How to Make an Author Howl in Despair

 

No one ever made me literally howl with despair, as if I was lost in the bleak darkness of the wilderness, but I’ve had that feeling deep in my soul on many occasions when discussing my latest book, Reconnect: Spiritual Restoration from Digital Distraction.

The internal howling in despair often happened before I sharpened my elevator pitch for Reconnect. I told others little tidbits about the aim of the book:

  • It’s a book about using technology too much…
  • It’s a book about how technology makes it hard to pray…
  • It’s a book about how spiritual practices can help us transcend the harm done by smartphones and social media…

Each time I shared little tidbits like this, people naturally compared my idea to existing books—one book in particular came up, in fact.

  • “Oh, it’s like The Tech Wise Family, then?”
  • “Ah, I see. That sounds like The Tech Wise Family.”
  • “Hey, I just read The Tech Wise Family. That’s the same idea, right?”

This is where the internal howling kicked in. Perhaps a sophisticated answer like this passed through my mind as well:

“NNNNNNOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!”

There are two really good reasons for this response…

Authors Always Believe Their Books Are Unique

Part of the reason for this response on my part is that every author, for better or for worse, believes their books are precious little unique snowflakes that have deeply unappreciated intricacies that truly sophisticated readers will appreciate.

Even the authors who write Bible studies on the book of Romans or something about fighting the stress of “too busy” with the whisper “you are enough” (don’t forget the flowers on the cover too) think their books are extremely unique. My gosh, it’s still a bit of a miracle that I got a book published in 2008 about “theology and culture” at a time when every white dude with an MDiv was “musing” about such things on their blogs.

Authors can’t help it. And to a certain extent, every book is as unique as the author. Even books that appear identical may find a new angle that benefits readers. And honestly, some topics just have a higher demand that publishers who want to keep the lights on can’t help meeting.

Yet, there is another really good reason for this howling in despair…

Authors Must Distinguish Their Books

One of the most stressful and challenging aspects of writing a book proposal for a publisher is the Competing Works section that lists five or six similar titles and compares them to your proposed book. The competing works is a difficult balancing act because you need to demonstrate an existing market for your book without overlapping completely with an existing work.

I’ve seen promising book proposals fall flat because similar books were either in a publisher’s pipeline or had been newly released.

When I developed a proposal for Reconnect, I listed The Tech Wise Family as a competing work and carefully distinguished my book from it. If I was pitching something that is “the same thing” as The Tech Wise Family, I wouldn’t be able to promote my book to readers, let alone to a publisher.

My internal howling and shouting at comparisons to The Tech Wise Family called to mind the painstaking process of defining my book’s place in the market.

I didn’t know of any other Christian book that merged an awareness of the design of digital technology and its formative impact with an awareness of spiritual formation and the ways technology could undermine spirituality.

When I managed to calm down my internal screaming during these conversations, I put it like this: The Tech Wise Family is accurate and useful, but it’s dealing with the flood  by proposing countermeasures to deal with the reality we have.

I’m seeking to look further upstream…

Why do we have a flood?

What is the design of the flood?

How can we keep the flood from reaching us in the first place?

How can we build a solid foundation of spiritual practices that can save us from being swept away in the flood?

Less Howling, More Silence

I fully endorse and use the ideas in The Tech Wise Family, but I have personally needed a different approach to digital formation. I needed to understand why I’m drawn to social media and my smartphone. I needed to understand the ways these technologies exploit my weaknesses and how spiritual practices can restore my soul each day.

Placing good barriers around my technology use has helped me, but I wanted to know why I needed these barriers in the first place.

Most importantly, I needed a soul restoring alternative to digital formation. For many of us, our excessive smartphone use is scratching at itch for something: distraction, connection, enjoyment, etc.

I wanted to find the alternative to digital formation, and many of spiritual formation’s practices offer helpful alternatives. Digital formation makes us reactive; spiritual formation helps us become thoughtful and aware. Digital formation creates despair and anxiety; spiritual formation helps us wait with patience and hope.

All of this is to say in a very detailed way that my book Reconnect is a precious little unique snowflake that has deeply unappreciated intricacies that only truly sophisticated readers will appreciate.

I trust that you are just that sort of reader and that you are no doubt eager to read it now, rather than telling me it’s just like The Tech Wise Family

 

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Reconnect

3 Things to Remember as Technology Becomes Essential

It is quite strange to have written a book about using technology less at a time when it appears essential for our economy, relationships, entertainment, and overall sanity.

