Do you dream of a world where you can pay for your morning coffee with just a tap? —Visa website
I do not dream of such a world.
It’s no inconvenience to pay for my morning coffee with bills from my wallet. In fact, the soft, durable paper on which American currency is printed, and the smell of its green ink, are pleasant. The particular heft of quarters, nickels, and dimes, and the coppery aroma they leave on my fingers, means money to me. Even the leathery, old-sweat smell of my wallet means money.
Please don’t take my money. I like cash. I like finding coins on the ground. I like sorting twenties newly withdrawn from an ATM. It’s not that I love money—as in, the love of money is the root of all evil. I like money, as in, it’s a part of my physical world that holds symbolic power. The symbolism is meaningful. Without it, capital becomes entirely theoretical—numbers on a screen. Pixels of no worth.
I don’t want a smart watch, either. I have a TAG Heuer Professional 2000 that, though I never dive, is an undeniable piece of equipment. It’s a Real Thing. It retails for around $900. I imagine many people have TAGs or Rolexes or even Patek Philippes. How might one justify losing such a luxury merely in order to become even more hyperconnected than one already is? Are smart watches perhaps the ultimate middle-class lifestyle accessory?
I’m realizing that I resent the broad acceptance of digital media, which began in the late 1980s. I remember going to Target to check out CD player 1.0, getting lost in the crystal clarity of a Simon & Garfunkel song, at least momentarily.
But this “advance” didn’t improve quality; it merely made a certain middling level of quality more consistently and easily attainable. The tradeoff was that high quality became even more rarefied. I first noticed this while driving around St. Louis in the mid-1990s, looking for a record player repair store that carried my needle. None of them did, and within a few years, none of those shops existed. Maybe now, with the hipster fetish for record players, some of those shops have reemerged.
Digitization—at the cost of the highest levels of quality—has enabled ubiquitous distribution, which has removed some of the cultural gatekeepers, which has made for a vast, eclectic corpus of new work: music, video, even literature. But even this broadening has a cost. There is no longer a central cultural conversation. We experience culture as a vast, quickly shifting archipelago.
The same has happened to our public square. It’s in hundreds of bright fragments, assorted on numerous digital content-sharing platforms. It’s great that everyone can have a voice. The tradeoff is that if you don’t like what people are saying, you can delete, unfriend, or block them. Move to a different island in the archipelago—one that is friendlier to your way of thinking.
I believe Jesus Christ understood the temptation to disembodiment: not only through obvious evils such as pornography, but through everyday technology. Hence, he created an oasis of reality in his Body, weekly worship and communion. We eat and drink together. We sing in each other’s presence, and in doing so we participate in the very life of the Body of Christ. God’s solution for our problem is commanding us to be together in the same space, incarnate.
I don’t want to pay for coffee with my watch, or with any quickly shifting abstraction. I feel lightheaded enough as it is.