THE PITFALLS- AND PROMISES- OF THE NEW TOGETHERNESS
From paintbrush to pixel
In grade school, Crissy Chahyadinata had excellent handwriting. She remembers forming letters on wide-ruled paper, moving carefully from left to right. Chahyadinata, now heading into her second year at Dordt, grew up in Indonesia, and one of her early teachers recognized her gift for penmanship. That teacher pushed her to perfect her handwriting.
“If I made one mistake, she made me start the whole sheet over,” she says, laughing. “Handwriting has always been sort of a love-hate thing for me.”
In fifth grade, she moved on to cursive. “It was just my thing,” she says. “I was writing everything in cursive.” Doodling words and letters in notebooks was an early step toward artistry.
Chahyadinata started in pencil and moved on to the brush pen, then watercolor. As an artist, she’s known for her flourishes—the intricate curving lines that extend from her letters, enveloping them in fine, looping patterns. Her preferred tool is the zero brush, one of the tiniest. It allows for the detail work that has become her artistic trademark. In their gracefulness, her designs call to mind written Arabic, or Elvish (for Tolkien fans). Each piece takes her hours, though the time passes quickly. It’s a form of contemplation, she says.
“This work that I’m doing—it’s a kind of worship. I take such pleasure in looking down at those curves, those flourishes,” she says. “But then I look up at the sky and think, ‘God is the true artist.’ My life as an artist always reflects who he is.”
At age 16, Chahyadinata started her own business in Jakarta and soon gained renown as a skilled calligrapher. She was in demand for birthday cards and wedding invitations, hand-lettered signs and customized fonts. Her celebrity, while profitable, was limited by geography—but it was about to grow.
What catapulted Chahyadinata to the world stage was the internet. Specifically Instagram, a platform for sharing images, often filtered to mimic vintage photographs, and stamped out in perfect squares.
Her business gave her a clientele; the internet gave her followers. Sixty-five thousand of them—up from 6,000 within a matter of weeks. And she didn’t amass them by posting artful selfies, or documenting trips to exotic locales. In a world of QWERTY keyboards, she did it by employing her hands in the service of a calligrapher’s paintbrush.
Chahyadinata’s new celebrity was one part artistic skill and vision, one part internet luck. In 2015, she was chosen to be a featured artist on Instagram’s homepage. Someone at Instagram—or some algorithm—had identified her as a potential star. Virtually overnight, Chahyadinata found herself and her watercolors before millions of half-bored eyes trained upon millions of glowing screens. From there, her work and words were carried to the world by the momentum of consensus, signaled by an accumulation of “likes” and “follows” and “shares.”
“My phone was hung up for a while after that!” she says. “It couldn’t display all the new followers—my notifications list basically dropped off the edge of the screen. It was crazy.”
What’s unusual about Chahyadinata’s story is that her rise to Instagram fame came through an ancient art form, produced by an ancient technology. The art of calligraphy had largely given way to moveable type by the end of the sixteenth century. Monks laboring over illuminated manuscripts were replaced by elaborate machines, churning out pages of text at unimaginable speed.
Fast-forward to the 21st century. Today, “crissyvr” snaps pictures of her hand-lettered designs and posts them alongside hashtags like #goodtype and #kaligrafina. Her Instagram page is an unlikely convergence of technologies—old and new, paint brush and pixels.
That paradox might help explain her vast virtual audience. Her followers are from all over the world. And they’re young, mostly in their teens and 20s. They’re spending more and more time behind screens, “hyperconnected” but increasingly disconnected from the physical world—and the physical work of even ordinary handwriting. Amid tweets and pop-up ads and memes, something about her intricate, hand-painted letters resonates.
What is the internet doing to our brains?
Maybe each “like” or “follow” on crissyvr’s page represents a re-embrace of slower, more tangible mediums—a tiny rebellion against the monopoly of the screen. This monopoly has consequences, according to Dordt College Computer Science Professor Dr. Derek Schuurman. And not all of them are good.
