Podcast: Why You Probably Need a Digital Detox (Tony Reinke)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

Are You Living Wisely in Our Media-Saturated World?

In this interview, Tony Reinke, the author of 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You and Competing Spectacles: Treasuring Christ in the Media Age, reflects on how to do a digital detox, why we should be careful with our social media habits, and what the massive success of the new Avengers film can teach us about our media saturated world.

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Competing Spectacles

Competing Spectacles

Tony Reinke

In a world of shiny attractions that grab our attention and demand our affections, Competing Spectacles helps us to thrive spiritually by asking critical questions about where we place our focus.

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Full Transcript

01:24 - Welcome

Matt Tully
Tony, thank you so much for joining us on The Crossway Podcast today.

Tony Reinke
It’s my honor. Thanks for having me.

01:29 - The Ecosystem of Our Lives

Matt Tully
I want to start where you begin in your book. You open with what I found to be a very provocative and, honestly, somewhat ominous line: “Never in history have manufactured images formed the ecosystem of our lives. They do now.” Can you unpack that a little bit for us?

Tony Reinke
Yes. I’m quoting Daniel Boorstin there, who was writing twenty-five to thirty years ago looking at the media age that he was living in and recognizing that it was going to become even more and more potent. Images were going to become more transferable, they were going to become more appealing than our real lives. He saw these things far off, and we’re living in the fulfillment of his prophecy. We live in this almost virtual-reality age, where everywhere that we look there’s some mediated images, some produced image, vying for our attention, vying for our time, and those images really are better, more appealing than our real lives. We would rather watch television than endure some of the things that we monotonously endure in our lives. And virtual reality is really just a fulfillment of what Boorstin saw coming.

As I finished work on Competing Spectacles, I got an email notification in the top of my screen. I kid you not, this is like the last fifteen minutes I was writing this book, and this little email badge pops up and said something about our local science museum now having an IMAX theatre that wrapped around the audience. So you look up and down and the screen, which is bulged out, trying to wrap the audience with images. And that’s what Boorstin saw coming—that is our world today. Images just come at us from all different directions. We’re surrounded by an ecosystem of produced images and spectacles. And as Christians we have to reckon with that and realize what that means for us.

03:39 - Learning from Science Fiction

Matt Tully
I’m struck by how often you mention Boorstin and other “thinkers,” but then science fiction is another category that seemed to, in a lot of ways, predict this kind of stuff. And I think it might have been easy in the past to view that as kind of far-fetched. Even when The Matrix came out—not that long ago—it was just science fiction, not reality. And yet it does feel like, as we take a step back and look at where we’re at today, more like reality than maybe we once thought.

Tony Reinke
Oh, it absolutely does. I mean, Fahrenheit 451 was a prophetic book that looked at the “fourth wall”—having this entire wall that was a screen that you interacted with in a way that made it part of the daily rhythm of a household, getting to know personalities through this screen. It was just part of the domestic lifestyle in that book. And you’re right. The sci-fi novelists are going to see things from a long way away, things that it may seem far-fetched at first, but then when you start to realize what it means for us it becomes less and less fictional.

04:47 - The Popularity of the Avengers Films

Matt Tully
So we’re recording this in early May of 2019 and probably the biggest media spectacle right now was the release of the newest Avengers movie, which smashed the previous opening-weekend box-office record when it earned around 1.2 billion dollars worldwide, and it’s on track to become the highest-grossing film of all time. Did you see the movie and if so, what did you think about it?

Tony Reinke
I did see the movie. My family loves going to see Avengers movies, we have for a number of years. It’s something that we talk about, we process the movies together, which I think is really one of the great values of good films—you can go with friends, or you can go with family, watch it, and then afterward you can process it. And you can use films to teach worldview, you can watch it through a gospel lens to see where self-sacrificing love is present.

And that theme becomes very evident at the end of the Avengers movie, similar to the Harry Potter films and books. Self-sacrificing love becomes a prominent theme within the Harry Potter books and it can be very deeply, deeply moving. I have a shelf of books that talk about how to watch cultural movies through gospel lenses. And that’s something that we need to do, and that’s something that I love to do.

