Formation in the Information Age

I want you to close your eyes1 and imagine yourself in the shoes of a person I’m about to describe.

Imagine that you’re an incredibly powerful person. You’re so powerful that you have a whole host of servants waiting with bated breath for you to make a request so that they can fulfill it. Your servants form a vast, countless multitude, and you can’t be expected to organize them given all of your important affairs. Instead, you have a personal valet2 who takes care of all of that for you. Your valet is by your side every moment of the day and knows you incredibly intimately. His job is to receive any command and coordinate the other servants to make sure that it happens as fast as possible and with the utmost quality.

Of course, there are limits to what your valet can do, but most requests are within the realm of possibility for you. Ask him for any piece of trivia, and he will come back with an answer promptly. If you want to go across the city, a vehicle will arrive within minutes to take you wherever you please. You can give the valet the incredibly vague3 request, “Entertain me!”, and he will immediately offer dozens of musicians and actors, tailored to your refined artistic palate, that he could bring in at a moment’s notice to perform for you. You can request food or drink, lodging or lovers, and your valet provides it. Your life could hardly be made more convenient, yet it seems that every new service and improvement your valet and servants offer, the more impatient and dissatisfied you become.

There are few people throughout history that have wielded the kind of power I’ve just described: emperors of Rome and kings of Europe, 20th century billionaires and Lucius Malfoy.4 But the person in all of history that this story best describes is you.5

“But”, you’re likely protesting, “If this is me, where is my valet? Surely I would’ve noticed a person following me around doing my bidding.” Fair enough — I mislead you slightly by describing this valet as a person. But instead of a person, think of the one object that basically never leaves your presence and exists solely to serve and assist you. A modern smartphone is far more powerful than any human valet, and we all have one with us at all times, turning us into mini-kings and mini-emperors.6

Our devices know us better than the best servant, tailoring everything to our specific tastes and preferences as they fulfill our requests. There is no human valet that could fulfill the request, “Play me some music I’ll like but I’ve never heard before”, better than Spotify on my iPhone. We don’t even have to know our tastes anymore — instead we can trust our phone to know us well enough to give us food, music, movies and activities that we’ll enjoy more than ones we could find ourselves.

Even if you concede that your phone does act as a personal valet that you likely mistreat despite its tireless service to meet your needs, you’re probably protesting that you don’t have an army of servants ready for your valet to command. But many of the apps on your phone are simply interfaces that allow you to organize people to serve you in some way.

Sometimes these interfaces to workers are incredibly obvious — you call a Lyft and someone physically comes with a car and picks you up; you order Postmates and someone knocks on your door 20 minutes later with chicken nuggets from McDonald’s. But even when your phone provides you a strictly digital service, the same is often true. No Renaissance patron of the theater had access to even a fraction of the wealth of high quality acting performances you have access to when you open Netflix. No one in a pre-Internet age could have dreamed of the vast wealth of knowledge available on just one site, Wikipedia, which is sourced entirely with content provided by countless faceless contributors. Much of this is provided to us for free, or if we have to pay, the price is staggeringly low — low enough to give many of us lives of convenience that aristocracy of old would have dreamed of. Uber might feel expensive, but the fact that I can get someone I don’t know to pick me up and drive me halfway across the city of San Francisco at a moment’s notice for the price of a sandwich and complain about it demonstrates how cheap it really is.

Our Informational Age

No matter how normal this all feels, we have power and convenience at our fingertips today that would make us gods amongst men just a few generations ago. Power like this affects us in a number of ways, but I want to focus on one effect that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. I just finished reading M. Robert Mulholland’s book about spiritual formation, Invitation to a Journey, which was fantastic. In the book, Mulholland presents two possible mindsets or perspectives that we use to approach the world.

The first mindset, which I’ll call the informational perspective, is the dominant one in our Western culture. In Mulholland’s words:

[Our culture] is one that views the world primarily as an object “out there” to be grasped and controlled for our own purposes. We are the subjects whose role in life is to appropriate the objects in our world and use them to impose our will upon the world… We seek to possess information, whether in the form of knowledge or in the form of techniques, in order that we might function more effectively to bring about the results we desire in the circumstances of our lives. We seek to be totally and completely in control of that process.

