Dr. Felicia Wu Song is a cultural sociologist of media and digital technologies and professor of sociology at Westmont College in Santa Barbara. She researches digital technology and how our use of social media and digital devices alters us.
Her most recent book, Restless Devices: Recovering Personhood, Presence and Place in the Digital Age, argues that both theology and sociology are needed to help us live well in this digital age.
I interviewed her about what it means for the use of technology within Christian spirituality and congregational life.
Let’s start with those three words from your book: personhood, presence, and place in the digital age.
I think one of the things that is fascinating to me about our relationships with technology is the ways in which it shifts the meanings of words that have always been around right. Personhood, presence, and place: all of humanity has experienced those, right?
When I say personhood, for example, I’m particularly concerned about the ways in which our digital technologies have a commodifying effect on us. What I mean by that is that it encourages us to think of ourselves, and even other people, as brands, or as things that need to possess certain kinds of value that others will want.
Our life becomes transactional. When we become commodities ourselves, we lose touch with the personhood which is our intrinsic worth, our dignity. We also forget the value of each other and those relationships that have nothing to do with a transaction. This is built into our imago Dei. We are beings in the image of God.
My interest is the way technology is shifting the way we experience what it means to be a person. Do I exist if I’m not on Instagram; do I exist if I’m not on social media?
It’s a twist on that philosophical question: If a tree falls in the forest, does it still make a sound? If Instagram doesn’t record what I’m doing, am I still a person?
I think we all feel it. When it comes to presence, our devices have a tendency of putting our physical presence in the backseat; they celebrate our capacity to not have to be embodied.
There are really wonderful things that can happen. You and I are having a conversation right now, and we are not in the same room, right? Technology creates incredible opportunities, right?
At the same time, there can be a loss in terms of place when we start to devalue our embodiment and devalue the embodiment of those who are proximate to us. This is where I appreciate the work of MIT scholar, Sherry Turkle. She’s long written about how young people grow and develop and how their socialization with digital devices is concerning when the emphasis is on what’s happening on the screen and not what’s happening around them.
It creates an inability to know how to relate to those who are actually sitting next to us, to talk with them instead of texting.
I like C. S. Lewis’s term, “the weight of glory”—that is, the presence that is in each of us is inspiring and also fear inducing in some cases. There’s something very distinct and important about being physically present with each other. Coming out of the pandemic lockdowns, we need to learn how to enjoy and be and engage each other’s presence.
- Here’s a link to her book, Restless Devices, and her recent piece, “It’s Time to Be Wrong and Make Things Right.”
- Technology is a topic we are increasingly interested in at Science for the Church. Check out our resources.
- You can watch the full interview on our YouTube channel.
How did your work as a sociologist lead you to consider the impact of technology? How did it lead to this book Restless Devices?
My interests are in how we experience and understand technology as a variable in our identity, community, and relationships. I was fortunate to work with James Davison Hunter at the University of Virginia. He was a mentor and advisor who created a generative space for me to consider my faith and my academic work.
I didn’t have to set aside the animating faith questions that that drove me. In fact, I could bring them into my intellectual growth. Restless Devices was my first chance to do that.
My prior book about virtual communities was a typical academic text. What was so fun and so gratifying about Restless Devices was getting to do sociology and theological reflection all in one place. That was super fun.
There was so much good material in the interview, we’re going to return to Felicia’s work on how technology disciples us next week.