Escapism and Citizenship on the Web

The web has been a good place to me. I have formed many meaningful relationships over the web, I have maintained long distance ones, and I have had the opportunity to be a part of a variety of ministry, as well as academic, events because of it. Many of these things have come through my blog Gathering in Light. But as of late, my amiable feelings have been wearing off. Some of it is related to the things I’ve been reading elsewhere, such as things related to Wendell Berry’s book “Life is a Miracle” (read here for some comments on “Creatures are not Machines” and also see this poem). Some of it has come by way of Kester Brewin who has been on a roll lately (see here and here) speaking about social media as being action without action. And finally, folks like Rhett Smith continue to help reframe the impact that social media has on our lives, especially as it pertains to families (here’s a post I found illuminating today). And to be sure, I am not making some kind of universal statement about what everyone else should be doing, this is really just about where I am at personally. But it also moves beyond what I’m reading, to seeing the impact that technology has in my day to day life. I see technology not as neutral but as formative, it forms and re-forms us according to how it works rather than the other way around. In this way it seems that I have become more an accessory to my gadgets rather than my gadgets being an extension of who I am. Given this, I have moved from full embrace to a much more critical stance as I have seen how social media has had both positive and negative effects upon my life. And so I too have shifted my thinking.

Probably the biggest issue for me revolves around “escapism.”

While I do not agree with the “rapture” as a theological idea, I realize there are many times I believe it with my life. This kind of “evacuation theology” says that somewhere else is better than here: what matters most is not how I live my life right here but how I die, or how I escape to another (better) place. As I have recently reflected on, I have struggled to be a person fully present to a situation. While I believe that God is present in this moment, I am not always sure Wess is present in this moment. I have wrestled with this ever since I was a kid. I assume some of this comes from my own coping mechanisms and some deeper things, some of which I have worked through and some of which are still being made known to me. But escapism is my drug of choice, withdraw is my defense mechanism. And the web has become a place where I just totally zone out. I get fully wrapped up in this or that drama, this or that informational tidbit and surf my way to oblivion. This is rapture theology for the 21st century, evacuation from my present situation into the cyber-heavens.

I have been feeling a very strong urge to break more and more with this mentality. I should say I have finally had a breakthrough where I am even aware that this is what is happening. I have deleted most of my apps on my smartphone and have been contemplating downgrading to a regular old “dumb” phone. I shut off my comments from facebook for a week so that I could take a brake from feeling like I need to feed that beast. I have slowed down on my use of twitter and all but stopped using other social networking sites like

A big part of this is this question about technology: does this help me be physically, spiritually, emotionally and mentally present right here to the people (or task) in front of me?

I am realizing more and more that the kinds of practices constitutive of good online citizenship are not the kinds of practices that are constitutive of good earthy citizenship. In my real-life I do not have 1,300 friends, I do not have to manage multiple identities, accounts, threads in the same way that social media requires. My earthy citizenship demands that the person or task in front of me be the one thing I focus on, my online citizenship requires the ability to be multiply present in many spaces. In real life to be untethered from a place, a tradition, a community, is to call ones own identity into question, but it is a necessary feature of online citizenship.

So to get all philosophical, what are the virtues and practices of online citizenship and how are they similar to or different from real, physical, earthy citizenship?

This question pushes me back to the ground, it closes the door on escape, it calls me home. And for now this is what I deeply need.

When I walk into a coffeeshop (pick just about any one in Portland) and 9 out of 10 people are sitting by themselves in front of a screen I feel the wind knocked out of me. What are we becoming? We are a people who are constantly “together alone.” And I feel that. I feel that because many of my closest friends are somewhere else, many of my deepest concerns are somewhere else. When asked how I am doing, I do not want the first words out of my mouth to be “Busy.” Online citizenship fosters, even breeds busyness. This is not how I want to live my life. Most of the people I admire the most are not social media gurus, they are people that do not even have facebook accounts (or never use them), they are people who deeply value the few over the many, they are people who are hard to get a hold of not because they are too busy but because they are so present to where they are that they are not easily reached from 15 different sources (Email, IM, Skype, Twitter, Facebook, Cell Phone, Home Phone, Work Phone, Google Voice Number, Text, etc).  So, for me at least, this kind of thin-presence impacts my friendships, my family, my spirituality, the way I reflect on things, my ministry, you name it. To escape is to be divided and it is to be gnostic about my own physical existence. I want to be able to, as William Blake put it:

See a World in a Grain of Sand, And a Heaven in a Wild Flower.

Finally, to escape is to join in the world of purchasing my identity. Consumer culture today is based on escape, inviting each of us to be somewhere else, someone else, with something and someone else. What we have is not good enough, and is not enough, what we really need is over there and what we need is more. To counter this escapism of the world, which I believe is based on a corrupted image of self and creation, I am working to be drawn more deeply into reflection and communion with Christ’s beloved community, right here, right now.

Oh my sweet rapture
I hear Jesus and the angels singing
Calling me to enter the promise land.

David Bazan – Rapture

10 responses to “Escapism and Citizenship on the Web”

  1. Wess,

    Great, great post. You and John Dyer are two of the people I respect the most who speak on how technology transforms us. I have learned a lot from both of you this last year. I see more and more people shifting their thinking on this topic, and I hope more continue to do so as well. I totally agree with your statement about how some of the people you respect the most can hardly been found/connected with online, and are not always accessible. There is something very alluring about that. Their ability to spend time in silence is part of the reason they say such profound things…they have a deep well from which to draw from…those wells tend to get drained when we are always online, always accessible, etc.


  2. thanks for these thoughts, wess. as a recent entrant into the world of smart phones, this is something that i’m going to have to continue to wrestle with. grad school dialed my participation in a lot of social media way back (i haven’t really been present on twitter for a year & my blogroll has diminished significantly). i do see a lot of benefit to social media presence for my role as a middle school pastor and i see a lot of benefit in terms of knowledge in the areas of justice that i wouldn’t have had before, but it’s not without its problems. much to think about. i guess this means we’ll have to meet up at a coffee shop and actually talk to each other when you’re in town 🙂

  3. “I am realizing more and more that the kinds of practices constitutive of good online citizenship are not the kinds of practices that are constitutive of good earthy citizenship.”

    Thank you. In that sentence, and your thoughts around it, you’ve summed up a problem I’ve been trying to articulate for a while. Co-incidentaly, I blogged this week on some parallel concerns.

  4. Great stuff Wess. Your thoughts on this, along with Rhett’s work, have been very helpful in my self-reflection around my use [and our] and abuse of technology. I’m especially intrigued by the escapism component and how true that is for me. I’m also wondering if online activity is this generation’s escape mechanism, whereas by-and-large television was the previous generation’s escape. Either way, we do nee to think through the theological implications.