Review: Restless Devices

| Restless Devices: Recovering Personhood, Presence, and Place in the Digital Age, by Felicia Wu Song, InterVarsity Press, 2021.

reviewed by Chris Ridgeway

Dr. Felicia Wu Song knows what your teenager is doing on their phone. 

It’s not only her academic lens as a cultural sociologist, or her twenty-year personal interest on the impacts of technology on society. No, Song’s intimate familiarity with the nuances of TikTok starts with her daily life as an undergraduate professor—guiding classrooms of liberal arts students as they struggle to make sense of homework, online dating, and the digital-social milieu they bounce natively in.

“Kids these days,” as she observes wryly, aren’t as digitally native as we might assume. Despite the devices practically sewn to their hands, emerging adults report being overwhelmed by and underprepared for their unlimited digital ecology—a landscape of texting and gaming and endless video memes. They sleep with their phones in their beds and confess lack of impulse control and mountains of anxiety.

And Generation Z isn’t alone being cast adrift in the river of contemporary digital life. After our thirty year social experiment in digital communications, the “email inbox [still] advances on us like a permanent game of Space Invaders,” Song laments—the 80s video game one of a parade of pop references that cause me to involuntarily smile. Our culture, she observes, is floating toward a waterfall of “acute technological disenchantment”—a deep discontentment with the status quo, yet a societal helplessness to change it.

It’s not just you. It’s all of us.

Restless Devices is not treading novel ground when concerned with the effects of digital tech in daily life. There are endless Google results bemoaning what Google is doing to us. Voices span genres from writer Nicholas Carr’s 2010 biochemical lamentation on “what the internet is doing to our brains” to Harvard sociologist Sherry Turkle’s 2011 Alone Together to Christian biblical scholar Darrell Bock’s 2021 “Virtual Reality Church.”

Yet Song manages a worthy read on the topic at the very least for her style: a lucid and vulnerable exploration that remains enjoyable even as she draws on academic sources across sociology, patristics, and ethics. She as easily touches Augustine or Thoreau as Candy Crush and Cherry Pepsi—her ivory tower refreshingly only a few feet above ground level. Her poise is patient and wise.

So what is her solution for our digital carnival? Part II of Restless Devices focuses here, and it isn’t individual, she asserts. For the sociological observer, personal troubles are often public issues. It’s why some of us delete Instagram or Twitter from our phones only to reinstall. We try a digital cleanse for Lent but feel little effect.

Neither is the answer simply finding an accurate diagnosis:

“For years I had thought that the way to motivate digital resistance was to seek a deeper understanding of technology’s fundamental nature—that is, the truth about its moral valances and its social, cultural, and political power. I thought that resistance could be summoned when a proper understanding of the theology of technology was attained.”

Her prescription, written in six chapters with a chastened optimism, is one she defines as a “combined work of sociology and theology.” The identity and behaviors of the Christian Church are central to her frame, this is a vision of ecclesiology—though she not once uses this word. Instead we hear of language from sociology like “plausibility structures”—the shared rules and practices of communities that “establish the horizons” for what is possible. The answer to a digital world are the collective practices—the “counter liturgies” (yes, James K. A. Smith appears here), that can shape us together, not separately.

Most vividly, she provides not only a theoretical framework but a set of resources throughout the book that she dubs her “Freedom Project”—a set of personal and collective exercises that could lead to “alternative futures.” What if the church provided a “phone hotel” outside the worship space? Only a few brief pages and bullet points, these exercises are provocative enough to engage even as you flip quickly past them hoping you don’t linger long enough to force personal consideration.

I have at least one constructive complaint. In defining a solution, Song rightly uses presence as an essential category for amplifying humanness. I could only wish she didn’t follow the slew of theological commentators who use the word so loosely that it is synonymous with “proximity” or “physicality.” This can’t do. Our bodies are not our only type of presence—a distinction that a pandemic of digital communications has only brought into focus.

The related theological mistake is to endorse the physicality of Jesus’ incarnational presence and denounce gnostic heresies—something that Song also does—without giving attention to the non-embodied way we experience the presence of God today. Jesus at this moment still cannot give me a hug. The eschatological math doesn’t adequately grapple with the today experience of “God With Us“—Immanuel as a God who also feels mediated, invisible and distant. This is as much of a problem for today’s text-messaging people of God as it was for ancient Israel.

Yet, at the end of the day, Restless Devices is characterized by a clear-eyed assessment, balance, and a quiet wit. Song doesn’t attempt too much, instead generously drawing on sources across sociology and Christian theology to build her case. Our digital society must change. And the society of the church is perhaps the only one that can re-form us in a new direction. Perhaps even your teenager.

Chris Ridgeway

Chris Ridgeway comments on theology and technology, including for Christianity Today magazine. He is co-host of the Device & Virtue podcast on the Christian ethics of technology in everyday life.