Once you’re looking for it, you see this perspective present throughout all kinds of historical and cultural phenomena: from the Industrial Revolution to the Manhattan Project, from self-help books to Nike’s “Just Do It” slogan. I want to learn as much as possible and use that knowledge to remake the world in line with my vision of how it should be. I am the subject of my view of the world, and I do my best to conform my environment to my desires.

Path in the woods

The informational perspective has long been dominant in Western culture, but the smartphone has intensified this perspective, making it seem more self-evident than ever before. It’s easy to see yourself as a subject that rearranges the world according to your desires when you’ve been given a digital magic wand that effortlessly lets you do just that. It’s easy to see more data as the fundamental ingredient to improving our lives when we are constantly streaming limitless data through our screens to our brains. Virtually any topic, idea, technique or philosophy can be instantly researched, debated, and tried on for size. If that one doesn’t work, there are plenty more — why settle?

To be clear, I’m not some sort of informational perspective hater — there are many possible cultural paradigms of thinking, and I’m glad we settled on this instead of basing our cultural understanding of the world on superstition or pure emotion or something else. I write code for a living, and I think programmers are often the most locked into this perspective, precisely because it serves us incredibly well in our work. I do my best work when I don’t see the environment I work in as a static set of constraints, but as a dynamic environment that I have the power to shape. With code, the environment is virtually always malleable. If I don’t like how a library or service works, I should feel empowered to just go change it and make it better for everyone instead of feeling stuck with it. Most knowledge work behaves similarly. Almost all the time, more information leads to better decisions, and seeing yourself as a subject in the world gives you creative freedom to innovate. In fact, I didn’t know until recently that there was another reasonable way of looking at the world, precisely because this one had served me so well.

The Limitations of the Informational Perspective

False sense of independence

While valuable in many situations, the informational perspective has some limitations. The main limitation is a false sense of independence. The informational perspective offers to put me in the driver’s seat — I act, and the world is conformed with my vision. But it ignores the fact that I am constantly being changed by the world around me. Modern people often think that with enough information and a clear head, they can make a decision that is objective and rational, free of external influence, but it simply isn’t possible. We have a false sense of independence from the world and its influence, thinking we are free from its effect on the things I do today and who I become tomorrow.

Instead of seeing myself as a static actor who affects my environment, the more accurate viewpoint would be to see myself and my environment as a system where all actors are constantly shaping and changing one another. To give an example related to technology, think of calling an Uber. The informational perspective would say that I’m the subject, acting on the world to change it by getting a car to take me from one place to another. But I’m also going to be changed as a result of my environment. What if it’s raining and the driver takes a long time to show up? I’ll likely be soaking wet and frustrated, and maybe I’ll act differently at the party I’m headed to as a result. Or what if I start taking Ubers more often? Maybe I’ll start to see myself as the sort of person that deserves more convenience and luxury, and other decisions in my life will change as a result — I’ll feel entitled to hire a human personal assistant to complement my digital one because Siri isn’t quite up to my standards.7 The example is contrived, but the point that we are never fully independent of our environment extends to areas of life.

A few months ago, I was having a bad day at work. I was trying my best to be productive, but no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t quite get the wheels rolling. By the afternoon I was grumpy and irritable. Finally, I noticed that it seemed like my computer wasn’t moving quite as fast as usual. After doing some digging, I discovered that I had inadvertently changed a display setting and my screen was lagging a tiny bit. I cannot understate the magnitude of this lag — I went almost a day without noticing it. But once I fixed my settings, I felt like someone who had been training in ankle weights and was finally taking them off.8 The rest of my day was excellent.

My situation feels like a metaphor for a false sense of independence. I put all the blame on myself that day for not being able to shape my tiny corner of the world the way I wanted to. But in reality, even the tiniest change to my environment radically affected me. No matter how much I wanted to see myself as independent from my environment, I was formed by it more than I ever thought. And when you look into phenomena like unconscious bias or findings in behavioral economics, it becomes clear that this sort of unexpected environmental influence is constantly affecting us.

