Digital Detox, Intentional Ignorance, and the Proximity Principle

by Seth Troutt January 18, 2024

For Christians to thrive in the modern era, there are two spiritual disciplines we must adopt: Digital Detox (fasting from screens) and Intentional Ignorance (fasting from information).

The rapid growth of digital technology has implications for our spiritual formation. The form of connectivity that comes with smartphones and watches is fundamentally new in human history; this isn’t necessarily good or bad, but it is certainly different. Thus, the countercultural spiritual disciplines that serve our growth ought to be different as well.

Spiritual formation and the purposeful means of formation (spiritual disciplines, habits, and practices) are always contextual; the dehumanizing forces of our idols express themselves differently in different cultures. Our culture is the first culture that is radically digital.

Deformative Power of Digitization

Being chronically connected to the internet tempts us to be “like God” in fresh and terrifying ways. We have never before been as tempted to pursue omnipresence and omniscience as we presently are.

When we have 5G internet in our pockets and on our wrists, we are networked into the entire developed world. We can instantaneously observe, communicate, and be interrupted by people on the other side of the planet who are on their phones more easily than our neighbors down the street who are grilling in their backyard or playing in their front yards.

We are more interrupted than ever; our interactions with our closest loved ones and neighbors are more vulnerable to being hijacked by the wants or needs of someone far away as our own attention spans have been truncated by our notification settings.

Information used to be a hot commodity; now it is ubiquitous. With “googling” as the new verb and “GPTing” something right around the corner, access to information is instant. Will we forget what not knowing something for more than 30 seconds feels like?

Omnipresence is one of the characteristics of God. When technology makes us hyper-present, not only can our nervous systems not handle it, but our close friends and loved ones go unloved because we are aloof, distracted, and preoccupied.

Omniscience is also one of the characteristics of God. God can handle knowing all things, we cannot. We are limited, bound, and local by virtue of being embodied. From simple trivia to current events, it is good for us to not know things.

Part of the reason we are so mentally unhealthy as a society is that we are flirting with omnipresence and omniscience. We know too much and know about it, so we are anxious and depressed.

The Power of the Proximity Principle

Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30ff) in response to the question, “who is my neighbor?” In the story, a man is harmed on a road and in need of help. Later, two people travel on the same road, see the man, and then pass by him. But a Good Samaritan travels by where he is lying harmed, sees him, has compassion, and then acts.

The first two stand condemned not simply because they didn’t help, but because they were right there, up-close-in-the-flesh, and able to help, but still didn’t help.

The basic ethical principle here: proximity and ability create responsibility.

Many are plagued by a low-grade sense of chronic guilt and anxiety because our nervous systems are not designed to handle all of the information we have access to in our digital age. Young people, in particular, are plagued with over-responsibility that leads to paralysis and depression.

We end up functioning like the Levite and the Priest in Luke 10:31-32 who are unable or unwilling to love the people right in front of them because we are preoccupied with all of the information, problems, and suffering far away from us.

If we look through the lenses of proximity and ability, some of our info-induced anxiety will dissipate and we’ll have a clearer conscience as we love those who are in the “place” God has placed us (like the Good Samaritan).

Only God can handle omniscience (knowing everything) and omnipresence (being everywhere), and we should repent of our desire to be like God in this way.

The Christian tradition has long practiced the discipline of fasting. Most basically, fasting is depriving oneself of a good thing for the purposes of prayer and growth. Our new context requires two new forms of fasting: fasting from digital devices and fasting from information.

How to Practice Digital Detox

A digital detox is a fast from digital devices, especially your smartphone, smartwatch, or tablet. The digital detox helps us repent of omnipresence. It is a break from being tethered to your electrical umbilical cord and your dopamine pacifier. Here is what I try to make this look like for me:

  • Daily: When I walk in the door from work, I leave my phone on a shelf by the door for at least thirty minutes while I play with my kids and reconnect with my wife.
  • Daily: I dock my phone at a table on the other side of my bedroom a minimum of 40 minutes before I go to bed and don’t look at it for 20 minutes after I wake up (except to stop my alarm)
  • Weekly: A 12-hour Digital Detox that includes going to the park, going on a walk, or going to the gym without my phone.
  • Monthly: A 48-hour social media, email, and texting Digital Detox.
  • Twice Monthly: Leave my phone at home when I go on a date with my wife.
  • Annually: Once per year, a 3-day personal Spiritual Retreat that includes a Digital Detox among other forms of traditional fasting and prayer while I focus on being present to the Lord.
  • Annually: Once per year while on vacation, a 5-day total Digital Detox where my phone and computer are all the way off, and I focus on being present to my family.

How to Practice Intentional Ignorance

If it is true that ignorance is bliss, then that explains a lot of our current mental health crisis. The information we are asked to carry and steward is too much for our non-Divine minds.

Intentional Ignorance is the radically countercultural choice to embrace not knowing everything you could know. Here is what I try to make this look like for me:

  • Less Updates: I don’t watch Instagram or Facebook stories. I don’t want to know what people are up to all the time.
  • Less Breaking News: I unfollow almost all news accounts, especially those that do BREAKING NEWS.
  • Less Answered Questions: At least once per day, I let a question go unanswered. What is the actual difference in diameter between the NBA ball and the WNBA ball? I’m going to choose just not to get my phone out and Google that. What happened with that rocket in North Korea yesterday? I choose not to find out the answer to that. In doing so, I pray, “Lord, you are the Omniscient One; because I trust you and your approval I don’t need to know that.” The feeling of enduring ignorance is foreign to us but serves our formation.

Many of these practices are aspirational for me; too often I’m embarrassed at the unhealthy patterns of my own device use. I recommend these habits as someone who knows his own.

Humans are called to have dominion over creation, but too often our own creations have dominion over us. The dual practices of Digital Detox and Intentional Ignorance will help us right the balance of power that our devices have over us as we seek congruence with and fidelity to the Spirit of Christ.