Though he’s a computer scientist, Schuurman hasn’t embraced digital technologies uncritically. For example, Schuurman doesn’t normally carry a smartphone. “I prefer not to live my life in a continuous state of partial attention,” he explains. This tendency to encourage “partial attention” is a bias, or direction, built into the technologies themselves. “It shouldn’t be surprising to us that these technologies have predispositions built into them,” he says. “From a reformational perspective, everything has a structure; everything has a direction.”
The web brings worlds to our fingertips—vast landscapes of information, covering every possible subject. It’s a medium that thrives on distraction. Online, multiple apps and links and tabs compete for our attention. We are subject to a chorus of notifications and blinking banner ads, hyperlinks to anywhere and nowhere. Newsfeeds blur by in endless vertical assent.
“These tools aren’t neutral—they shape us,” Schuurman says. “And we’ve been created to be shaped. But the question is: What sort of direction do these tools have? What sort of people do we become when we use them?”
Shallow people, is one answer, offered most famously by Nicolas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. When our attention is pulled in too many directions, “we tend to engage in a more shallow way,” Schuurman explains. In the words of Carr, “We become like pancake people—spread wide but too thin.”
Like all our habits, the way we use digital technologies is rewiring our brains. “The medium is literally sculpting our neural pathways, shaping who we are,” Schuurman says. We shape our tools, and then our tools shape us.
Our shrinking attention spans have been well documented by researchers. But it’s not just “content” we’re engaging in a shallow way; it’s also people. With the rise of social networks like Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat, and Twitter, we are conducting more and more of our social lives online (the third of us globally who have access to the internet, anyway). While this enlarges our social networks considerably—and can broaden our perspectives—it comes at the cost of depth, Schuurman says.
Humans are wired for connection. For many of us, the pull of connecting with others online, often with minimal effort, is nearly irresistible. But what happens when we live our lives through our phones and computer screens? Is something lost when we trade three dimensions for two?
The product is YOU
Chelsey (Munneke, ’11) Nugteren lives in the middle of rural Iowa with her husband, Steve (’11), and 11-month-old daughter, Annika. When she posts images on Instagram, she uses hashtags like #ourlittlelifeonthepraire and #AnnikaRenae, and her photos depict her home life and travels. In spite of their rural location, Nugteren works as a marketing consultant for clients several states away, primarily in Colorado Springs, where she and her husband moved after college so she could work for Focus on the Family.
Digital technologies enable Nugteren to do her job, and she’s grateful for the flexibility. “I’m not stuck to a desk. I can be monitoring Facebook and Twitter for my clients, posting things on the go, checking email throughout the day,” she says. If need be, she can work from behind her shopping cart at the grocery store. Still, early this year, she started to ask herself questions about the place social media was occupying in her life. Her small group at church was studying Romans 12:2. “I started considering where, if someone were to look at my life, would they say, ‘You are being conformed to the patterns of this world,’” she says.
Through reflection, she arrived at an uncomfortable answer. “The Lord put it on my heart that something needed to change when it came to my social media habits,” she says. She had a moment of clarity while feeding her daughter, a time she often found herself “scrolling and scrolling, mindlessly” through other peoples’ photos and status updates. “I thought, wait—I could be singing to her! Or praying for her!” She decided to begin a fast. She would cut out all forms of social media, with the exception of monitoring notifications on behalf of her clients, with an end date of April 1.
The lure of social networks is no accident, Schuurman says. “Designers of social networking platforms are building those tools so we’ll keep our eyeballs glued. They’re trying to constantly entice us, grab our eyeballs, pull us in different directions.”
“It’s set up so that you can just barely move your finger, and invite yourself into so many peoples’ lives,” Nugteren says. “It’s like reading a gossip magazine. Except people in the magazine are people you actually know.”
Why are sites like Instagram or Facebook designed this way? “Because,” Schuurman says, “the product on a social network is you.” Users locked into a mindless scroll are all the better to advertise to. “That’s their revenue model,” he says. “Social networks are created to keep you coming back, to draw you back in.”We can’t afford to ignore how these technologies affect us, Schuurman says. Unlike computers, humans aren’t simply information processors. It’s not just our minds that these tools direct; it’s our hearts. “We’re not just brains on a stick. We’re not just people who think—we’re people who love,” he says. “As Christians, we need to ask ourselves, ‘How are our loves shaped? How are our loves directed?’”