Need for control

This leads to the second limitation of the informational perspective, which is the need for control. If I view myself as a rational actor who shapes my world, then I can use information and techniques to assert control upon myself and my circumstances. This is often a positive thing — if I’m overweight and learn about diet and exercise, I can apply what I’ve learned to make myself healthier. But so many things in our life are fundamentally outside of our control. What will the economy do next year? How will a girl respond if I ask her on a date?9 Will my manager listen to my concerns or ignore them? Will my kids grow up to be the people I want them to be? We can try our best to exert influence, but we have no ability to precisely control these outcomes by gathering up more information and techniques and using it to act, like we would with weight loss.

Additionally, there are things that might be in our sphere of influence to control, but we would be far wiser to delegate control to someone else. For example, I am not an expert about investing or financial markets.10 I could spend time learning about how to invest, but it’s probably much smarter to give control of those decisions to someone who has spent their entire life learning how to do it. But giving up control completely is not something that the informational perspective encourages. You might protest that it’s consistent with the informational perspective to give up control to someone else if your information tells you that person would make better decisions than you in a certain area. But answer this: how many modern people would be comfortable delegating all their financial decisions to someone else, even if that other person was guaranteed to make far better decisions? Listening to someone else’s opinion and acting on it is very different from giving someone else actual control. As a result, the informational perspective keeps us from releasing control in certain areas, regardless of whether we actually have control in the first place.

Headphones and the Formational Perspective

Mulholland’s alternative to the informational perspective is what I’ve dubbed the formational perspective. In this perspective, I see myself as the object being affected and shaped by an external force, rather than the other way around. Rather than living in a false sense of independence and resisting the forces in my environment that affect me, I instead open myself to being changed by them, actively doing things that allow me to be shaped by these forces into a person who naturally acts for the good of the world around me. Instead of examining things, looking for ways to impose my preferences on them, I instead let them examine me, allowing myself to be prodded and pushed. I give up control, yielding myself to a plan that isn’t my own.

Wanderers in a cloud

This is incredibly countercultural. Our society, dominated by the informational perspective, is ruled by planning, hurry, action and control. The technology trends that we discussed earlier ingrain this more deeply, but they’re also symptomatic of our resistance to being formed. The example that makes this clearest is one we haven’t discussed yet, which is the rise of AirPods and other Bluetooth headphones. It’s now rare for me to see someone around my own age walking down the street in San Francisco without headphones. It makes sense — you can listen to music you like or a podcast you find interesting and have a better commute. But headphones are symbolic of the informational perspective. You gain control of your environment by being able to listen to whatever you want, it gives the ability to pump more information into your brain in a time you previously couldn’t, and you’re completely closed to anyone or anything outside of your plan for your commute.

Again, I’m not criticizing wearing headphones — I do it all the time. But for contrast, consider what the ideal walk to work would look like for someone embracing the formational perspective. There would be no barrier of headphones from the environment of the street. Instead, this person would have her eyes and ears open to the world, not to gather data to make a decision, but just to see what the world might have in store for her. She might stop to talk to a neighbor or go out of her way to walk through a park when flowers are in bloom. She would consider what is right and good about her world, and how she could be shaped by it to become a better person, more able to serve and love others.

This might sound super pie-in-the-sky. “I’m a person who gets stuff done. I can’t spend my time wandering around the streets thinking happy thoughts.” But again, you shouldn’t apply this perspective in all situations, or even most situations. The fact that our culture doesn’t even consider this perspective reasonable is a shame, because there are many situations that are best approached from the formational perspective. I’m going to talk about one area where I’ve seen incredible value and change from the formational perspective, but I’ve been experimenting in life to see where the perspective can be used effectively elsewhere. Could I write good code from this perspective? Could I spend time with friends from this perspective? There’s more to discover there.

Spiritual Formation

Invitation to a Journey by M. Robert Mulholland catalyzed my understanding that there was another perspective on life possible and gave me terms to explain it, but I’d already been thinking about, or at least around, spiritual formation for a while before reading it. I spent a couple of years going through seasons of deep doubt that I medicated with intensive academic study of the issues that my doubts centered on. Study gave me a lot of answers to questions, and I’m thankful for that — I would never want to believe in something that couldn’t stand up to questioning. But the answers weren’t satisfying. They staved off the doubt for a while, but soon enough doubt would be back on me, hanging off my shoulders like a heavy coat that I could only take off and hang up for a brief time. I was frustrated and exhausted.

