Craig Detweiler - "iGods"
12:35AM Jul 10, 2020
Jonathan J. Armstrong
We're hugely grateful today to be speaking with Dr. Craig Detweiler. Dr. Detweiler is the former president of the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, co-founder of the Windrider Institute and currently President of the Wedgewoods Circle. Dr. detweiler is also author of many books on media and culture including the 2013 book, iGods: How Technology Shapes our Spiritual and Social Lives. Dr. Detweiler, we're so grateful to be speaking with you today.
Absolutely. Thank you, Jonathan. Thanks for having me. Oh,
Dr. detweiler, if I may ask first of all, this book came out in 2013. If and if I am correct, this was your first book on technology specific. You had written many books on media that this was a first on tech. Can you share with me what was the impetus for writing this book?
I wrote, I got first and foremost as a parent, as someone who was dealing with the pressure that my kids face where it's like, I need a phone, I need a phone to be part of the social group and to be kind of involved in the 21st century. And I didn't really find a lot of how to guides and I really hadn't found a theological base that helped me understand how should I approach technology, how have Christians approach technology across the centuries. And so I started just doing research for myself to try to think a little more deeply and purposefully around the subject. And at the end of all that research, I decided, you know what I've got enough for for a book that is the kind of thing that I was looking for, and maybe it'll be helpful to other people.
If I'm asked, there are a lot of potential connotations surrounding this word AI Gods you use the term very provocatively in your text. What exactly do you mean by this expression? I got
well at the time The iMac was a was a growing interest for people and you have, of course, the iPod and the iPhone. And so I thought, well, let's play with that a little bit. And and what I'm referring to when I refer to AI Gods is the a bit of the totalizing or monopolizing approach that has resulted from this technological revolution where there really are maybe just a handful of companies that dominate a huge portion of our daily lives, in how we interact, and how we're paying attention to each other. So the AI gods are immediately right. It's people who are giving us the phones and creating things like apple. It's the people who dominate our commerce like Amazon. It's the folks we turn to when we want to resolve arguments with friends, when we're saying Did that really happen? And when we almost always go to Google, and when we're interacting with friends, we're often doing that through Facebook, or at least they're related companies. like Instagram. So I want to look at those four companies, which are, in a sense, the the icons, the billion dollar ideas that have fueled this, this boom. And then I also wanted to challenge a little bit as to their desire to kind of create a certain loyalty, you know, where they became the only portal, or the only way to do commerce or to find information or to connect with friends. And I find that a little bit dangerous, you know, not just commercially but also spiritually. Do I want to give this much power away to only just a handful, a company and then also the AI gods are also the founders of those companies who have risen in the Pantheon in terms of, you know, books about management, business and entrepreneurship, where Steve Jobs has held up to a certain kind of untouchable status in the technological Pantheon, or then this next generation, right? Somebody like Mark Zuckerberg or or Jeff Bezos coming along. So I'm dealing with that question of have we ascribe too much power to too few people who are making too large claim on our lives?
Dr. detweiler, in this book, you do do an in depth study of tech companies and also the powerful leaders who built these companies that are at the core of these companies. You've you've mentioned them Steve Jobs and Apple, Jeff Bezos at Amazon Web page at Google. Mark Zuckerberg Berg, Facebook. What is it that you learned as you searched out the success of these creators of these tech giants?
Well, I want to do it since give them credit for creating billion dollar ideas. We've never really seen things too. Take off. It's such a massive acceptance at the same time. So I wanted to figure out well, what problem are they solving for? What was the genius in the sense behind their idea? And as I thought about it, I thought, the AI the AI, pod and then the iPhone took off when we had that problem of kind of too much music and he said, Oh, I you can have a here in your hand in your pocket and carry all those CDs or cassettes or, or the various LP formats you've had over your life. Now, it's all available in your hand. When it came to Google, I was like, what a Google solve for when they really solved for the problem of too much information. What did Amazon do? How do we sort through all the books? How do I you know, there's so many books I want that the bookstore kid carry, Amazon said, Bring your problem of too many books to us. And then what's it Facebook three? Well, Facebook solved the question of almost too many friendships, or too many relationships. It's like I couldn't keep track of people's email addresses. It would change from four metric format. Well, here was a place that said, No, we're going to all just be here. And so it doesn't matter what job they're in, or whether they change from the school address to that. You know, commercial address, everybody's going to be on Facebook. And I realized that all four of those companies, then we're actually solving for a problem with too much, too much music, too much information, too many books, too many friends. And that's interesting, right? Because so much of our fundamentals of economics, are often rooted in the question of scarcity. And these four people all solved for questions of abundance. That's a very different theological question that I'm not sure we're used to thinking about. But when you think about Jesus, and the miracles right, he often they ended up with with buckets and baskets left over, right once he bless the bread. So there is a theology of abundance that's possible. Some haven't really approached in Scripture. The other thing I wanted to do was look at them. I'd say the family good stories, in the same way that you know, our understanding in genesis of who we are as people, and who God is as creator. Well, that informs right that how we live our life, our theological anthropology. So I wanted to do the same thing with these companies figure out well, what problem are they solving for one of the How do they view human condition out of the view of technology? How ambitious might they be? Are they overly enthusiastic? All those kinds of things. And so I guess I questioned the AI gods and interrogated them a bit at the same time, critique them appreciated the the genius, the economic genius, the creative genius, but also wanted to, I guess, challenge the fealty made demand from us as perhaps fall side Actually, it's interesting. My wife pointed out to me as I finished the book, she said, You know, it's interesting. All four white males, of course, which creates a certain kind of dynamic in the tech industry that is overwhelming at times. But she also noted that they also maybe struggle a little bit with interpersonal relationships that may not be their strong suit and how they did with other people or even if they want to deal with other people in a face to face kind of way. It's so interesting in the sense the AI gods have created these devices that have created the world that is more comfortable for them. That where they may prefer that certain kind of distance from each other. And we have now all conformed, in a sense our behavior to their code.