Just days into her fast, Nugteren had new clarity about what her social media habits were “shaping her heart to love.” The first thing she noticed was a growing feeling of contentment—with her own life, her own marriage, her own house and job.
“I found myself desiring less stuff. Scrolling through pictures and ads in my newsfeed, I’d feel like, ‘Ooooh! I need that paint color for my walls!’ Or, ‘My daughter needs this dress!’ Or, ‘Oh, this Etsy Shop is adorable—I should buy something!’” That sense of needing more to feel fulfilled evaporated quickly once she unplugged from her virtual social life. “Because I haven’t been in that space, seeing all those pictures, I’ve realized I don’t really need all the things I thought I did.”
Without her phone propped up between her and her everyday life, in all its tedium and beauty, she also felt a new sense of connection with her husband and daughter. “Social media had become such a time-waster in my life,” she says. She isn’t ready to give social media up for good yet, but she missed it less than she thought she would. Once April 1 rolled around, she instituted a “no-scrolling rule,” and she plans to stick to it.
The portals in our palms
Dordt junior Luke Venhuizen, too, has seen first-hand the way our phones and devices can pull us out of our lives and disconnect us from the living, breathing people in front of us. He spent the spring semester studying in Europe through the Studies Program in Contemporary Europe (SPICE). It was the longest stretch he’s ever spent away from home, and digital technologies allowed him to stay in touch with family and friends back home.
The demands of documentation and sharing can be grueling, he says. He’s seen a lot of Europe through the small rectangle of his phone’s screen. Cathedrals in Italy, canals in Amsterdam, sweeping mountain vistas in Romania—all of them have been reduced to a 3-by-6-inch pixelated image, ready to be captured, cropped, filtered, and posted.
“At one point, looking back on some photos, I asked myself, ‘Do I actually remember this place because I saw it, or because I saw pictures of it on my phone?’” he says. He started giving himself rules. No morethan one post a day, and only one quick picture at each new site or landmark. “Then I’d put my camera or phone away,” he says. “I don’t want to miss the real life right in front of me.”
That’s easier said than done, he says, recalling a trip he took with fellow business students to Berlin. They traveled to the city’s funky Neuköllna neighborhood, where an old factory had been converted into an indoor campground. There were cabins and retro campers set up in a cathedral-size space, along with picnic tables and strings of glowing lanterns. Tall windows overlooked the darkening city.
“We were all like, ‘This is so cool! It’s going to be like a big sleepover!’” They set up camp. “We all put our stuff away, and we’re sitting in a circle, and literally everyone pulls out their phones. No one talks. Like, at all.” He caught the eye of a friend, and they both burst out laughing. “We were like, ‘What are we doing!?’”
It can be difficult to resist the pull of our phones in our pockets. Often, we reach for them out of force of habit—we’ve grown so accustomed to seeking entertainment there, or solace, or a sense of belonging. They can also give us a way to opt out of face-to-face conversation with others in real time. “I’ve definitely grabbed my phone in an elevator, or walking next to someone, if I didn’t feel like talking,” Venhuizen confesses.
“Interacting with others in person comes with messiness,” Schuurman says. Our bodies don’t always cooperate. We endure awkward silences, or say the wrong thing. We may blush, or cry. In many ways, interacting with others online demands less of us. It’s easier and more convenient than loving the people right in front of us, with all their idiosyncrasies or irritating habits. “When we’re in the same room, we can’t simply turn others off or tune them out,” Schuurman says.
Social networks allow for connection in small doses—short bursts of interaction, mediated entirely by a screen. But Schuurman likens that form of nourishment to a candy bar, a quick fix for hunger that isn’t ultimately sustaining. Social scientists call this “social snacking,” and it’s not a replacement for face-to-face interactions in real time, Schuurman says.
