What is it about photos? Due to users’ scrolling patterns, social networks have come to prioritize images over words, or as Christian philosopher Jacques Ellul would have put it, “reality” over “truth.”
According to Ellul, an image “immediately conveys to us a totality. It gives us in a glance all the information we could possibly need,” whereas “language deals with connotations and overtones . . . ambiguous and often ambivalent.”
An image, for Ellul, places the viewer in an omniscient position of immediately grasping all visual and spatial information about the image’s subject, while words demand from a reader time, engagement, and tolerance for ambiguity. In other words, images offer us data, while words deal in meaning. Maybe a picture isn’t worth a thousand words.
Images make us feel powerful, demanding little from us and offering a shot of information or emotion in an instant; words require us to see things from another person’s point of view.
Ellul’s schema may be debatable, but his observations ring true in the realm of social media: we like photos because they’re easy to create and to consume, but they also literally flatten us out. When they become the primary way we relate to most of our friends (or, increasingly, to ourselves), we lose depth along with the demands and discomfort of relationship.
We don’t have to claim that smartphones (or even Facebook executives) are evil to recognize that they are a formative force in our lives. With us nearly twenty-four hours a day, our devices and apps train us to view the world in a certain way—an incomplete way, and very often, an extremely self-centered way. A call to reflect on this is not a call to round up smartphones and burn them; it’s a hope that we’ll take the time and energy to also be formed in different and better ways.
I’m not saying we all have to write more snail-mail letters. From a Christian perspective, even words alone communicate inadequately. It is Jesus, the Word, who perfectly shares God with us by taking on flesh. The scandal of the gospel is that this revelation of God is not exactly Instagram-worthy. God is infinite, glorious, and powerful, but God is also humble, as dirty and smelly as it takes to truly be with us. Even though the earliest Christians adamantly insisted on this reality—the physical existence of Jesus’ material body—we Christians have rarely sat easy with it. We are happy to proclaim that the gospel calls us into all sorts of things, but rarely are we quite willing to believe that God embraced materiality and that we are invited to do the same.
If we did, we might find ways to cultivate a sort of radical presence to ourselves, the world, and others to counteract the distraction, shallowness, and self-centeredness that smartphones engender. We might remind ourselves to call and visit our friends instead of stalking them. We could commit to one act of participation in democracy for every political thinkpiece we skim. We might take up a craft or hobby working with our hands and cooperating with other people. We’d continue the onerous habit of meeting together with other Christians, sharing the Eucharist, raising hands, praying out loud.
These things could teach us to embrace finitude rather than extending control; to invest ourselves in things that bring deep satisfaction rather than fickle popularity; to seek out others’ truths rather than their carefully-curated “realities.”
Taking up these practices would not only balance out but also improve our online lives: we could bring new perspectives to our smartphones and apps instead of simply absorbing theirs. Grounded in the physical spaces and relationships, we wouldn’t look to our followers for validation but could more freely and authentically give to them. We might even find comfort and joy in our own bodies where the world too often distorts and devalues them. Our tools could serve us where we once served our tools, and that would be good news worth sharing.
What remains to be seen is whether we will use smartphones to add dimension to our lives, or allow our devices to remake us in their own image: bright and shiny-looking, but without any depth—full of reality but lacking in truth.
Cover image by Matt Hawthorne.