But as I looked at that shelf of books, I came to realize that there’s a book missing. There’s a book that needs to be written about when it is time for us to step away from the spectacles—even the spectacle of great movies. When is that time? How do we as Christians live by faith in this world that just presses us with sights—these CGI sights—that are just spectacular, and getting better and better. Whether we’re talking about gaming and how gaming just pulls you into these landscapes that have been designed by some of the most beautiful designers in history. They pull us in. These movies, these CGI wonders, pull us in. And I thought, we need a book that says there’s a time to step away from all of that, to desaturate our lives from our screens, to detox from it all. So that’s the book I set out to write.

07:02 - Cultural Imprinting

Matt Tully
One of the things that I noticed that struck me about even the release of this Avengers movie, beyond just the spectacle that it is in itself—as you mention, the CGI is out of this world and it’s mind-blowing to watch—was also the way that it dominated the media landscape. TV commercials, interviews, social media posts, promotions, digital ads plastered all over websites, video reviews, and essays on Youtube—it really felt like the movie was everywhere. Literally everywhere. Did you notice that? And how do we escape from that? You talk about the need to pull back from this media that just saturates us. It sometimes feels like that’s impossible to do in our day and age.

Tony Reinke
It does feel impossible to do. I think you have to demask what the advertisers are trying to do: they’re trying to pull off something that’s called cultural imprinting.

Let me use an illustration: if you see the same advertisement on television over and over and over and over again, it creates an impression in your mind that you’re surely not the only one who’s seeing this advertisement. Surely many people have seen this advertisement. And if you want to press this a little bit further, if you go to the Super Bowl, you can make an assumption that most of the United States is watching the Super Bowl; therefore, most of the United States is watching these advertisements. Therefore the assumption in all of it—this cultural imprinting—is that whatever consumer good or service that’s being advertised is being imprinted into the cultural imagination. So if I buy this car, I can assume that everyone in the culture is going to view me a certain way because I know everybody in the culture has seen this advertisement.

And so the reason we see ads over and over and over again, and why the Super Bowl ads are so expensive and so valuable, is because they imprint in all of us this idea that this cultural product has a certain worldview, certain aesthetic, certain value to it. And if you buy it, if you use it, if you wear it, then the culture will see you in that light. So that’s why you see the same ads over and over again. That’s why you see ads that are so expensive and so prominent in the Super Bowl—cultural imprinting.

So you have overlapping spectacles. In the Super Bowl, some superstar will play the halftime show. Of course, you’ve got the two best teams in football. You’ve got movie stars down on the field and the sidelines. If it’s on NBC, NBC is going to have some cast from one of their shows. They’re going to be lounging on the sidelines. NBC will cut to show them, so now you’re promoting one of NBC’s shows during the Super Bowl. And then, of course, you have all these advertisements. And of course you have Hollywood, you have gaming, you have the music world—you have all these competing spectacles sort of getting imported into this one huge cultural event. And so when it comes to Avengers and Happy Meals with the Avengers on them, it’s part of cultural imprinting. It’s to make it so that you could not live in America and not know that there’s this huge new movie release. And of course, everybody knows there’s this huge movie release because it’s been culturally imprinted. And of course, when you do that, you make billions of dollars.

10:36 - Identities within a Community

Matt Tully
When you were describing cultural imprinting, I’m struck by how here’s this communal aspect to it. It’s tapping into this need that we have to be part of a community, and to be viewed and accepted by that broader community. Do you feel like advertisers are tapping into that human need?

Tony Reinke
Yeah, absolutely. We put on identities. The spectacles that we see are certain identities that we can put on and try on. Talking about the Avengers movie, we saw it in 3D. We’re like, “If we’re going to go see this movie then we’re going to go all out!” I am not anti-movies at all. We did the full thing with the 3D glasses and everything. And for me, what was so moving . . . I’m trying not to give away spoilers . . .

Matt Tully
Do we need a spoiler warning right now?

Tony Reinke
Maybe we need to.

Matt Tully
I feel like it’s been long enough that people should have seen it by now if they really care.

