Restless Devices: Recovering Personhood, Presence, and Place in the Digital Age
Felicia Wu Song
Reviewed by Josephine Tsai
“What did consciousness feel like before mobile devices, email, and the internet?” Felicia Wu Song poignantly asks in her timely introduction of Restless Devices. For most of us embracing technology’s positives without careful reflection, this book is a must-read. The first half unpacks the extent to which external forces shape our digital habits; we are naive to think that devices are merely tools. Are we controlling devices for our benefit and productivity? Song uncovers a larger system rewarding continuous use of devices but blocking resistance. Hauntingly examined is the personal cost: the addictive potential of our digital habits and the short- and long-term effects on our brains, hormones, and behavior. Vivid language underscores her points: in our quest for elusive satisfaction and well-being, we “peck” at our phones, “attempting to alleviate the anxiety and only to elicit a new wave of stress- again and again” (49).
My interest captivated, Song delves deep into her sociological expertise and research, in a way lay people like myself can understand. Surprisingly, the 1960s origin of the internet– a collaboration between the US Defense Department, computer science professors, and independent thinkers– had little economic motivation. Utopian ideas of freedom and knowledge guided the commercialization of the internet. But soon Silicon Valley, with its emphasis on enterprise and innovation, gained dominance. Despite an idealistic, all-inclusive image, its biases favored those in power. Song asks yet another penetrating question: “Whose values or dreams are embedded in the design of our apps, platforms and digital experiences?” (30) Even as I write this review, headlines show how pervasive these biases remain.
I read on to discover how tech companies disturbingly further use brain science and behavioral psychology to influence consumers. Google’s copious data mining energies can produce search results that favor certain businesses over others. Facebook, learning from this, shifted from technology/social networking to collecting user data and generating revenue. Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter have a “special sauce” to keep users close: “a built-in feedback mechanism that preys on our human desire for quantifiable and repeated peer acknowledgment and affirmation” (54). Beyond economics, these and other social media giants like YouTube have even altered the socio-political landscape. While other countries acknowledge and address the need for regulation, the US is slow to follow. Citizens pay the price. “The substance of our time and our lives are the treasures being mined, and we are giving it away without a care or thought” (61).
I grew more troubled, discouraged, even angry. Thankfully Song refuses to end here, or merely rant against technology and offer a “how-to guide” on dumping devices. She notes the facilitation of old and new connections, and the delights and comforts of social media. Yearning for connection and the desire to be efficient is not wrong, but ironically, the more we look to technology and the “iron cage of rationality,” the less we engage in real-life with all its “quirky and wondrously surprising aspects of human beings” (84).
For believers in Jesus Christ, herein lies the crux: unwittingly or knowingly, everyday we are being formed by digital devices and habits of consumption, rather than by Word and sacrament. Song admonishes us: Don’t settle for cheap imitations! She quickens our hearts with analogies of good food, beautiful holidays by the sea, and a longing for our true home. If the first half of Restless Devices examines our current condition and reveals discontent, the second half dives into the theological hope the Christian community can have. The true strength of the book moves us beyond analysis: a healthy relationship with technology starts with remembering what a fully-orbed life is.
Instead of connectivity, Song posits we need true communion. We were created for a communion that isn’t found in a number of likes or views, but in a greater intimacy that allows us to disclose “our most vulnerable and weak selves and finding that we are still loved” (109). Instead of being formed by our devices, “secular liturgy,” we can practice spiritual disciplines as counter liturgies. Instead of managing our time, we need to manage our attention. We turn to devices to stave off boredom or save time, but in reality we’re distracted, placing our attention on the unworthy. Instead of more virtual contact points, we truly desire physical contact. If the (COVID-19) pandemic has shown us anything, it is that embodiment matters, “the physicality of our togetherness… [is] undeniably necessary and absolutely precious” (189). Instead of more time to do more work, barreling forward in time, we need to look back, hold sacred and enliven Church traditions.
One of these is the Sabbath, not a day of “don’ts”, but an opportunity to renew our humanity. Song chooses Rabbi Abraham Heschel’s writings to elucidate how the Sabbath can counter the digital world’s negatives. Coincidentally, I was reading his work The Sabbath while reading hers, and I agree we can learn much from the Jewish practice of corporate Shabbat meals and prayers vs individualized Christian experiences. Heschel’s thoughts about Sabbath as “holiness in time,” as if one is welcoming and preparing for a living presence are “nothing short of a revelation” (198). We draw away from our devices on this day not to arbitrarily follow rules, but because we are attracted to Someone else. If we as a collective can feast on the Sabbath with holy, joyful rest rather than on the digital world’s media and goods, we can be a glimpse of something different- true good news to those around us.
These stirrings of the imagination, coupled with practical, doable suggestions from Song’s own life, make Restless Devices much more than an interesting, intellectual read. When she offers a sample list of ten habits or “commitments to ordered digital life,” modeled after Dr. Martin Luther King’s commitment cards for his volunteers, #8 jumps out: “When I am sad, bored, angry, lonely or anxious, reach for another person, nature or God before turning to a screen” (204). King and Heschel both spoke of community. Also stressing this, Song intersperses throughout her book a praxis entitled, “the Freedom Project.” Originally carried out in her college course, these exercises spark discussions regarding individual and corporate use of digital devices. She tailors them in the book for use in our churches, homes, and communities. In sharing Restless Devices with my church, family, and friends, I’m eager for follow-up conversations.
Ironically as I read Restless Devices on the plane, I was relieved my four-year old could happily tap and swipe her front screen. I could read, rest, and watch my own movies. After three hours however, unease grew. Plane rides with my firstborn, devoid of videos, were filled with reading and doing puzzles together. Was there a cost in valuing ease over connection? Over the next weeks as my family experimented with the Freedom Project, we journaled, discussed, pondered. Devices are in our lives, but we will set boundaries: continuing digital fasts on the Sabbath, setting aside “Walden” (referencing Thoreau’s famous experiment) spaces and times in our home that are tech-free, and evaluating what to subtract to make room for more life-giving energies. Just as artists’ works give glimmers of the future, Restless Devices is a prescient voice calling us to evaluate and re-imagine our relationship with devices before we forget how to rest. Song relates that she is still on this journey. Let’s start on this journey with her by simply lifting our eyes to see and hear “the unexpected and hidden voice of God” (211).
Josephine Tsai taught at Boston Latin School and worked in non-profits before becoming a full-time mother. She enjoys helping her children publish Chinese stories, and she thought her device use was minimal, until her youngest commented that her favorite pastime must be looking at the computer. Josephine holds a B.A. from Yale and M.Ed. from Harvard.