“Only physical community gives you the full spectrum of interactions, on all the different levels of what it means to be human.” As a community of faith with resurrection at its center, we can’t afford to deny the importance of our bodies, he says. “When you push social networking to an extreme, you actually lose physical community altogether—it’s just you and a glowing rectangle.”
Facebook blues: Comparison is the thief of joy
When that glowing rectangle is a highlight reel of others’ milestones and photo-worthy moments, some internet users begin to experience envy or dissatisfaction with their own lives. Some even sink into depression.
Rebekah Dykhuizen is a recent Dordt graduate living in Colorado Springs, and she’s active on a variety of social networks. While she’s grateful for the way they connect her to friends and family far away, she’s not immune to the pitfalls.
“When I’m having a hard day or week, and I’m online seeing the idealized lives of my friends, it’s a lot harder to resist going into that pit of despair,” she says, laughing. “It’s funny—when I see images from
celebrities’ lives on Pinterest or Twitter, that doesn’t make me feel as dissatisfied with my own life.” With celebrities, she says, there’s a distance that doesn’t invite comparison. Not so with the photos her friends post online. “I have to remind myself: I’m comparing my life right now to three good things that happened in three other peoples’ lives this week. I can’t live the happiness of all my friends simultaneously.”
The public nature of social networks can tempt us to carefully select the words and images we share to present an idealized version of our lives and selves online. When everyone is putting their best foot forward online, though, it can set up unrealistic expectations. “You can’t measure your life against the most perfect picture, on the most perfect day,” says Nugteren.
When it comes to creating the illusion of perfection, Nugteren says Instagram is the worst offender. The site favors quality over quantity—most users post one image at a time, and the app’s editing tools make it easy to produce beautiful images from even hastily snapped photos. Scrolling through Instagram yields an abundance of beach vacations and laughing babies, yoga poses and ice cream cones.
Though she admits she doesn’t always succeed, Nugteren tries to resist the pressure to appear perfect online. Rather than choose from among the visual “filters” offered on Instagram—“Inkwell,” “Lo-Fi,” “Willow”—she applies a different sort of filter to her posts. “Before I post, I ask myself: ‘Is it true?’ ‘Is it necessary?’ And ‘Is it uplifting?’ If it’s not, I don’t post it.”
On Instagram, “mrsnugteren” shares her parenting struggles alongside words of encouragement; her posts feature small joys and ordinary disappointments. Not every picture of her daughter is smiling, and sometimes she admits to feeling guilty as a parent. Ultimately, she aims to post from a place of gratitude, even if not every day is sunlit and joy-filled and momentous. “I try to share the raw and real moments, and not just the good things,” she says.
As a young adult leader in her church, she encourages college students to make deliberate choices about how they live their lives online. “People often feel like they don’t have a choice,” she says. “I tell my students, ‘No, you have a choice. You can choose to use these technologies in a way that’s honoring to God—in a way that’s transformative, and not conforming to the patterns of this world.”
Venhuizen agrees that we aren’t simply at the mercy of our digital tools. “The internet is a beautiful place, but like everything else, it’s been corrupted,” he says. “It comes down to how you use it.”
How then shall we compute?
A computer scientist, Schuurman recognizes the biases and limitations of our current technologies. Rather than simply work around them, he has turned his energy toward creating new digital tools—better ones that move us closer to being the sort of people God calls us to be. He’s spending the year at Dordt as a visiting professor from Redeemer University in Ancaster, Ontario, and he hopes to convince students in his computer science classes that they, too, can re-think our current technologies—how they work and who they form us to be.
At the same time, Dordt Education Professor David Mulder is busy trying to figure out how we can make the best of the tools we’ve got. As an educator, he’s equipping the next generation of teachers for tech
integration. That requires wisdom and discernment, he says, not to mention a great deal of trial and error. But he’s optimistic about the possibilities.
Mulder points out that the rise of new technologies is always accompanied by hand-wringing. “The classic yellow pencil was a disruptive technology,” he says. Putting the power to erase in the hands of students meant “the end of education as we know it.” Same goes for the typewriter, then the personal computer, then tablets and smart phones. When we fear new technologies, it’s partly due to a failure to place them into the story of technological change over time. “When it comes to perceptions, technology isn’t technology if it happened before you were born,” Mulder says, quoting Sir Kenneth Robinson.