There is no doubt that some of my arguments in favor of prioritizing in-person interaction will have to wait until better times when this pandemic is past us. Yet, the majority of the message in Reconnect still stands. In fact, it may be even more important as we immerse ourselves in technology and routinely experience the real limits of interacting over a computer, tablet, or smartphone.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t use technology in our relationships, especially during a pandemic. Rather, we should use technology with our eyes wide open about its limitations, design, and strengths.

If we want to make the most of our quarantine time, preserve our mental health, and keep our relationships as healthy as possible, we owe ourselves a clear-eyed view of technology’s capabilities and very, very real downsides.

Technology Is Great for Information, Bad for Empathy

Webinars work really great because they can efficiently share information with as many people have an internet connection and a link. That plays to a strength of technology.

However, as we take to Zoom, Facetime, or Facebook Live for more regular social interactions, we should remember that technology makes it hard to fully engage with others in the same way as in person. The reason, in part, is that in-person interactions result in many non-verbal cues and expressions.

Communication is more than the words we say, and technology is very limited in delivering these cues and expressions.

Researchers have found that technology addicts especially struggle with empathy. This is because empathy is extremely difficult to convey over a screen.

That doesn’t mean we should leave our video calls with friends, family, or colleagues behind. Rather, let’s remember that we’re getting a limited experience.

Limited connection is all we’ve got right now, and I’m so grateful for all of the video calls I’ve had, but if you feel a lingering sense of disconnection or dissatisfaction with these calls, there’s a good reason for that.

It’s Nearly Impossible to Filter Out the Negative Side of Social Media

While we can carefully manage who we see in our social media feeds, keep in mind that social media will always promote the strongest reaction or the most shocking perspective because those posts drive higher engagement.

I turn to social media to see what my friends and colleagues are up to and to learn from experts who share their experience in their feeds. In fact, there are times when I turn to an expert or two on social media to help me figure out a news story.

At the same time, there will always be someone who shows up in the replies or comments with a bit of despair, anger, or sarcasm. I have found it’s quite hard to disengage from a fight or flight response when I start seeing comments on social media like that.

It’s as if my body reacts whether or not my brain wants it to react like that! Seeing strong reactions and emotions on social media can override my more rational responses to a crisis.

At a time when we are turning to social media to keep in touch with friends, family, and colleagues, let’s remember how quickly the most divisive or distressing content rises to the top. Pay attention to how you react to comments on social media.

If anything, this time could call for more intentional usage of social media, posting personal updates or checking up on the pages of individual friends and colleagues to post a note or to interact with them.

Beware the firehose of information that is the social media feed. It never stops–and that’s by design. If you’re already worried about the pandemic, then it may feel good to disengage for long stretches of time with whatever comes up on your social media slot machine feed that could always give you something exciting if you just… keep… scrolling.

Pay Attention to Your Reason for Using Social Media

At a time when the mental health of many is under strain and we’re looking for ways to make ourselves feel a bit better, social media can become a bit like candy in comparison to a substantial meal. While social media can offer helpful connections to a certain degree, we shouldn’t expect too much of it.

In fact, a co-creator of the Like button on Facebook shared that she simply can’t use Facebook anymore for the sake of her mental health. She sought affirmation on Facebook so often that she got addicted to the feedback of others on her posts.

This again drives home the importance of using social media with intention and limits. The designers of social media have packed in as many addicting features as possible to keep us hooked on their feeds, so it’s wise to set limits on our time even if we use social media and our phones with good intentions.

No one logs in to social media or picks up their phone with the intention of becoming distracted from their loved ones or their daily priorities. No one wants to feel worse after using social media to keep up with friends and colleagues.

Yet, the research available suggests that the downsides of social media and digital technology in general are very, very real. If we don’t have clear intentions and limits in place, even at a time like this, our mental health may begin to suffer as the days of our quarantine could turn into weeks.

 

Learn More Digital Formation vs. Spiritual Formation

My upcoming book Reconnect: Spiritual Restoration from Digital Distraction shares how digital technology is designed to shape us, what that means for spiritual formation, and how our spiritual practices can lead us toward the flourishing and health that God has in store for us.

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Photo by Tim Bennett on Unsplash