Tony Reinke
Okay, yeah. This is what happens at the end. My youngest son has been a fan of Ironman since he was very, very little. We saw the movies when he was young and every Halloween he would dress up as Ironman. He had Ironman pajamas and then an Ironman plastic mask that would go over his face. He would pretend he had power to shoot lasers out of his palms. When you come to the end of this movie and the death of Ironman happens—and it’s weighty, and all of the CGI, and all of the booming loud bass becomes quiet and silent, and you’re met face-to-face with true, self-sacrificing love in a way that just pulls the heart out of your chest—they do such a great job of just dragging it out and letting the weight of his death land on you. For me part of that I was sitting right next to my young son whose now kind of grown out of the Ironman phase, and as I’m watching part of me is realizing that the childhood of my son that was so bound up in Ironman is over. He doesn’t feel moved by this. He’s not moved to tears by this. He’s sort of moved on from that.

And so, I’m sitting there—as a dad—just realizing that there are these seasons in the lives of your kids and he’s now passing out of a phase, he’s no longer in the Ironman child phase and he’s moving on into other things, more serious things. That, for me, landed really hard. I think that’s mostly why I started to tear up in that moment because it just reminded me of all that.

But looking back at my son, all of us in some way wear the costumes of the spectacles that we’re most attracted to. If you’re a teen and you want to be approved by the goth community, you’re going to wear a certain kind of goth clothing. If you work on Wall Street, you’re going to wear a certain kind of costume that’s going to make you favorable and approved on Wall Street. We all wear these costumes and they’re all conditioned by some preconceived cultural assumptions that go along with them. So whether it’s Ironman, or Wall Street, or goth, we’re all trying on these different identities to see who we are. So that’s what spectacles do and in a lot of cases they give us new identities to see and then to try on. And of course you see this on Halloween. That’s when it really stands out to me. You see it so obviously as you see Wonder Woman—you’re going to see the cultural imprinting happening and manifesting in what kids want to dress up as.

14:17 - How Spectacles Change Us

Matt Tully
Well, I think that’s such a helpful emphasis because sometimes we can think of spectacles, as you’ve been describing them—especially media spectacles—as something that we consume passively. And there is a sense in which that’s true. But you’re stressing that they really do have an impact on how we view ourselves, much more how we actually then present ourselves to others.

Tony Reinke
Absolutely. They do. This goes into just what the nature of what a spectacle is. And the gospel comes in and it flips reality. The gospel flips unreality into reality. And it flips what we thought was reality, and it exposes it as unreality. The gospel is, in part, a judgment on everything about what is solid, and a judgement on what is worthless. We start to see what is solid and what is worthless. Because in our world we tend to think what is seen is the thing that is stable and certain. And we tend to think that what we cannot see—whatever is out of sight, out of mind—those things are ephemeral, they’re unsubstantial. All that matters is what I can see with my physical eyes right now. And the gospel arrives and it flips that on its head because according to the apostle Paul, in reality, the things that are seen are transient. But the things that are unseen are eternal. That’s what he says in 2 Corinthians 4:18. So the most enduring things in the universe are presently the things we can’t see. They’re invisible. And the things that lack substance are the things that we can see around us.

So it’s just a crazy way to think about the world, you know? And it’s even more incredible in this age of digital images, or produced images, because like never before we live inside a mirage of mirrors, a mirage of screens all around us. It’s not that the images that we see are fake or false, but they’re not the truest and most substantial things in the universe. They’re not.

16:19 - Constantly in Need of Distraction

Matt Tully
Kind of drawing on that, I’m struck by one of the consequences of the fact that some of the truest, the most important things in the universe are intangible, things we can’t see, that aren’t right in front of us: we are so prone to fill in any moment that doesn’t have something like that in front of us with distraction. We’re constantly seeking distraction and it leaves us less time for actually thinking, of contemplating some of those things that are more important. As you think about your own life, what forms of media are you tempted to go toward when you’re bored, when you want a distraction?

Tony Reinke
Images are the things that I go to. Instagram or Facebook images or videos. Images are the one thing that we can speed up. It’s the one sense that we can process quickest, and so we can thumb through images really quick and passively. You can’t do that with smell, for example. Smells take a little while to process.

There are estimates that it takes around forty-five to ninety seconds to process a smell, especially a new smell. It takes a long time. The ear is less easy to speed up. You can’t really listen to music at double the speed. You lose something of the essence of it. But with images you can speed them up much, much quicker. It’s the most acceleratable of the senses. It’s also passive as well. It’s a very passive way to take things in. So you can sit down on Instagram and just flip through hundreds and hundreds of images and waste a lot of time. And that would be, for me, where the temptation is—in those images.