Not all technologies are created equally, he acknowledges, and we need to think critically about how they shape us. But we shouldn’t simply romanticize the past: every new technology comes with trade-offs. What we lose in concentration, or “deep attention” (as required by a novel, for instance), we may gain in speed of information processing, selective attention, and deliberate analysis (benefits of gaming and web surfing, according to some studies).
Mulder joins a growing online community of Dordt students and alumni who are finding ways to explore the possibilities latent in our digital tools, while creatively resisting their limitations.
“Every technology opens up new possibilities,” Schuurman says. “But if you simply allow it to have its way with you, it’s going to send you in a certain direction.” Using our digital tools well requires discipline, he says; we need to recognize their limitations as well as our own. “It comes down to realizing how we’re made, then trying to become the people God wants us to be,” he says.
When snow sculptures go viral
Dordt sophomore Trevor Bartz never meant to become an internet sensation. He and his two brothers were simply looking for something to do on a snow day at home in Minnesota. They ventured out into the cold and started sculpting a giant pufferfish from the wet, late-March snow.
He posted a picture to his Facebook page, and from there it went viral. “It was weird—people we didn’t even know were liking and sharing our photo,” he says. “We were the top news story on Yahoo for a day, then we were trending on Facebook.”
They’ve made the news every year since. They’ve been featured on Good Morning America, Fox International News, and NBC News, among others. Bartz is now an engineering major at Dordt, and in the years since that first pufferfish, he and his brothers have sculpted a walrus, shark, sea turtle, and octopus, using sleds to haul snow onto their New Brighton front lawn. This year they transported over 300,000 pounds.
Last year, they created a Facebook page, Bartz Snow Sculptures, featuring their work. They now have 20,000 followers on Facebook, and this year, they leveraged their visibility to raise over $17,000 to help provide clean water to Haiti through the organization One Day’s Wages.
While many donated online, others drove from five or more hours away. “Over half of the money we got was in one dollar bills,” he says. Beyond raising money for a worthy cause, he says “it brings people a little bit of joy. That’s why we do it.”
Tweeting in the service of learning
Dordt Professor of Education David Mulder says it took him three years to figure out what Twitter was for. Eventually, he discovered that Twitter can be more than a platform for self-promotion. It can be a way for educators to connect and share resources, 140 characters at a time.
Mulder often convenes with educators from around the world for Twitter chats. Meetings are published ahead of time, and anyone can join by following hashtags like #iaedchat or #weirded. Moderators keep the conversation on track by posing questions, which spark dozens of side conversations.
“You have to choose your words very thoughtfully,” Mulder says. “The 140-character limit breeds economy—you have to be as clear as possible in as few words as possible.”
One of Mulder’s former students, Brian Verwolf (’12), has also discovered Twitter as a tool for professional development. He agrees the character limit has benefits. “It’s a great practice to summarize thoughts and eliminate jargon,” he says. “Plus, I think it keeps people more intentional about the words they type.”
Verwolf, who completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Dordt, took to Twitter early in his teaching career, when he was “looking for a way to grab students’ attention at the start of math class each day.” He connected with a teacher in Texas, who turned him on to a math teaching website, estimation180.com.
Verwolf is now the head of school of Deer Creek Christian School, which is relocating to Chicago Heights, Illinois, in the fall, but he continues to teach a daily math class. Ever since that first Twitter connection, he has started each math class with an “estimation challenge.”
“It’s a fun way to start each class,” he says. “Students experience math in a real-world context and then explain why they chose their responses.” Verwolf connects the discussion to concepts they’re covering in the course.
Mulder has also used Twitter connections as a catalyst for better teaching. He’s even found a way to replicate Twitter’s benefits for students sitting in his classroom. He uses a website called todaysmeet.com to create a private chatroom, where students can join in a virtual discussion during class time.
