It rained one morning this week. I moved back to Texas last year, in part for the rainstorms. Here, it rains decisively, gloriously, like it really means it. It explodes, pounds, roars, thunders and then, suddenly, moves on. I stepped on my back porch, not wanting to miss the show.
I sat, silent, smelling that indescribable rain scent and stretching out my hands, palms open in supplication, the same position I use in church to receive communion. The physicality of the experience, the sensual joy of sounds, smells, touch and sight, was profoundly humanizing. In a very real way, I am made for that. I am made to notice the rain. I’m made to love it.
We are creatures made to encounter beauty and goodness in the material world.
But digitization is changing our relationship with materiality — both the world of nature and of human relationships. We are trained through technology (and technology corporations) to spend more time on screens and less time noticing and interacting with this touchable, smellable, feelable world. Social media in particular trains us to notice that which is large, loud, urgent, trending and distant, and to therefore miss the small, quiet importance of our proximate and limited, embodied lives.
I have been rereading Michael Pollan’s 2008 book, “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.” In it, he writes that how and what we eat was historically embedded in and determined by community, religious practice, nature and culture. Then came an industrial revolution of the American food industry that found its heyday in the second half of the 20th century. Technology promised to improve our health and our food. Not only did this change how food is grown, but we also began re-engineering foods to supposedly keep out the bad stuff (like saturated fats) and boost the good (like vitamins).
Industry promised a glorious new age. It delivered on some of its promises: Food is abundant, cheap and always available (no need to wait on growing seasons or worry about Twinkies expiring). But obviously, there’s been enormous fallout from this revolution, both for the land through environmental destruction and to our physical health and wellness. Pollan writes, “the chronic diseases that now kill us can be traced directly to the industrialization of our food.” His advice is to go back to old ways, to wisdom, to reclaim lasting, communal ways of eating. He calls us back to “history and culture and tradition.”
Reading about the early promises of industrial food, it now seems so naïve. And also hubristic. How did so many people become convinced that we could change something as elemental to being human as eating and not have enormous unforeseen consequences?
I bring this up because I can’t help drawing an analogy to our current technological revolution: the rise of digitization and social media. This time, industry is re-engineering our social and communal lives. We were told that social media would create deeper connections, that it would help spread democracy, that it would end loneliness.
What we are beginning to see, however, is that as the digital world captures more of our imagination and time, the material world recedes and becomes less real to us. This has disastrous consequences.
In an April article on adolescent mental health for The Times, Matt Richtel wrote, “Recent studies have shown that teenagers in the United States and worldwide increasingly report feeling lonely, even in a period when their internet use has exploded.” He quotes the psychologist Bonnie Nagel, who said that teenagers are “hanging out” with friends online, but “It’s not the same social connectedness we need and not the kind that prevents one from feeling lonely.” There is ample evidence this holds true for adults as well.
Both Richtel’s article and another article released the same week by The Times highlight the emerging trend of people having romantic relationships with fictional characters, rather than human beings. There is evidence that teenagers are consuming more pornography, even as fewer are having sex. In a piece for The Atlantic, Derek Thompson highlights the growing concern that screen habits are displacing beneficial experiences for kids, noting that compared with the early 2000s, teenagers are less likely to “go out with their friends, get their driver’s license or play youth sports.” They are also less likely to get enough sleep.
“Children today spend less time outdoors than any other generation,” the National Recreation and Park Association reports, “devoting only four to seven minutes to unstructured outdoor play per day while spending an average of seven and a half hours in front of electronic media.” I realized recently that I can identify more apps by sight than species of trees.
We are made to enjoy the physical presence of other human beings. We are made to enjoy rainstorms or sunshine or walks in the woods. We are made to enjoy touchable things. We cannot escape or overcome this need through technology. Our attempts to do so go against the grain of our deepest human needs and longings.
Claims that we can fundamentally alter how human beings have learned, lived and interacted together in essential institutions and activities like education, worship, friendships, dating, communities, work and parenting without large unforeseen social consequences smacks of the hubris and reductionism that told us to throw out apples and make way for processed fruit snacks. But instead of yielding increases in heart disease and cancer, this revolution gives rise to social disintegration and pathologies of the soul.
Reading Pollan, I’m struck by how there is something irreducibly mysterious about the way food nourishes us. Pollan points out that traditional ways of eating are good for us in ways that scientists do not understand. He says that oceans of ink have been spilled analyzing the Mediterranean or French diet “hoping to identify the X factor of its healthfulness.” But the “whole” of traditional eating is “evidently greater than the sum of its parts.” It simply cannot be reduced, measured and engineered without losing something essential to health.
In the same way, I think we are finding that there is something essential and mysterious — dare I say, holy — about human beings interacting in person and with the natural world that simply cannot be replicated in virtual reality.
So what do we do? In his book “Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk and True Flourishing,” Andy Crouch writes, “Perhaps the two best beginning moves, for those of us swaddled in affluence and intoxicated by our technology, are into the natural world — the world of stars, snow and rain, trees and deserts — and into the relational world — the world of real bodies and heartbeats, hands and faces.”
Just as people have worked to revive slow, unprocessed and traditional food, we need to fight for the tangible world, for enduring ways of interacting with others, for holism. We need to reconnect with material things: nature, soil, our bodies and other people in real life. This doesn’t necessarily have to be big and dramatic. We don’t have to hurl our computers into the sea en masse.
But we do have to intentionally resist the siren song of digitization, which by and large promises far more than it can deliver. We have to be cautious and wise about introducing devices into our lives that fundamentally change how humans have interacted since time immemorial. We have to plunge ourselves primarily into the natural world and embodied human relationships, with all the complexity, challenges, inconvenience and pain that entails.
Go watch the rain for 10 minutes. Go on a walk with a friend. Get off social media and meet one neighbor. Keep your kids offline. Put your hands in the dirt. Play an instrument instead of a video game. Turn off your smartphone and have dinner with people around a table. Search for beauty and goodness in the material world, and there, find joy. The way back to ourselves, as individuals and a society, runs through old, earthy things.
Have feedback? Send a note to HarrisonWarrenfirstname.lastname@example.org.
Tish Harrison Warren (@Tish_H_Warren) is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and author of “Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep.”