So I need to press back from those things and not be so consumed with what can be captured on film. I think Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 3–5 really set forth the contrast between the half reality of what we see with our eyes and the full reality that’s right now invisible for us. We can’t see it.

18:31 - How to Do a Digital Detox

Matt Tully
What does it look like, practically speaking, for you to pull back from those things, to apply Paul’s words and limit your media consumption?

Tony Reinke
I do two different digital detoxes per year. Those are typically 7–10 days long. One is more of just a straight digital detox where I’m not on social media. Sometimes I’ll have to work so I’ll have to do email and things like that, but I’ll be able to cut myself off from social media for about 7–10 days once a year.

And then another time of year I’ll do a two-week digital detox and that will coincide with a personal reading retreat and family vacation. Once a year my wife and I get away, and we’re in Minneapolis, so we tend to go away in the winter down to Phoenix or somewhere warm. And in the winter we’ll just take a stack of books and for five or six days in this season of life we can do it, we can get away and just read books and process those books and talk about what we’re reading, and invest in our marriage, but really pull away from social media. Because for me I really have to get back to reading long books in a sustained way to flex the muscle that is my mind and my concentration needs that. It’s like training. Just that season once a year is so valuable for me to step away from digital media and to just recalibrate myself to the glacial pace of book reading, which is a healthy pace. So that’s kind of how I do it. One digital detox of a week to ten days, and then a two week digital detox that’s more of a reading retreat and also coincides typically with a family retreat, or a family vacation.

20:16 - What a Digital Detox Feels Like

Matt Tully
So describe what it feels like to do that detox. I’m sure there are many people listening who have never tried that before. How would you describe the feelings that you wrestle with?

Tony Reinke
Well, day one hurts like crazy. Day two is painful. Day three is numb. Day four you start to get energy back. You start to get your concentration back, at least for me. Day five I’m starting to dream about future book projects or more big things I want to accomplish. And then it goes from there. But those first few days are really tough. Really, really challenging because you’re pulled back, you want that social approval, you want to be seen by your peers and so there’s this pull. Especially when we’re on vacation and we’re seeing cool things and maybe taking pictures of things that I want to immediately share. To have that impulse and say, No, no, no. I’m not going share that immediately because I’m offline. It’s good. It’s recalibrating. But it hurts. It hurts in day one, it hurts in day two, there’s kind of a numb sensation on day three, and then by day four something starts to change in your mind and you start to dream, and think, and plan in a way that’s very hard when the impulse is to turn towards social media.

21:30 - The Unique Dangers of Social Media

Matt Tully
I’m struck that social media seems similar to a lot of other forms of media that dominate our world today, but it also seems different in some ways, with its own unique dangers. Do you think that social media is particularly dangerous to Christians today? And if so, what are some of those dangers that you identify?

Tony Reinke
Social media is a new level of media danger and this is why. If you read a lot of Neil Postman and you read these guys who, in the 1980s and 1990s, were talking more about television and sort of a live, linear television—they’re talking about sitting in front of TV and not having control over rewinding, fast forwarding, and pausing it. I agree with a lot of what Neil Postman says, but back then he’s just not addressing social media and the new level of challenges that come with that. In my book Competing Spectacles, what I’m talking about there in social media is this new dynamic of approval where we become both the star and the spectator in our media. We become the center of our media, which is something that is very different than what Postman could have seen coming.

It is a stark reality that we live with that we can become performers before others and we capture and edit ourselves—our own being and what we say and do—we can edit that and put ourselves before our peers for their approval. Not only that, but then we watch our peers approve us through ticks of affirmation. Instagram likes, Facebook likes, whatever it is. We not only become the star of our own story that we project out there, we watch other people look at us and affirm us. And so we spectate others spectating us and there’s this crazy, multifaceted dynamic. It’s not unlike first-person-shooter video games as well. There’s a similarity between being on the screen and shooting a zombie hoard with some sort of a laser gun, you know. You’re the star of the story and you’re spectating, you’re watching yourself. That’s similar to social media, it’s just slightly off set so that we can project things and be the star, and then watch people like us and behold the whole interaction. And that’s where it becomes very, very addictive. The dopamine starts shooting in our brain saying, yeah, I want more social affirmation, and so we go back to our social media feeds to project ourselves and to watch other people affirm us.