“Students are already having whispered conversations in back of class,” he says. “This is a way to capture those whispers in public. It’s a deliberate back-channel for your classroom.” So far, it’s been successful. “In a technology-mediated environment, I’ve found some of my quietest students suddenly have a lot to say,” he says.
Mulder has found Twitter such a useful tool that he developed a four-week online course for practicing teachers and administrators, using funds from an innovation and teaching grant. Twenty-three teachers from across North America, including several Dordt alumni, signed up for the course to “explore how educators can use tools like Twitter and YouTube for professional development.”
Mulder acknowledges that connecting online has a different character than face-to-face interactions, but he doesn’t agree with those who say we can’t build real, meaningful relationships through technology-mediated connections. “I think that’s bogus—we can, and we do. However distant, it’s
always another human being on the other side of the interaction,” he says. He’s even found Twitter to be “a great leveling tool,” allowing him to connect with well-known figures in his field.
Verwolf is cautiously optimistic. “Twitter should never be a sole substitute for any face-to-face professional development,” he says. “But it definitely increases opportunities to connect with people serving all over the world, in different educational contexts.”
Turning the “selfie” on its (bed)head
For six months, Rebekah Dykhuizen (’15) rolled out of bed, grabbed her phone, and stared, squinting and half-asleep, into the dark eye of her camera’s lens. Her hair was tousled, or stringy, or comically matted. Her expression in each photo is unmistakably grumpy.
“Everyone is always posting these really nice pictures online, and I thought, ‘That’s not how I look.’”
Dykhuizen’s Instagram page, mymorningmane, is a self-conscious upending of the “selfie,” photos taken at arm’s length that rose to prominence alongside the smart phone.
“I tried to achieve as natural a state as possible,” she says. “I always took it before I touched my hair, or wiped the sleep out of my eyes.” She had rules: one take, no filter. Just her and her iPhone and the World Wide Web.
Dykhuizen’s selfie project was her good-humored but subversive response to the mounting pressure to appear perfect online. With everyone carefully selecting and editing their best photos, she decided to do the opposite.
She stuck with it from July through December of last year. “Friends started sending me their own bed-head pics, in texts or Facebook messages. Even my mom would do it,” she says. At one point, she tagged another Instagrammer known for bed-head selfies, and they struck up an online friendship.
She posted her last selfie on the last day of the year. “I didn’t want my first instinct in the morning to be to grab my phone and take a picture,” she says.
Authentic intimacy online
While the internet anonymity doesn’t always lead in fruitful directions, Chelsey (Munneke, ’11) Nugteren has experienced something surprising. She develops and leads online Bible studies for women through Authentic Intimacy, a nonprofit organization that ministers to women on topics related to intimacy in marriage and intimacy with God. The first study Nugteren led, Passion Pursuit, was intended for married women, and the study she’s developing now, Sex and the Single Girl, is for women who are between 18 and 30 and either divorced or single.
“Since we’re covering topics related to sexuality, the women often appreciate communicating online. I think the distance is helpful in this context,” Nugteren says. The Bible studies are conducted using a free conference calling website, and later, participants process the material together on a private Facebook page.
“Many women end up sharing things they’ve never told close friends,” she says. “I think many of them feel more comfortable being behind a screen. In this setting, it proves to be something really powerful.”
Crissy Chahyadinata (’19) works in watercolors, but her calligraphic designs have a life beyond the hot press paper she favors as a canvas. Once Instagram launched her into the public eye, she gained a global audience. Using the same platform, she began to form relationships with other artists, sowing the seeds for digital collaboration with other artists—some of whom she’s never met in person.
Last year, Chahyadinata undertook a collaborative project with fellow Dordt student Brett Randolph, a junior who enjoys photography. She did the lettering with her paintbrush, then transformed the artwork into a series of digital images to be overlaid on Randolph’s photographs of tree branches and sky. This past Christmas, she collaborated with another Dordt student, senior digital media major Nathan Walter, to create a Christmas card. In the past, she has sent out 100 Christmas cards to friends and followers at random; this year, she sent them to 100 Dordt faculty, staff, and students.