IF NEW forms of social media have transformed our ideas about
human relationships in recent years, they would be nothing without
the technology that supports them. Yet, despite being an evangelist
for Twitter and Facebook, I have come to ask significant questions
about our online culture. I would argue that our obsessions with
new technology run the risk of depriving us of vital religious and
spiritual virtues such as stillness, space, and taking time to
value our human distinctiveness.
For the sake of clarity, it is worth rehearsing how technology
has increasingly encouraged people to lead online-centred lives. In
the past ten years, two key technological developments have taken
place: first, the development of Wi-Fi internet access as standard
in most parts of the UK; and, second, the availability of extremely
powerful hand-held computers in the form of smartphones and
tablets. The BBC says that during the last Christmas holidays, for
the first time, more tablets than laptops or PCs were used to
download iPlayer content.
The implications of these two developments are manifold.
Powerful hand-held technology enables us not only to entertain
ourselves on the move, but also to carry our offices around in ever
more mobile ways. For anyone caught up in a daily commute, or, like
me, using public transport to get from meeting to meeting, the
computing and communicative power we hold in our hands is
Large-screen phones and tablets have become "playgrounds" for
both adults and children, enabling us to distract ourselves with
sophisticated games almost anywhere. This is the age of the app (or
application) - a programme you download on to your phone or tablet
to undertake a particular purpose. Apps exist for almost
everything, including measuring the distance of your run, or
checking rail timetables, and so on, ad infinitum. In a time-poor
culture, new technology feels like a blessing for work and
PERHAPS this is the problem. Technology promises human beings the
prospect of controlling our environment. Indeed, the idea of
"control" is one meaning of the Greek root techne. Only a
fool would deny the power of technology to enhance human life. Many
of us - including people with a life-threatening illness, like me -
rely on advances in medical technology to have a relatively
Yet because we are a tool-dependent species, we are also shaped
by the technology that we create. There are some grounds for
believing that our current obsessions with mobility and
connectivity signal that we are being controlled by our
This might be controversial, but you do not need to buy into
Aldous Huxley's vision of a brave new world, in which people are
"placated" by pleasurable technology, to appreciate its appeal.
Some writers, such as Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, have explored the
extent to which our modern devices facilitate distraction and limit
our attention span. Pang - an academic who studies the relationship
between technology and people - has even published The
Distraction Addiction (Little, Brown, 2013), an attempt to
encourage people to apply the lessons of Buddhist mindfulness in
order to counter the fracturing effects generated by our powerful
Equally, smartphones have certainly redefined our social
identities. For example, if families are still watching swathes of
TV, they are increasingly doing so while using their laptops and
phones to offer reactions on Twitter.
Many of us are struggling to distinguish between work time and
"down" time, because emails and social-media messages are
constantly available. We seemingly cannot go more than a few
minutes without checking our online statuses. There is even a new
word for checking the phone or tablet in the middle of a
face-to-face conversation or meeting: "phubbing", aka "phone
snubbing". In our individualistic age, mobile technology feeds our
desire to believe that "I" matter and am at the centre of the
CHRISTIANITY has traditionally prioritised community over
individuality, and mutuality over self-centredness. This is not
without its own dangers. One of the dangers of this can be the
crushing of difference and the oppression of those who do not fit
the norm. We should not forget that social media and technology
offer outlets to alternative networks.
Our current fascination with being ever-available, however,
strikes me as troubling, and even potentially sinful. Being
constantly connected only worsens that common perception of modern
living: we lack space to be and to breathe.
It is striking, then, that one of the implications of the Hebrew
term for salvation, yasha, is "spaciousness". To be
"saved" in Old Testament terms is to be brought into a place of
space. It does not take an especially lively wit to recognise how
significant this notion is for Jewish understandings of the
Promised Land. The land is conceived as a spacious place, a place
It should equally not come as a surprise that yasha is
a root for Jesus's Hebrew name. While we should not rush to
over-spiritualise the notion of yasha, it is surely
significant that the experience of spaciousness - of a place where
you might breathe - should be important to us as people of
If, however, technology can leave us feeling lacking in space
and time, the human hunger for relationship will not be kept down.
In an age when communication has become instant and unmysterious,
many people are rediscovering the pleasures of doing something as
simple as physically writing to others. I take this as a sign of
people's hunger for salvation and God - for space and
ONE IDEA that has sought to balance the wondrous power of the
internet with physical connection is "Postcrossing". It is a
project that allows anyone to receive postcards (real ones, not
electronic) from random places in the world.
The main idea is that if you send a postcard, you will receive
one back from a random Postcrosser from somewhere in the world.
This is simply for the old-fashioned pleasure and sense of
connection that comes from receiving real mail. Getting postcards
from different places, which might seem obscure to you, turns the
mailbox, in the words ofthe website, into "a box of surprises".
To my surprise, I have also become a regular letter
correspondent with people whom I know only through social media
such as Twitter. The pleasure lies, in part, in being able to
choose an interesting card, then set aside time to try to say
something, and perhaps to offer something bespoke to the
correspondent - a handmade card, for example.
The once-fashionable theorist of technology, Marshall McCluhan -
he of "the medium is the message" - offers an insight that helps us
understand why older, seemingly obsolete forms of technology can
help us connect with our deeper selves. McCluhan argues that one of
the effects of a new technology or medium is that it tends to push
older media in the direction of art.
So, for example, consider the emergence of digital downloads for
music rather than, say, buying a CD or vinyl album. McCluhan would
suggest that the impact of the new technology has forced the music
industry to redefine how older, seemingly obsolete forms of
delivering music such as CDs are seen. In order to make these older
forms seem still attractive, smart musicians have sought to reclaim
them as more like "art" - defined by scarcity and quality.
This has led to a new life for these older forms of technology:
a public used to downloading an album instantly (and often for
free) is persuaded to spend money on CDs and LPs by being offered
limited-edition, bespoke versions with distinctive art covers.
THE implications for how we communicate with each other in an
instant age should be clear. Instant messaging, Facebook, and
Twitter make communication quick and effortless. They make older
means of communication, such as letter-writing, seem obsolete, and
yet simultaneously - because of the scope for the bespoke and
distinctive - deeply attractive.
When someone receives a personal card or a letter in the
instant-message age, it really matters. It is not a necessity or a
primary means of communication; it requires choice and care, and
signifies love and attention.
I would not wish to be an old fogey and talk as if we can or
should turn back time, like some information-technology-resistant
Luddite. But there is something spiritually significant about
leaving aside the instant distractions of the web and the power of
the keyboard for a period of time.
In recent years, I have taken a break from social media during
Lent. It has become an opportunity to reorientate myself in a busy,
distracted world. This year, I want to try something else. I want
to take some time to write physical letters and cards to people who
really matter to me.
Jane Austen once wrote to her sister Cassandra: "You deserve a
longer letter than this; but it is my unhappy fate seldom to treat
people so well as they deserve." By taking some time to stop and
write someone a proper letter rather than a mere tweet, we might
treat people as they deserve, and thereby be better agents of the
The Revd Rachel Mann is Priest-in-Charge of St Nicholas's,
Burnage, Manchester, poet-in-residence at Manchester Cathedral, and
the author of The Risen Dust (Wild Goose, 2013).