Our smartphones are doing something to us.
I think I’m addicted to my smartphone.
Sorry, that was poor form. Hi, I’m Trevor, and I’m addicted to my smartphone. Or the internet. Or both. Or something.
I don’t think I would have uttered such a confession two weeks ago. But my eyes have been opened to the fact that they are all too captivated by my phone’s seductive glow. That I have a hard time focusing at work. That I am anxious and easily distracted even at home with my family. That I check Twitter or ESPN out of mindless compulsion, as if I’m incapable of tolerating more than 30 seconds of stillness or boredom.
Truthfully, I started realizing I had a problem late last year and decided to take a break from social media for the month of December. But an addiction, even a low-level one? No way. If I just worked on my self-discipline and my productivity skills, I’d stop feeling so distracted and be more present. Besides, much of my work requires me to be “connected” with what’s happening online, so I chalked it all up to a pursuit of moderation.
But I think I undersold the problem. A couple weeks ago at our small group gathering, we got into a discussion about the moral nature of technology and what effects our internet-based devices are having on us. (Hang on, I just had to stop myself from checking Facebook. What was I saying?) One person in our group spoke passionately about the anti-social downsides of social media and the dangers of artificial intelligence. He said that smartphones are causing us to lose our humanity, even though he owns a smartphone and relies on the internet to make his side business profitable.
I agreed, somewhat, but argued that technology is morally neutral. How we use it determines its moral status.
The very next day, however, I came across two articles that convicted me about my smartphone/internet use and reminded me that, while technologies may be morally neutral, they come preloaded with their own message and set of assumptions about the world and our humanity.
The first article I came upon was “Resist the Internet” by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. He begins by calling our attention to the power of the dark side of the internet:
Search your feelings, you know it to be true: You are enslaved to the internet. Definitely if you’re young, increasingly if you’re old, your day-to-day, minute-to-minute existence is dominated by a compulsion to check email and Twitter and Facebook and Instagram with a frequency that bears no relationship to any communicative need.
But it requires you to focus intensely, furiously, and constantly on the ephemera that fills a tiny little screen, and experience the traditional graces of existence — your spouse and friends and children, the natural world, good food and great art — in a state of perpetual distraction.
Douthat calls for a “digital temperance” movement so that we can put technology in its rightful place. His temperance movement includes creating wire-less spaces, enacting tougher laws on smartphone use in cars, banning computers from college lecture halls, installing “phone boxes” at restaurants, banning smartphones from museums and eliminating computers—“all of them”—from elementary schools.
Our devices we shall always have with us, but we can choose the terms. We just have to choose together, to embrace temperance and paternalism both. Only a movement can save you from the tyrant in your pocket.
Under this tyranny of distraction, we’re losing our ability to relate to each other and to God. This is the deeper point of a lengthy essay by Patricia Snow at First Things. While she focuses on the adverse consequences of “ubiquitous, user-friendly technology,” she also spends a good deal of ink about parenting—about God as Father and how our devices are distracting us from our heavenly Parent.
For all the current concern about technology’s effects on human relationships, little or nothing is being said about its effects on man’s relationship with God. If human conversations are endangered, what of prayer, a conversation like no other? All of the qualities that human conversation requires—patience and commitment, an ability to listen and a tolerance for aridity—prayer requires in greater measure. . . . Any Bible, opened at random, reminds us that the original parent-child relationship, the ground or template of every other relationship, is our relationship with the God who created us.
And if our parent-child relationship with God is characterized by anxious instability, then what of our relationships with our own children?
Everywhere today we see parents—rich and poor, educated and uneducated—unable to find the time, marshal the resources, or summon the will to do this work. It is becoming almost a cliché in our culture: the preoccupied, distracted parent and the frustrated, disheartened child, unable to compete successfully with his parent’s computer or phone.
I’ve been this parent. My son has had to repeat the call of “Dad!” because I wasn’t present and attentive. When we parent like this, we are exploiting our children.
That may sound harsh, but as Andy Crouch explains in his book Strong and Weak, we exploit others when we seek to live with as much authority as possible and with as little vulnerability as possible.
Crouch says that to be God’s image-bearers, we must live “up and to the right,” where we pursue both vulnerability and authority at the same time. This is the only place where human flourishing can take place. When one or both of these ingredients goes missing, we fall into dysfunction and live along the “line of false choice.”
Pursuing authority without vulnerability makes us exploitive. In our attempts to “maximize power while eliminating risk,” as Crouch puts it, we open ourselves up to the false promises of idols. These idols (or addictions) promise freedom from loss and vulnerability, “a heightened sense of power and possibility.”