24:08 - False Representations

Matt Tully
One other difference between a gaming context and social media is that you are an avatar in a game, and no one’s confusing that for the real you. And yet social media is really designed for us to present ourselves online as true selves. As a true representation of what we’re actually like in the real world.

Tony Reinke
Yeah, it totally is. In my book 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You, there are a couple of different stories of ladies who went into debt because they were buying all these fancy swimsuits, these different things that they were trying to project on their Instagram feed as Hey, this is part of my daily life!, but going into deep debt because they were buying all of these stage props for their Instagram feed. And I assume that’s actually not uncommon.

Instagram is more of a staged sort of performance of someone’s life. Maybe not so much edited. I hear people talk about Instagram being an edited form of people’s lives. Maybe that’s true. But definitely staged. We stage things so we present the best side of us, or we spend the money that we wouldn’t normally spend so that people get an appearance of who we are that maybe doesn’t match up to reality. That’s a big consideration.

25:35 - Social Media’s Impact on Kids

Matt Tully
One of the other things that I often think about when it comes to social media is the impact that it could have on my kids. I have young kids at home and honestly, sometimes I feel nervous about the world that they’re growing up in. Not just the broader media saturation that we exist in, but specifically social media. And it feels like, although I’m only in my early thirties, it does feel like the world today is radically different than it was when I was a young kid. You know, kids nowadays have smartphones in their pockets and they’re connected to every fact, and every song, and every image, and every video, and each other as ten-year-olds. Do you think about the impact that—and not just the modern media landscape but social media in particular—will have on kids today and on their emergence into adulthood in the future?

Tony Reinke
I do. Absolutely. There’s a growing consensus of a cultural language that if you’re not tapped into that consensus of cultural language, you’re left out. So if you don’t see the viral tweet, you don’t see the viral image, you don’t see the movie, you don’t listen to the album, you don’t wear the clothes, you’re left out. And so we have to train our kids to be okay with feeling the fear of missing out, and actually missing out. That’s okay.

That’s one of the things that’s built into the gospel story is that we’re missing out on a million things a day in this world that we’re not going to experience. We can’t hike every mountain, we can’t see every ocean, we can’t enjoy every beach. Every beautiful beach is on Instagram. Well, you might be able to see every beautiful beach, but the gospel promise for us is that if we keep our eyes on Christ now, and if we keep our hope on him, there is a place in his presence that will make up for every missing out that we’ve experienced in this life. It’s called heaven. It’s not an ethereal place where we float around in the clouds. It’s a re-created version of this world that we will get to explore and enjoy forever. And so somehow that principle has to be communicated to our kids that, yes, they’re going to miss out. And yes, Jesus knows they’re going to miss out and feel like they’re being left out. But there’s something greater to come and that’s why this walking by faith and not by sight is a walk toward what is more solid and eternal and satisfying, and giving up by faith all of the things that present themselves to our eyes as being a worthy alternative. But we must see through that and realize that, no, there’s something greater to come.

28:12 - Our Unquenchable Appetite for Glory

Matt Tully
Early on in your book, you say, “Why do we seek spectacles? It’s because we’re human, hard-wired with an unquenchable appetite to see glory. Our hearts seek splendor as our eyes scan for greatness.” I think that’s really helpful because sometimes we can react to this insatiable desire for spectacle that we sense in our own hearts and we see it manifest in our media consumption habits, or impulses, or compulsions, and we can think that that desire is itself a problem. But really, I think as you’re stressing here, there is something inherently human about the desire for the human to see glory, but we just need to make sure we’re calibrating it in the right direction.