There were many resources and people that helped me along the road to a new paradigm. I listened to all of the This Cultural Moment podcast by Mark Sayers and John Mark Comer, which emphasized understanding culture and sociology but also deeply pursuing prayer and asking God to change the things that are wrong with our society. I read Eric Metaxes’ biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which told the story of a man whose faith compelled him to an amazing and powerful life that drastically changed history for the better. I was deeply moved by Leo Tolstoy’s A Confession11, in which he explains how even as the greatest author in the world, he was led to a despair in his atheism that could only be alleviated by faith. The work of Dallas Willard, Dan Allender, Lesslie Newbigin and others all contributed to forming a deeper intellectual and emotional basis for my faith.

But one conversation was far more influential than any of that. After another cycle of doubt and deep study, I decided to reach out to the pastor of my church.12 I felt like I needed advice, not on a specific question or issue, but on how to shift my approach so I didn’t continue repeating this pattern. I explained my problem to him, going into great detail, and he responded simply, “Right now, you’re acting like the guy who thinks that his girlfriend is cheating on him every time she doesn’t pick up the phone in one ring.” He went on to encourage me to know God instead of knowing about him, and to learn to trust God instead of needing exact intellectual clarity on every issue immediately. This was incredibly challenging for me, but also incredibly exciting. A few days after that conversation, I wrote in my journal:

“It almost feels like I’m trying to start from scratch — I’ve been following Jesus for years, know tons of facts, and yet feel like I don’t really know him at all.”

Mulholland defines spiritual formation as “the process of being formed in the image of Christ for the sake of others.” That word formed in the middle was the sticking point for me for so long, and it often still is. To be formed is to reject the informational perspective in favor of the formational perspective. Without this shift, it’s hard to see the kind of powerful life change promised on the pages of the Bible.

Relating to God is the situation where it makes most sense to embrace the formational perspective, because the limitations of an informational way of thinking are the most clear. God is infinite, never-ending and unchanging. In every possible way, he is bigger, more important, and better than I am. The idea of approaching God as the examiner and trying to manipulate him as an object seems almost laughable. It’s like an ant looking at an elephant and thinking that it, from its low and tiny vantage point, can fully comprehend and control the elephant. Yet I do this all the time. I treat God as the subject of intellectual inquiry instead of a person that affects and changes me and my world. I take out my tiny ant telescope and try to map out the elephant, getting frustrated when I can’t derive a perfect model.13

Similarly, my attempts to be in control are similarly ridiculous. I want to be like Jesus — his life is certainly worth imitating. But I want to do it my way. I want to be able to tell God how and when I want to change, so that I have full control of the whole process. For example, I might want to be a nicer friend, but I’d rather not change the way I spent my money. I might want to be better at dealing with anxiety, but I don’t really want to go out of my way to have uncomfortable conversations with homeless people on the street. I try to exert control by using information and techniques to try to change myself, just like I do with everything else in my life. I learn, try really hard, and often get frustrated when my efforts come up short.


Being formed flips the paradigm. Instead of seeking to examine God and intellectually understand everything about him, I instead seek to let him examine me. Instead of seeking to change myself, I endeavor to trust God and allow him to change me however he desires. God already embodies the qualities that I desire to have in my life and relationships with others — love, joy, peace, generosity, a desire for justice and a deep selflessness. By being formed, I open myself to allowing God to change me into a person who has these qualities, just like him.

That might sound really mushy and free-form, and to some extent it is, specifically because the point is to not analytically define it or try to exert control on it. I certainly haven’t given up intellectual study of theology and things surrounding it14 — I wouldn’t be writing this blog if that was the case. So despite the mushiness of this, there are some structured practices that have been used throughout the centuries by Christians to help in spiritual formation, which are known as spiritual disciplines.

I won’t go into deep detail about these practices — at some point I’ll be at risk of just shilling the entirety of Mulholland’s book, so go check that out if you want to learn more.15 Their purpose is to consistently and faithfully do things that open our hands to God’s presence and influence in our lives. There are practices that were new (and often uncomfortable!) for me, like seeking solitude, fasting,16 practicing Sabbath,17 and more. But most of these disciplines were things that I was already doing, just viewed from my new formational perspective.

