David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest explores the problem of entertainment-fueled solipsism (getting stuck inside your own head). The massive novel was published about a decade before we began carrying around Internet chat rooms, blogs, message boards, and Facebook in our pockets, but it anticipated some of the anxieties people feel about recent technological developments. In the book, a group of wheelchair-driving Canadian separatist terrorists from Quebec (don’t ask) are trying to get their hands on a weapon of mass destruction in order to bring the United States to its knees. It’s not a nuclear bomb or a toxic virus or anything like that. The weapon is a movie. A film. A film that is so perfect, so pleasurable, so captivating, so entertaining, that the moment you begin watching you will forgo everything else in your life (food, sex, friends, sleep, everything) just to keep watching.
Pretty much until you literally die.
This entertainment causes viewers to disconnect entirely from everyone and everything else in order to forever enjoy the pure “infinite jest.” In Wallace’s words, it is “lethally entertaining.”1
Wallace said this surreal premise was intended to spark some thinking about our relationship to technology and other people in a lampoonish way, but through the course of the novel it becomes less and less lampoonish because it reflects real concerns Wallace had:
“WALLACE: I mean, at some point in the next ten or fifteen years we’re gonna have virtual reality pornography, which I would just invite you to think about given the level of, you know, people whose lives are ruined just by addiction to sort of video peep show stores now. I mean, what its gonna be like and what sort of resources we’re gonna have to cultivate in ourselves and in our citizenry, to keep from, sort of, dying [laughs] on couches. I mean, maybe that sounds silly, but this stuff’s gonna get better and better and better and better, and it’s not clear to me that we as a culture are teaching ourselves or our children, you know, what we’re gonna say yes and no to.”
In light of the Church’s recent emphasis on sharing goodness and faith using technology, I want to focus here on four inseparable subjects: technology, communication, entertainment, and human relationships. Elder David A. Bednar’s landmark address on using communication technology to spread our faith is actually just the latest in a long line of optimistic sermons by LDS leaders who exult in the power of technology.2 But church leaders have also consistently manifested Wallace’s discomfort, too. New technologies can have both positive and negative effects; they can be used to bless and they can be used to curse.
Anxiety surrounding communication technology is as old as Plato. In Phaedrus he lamented the spread of writing as a corruption, a mode far inferior to speech—static scratches on parchment is nothing compared to the living, breathing, full-blooded direct speech of the rhetorician. Every advance in communication technology has been accompanied by warnings that new modes—telegraph, telephone, internet—would sound the death knell for healthy embodied human interaction.3 Wallace fits into this cautionary mode, and so does Elder Bednar, whose warning about “excessive video gaming or online socializing” appeared in one of the most interesting sermons on communications, embodiment, and technology I’ve ever seen from an LDS leader.4
Some of Elder Bednar’s remarks could just as well have been spoken by Wallace: “We live at a time when technology can be used to replicate reality, to augment reality, and to create virtual reality.” Yes, he adds, many wonderful benefits have accrued as a result, but we should also beware possible dangers “such as experimenting with actions contrary to God’s commandments or enticing us to think or do things we would not otherwise think or do.”
This resonance is not so surprising, considering Elder Bednar is speaking from the future Wallace envisioned. But then Elder Bednar goes on to discuss something Wallace’s novel didn’t explore as much: the way that technology and entertainment has increasingly come to include other people—you’re not necessarily alone like the spectators of IJ, but you don’t need to actually be present with anyone in order to feel connected, which can cause disconnect from people closer to you as you become closer to people further from you. Elder Bednar warns:
“Please be careful of becoming so immersed and engrossed in pixels, texting, earbuds, twittering, online social networking, and potentially addictive uses of media and the Internet that you fail to recognize the importance of your physical body and miss the richness of person-to-person communication. Beware of digital displays and data in many forms of computer-mediated interaction that can displace the full range of physical capacity and experience.”
Given Joseph Smith’s teachings about matter and embodiment, Elder Bednar’s underlying claim (“our relationships with other people, our capacity to recognize and act in accordance with truth, and our ability to obey the principles and ordinances of the gospel of Jesus Christ are amplified through our physical bodies”) might even be glossed to say these particular things aren’t merely amplified by embodiment, but are ultimately contingent upon it.
So the Internet adds a potent new component to Wallace’s hypothetical IJ. Rather than being singularly captivated by an entertainment all by yourself, the Internet offers the ability to generate friendships—very real ones, sometimes very important ones. Some of my most rewarding friendships have come about through the Internet.
And that’s just it. Can this all-too-easily replace the ward functions I’m supposed to perform and be a part of, not to mention interactions and bonding with my immediate family? It seems to me there is something crucial about being present with others that can be lost if the majority of our most intimate interaction is confined to the Internet, or if we allow digital connections to impede physical connections. Adam Miller touched on this in a recent interview about his book Letters to a Young Mormon:
Mormon Stories: “So what’s the difference between—for you—what’s the difference between going to an LDS Church and sitting through the three hours and getting whatever you can out of it, versus what you might experience walking through nature, for example, in the sense that a walk might be enlightening or edifying. Is that religion, too, for you?
Adam Miller: Well I certainly think that spirit and grace can show themselves to you going for a walk in the woods. But I think that there’s a different kind of urgency to the experience that you have in church on Sunday when you show up and you sit for three hours with, with a group of people who, like you, are sinners; who, like you, are struggling with things in their lives, and who will make demands on you for your time, for your care, for your attention. That’s not the kind of thing I think that you’re likely to find walking by yourself in the woods, though I don’t want to downplay the importance of that kind of silence and solitude either.
Yes, let’s use technology to serve, uplift, and teach. Yes, let’s consider the drawbacks to the miraculous resources we have to work with today. (In addition to the problem of sacrificing physical presence for digital, there’s the ongoing problem of cyber bullying.) Elder Bednar has encouraged us to use technology to spread faith but he’s also warned us of the potential misuses of technology.
Yes, there are plenty of blog posts that are more interesting to me than a lot of Sunday School lessons I sit through. But what good are they if they don’t impact me beyond the screen?
I like the Bloggernacle best when I carry, next to my heart, the ideas garnered here—ideas that I can implement in my local interactions at home and church. Sometimes our online Mormon communities can feel more enriching than our local Mormon communities. My hope is that I can make better use of both to enrich the other.
2. Orson Pratt, one of early Mormonism’s foremost authors and publishers, exultantly wrote from England in 1850 that the increasing ease and speed of travel had “almost united the two continents into one.” Technological developments enabled Isaiah’s prophesied “swift messengers” to warn the world of coming judgment and gather the elect to Zion: “The extensive circulation of the printed word has also given an impetus to the rolling of the great wheel of salvation.” See my piece “Google Earth Mormonism” for more.
3. For more on this, see one of my favorite books of all time: John Durham Peters, Speaking Into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (University of Chicago Press, 2001).