Abraham struck out of his father’s house in Babylon to find a home God would show him. The Israelites marched out of Egypt, “the house of slavery,” but they hesitated. They cast one eye over their shoulders, ogling the pantries back in Egypt. A modern homeowner may leave their house, but before their feet are off the mat they draw their tech to check if the oven is off, blinds closed, refrigerator stocked, dog behaving, delivery worker prompt, and if enough lights are on to give everyone else the impression that they, unlike Abraham, never leave home.
Maybe we never do leave. We carry our homes with us wherever we carry our phones, an extension of our bodies. That is one promise of the “internet of things,” at least. Amazon is working on a line of Always Home drones, which allow residents to embody an eye floating around their apartment even when they are physically across the world. I take the name “Always Home” to be a very clear statement of what this kind of technology is about. These gadgets are designed to make it feel as if one is still present to their house, absorbed in its life, its security, its privacy. This is especially true of surveillance products. Though our bodies are elsewhere, we can scrutinize strangers who pass too close through internet-enabled cameras, and we can watch the surrogate bodies of FedEx workers deliver to our homes what we do not deliver ourselves. Even as we trek out to the world where we may encounter others, our attention stays domestic. The home remains the object of our desire, our worry, and our purchasing power, no matter our journeys out.
We shouldn’t underestimate how powerful this effect can be. Faster internet technologies are expanding, making it possible for a smart refrigerator to communicate with my phone anywhere on earth in about ten milliseconds—faster than my feet can get a pain signal to my brain. (Where, oh Maytag, could I run from your presence?) In isolation, none of these technologies are especially threatening. But when they work on us in aggregate, they promise to shape our habits of attention in ways Christians ought to care about. Do we actually leave the home if the cameras, thermostats, drones, and motorized blinds remain nearer to our mind than our foot is to our brain?
What these technologies offer is a fantasy of an alternative incarnation. They want to form ways of being embodied that make the insides of our homes as immediate to us as the insides of our skin. One recent ad for a smart home range, built by Ikea, reads “Imagine your home connected, just like your senses. See, hear, feel.” By themselves, alternative incarnations are perfectly acceptable. Persons in wheelchairs, for example, often experience the chair as part of their own flesh, and this is wholly good. Rather, it is the fear and exclusion that characterize this identification of home and body, and the economic incentive companies have to reinforce that fear, that make it perverse. The body is a powerful economic motivator. It is surrounded by anxieties and our sense of personal identity, and the closer the body is associated with the home the more our identities and anxieties transfer to the house. If we experience our houses as our bodies, acutely aware of their vulnerability and the threat strangers pose to its borders, there is no end to the products we will buy to optimize and securitize them. A mind bent toward the curation of the private is simply more lucrative than one whose attention rests on their neighbor or on publicly held goods. This is more true of online retailers and car-focused big-box stores than of small storefronts, who tend to benefit from dense, intermixing foot-traffic. The objection here is not against spending money, but against spending it in ways that limit the contact we have with others and the delight we feel in their presence.
The association of our bodies with our housing is not new.1 The anxieties this association generates are, in fact, a major motivation behind the design of modern American homes and neighborhoods.2 Unwalkable streets, the replacement of public front porches with private backyards, and the zoning of low-income housing away from high-income housing all intend to reduce our contact with strangers. To borrow a phrase from Martin Luther, a lot of recent development is incurvatus in se. Far from opening up to the outside world, modern housing is increasingly designed to turn in on itself. We have a private sphere built to be truly private, closed to the life of the stranger, and, often, the neighbor as well. Associating the body with this peculiar kind of home, then, encourages a vision of the body that sees its safety consisting primarily in isolation, exclusion of the stranger, or in cultivation of private space with little reference to the world at large.
Though the internet of things may be innocent in itself, when it exists in the context of this alternative incarnation its convenience becomes perverse. The internet of things lends to modern housing an increased immediacy and an ability to direct our attention even when we physically leave the home. This intensifies the incurvatus in se of the modern domicile. Precisely at the moment one might meet a stranger by stepping into public, the internet of things can call attention back to the home, trapping one within a structure one sees as an extension of oneself. Internet technology, once remarkable for its ability to connect us to strangers, is instead used to inflect us back toward the self and the private sphere, monopolizing our attention and making it harder to truly step into a space with another person. A Christian is led to question how this vision fits with Christian norms for thinking about the body and the home. If a Christian’s true home is found in the body of Christ, we have to ask if the incarnation offered in being Always Home is compatible with our incorporation into Christ’s incarnate and eclectic flesh? The eucharist invites Christians into a common and interdependent body. The internet of things deflects our attention to an isolated and (presumptively) self-sufficient one.
