spiritual formation and how they can enhance our relationship to God as well as others around us. The author reminds us that practices like silence, contemplative prayer, and meditation, which enhance our spiritual lives, rarely thrive in a social media world of constant stimulation and feedback. Chapters six, seven, and eight provide direction on how to disconnect from the digital world and reconnect to one’s spiritual life. Detoxing from social media is a long and slow process that requires consistency and patience. Developing the habit of prioritizing one’s self care is vital along with recognizing technologies that can be used along the way.
Three points stood out as most important from Reconnect. First, social media companies have hidden agendas that some users fail to properly understand. The author rightly points out that social media companies such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram earn significant revenues based on how often their sites are used. Increased numbers of visitors translate into more data collection and increased advertising opportunities. As a result, these companies (and others) spend tons of money creating technologies that compel frequent use that often results in a significant time suck.
Second, most users of social media (that’s us!) base their use on their need for social interaction and/or connection. People believe their use of social media outlets increases their connection to the world, their family and friends. And while he admits that these technologies do enable a modicum of interaction/connection, Cyzewski proposes that the type and level of interaction/connection we actually receive is woefully lacking. The reality is that these technologies that consume significant amounts of one’s time don’t deliver rich connections/interactions. Rather research demonstrates that chronic use of social media technologies tend to produce frustration, loneliness, less genuine connections, and exacerbate the mental health of some users.
Third, and arguably most important, is Cyzewski’s focus on the ways in which digital formation robs us of spiritual formation. Digital formation refers to the often obscured technological goals of companies that produce smartphones and create social media sites and apps. Cyzewski and others propose that that “technology…is designed to form us into regular, if not compulsive, users for the sake of collecting data and profits by training us to always have a reason to use our devices…” (37). These goals ensure that social media users remain addicted to technology, especially social media, which requires they spend substantial amounts of time staring at tablets, smartphones, or computers, which Cyzewski claims robs us of more rich experiences (i.e., spiritual formation).
The term spiritual formation refers to practices that some people would agree yield genuine social connection/interaction. Cyzewski’s definition of social formation translates into things such as “…patience, focus, silence, solitude, stillness, community, and regular practice” (25). Arguably the main point of Reconnect is the tension between spiritual and digital formations. That is, the author proposes that these spiritual practices, which promise to enhance our lives, fly in the face of digital structures. Both compete for our time. Cyzewski proposes that digital formations do not deliver on their promises (deeper interaction/connection) and, in fact, take time away from our spiritual formations, which do enhance our lives.
Reconnect is fair critique of technology, especially social media technologies. Importantly, it is not a manifesto railing against all-things technological. On the contrary, Cyzewski confesses early on in the book that he too uses social media technologies, albeit in ways that recognize their true level of benefit. And Reconnect contains a great deal of sustenance; it is not another book on “The Ten Ways to Reduce Your Social Media Use.” Some readers my say that this book provides a nuanced version of an old argument about the dark side of technology. Others may state that Reconnect makes a unique contribution with its focus on the ways in which modern technology strips us of important spiritual practices. Of course readers who don’t value silence, stillness, focus, or other spiritual practices may be unsatisfied with Cyzewski’s argument altogether.
Ultimately, Reconnect is a book about making the choice between digital and spiritual formation. Cyzewski has provided a substantive means by which to make this decision. There are three main points worth repeating. First, social media technologies do not enhance genuine interaction/connection; rather chronic use of these technologies tends to produce feelings of frustration, loneliness, or worse. Second, increased personal interaction/connection is not the main goal of tech companies. Money through data collection and advertising is the vehicle that steers social media technologies. And last, silence, contemplative prayer, meditation, and genuine community are the practices that sustain our individual and collective lives. Cyzewski’s Reconnect proposes that these spiritual practices are key to spiritual restoration and I believe he is right.
Paul D. Gregory is associate professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin - Whitewater. His interests include correctional treatment, especially meditation. He is a certified meditation instructor and has taught meditation classes to criminal justice populations and at a local yoga studio in Wisconsin. Paul also enjoys hiking and camping.