Andrew Sullivan wrote a recent feature article for New York Magazine entitled “I Used to Be a Human Being.” Since he was a pioneer of the blogging industry, people quickly clamored to retweet and share his article shortly after it was posted. They were interested to read how one of the progenitors of the industry would describe his struggle with internet overload.
If you aren’t familiar with Sullivan, he began as a writer for various magazines and news outlets before moving to the blogosphere. At this point, the blogosphere was still in its nascent stages, and he quickly became one of its most important voices. All you need to know about him can be summed up in New York Times opinion columnist Ross Douthat’s estimation that he might be the “most influential political writer of his generation.” Douthat wrote a piece about him in 2013 entitled “The Influence of Andrew Sullivan” that helps elucidate his impact on a variety of our society’s most prominent issues.
So when Sullivan penned this most recent piece, people were curious to see what he had to say. He retired from blogging just last year, a peculiar and exceptional act in and of itself, and had spent the intervening time unplugged and away from social media, the internet, and technology. His article traces the lines of his struggle in remarkable and candid ways. Here is one selection where he describes the stress he felt in the midst of being a distinguished and sought-after blogger:
“Over time in this pervasive virtual world, the online clamor grew louder and louder. Although I spent hours each day, alone and silent, attached to a laptop, it felt as if I were in a constant cacophonous crowd of words and images, sounds and ideas, emotions and tirades — a wind tunnel of deafening, deadening noise. So much of it was irresistible, as I fully understood. So much of the technology was irreversible, as I also knew. But I’d begun to fear that this new way of living was actually becoming a way of not-living.”
The full article is a series of observations built upon the basic premise he refers to in that last sentence, that he felt increasingly disembodied and dehumanized as he spent more time awash in the flood of the online news cycle. You’ve known what that feels like. Think about those times you stop scrolling in your Facebook newsfeed only to feel completely dazed by all the information and kitsch you’ve just absorbed. It’s a mental version of highway hypnosis that leaves you numb. Take that feeling you get scrolling through your social media feed and imagine what it would be like if instead of random updates from friends, you were seeing a constant stream of news from around the world, replete with hot takes and witty observations. That’s the life of a news blogger in the modern world. Total chaos, with a swiftness and ferocity that left Sullivan, the best of the best, feeling like he was becoming less and less human.
As I was reading his article, I began to think about how his experience isn’t really that different from the rest of us. Research continues to show that we are becoming increasingly addicted to our smartphones. As Sullivan notes in his article, just go into any airport and what will you see? A vast sea of people staring at tiny screens.
As our culture becomes more attached to these devices and the constant stream of information they feed us, there aren’t many people asking how this relatively new phenomenon might be changing us.
I’ve been having conversations with friends and colleagues recently about incarnational leadership. How does Jesus’ act of becoming human forever change and alter the way we envision and enact leadership? One thing we keep coming back to in our various conversations is that we as Christians must lead with rather than lord over. Leadership is fundamentally about people, and the more we become abstracted as a culture, awash with information and numb to its effects on us, the more we need Christian leaders who will seek to recover this basic principle of incarnational leadership.
What this means in practice is that we need more than mere emotional or social intelligence. As is fairly obvious from the state of our current affairs, what our broken world does not need is simply better knowledge acquisition. What we need instead are concrete, living examples of goodness, truth, and beauty. That is where we can begin to make a difference, because as Christians we believe that you can only truly model those things with a heart changed by God, in Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Sullivan is right. We live in an increasingly abstracted, disembodied world that threatens to dehumanize us at every turn. In the face of this onslaught, Christian leaders can look to Jesus for how to respond in every sphere of our lives, and it begins with deep reflection on the majesty and power of the incarnation.