Virtually Human by Ed Brooks & Pete Nicholas – A Review

Virtually Human by Ed Brooks & Pete Nicholas – A Review

Have you ever thought about how technology is not just a part of life to use or engage with, but how it’s actually become the frame through which we view life itself?

That’s the argument of co-authors Pete Nicholas and Ed Brooks in their new book, Virtually Human: Flourishing in a Digital World. Technology is no longer an aspect of life, but rather is “the backdrop against which the familiar questions of life are played out.”

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This means that, for those of us who identify as Christians, we need to think through how these different ‘frames’ compare and contrast with God’s perspective on ‘life, the universe, and everything’. And that’s what this book is all about. In that sense this is a book as much full of God, as it is a book all about technology. And if you think that all sounds quite complicated, don’t be put off. Virtually Human is rich, deep, and stretching, but it does all of those things in an accessible and practical way.

Ed & Pete begin by tackling the heated question of whether technology is just a tool (instrumentalism), or whether it actually operates as a master over us (determinism). Much discussion of technology, including that from a Christian perspective, can be characterised by these polarising approaches. Indeed, some of us might tend towards feeling threatened by technology, whereas others might naturally be wholehearted embracers. But actually both of those reactions are too ‘easy’. As Ed & Pete argue, the lenses of the Bible give us a more complex answer.

For example, it’s fair to say that technology arises from human wills and desires. After all, there’s always a person behind the app. But, on the other hand, technology undeniably then frames the way we see the world (e.g. the example of mining technology changing how we view a patch of land). Different technologies tell their own stories and carry their own values. In that sense, the servant vs. master question is evidently more complicated than we sometimes make out.

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But, as Ed & Peter say, their approach isn’t about “trying to stand at the midpoint between two wrong answers.” Rather, using the lenses of God’s perspective given in the Scriptures, we need to look hard at technology (including looking at the way we often ‘look through it’), both affirming where it fits with God’s story of humanity and the world, and also critiquing where it distorts this story. That’s essentially what I’ve tried to do specifically with Instagram in my little eBook, Filtered Grace, so it’s a joy to see others doing it on a much bigger scale. And actually, I’ve been challenged by their perspective. I’ve often said previously, in particular reference to personal blogging, that the real battleground is our individual hearts. Now, whilst there’s something vital about this analysis, reading Virtually Human has underlined for me that it’s important we consider the medium itself too. For example, are there stories and values that the culture of blogging often invites us to believe and imbibe?

The first three chapters of Virtually Human lay out this perspective and they’re really insightful. To be honest, the book is worth getting just for the invaluable framework given up-front in these early chapters. Whether you’re a Christian trying to navigate how you engage with Facebook, or whether you’re a pastor seeking to apply God’s word into the realities of twenty-first century life, this plea to be thinking through how we’re engaging is hugely important.

Ed & Pete’s term for this is being ‘reflective practitioners’, and by this they mean:

“…being willing to ask questions about life in the digital world, but always recognising that we are asking those questions as people who are already shaped by the culture we live in and the technology it has led us to adopt.”

So in the following five chapters Pete & Ed then take this idea that the digital world impacts the way we view life and zoom in on five particular timeless issues: identity (“I tweet therefore I am”); relationships (“The social network”); time (“Real time”); sex (“Virtual sex”) and knowledge (“Searching for knowledge”). They seek to model this posture of engagement and reflective practice – and they do it very well, first showing with heaps of illustrations how various technologies tell their own stories about these issues, but then helping us to think through how this interacts with God’s perspective.

In Virtually Human we have a brilliant resource to guide us through engaging with our digital world from a Christian perspective. All the way through Ed & Pete have a fun tone – and the book is littered with examples, illustrations, and quotes from culture at large. And yet it is theologically stimulating too – showing how Jesus Christ and the Christian story both challenge much of what we find in technology, whilst also fulfilling many of the hopes and dreams that we express through technology.

If you’re looking for simplistic answers, then this isn’t for you. After all:

“…a robust approach [to technology] requires careful thinking about the story that technology operates within. It requires reflection on our use. It requires conversation with others. It requires effort in practices that we can’t just take off the shelf but must seek to embed into the pattern of our lives.”

But if you want a helping hand in seeking to be a “reflective practitioner,” pick this up as soon as possible. And if you’re a little bit intrigued, take a look at this ‘trailer’ for Virtually Human, narrated by Pete:

Full disclosure: The publisher sent me a copy of the book for free, but I hope this is still a fair and honest review!