the internet is not a panacea

In a press conference last week announcing the closure of schools for the rest of the year, Missouri Governor Mike Parson said, “Schools should continue remote learning for their students until the end date previously set on their academic calendars.”

I was thinking about that this afternoon as I was helping my oldest with his Chemistry homework. Not to brag, but I was good at Chemistry. I took AP Chem as a junior and got a 4 on my AP test at the end of that year. As a senior, I was planning on going into Chemical Engineering at Purdue. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve forgotten virtually everything that I once knew about basic chemistry. I was useless to my son. As we were both getting more and more frustrated with his homework, I thought about that euphemism from the governor, “remote learning.”

The way he said it seemed to casual, so matter-of-fact. “We’re shutting the schools down, but not to worry, just continue with remote learning.” Right. The only way that “remote learning” is an accurate description is if we adopt the alternative dictionary definition for “remote” – small in degree, slight. I’m going to say this as clearly as I can. I love our schools. I wouldn’t want to send my kids anywhere else. I’m proud of our schools, and I genuinely admire and respect our teachers many of whom are personal friends. They have been thrown a massive curve-ball this semester, and I know that they hate this circumstance as much as parents. They are working like crazy to finish this school year as effectively as possible, and I appreciate their effort. But let’s not labor under the illusion that students are still learning in anything close to the same way they would be learning if they were still in school. Under the best of circumstances, effective online curriculum takes months to design – not mere days. And we are clearly not in the best of circumstances. I’m tempted to say much more here, but you don’t need me to list all of the obvious reasons why this is the case. My point is simply that the internet isn’t some magic wand that resolves all of the intractable problems we are facing in education.

And what about church? There is a conflict flaming up in the state of Kansas involving the Constitutional freedoms of assembly and religion balanced with the emergency powers of the government to protect its citizens. Over the weekend, the governor of Kansas, who wants to officially shut down all churches in the state, said the following in her defense:

“Religion is really not about the building. It’s about the faith, it’s about how it feels on the inside. The need to congregate is important but not during a pandemic. I am not trying to suppress religion. I’m just trying to save Kansans’ lives.”

I have no doubt that many people would agree with the governor’s assessment of the nature of faith. “Yes, of course faith is about how I feel. Gathering with others is really unnecessary especially during a time of emergency.” Such a description of faith is also, basically, Gnostic.

I have a lot of thoughts about this. First, I’m concerned about a government that so easily strips citizens of basic rights under the umbrella of emergency measures and a citizenry so eager to comply. The government shouldn’t be telling anyone how to properly practice their faith. The governor can’t even abide a debate about such measures. “We are in an emergency!” Surely we are, but what about the next emergency and the one after that? Responsible citizens must maintain reasonable suspicion of their elected officials and demand justifications and debate when they suspend the Constitution. If you are a person who shouts down any person on social media who dares to question the government at this point, you might ask yourself where you draw the line between responsible government and tyranny. I’m NOT saying this virus is a hoax or that social distancing is unnecessary, so please don’t straw man my point. I’m also not saying the government has no emergency powers. My point is that citizenship demands a certain level of suspicion.

Beyond the political concern, I also have concerns about the insinuation that the internet is a magic wand for the church. “Just go online. What’s the big deal? Maybe going online is actually better. The church isn’t a building after all.” Such a mindset treats embodied community as an unnecessary add-on – maybe even a luxury – to the Christian life. It falsely assumes that a church gathered online is approximately the same as a church gathered in person.

What about work? A lot of people are out of work right now. A lot of others are now being told to just work at home. There’s no problem that Zoom can’t fix. I’m happy to still have work, but please don’t tell me that the internet is a magic wand allowing me to seamlessly transition to working at home. For a lot of us, working at home comes with a host of challenges and inefficiencies. It is just not possible to effectively reproduce the workplace online.

“Just do remote learning” undercuts the legitimacy of the institution of schools. “Just worship online” undercuts the legitimacy of the institution of our churches. “Just work at home” undercuts the legitimacy and importance of the workplace in people’s lives.

It is important for us to remember that every technology or tool that we use to reshape the world also reshapes those who use it. No technology leaves us alone. After a time, our technology demands that we adjust our behaviors and expectations to its demands and limitations. Zoom is a good example of this. I appreciate platforms like Zoom, but I also am wary of allowing Zoom to shape my work. I’ve had too many conversations recently where a main topic is adjusting our expectations in light of the capabilities of Zoom. It is in this way that technology works backwards. We are molded into its image.

So how does “remote learning,” online church, and working from home reshape us? I’m concerned that we aren’t even thinking about this question. We are simply complying and molding ourselves to internet technology. For instance, the governor of Kansas has attempted to make a theological point that our faith is not structured by the architectural confines of a church building. (By the way, I disagree with this since architecture is deeply theological, but that’s not the point right now.) If we grant her this point, shouldn’t we also say that our faith is not structured by the limitations of online spaces? Why grant the argument about buildings without making the same critical argument about the internet? Why does the internet get a free pass?

I’m anticipating an objection. Many would point out that these are temporary, but necessary measures. They would also point out that we all kind of recognize that these online solutions are not ideal. They are more like band-aids to stop the bleeding. Yes. I agree with all of that. I’m no Luddite. I’m thrilled that this technology exists for such a time as this. It’s hard to imagine this circumstance happening even ten years ago when technological interventions would have been largely impossible.

My concern is longer term. The internet is being treated by some as a panacea. It is the balm that heals all problems. It is our social savior and the technocrats are its priests. I believe that right now is a good time for us to reflect on the inadequacies of “just going online” so that we are better positioned to appreciate embodied life after the pandemic. We should take this time as an opportunity to honestly critique the limits of the internet rather than merely celebrating them.



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