Wow, that's amazing observation. You write in the introduction of your book, quote, this book is about how technologies entertain, and in Thrall us, we are tethered to our mobile devices. They comfort us when we're lonely, reassure us when we're lost, organize us When we're feeling out of control, they are an electronic security blanket way for families and friends to feel close despite the distance that may separate us. They offer us an easy way to pass the time between when we are waiting for something to start or someone to show up. We can sink into our cell phones when we are bored when we are scared or when we are eager to share some great news. However, delight can devolve into devotion. It is good to be connected to family and friends. But when we cannot resist the urge to check updates or upload a photo, we are veering toward idolatry, how unquote How is it that we can ensure that our technology does not use serve the place of God in our lives?
Great question, Jonathan.
I think I think I saw a as a professor teaching I saw so many students who in a sense wanted to be present in the classroom, and yet because they were taking notes on their on their computer, they had access to all these different screens, all these different prompts. And they felt a certain urgency, where, you know, Mom and Dad maybe expected them to respond immediately. And if they didn't they, they fear the worst like, Oh, my, my son or daughter must be dead, because they haven't texted me back. And it's like, no, they actually might be in class and trying to focus on something else. So the book I got that set up was a form of pushing pause in my own life in my family's life, and challenging others to do the same. It's interesting that you know, the call to Sabbath, the call to rest is so foundational who we are as people as as creatures, and that that the always on always present electronic leash, I think has robbed us a bit of that savvy space. And so I find that students feel more stressed out I find that in our family, right, there's always distractions, and I need to respond and this and that. So we started to figure out how to create an electronic SAP, where you're actually putting things down, turning things off in a very conscious way and saying, I need room I need distance to kind of reclaim who I am as a person to reprioritize my life and try to say, Okay, well, where am I taking my prompt? Is that notification of what matters today? Is that coming from a phone first thing in the morning when I wake up? Or is it coming from pausing long enough to take some divine direction and inspiration, both to order my day and to bring me the peace of mind that passes all understand.
So appreciate the reflection and not forget why they can we focus in on that topic of note taking just for a minute. So what do we do so many of us have so much of our lives organized by the computer, if we show up to a class or if we're working People we show up to meetings without our computer, we're just going to have to file all that information in our computer later if we don't put it in right at the meeting. But the other problem is exactly as you say, because that computer is tied to the rest of the world. We don't necessarily want to invite the whole world into that meeting. What What do you do for taking notes to maximize concentration and productivity?
Well, I am definitely you know, mean, you'll find me on social media, you'll find me, you know, on all kinds of formats throughout a given day. But it's that ability to turn it off at times, four seasons to go on a walk, and to put your phone down and say I don't need to be reaching out. In fact, I need to be not reachable. I need to have space for for ideas and, and sparks and divine intervention to enter into my space. So many of Jesus's transformative Moments occurred on the road, right where he's walking with his disciples between spaces. And we've now filled up so many of those in between spaces with these digital distractions. And, and so now it's sort of like the only time we're not surrounded by that electronic tether might be like in the shower, or when we're swimming. And so it's like we need to create, in a sense, kind of self free zones or bubbles in our life that will allow God enough space, allow the spirit room to enter in and renew us and refresh us.
Thank you so much for this amazing conversation. We don't want to lose God in the use of this technology which allows us to connect to so much. But is our technology allowing us to connect to God as well? Or is it separating us from God? Dr. detweiler, what do you think of virtual reality churches? They're starting to appear here in there. Do you think that VR churches could someday constitute a significant number of our Christian churches. What are their strengths and their weaknesses? What's your view?
