Acne. My face was covered as a teenager and nothing seemed to make it go away. My coping mechanism was to drive it from my mind and function as if my face were clear.
Until I looked in a mirror. Then everything would come back to me. Embarrassed, I would relive the day remembering my face had looked like this in every one of my encounters. My denial would be shattered. What remained was shame.
Living With Shame
Our culture is full of shame. From body-shaming to parent-guilt to the five stages of getting shamed online we are assaulted from a variety of directions with a devastatingly clear message: “You’re not OK.”
The technology which saturates our experience plays a complicated role in the shame we feel. Does it help? Or does it make things worse? Or both?
Given this ambiguity, perhaps it comes as no surprise the very first biblical occurrence of technological innovation comes as a result of the very first human experience of shame.
The creation story concludes with a resounding summary of perfect human intimacy:
And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed. — Genesis 2:25
This man and woman experienced a relational category that none since have enjoyed. They were completely vulnerable before each other: holding nothing back nor hiding anything. In the midst of that exposure, they were completely accepted by the other. No judgment. No flaws criticized or condemned. As the text says, “there were not ashamed.”
But this was not to last.
At some later point, the woman encountered a serpent who made her a promise. If she would simply disobey the one commandment of her creator, she could “be like God.” Such an offer must have appealed to the woman, but it might be fair to wonder why.
Remember that in many ways, the woman was already very much “like God.” So much so that she was described as being made in the “image of God” and was empowered with the responsibility to rule over creation as his representative. We have described the role that the man and woman occupied with regard to creation one of being “as God” to his creation.
Toward the creation, the man and woman were to rule in power. Toward God, they were to remain in an attitude of worship and dependence. But one bite from the apple changed everything.
Apparently, the serpent’s promise came true. Later in the chapter (Gen 3:22), God affirms that something had changed and his creation had become like him in a new way. So in fact, with that fateful bite of fruit, Adam and Eve became like God.
But something else happened as well.
Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. — Genesis 3:7a
They became like God, but somehow at the same time, they also became aware of their nakedness.
The word used to describe their lack of clothing here is different than the one used a few verses earlier. In Genesis 2:25, their nakedness is a vulnerability made glorious by acceptance. Here the new terminology makes clear that this nakedness was negative.
They were exposed, unprotected, and helpless.
With one bite, humanity became more god-like and more aware of their vulnerability at the same time. It seems as if they moved in both directions along our diagram: closer to the power of God and closer to the dependence of the creation.
The Shame of Feeling Fake
The Silicon Valley is full of young engineers earning incredible amounts of money in their 20’s. Their company badges boast names of companies revered around the world. Their employers treat them like royalty. But many of them feel like they don’t belong.
Imposter Syndrome is a well-documented condition where people feel like they don’t deserve the role they are occupying. Externally, they’ve achieved or produced or accomplished something remarkable. But internally, they feel like a fraud. Even Nobel Laureate Maya Angelou was familiar with it, claiming, “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’ ”
I think this is what Adam and Eve must have felt. They had become more like God in a very real sense. But being at the same time more deeply aware of their vulnerability, they felt deeply unsettled about who they were and their place in creation. From out of nowhere came shame, like a slap in the face.
Shame is powerful. Brene Brown describes it as the underlying secret behind many broken behaviors. It is being convinced something is wrong with you in a very deep way. Adam and Eve were consumed by shame.
Escaping Shame With Technology
They were desperate to escape it. So she and her husband developed a brilliant technological innovation in order to free them from shame.
And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. — Genesis 3:7b
We noticed a few things about the first technology created in the Bible. Language was 1) commanded by God, 2) created in His presence, and 3) designed to enable relationship.
But this new technological breakthrough was very different. It was 1) a result of disobeying God, 2) created in order to avoid the presence of God, and 3) put a fundamental barrier in the way of intimate relationship.
This technology had a very simple purpose: escape shame.
Do I use the technology of today for the same purpose?
- I share social media posts about my highlights and accomplishments in the wittiest language I can muster. This digital clothing expresses something about me, but it hides something deeper at the same time.
- My digital devices help me to manage my relationships. Texting, email, and chatting allow me interact in a controlled and manageable way. I can avoid the awkwardness of eye contact and escape the fear that someone will see me and figure out who I really am.
- My brief forays into virtual reality offer a world where I can finally control everything about my identity. I can reveal what I like, control my appearance, and shape my personality in a completely new direction. Surely I would leave any trace of shame behind in the real world. But what happens when I have to unplug?
Here’s what I’ve noticed: all those efforts to protect myself from shame through the wonders of technology actually seem to create more of it.
- My overly positive social media posts make me feel like the darker parts of my life aren’t acceptable.
- Managing my relationships through technology leads to a distance in person I struggle to overcome.
- Creating my perfect self in a virtual world only highlights my flaws in the real world.
Technology promises a cure, but only makes me sicker.
Making It Worse
But these problems didn’t begin with the smartphone. In 1956, Gunther Anders, a German-Jewish philosopher, coined the term Promethean Shame. He described this state of powerful vulnerability as “machine induced nakedness.”
He describes his anxiety over the shame exacerbated by technology: “The more machines become part of our intuitive sense of self to give us a feeling of empowerment, agency and control, the smaller, more helpless and limited we seem to become the moment we lose access to the abilities they lend us.“
While technology promises to save us from shame, it often only makes things worse.
Even Adam and Eve discovered this disappointing reality. After having created the marvel of clothing, they still found it necessary to hide from the presence of their Creator as he walked in the garden. (Gen 3:11)
Where does this leave us? If technology can’t alleviate our shame, but only exacerbates it, how are we to function in our tech-saturated culture? What do we do with all the shame we accumulate?
Dealing With Our Shame
From a Christian perspective, this is exactly what God offers. The kind of intimate vulnerability which characterized the relationship of Adam and Eve is a model for the restored relationship with God offered through the work of Christ on the cross.
Shame is alleviated when we are able to expose ourselves as vulnerable, be completely honest about our deepest identity failures and still be accepted in love. This is what the Bible describes as the relentless love of God:
God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. — Romans 5:8
Love and relationship is the only cure for shame. The depth of intimacy, affection, and acceptance heals our brokenness and restores our sense of identity. Technology cannot offer this. Technology cannot provide love.
But can technology enable real relationship? Can it foster the kind of vulnerability which leads to intimacy? Technology cannot offer love, but can it be a facilitator?
Can we recognize our desperate drive to use and create technology as a means to cover our shame? Then, is it possible to counter that with efforts to produce and utilize technology that move us closer to real intimacy?
Eventually, technology freed me from the acne that plagued my adolescence. A powerful drug cleared my skin. But it did not clear my shame. That gnawing feeling of inadequacy and unworthiness remained.
Technology can’t heal my identity. But perhaps there are ways for it to enable and encourage real relationship in a way that fosters intimacy.
Father to five; husband to one; helping Christians engage thoughtfully as they follow Jesus Christ.
Pastor at Peninsula Bible Church in Palo Alto, CA since 2007. Graduated from Stanford University with a degree in Industrial Engineering and worked for Oracle Corporation as a Senior Product Manager designing software solutions.