As a result, my time reading the Bible became a lot less focused on reading commentaries, tracking down cross references and learning about history and ancient Greek. I’ve started slowly reading shorter sections and meditating on them, asking God if there is anything in that passage that I’m specifically supposed to know right now. I don’t dissect the text like a surgeon with a scalpel. In fact, it’s more like the text is dissecting me, cutting out areas in me that don’t align with it, and slowly massaging my heart into a different shape. This is so hard for me, because it requires approaching Scripture as something that has mastery over me rather than the other way around.

Similarly, my prayers used to be very focused on asking for things or expressing things. This is great! God, like a loving father, is delighted when we ask him for things. But to truly relinquish control of the relationship, I’ve sought to listen more in prayer. I still have so much room to grow in this area, but I will try to spend time each day silent, trying to learn to listen to God and know what he wants to say to me. Similarly, musical worship has always been a way that I’ve expressed love towards God, which is also great! But I’ve recently started to also view it as joining in with something bigger than myself. People have been worshiping God in various styles and languages for centuries, and instead of seeing it just as a personal expression, I see it also as a chance to join with others in something beyond my ability to completely control or understand.

All of this feels like I’m just starting to scratch the surface of a deeper experience of life. I imagine it a bit like the 3D glasses they used to give you at the movies when 3D movies were in style.18 Without the glasses, the movie is comprehensible and still enjoyable. But with the glasses, the movie has a richness that was unimaginable before.

You wouldn’t wear 3D glasses all the time: you’d get a headache and look stupid. Similarly, living all of life from the formational perspective would likely give me a headache and make me look stupid. But without the distinction between these two perspectives and the ability to transcend our culture’s exclusive lens of information, we miss out on a deeply rich part of life. There’s a tension in this, seeking to live decisively but also to be formed, but it’s a creative tension. In the words of Donald Miller:

“Believing in God is as much like falling in love as it is making a decision. Love is both something that happens to you and something you decide upon.”

The tension is confusing and challenging, but it’s much more rich and complete. As a result, I’m excited to embrace this tension in my faith and let it radiate to all of life, experience more in every area as a result.

Stream in a cloud

I want to give a big thank you to John Bisognano, David Sturges, Chris Detloff, Harrison Steedman and Baker Moran for reading drafts of this. John also wrote a script to format files for this website — if you can’t tell, he was very involved.


1. Metaphorically, of course, considering that you’re reading.

2. A more fun word for butler.

3. And rude.

4. In this situation, Dobby is the valet and I’m not happy about it.

5. There are some caveats here: I’m assuming you live in a developed country, have access to technology and have a certain level of wealth (though definitely not what most people consider rich).

6. And hopefully not mini-Lucius Malfoys.

7. Siri is shockingly bad for how long it’s been around, but that’s another rant for another day.

8. I couldn’t believe this affected me so much, but my roommate John Bisognano dug up some data for me showing that Amazon loses 1% in revenue on average for every 100ms lag in their website, so I feel less insane — thanks John!

9. Purely a hypothetical musing for me, of course.

10. I’m still holding onto Bitcoin if that tells you anything.

11. A book I serendipitously came across because it was mistakenly shelved among economics textbooks.

12. Shoutout to Pastor Carlos at The Journey Hanley Road.

13. I want it to be extremely clear that I am not against theology or learning about God in an academic way — I actually think it’s crucial. Without knowledge, we have no ability to make sense of our experience of God, and our understanding of God becomes ungrounded from any overarching truth. But if it’s your only, or even primary, means of relating to God, as it often was for me, there’s something very important missing. Theology, Scripture and academic study exist to increase our ability to know God and be formed by him, not just to give us cool ideas to think about.

14. All subjects are a theology in a sense, so I really couldn’t give it up if I tried.

15. It’s short!

16. Many people use fasting as a way to increase discipline and improve health, which is awesome but not a formational practice of fasting. The spiritual discipline of fasting is more focused on denying something that you want and need for a short while as a way to prioritize God, who you want and need far more than food.

17. A big word for making one day a week focused on joy and rest.

18. If anyone knows of a good 3D movie that isn’t Avatar let me know because I’m not sure one exists. Pretend I’m talking about exclusively Avatar when I talk about the experience of a 3D movie being good.