Digital Existence

Ontology, Ethics and Transcendence in Digital Culture

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Editor(s): 
Amanda Lagerkvist
Routledge Studies in Religion and Digital Culture
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge
    , July
     2018.
     300 pages.
     $140.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781138092433.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The impact and influence of the digital into the lives of most people is only growing. As new devices, from Fitbits to heart monitors, are able to interact with our phones; as Alexa, Google Home, and Siri inhabit our homes; and as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter become primary avenues of news and conversation, we are sinking into a digital life that is overlapping with—and sometimes crowding out—our actual life. This change in our reality is not unique in human history. From the industrial revolution to the mechanization of the 20th century and the arrival of the atomic era, humanity has experienced seismic technological changes in the past. In the modern period, the branch of philosophical reflection known as existentialism has often functioned to examine those changes, always with the mindfulness that there remain certain inevitabilities to life and death. Existentialism has often posed the question: "What does it mean to be human now?" But with everyday life now dominated by the digital, it is once again imperative to ask that same question, and to wonder, if those same static inevitabilities may be more plastic than we once thought. 

Into this milieu comes a collection of essays edited by Amanda Lagerkvist. Digital Existence: Ontology, Ethics, and Transcendence in Digital Culture is a significant attempt at applying existentialism—and the questions that existentialism has often asked about being human, life, death, and the transcendent—to our "digital existence." As the title suggests, this book is divided into three sections: “Media Ontologies,” “Being Human: Extension, Exposure, and Ethics,” and “Transcendence Beyond Life, Death, and the Human." The division of the book into these three sections is logical, and each segment performs a wonderful job of examining its topic from a variety of perspectives, with each essay uncovering an important feature in its explorations. 

From the perspective of someone who studies religion and technology from the perspective of sociology (neither a philosopher nor an existentialist), the book more naturally fell into two sections instead. The first being a theoretical section covering the philosophical and theoretical aspects of existentialism, digital media studies, and digital religion. For those with a particular interest in those areas, the first section on digital ontology and Ganaele Langlois’s analysis of Foucault in part 2, which address the philosophical concerns in more intricate detail, are recommended reading. These essays show great philosophical sophistication and interact clearly with some of the luminaries of existentialism (suffice it to say Martin Heidegger shows up more than once). 

The second series of articles then attempt to apply the existentialist concepts to examples of digital existence and religion. Readers who have only a passing familiarity with existentialist debates and concerns will find these helpful in understanding the topics of which existentialist digital media studies are focusing. These essays engage with fascinating subjects, such as Vincent Miller's occasional (but quite disturbing) French caller or Lagerkvist's examination of the use of social media as a way of communicating with the dead. Moreover, several of the articles investigate the notion of death and the dead as a way of asking existentialist questions about digital life. Others explore the increasing encroachment of the digital on our self-understanding as we continue to electronically measure more of our lives (in the midst of one essay I suddenly realized I had not brought my Fitbit to AAR, suddenly mourning the fact that none of my steps "counted," in both senses of the word). 

In each of these essays the reader is treated to an analysis which highlights important concepts, such as our loss of privacy and the quantification and objectification of our lives. Yet, these essays also give a demonstration of the way that these technologies may provide new forums of addressing important human psychological and religious needs. As Lagerkvist demonstrates in her introduction, there is one view of digital existence which observes that being human now always incorporates the digital, that we are co-created with our technologies. Subsequently, there is another idea that suggests there are certain things which cannot be replicated in the digital space—a hug from a friend or the taste of a chocolate cookie. Perhaps we might append the previous sentence with the qualifier "yet," but in the meantime, this collection of essays offers a fascinating interrogation of meaning in our digital lives.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Randall Reed is Professor of Religion at Applachain State University.

Date of Review: 
March 22, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Amanda Lagerkvist is Associate Professor of Media and Communication Studies at Stockholm University, Sweden, and was appointed Wallenberg Academy Fellow in 2013. She is head of the research programme "Existential Terrains: Memory and Meaning in Cultures of Connectivity" (http://et.ims.su.se) in the Department of Media Studies at Stockholm University, funded by the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, the Marcus and Amalia Wallenberg Foundation, and Stockholm University (2014–2018).

Add New Comment

Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.

Log in to post comments