Admittedly, the thought of a home we do not leave is deeply biblical. Theologian Miroslav Volf has described the Christian story as God making a permanent home with us.3 And haven’t many of us discovered that working from home is a good thing? But we lose something if we overlook the theme of leaving home. Coming to know God required Abraham to leave his home in Babylon and be blessed by strangers like Melchizedek. Coming to know God required the Israelites to leave their houses in Egypt to be transformed into “the Israelites and those who were with them.” Indeed, they had to meet a stranger called God who made a home with them in their wandering—the same God who makes a home with all of us in becoming the one with “no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58).
The danger of being Always Home is that we never learn to journey out. In doing so, we lose the opportunity to love the stranger in our midst. There is no “Good Samaritan” who stays home. Though we often call this care for the stranger hospitality, someone has to leave their house for hospitality to be offered. To encounter the stranger and learn what it might mean to be at-home with them is one of the deepest ethical imperatives of the Christian faith, but we need a chance to meet each other to love each other. If our houses do not already include the poor, the rich, the Jew, the Gentile, all who could gather around the body of Christ, then following Jesus must often mean leaving the house. The command to love our neighbor first means inhabiting common spaces where it is possible to meet them. It also means investing our time, attention, and money into those spaces. The promise of being Always Home undercuts both of these steps. We leave the house less, and even when we do it is often just to invest more attention and money in products meant for an isolated domicile. Though we inhabit public space, our dreams remain domestic. The object of our pursuit is never the stranger before us we are called to love, but the cultivation of a home that is designed to limit their entry.
It is especially urgent to think about the command to love the stranger now. The COVID pandemic has been a long training in how to fear the naked face of a stranger, to see their body as a threat. New technology was developed to dramatically reduce even the incidental contact many of us have with strangers. No more running into people in the isles of a Trader Joe’s, no walking past school children waiting for the bus on the way to the subway stop. Though much of this was a necessary expression of ingenuity, it arguably did damage to our sense of a shared life. The pandemic further deepened the divide between the class of people who have a choice about leaving their homes, and those “essential” but often invisible people who exist largely to facilitate the isolation of the rest. The question is this: how do we prevent a vision of safety based on exclusion, isolation, and surveillance from subtly replacing our love of the stranger, even if staying home was temporarily an expression of that love? After being required to stay at home for so long, how do we prevent our hearts from becoming Always Home?
Technology does not have to be the enemy. In my teenage years, online video games taught me to cooperate with strangers, work past conflict, and form odd friendships. I am also told by pre-Meta adopters of VR chat that it could promote communities impossible elsewhere. But I am not sure these forces are stronger than the algorithmic silos of social media, orAmazon’s ability to direct our attention back toward our houses, or a growing sense that the only safe place in this world is behind locked doors. For those of us who have a choice, we need new ways to leave our homes, new structures for stumbling across strangers, and new ways to protect those who do not have that choice. For Christians, being Always Home is either Babylon or Egypt. Though we may be called to stay in these places for many months, we find true homes on pilgrimages with strangers.
- A historical and methodological note: In the Western tradition, close associations of the body, land, and private property can be traced back at least to John Locke’s massively influential Second Treatise on Government (§§ 25–51, 123–26). Locke argues that our rights to individual property are derived from our right to our body and its labor. By working on our homes or land, our body’s labor is mixed into them, and so we have a right to these private possessions by extension of our right to our bodies. Locke also argued we had a duty to cultivate our private property. Over time, this has morphed into an imperative to cultivate private space over public space, and also into the imperative to optimize the body. Locke’s ideas are thus also sometimes traced to gym culture and the idea of “working on oneself.” So long as land, property, and the body are connected in this way, Christians will be required to reflect on our attitudes toward property through our normative sources for theology of the body. Specifically, this means asking if our attitudes toward labor, home, and property can live up to Christ’s generosity with his own body in the eucharist.
- For introductions into theology and city planning, see Phillip Bess, Till We Have Built Jerusalem, Architecture, Urbanism, and the Sacred, and T.J. Gorringe, Theology and the Built Environment: Justice, Empowerment, and Redemption.
- In private conversation and a forthcoming book, The Home of God: A Brief Story of Everything, co-written with Ryan McAnnally-Linz.