Tony Reinke
Absolutely. That meditation comes out of Augustine’s thoughts on creation and glory and why it is that we’re drawn to theatre, why it is we’re drawn to the coliseum, why it is we’re drawn to hunting, to nature? And what he’s saying there is that there’s an expanse in the human soul that cannot be filled by all the human spectacles in this world. If you put every spectacle that you could possibly see in this world into the human soul, it wouldn’t be full because it’s made for divine glory. And so what we need to do is enjoy the glories of this world as déjà vu moment—I sense the glory, the beauty in this, but I know that the thing that I see is not really the source of the beauty, it’s just an echo. It’s a glancing glimmer of some greater, more satisfying reality, which is God. Which is being in his presence. And so we live with that reality that we enjoy some really tremendous beauty and glories in this world, but it’s not the thing that we’re after. It’s just pointing to the God who, if we are pure in heart, we will see. That’s the promise that Jesus puts out before us, “Blessed are the pure in heart.“ And I think you can apply that to spectacles. Those who don’t feed themselves on impure and worthless spectacles, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” So this promise of seeing God, the ultimate beauty, is when our soul is full to capacity and overflowing in delight. And that’s what we’re created for, and so every glimmer in this life is just pointing us to that.

30:42 - The Future of Mass Media

Matt Tully
Maybe as a last question, as you’ve noted a couple of times, spectacles aren’t a new thing. Even just looking at the history of modern media, one hundred years ago we had the radio, then we had television and movies, and then the internet age dawned, and now we’re into the social media age. As you think about the future, where do you see that going? Do you have a sense for what the next era of media saturation might look like for us? And then, what advice would you have for us as we think about moving into that era?

Tony Reinke
Yeah, that’s a great, great question. You know, I recently saw one of these videos from the NBA playoffs, the kiss cam or dance cam or whatever is roving the audience, and the dance cam zooms in on some usher on the second deck. You know, some random guy who’s just standing there and all of a sudden he just starts dancing. And it’s like, okay, that’s funny. And then the camera goes to somebody else and then it goes back to the same guy and now he’s doing back flips and you realize he’s a professional dancer that was staged, that was put there. I think that’s humorous. You know, it was funny the first time we saw it, and now every team does it. It’s old. It’s a trope now that everybody does. Planting some spectacle within a crowd and then making it appear like it was a spontaneous thing. That’s a funny version of what I think is going to become more serious: the spectacle makers are getting really, really good at planting things to make us believe, or want, or act a certain way.

As the “attention merchants,” as they’re called, become better and better at staging spectacles, it becomes hard to decipher whether it is real or is it fake. It’s just going to become more and more of a challenge to discern the difference between what is legitimate and what isn’t. Should I be outraged by this? Or did somebody put a whole bunch of editing into this to make a clip sound more explosive than it really is to gain political favor, or to stigmatize a political position? There are things that make me nervous going forward into how media is going to be manipulated and we’re going to have to be discerning about where we put our outrage, where we put our support, where we put our money, where we put our votes, and not be swayed by the spectacle, because I think the spectacle makers are just going to get better and better at what they do.

Matt Tully
That sounds kind of bleak, to be honest.

Tony Reinke
It’s bleak in the sense that the blurring of the line between reality and unreality is going to continue to get blurrier. But the reality is that God has given us his revealed Word on what is true, what is real, and what is substantial and those things are unseen. And so it really comes back to a question of faith. Are you going to live your life based on what you see? Or are you going to live your life based on what you can’t see? And that’s always going to be the tension for Christians to live by faith and not by sight. To realize when I’m going through pain in this life and I’m bleeding, and I’ve got band aids, and I need surgery, and I’m in the hospital—whatever it is, that God is using those seasons of what looks like a lot of bleak, painful things, to create an even more substantial thing with greater weight of glory that I’ll experience in the future. So what I see is the suffering. What God sees is the thing to come that is going to make up for every missing out, and every sorrow, and every pain here. And so as the spectacle makers get better and better, Christians are going to have to press into faith and truly trust, and believe, and treasure, and delight in the things that they can’t see. But that’s always been the challenge. You can read Augustine, Tertullian, the Puritans, even the Apostle Paul in the book of Colossians, I believe, is really going against this age of spectacle even in Colossae, so I don’t think it’s anything new. It’s been going on for millennia. We’re just caught up in the latest manifestation of these competing spectacles and it’s more of a challenge because the spectacles are just always in our face.

35:03 - Closing

Matt Tully
Well Tony, thank you so much for taking the time today to talk with us about these competing spectacles that we are confronted with everyday and offering some real biblical wisdom for thinking about these things and moving forward with faith, as you said.

Tony Reinke
Thanks, Matt.


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