Well, the Yeah, the sim church is kind of a fascinating idea. It was, it's somewhat inconceivable in an earlier era. But it is clear that wherever two or three are gathered, right, the God's promises to be in in our midst. So we can we gather in an online space shortly the spirits present God is with us. I believe that, in a sense, the whole realm of glory, right, he belongs to God. So I can't say that VR space is separate from God's world or God's realm. You have so many references to things like the cloud that have this kind of mysterious, almost transcendent notion that's embedded into a lot of what we do. I think that the thing that I don't want us to lose in a VR type of church is that we are an embodied people. And that Jesus is an incarnate entity. flesh God. And so we have physical needs, we have physical limitations. If I'm sick, I might need somebody to actually come to my house and bring me a, you know, a cup of soup, I might need to physically ingest that. elixir that that healing. I might need to be hugged, I might need someone to sit with me and be present but somebody that's not a robot. It's not a, you know, a virtual friend. It's maybe not enough on Facebook to say, you know, I'll pray for you. Or to send a heart emoji it maybe takes us to actually get in the car and show what that heart emoji means, which is to be physically present with someone who's hurting who's in need of to know that they're not alone. And so I think as embodied people, we have to remember that that kind of physical flesh Face to face this can't be lost in a world of virtual experiences.
Dr. detweiler, you wrote this text I gods, how technology shapes our spiritual and social lives in 2013. Now as we close out the decade and look to 2020, if you were to write a new book on the relationship of faith and tech, what might the talking points be?
Well, actually, interestingly, at the time, I wrote the book, Instagram and Snapchat, or, in a sense, much smaller concerns. And I've seen that with my own teenagers, that that way of visually interacting with people has really overtaken their forms of communication. And so I have basically written a bit of a sequel called selfies, searching for the image of God in a digital age. And it takes that notion of the self as presented. Through these formats in visual ways and tries to say, Well, where's God in the midst of that? What is it that we're looking for? When we present ourselves online? And have we outsourced our sense of worth? And and do we need to kind of turn back to God as that creator and in fact, turn even appreciate God as that original image maker. It's not just that we're made in God's image, but God is an image maker, as well. And so it's an effort to kind of reclaim and call redeem the selfie, and call us through Instagram and Snapchat and to be much more intentional about taking ourselves seriously as artists as people expressing ourselves and as people who are made an image of God to challenge those who might dismiss those formats. To say, Well, we've always been self imaging people and and that God can be glorified through that process is what
your lecture at the January Series at Calvin College earlier this year in January 2019 was amazing. And I'm planning to sign that to my global theology students. in that class, we also deal a bit with faith and tech. I just so appreciated that like, Oh,
your book. So thank you,
Dr. detweiler, if I can close with a question that I've been asking all of the interviewees on this program, and that is this, what would it mean for the church to be united today in this global tech, galvanized age? How would we recognize the unity of the church and what is it that we can do as Christians to pursue the Unity for which Jesus prayed and john 17?
Well, it's fascinating. I think, in the first flush of technology, there was this notion of like, wow, we're going to be more together than ever before. And the gaps between nations and borders, in some ways collapsed. And we were able to reach trust huge distances that our bodies couldn't normally touch. And yet, that is gasm that hopefulness I think has been dashed by the clashes that we've seen that have emerged online. And so things that were maybe intended to unite us have ended up being even more divisive for us as a community of thing. I guess I would go back perhaps to Richard Nabors classic book, Christ and culture, where he outlined five different approaches to culture. And there's there's historic basis for this. There's a biblical basis for these different approaches. And yet, we seem to kind of have forgotten that, in the midst of the culture war we were we simply said my way or the highway, I'm right, you're wrong, and resorting to name calling and just a lot of judgmental ism. And I guess I'd want to go back and say, Well, you know, I may not be Amish, but surely I can appreciate the Amish in their effort to want to opt out of this digital world. And for those who choose to go into a digital deep dive, I want to know that God can find them in that place as well. Through the cell phone through the technology through entertainment, these are not necessarily time to wait from God. Hopefully they can be time to be with God. But we have to get past the judgment and condemnation of each other as to whether you're maybe it's a digital native, a digital nomad or a digital never. These are not salvific categories. And so there's no need to kick people in or out of God's kingdom, depending on how they choose to relate to the 21st century. And these totalizing technologies that demand a lot of discernment and on
our huge privilege today to be speaking with Dr. Craig detweiler, author of AI Gods how technology shapes our spiritual and social lives. past president of the Seattle School of Theology and psychology, currently, president of Wedgewood circle, we're so grateful to be speaking with you
Jonathan, keep up the great work. And thank you for paying attention to this really, really important issue.