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The Digitalization of Leisure: have we forgot what it means to be human?

In honor of our book giveaway, below is an excerpt from These Beautiful Bones by Emily Stimpson-Chapman. She talks about the threat of becoming consumers rather than creators during our leisure time. Enjoy!

Technology hasn’t just changed the way we work. It’s also changed the way we play. A century ago, a good day of rest for the average American would have involved a long walk, a fine dinner, some neighborly conversation, and perhaps (in a household none too strict about such things) some music on the piano or fiddle. There might have been dancing. Or storytelling. Or perhaps an outing to a museum or play.

Whatever kept people occupied in their leisure time, however, it was more often than not creative, embodied, and enjoyed in the company of others.

Today, the opposite is true. While storytellers and music makers still move among us, media technology has made the way most of us spend our leisure hours more passive than active, more disembodied than embodied.

For example, thanks to Pandora, more of us listen to music, but fewer of us make music. Thanks to Netflix, more of us watch stories on television, but fewer of us tell stories. We have become consumers of leisure, much like we’re consumers of clothes and food and information.

Likewise, those technologies can lead us to encounters with the true, the good, and the beautiful, they are, by their nature, mediated encounters, not embodied encounters, with sonatas, paintings, and evening chats passing first through screens and speakers before reaching our eyes and ears.

In all that, media technology can take from us as much as it gives.

While media can contribute to our overall happiness, comfort, and understanding, we’re body-persons, a glorious union of body and soul. Because of that, our greatest experiences of joy are never mediated. They’re always experienced in the body.

So, no movie you watch with your child will mean as much as the story you tell her while she sits on your lap. No video chat with your wife will compare to the pleasure of kissing her lips. No movement of the Brandenburg Concertos heard online will move you like the experience of sitting in a symphony hall and hearing it performed live. It’s in the arms of the one we love, on the mountaintop, at the sea, in the concert hall and the church, never online, that we receive the fullest and most powerful hints of the eternal joy for which we were made.

The theology of the body reminds us of that by reminding us of our bodiliness, by reminding us that the body is intrinsic to who we are and essential to how we give and receive love. As such, it also shows us that media technology is at its best when it facilitates rather than replaces embodied experiences of truth, beauty and goodness, and when it helps us become creators rather than consumers during our leisure hours.

Media serves us well when it helps us find directions to the mountaintop, discover recipe to cook for friends, or learn about a new art exhibit to check out on the weekend. It also serves us well when it helps us stay in touch with people we love, master new chords on the guitar, or perfect new stitches with a pair of knitting needles.

But media technology can never give us the same kind of joy that comes from being on the mountaintop or hearing our favorite band live. It can’t forge the bonds of love and friendship forged over a good meal and equally good wine. It can’t mediate the glory and love and presence of God to us that being with someone or at some place in our bodies can. Nor can it replace the joy that comes from making music, delighting children with stories, or crafting our first scarf.

To forget that, to think that in media technology we can find the love or truth or wisdom for which we’re searching, to think that it can give us all we need, is to forget the body. It is, in effect, to forget what it means to be human. And that is to forget everything.

Emily Stimpson-Chapman is an award-winning Christian writer based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She writes regularly about faith, hospitality, and food at her blog, The Catholic Table & on Instagram. Married in 2016, she currently lives in Pittsburgh, with her husband, Christopher.