Smartphones fill us with the sense of power and control. Everything we could ever want is at our fingertips. The messy, inconvenient realities of our day-to-day lives and relationships dissolve in the warmth of the screen.
In this state, we are not risking our love with others. This is why authority without vulnerability always and inevitably results in the suffering of some other group or individual. We are withholding love for our own gain, our own good. We are distracted from loving God and loving neighbor.
But idols never keep their promises. Their broken promises leave us vulnerable and suffering. The irony of our idolatries, says Crouch, is that they “promise freedom and deliver slavery” and “whisper fantasies of power but end up with us completely in their grip.” He surveys our hearts and our broken humanity and finds that “not one of us does not have some habit, some recurring pattern of thought, substance or device that we turn to when we are feeling vulnerable . . .”
We crave distraction because we crave control. We multitask because it’s more comfortable than being vulnerable. As Snow observes:
Because who, after all, can do this? Who can actually multitask and multi-relate? Who can love everyone without diluting or cheapening the quality of love given to each individual? Who can love everyone without fomenting insecurity and jealousy?
Only God can do this. God and those saints who, having faithfully followed the path marked out for them to the end, participate, in heaven, in the radical availability of God.
. . . Yet it is in the nature of our technologies to subliminally suggest to us that we do. This is the lie, or illusion that they are selling: that with these throbbing devices in our hands, we can be like God. Is it only a coincidence that the logo of Apple is an apple with a bite taken out of it, the sign of original sin? . . .
Sin is ugly because it’s always embedded within the context of relationship. This was true in Eden and it’s true now. “The first thing any idol takes from its worshipers are their relationships,” Crouch writes. As we lose ourselves in the gaze of our screens, we know this to be true. But truth gets hazy the longer we live in the land of Exploiting. Snow concludes her essay by stating that
. . . what is at stake is man’s relationship with truth itself. What is threatened is his ability to enter into a conversation with the One who alone has the power to immunize him against spiritual deceptions, against counterfeit signs, false lights, and siren songs.
The Possible and the Impossible
I remember the first time I opened the box of my first smartphone. It was the summer of 2012, and the phone was a Motorola Razr. The cover of the user’s guide came with an ominous line of copy:
Can you master your machine?
At this point in my life, I don’t think I’m the master.
How did we get here? How did we arrive at a point where we desperately need an internet “temperance movement” to help save us from our idolatries?
There are any number of possibilities, but one might be that we do a poor job of anticipating the implications of a given cultural artifact or piece of technology. Of all the insight Crouch packs into his first book, Culture Making, his understanding of what our cultural and technological creations can do to us still resonates with me.
Crouch lists five questions to ask of a particular cultural artifact in order to see how it “fits into its broader cultural story.” For the sake of our discussion, I want to highlight just two of those questions:
What does this cultural artifact make possible?
What does this cultural artifact make impossible (or at least very difficult)?
It is certainly true that smartphones make possible a whole range of things that help us live “up and to the right.” But they also make many of the “traditional graces of existence,” as Douthat noted, much more impossible or difficult to come by. A long attention span. Face-to-face conversations. The ability to think deeply about something. The ability to read books for extended periods of time. The need to memorize facts or ideas. The ability to be present without fidgeting or becoming distracted. The ability to be present with God and with others.
Of course, sinful humans have always been distracted, disengaged and forgetful to some degree. But the “horizons of the possible and impossible” as defined by smartphones trick us into thinking that we’re moving “up and to the right” when that’s not the case much (or most) of the time.
Maybe certain technologies are not as “neutral” as we naturally assume. This was Marshall McLuhan’s main contribution to communication studies: The medium is the message. What you look at on your smartphone is not enough to evaluate; how much you look at your smartphone is more significant. That screen is embedded with possibilities and impossibilities that are far more powerful than the content itself. Your data plan costs more than the bottom line on the bill.
To quote Snow again:
In the past, the Church has censured the content of certain media: the violence in video games, for example, or the pornography available online. But preoccupied with content . . . she has overlooked the greater danger of the delivery system itself, or the form of the screen, which for many people turns out to be as irresistible as pornography and as addictive as any narcotic, with the result that it is on its way to becoming as formidable a distracter in the life of the Church as it is everywhere else.
The mere sight of a smartphone is distraction enough, both because of the possibilities it suggests to the imagination, and because fortunes have been spent making sure that its phosphorescent display attracts and holds man’s gaze.
This is because the things we do also do something to us. This is the heart (pun intended) of James K.A. Smith’s book You Are What You Love. Smith, a philosophy professor at Calvin College, uses You Are What You Love like a 101-level course on the philosophy of the heart. He argues that, “. . . if you are what you love and if love is a virtue, then love is a habit.” This has tremendous downstream effects on how we live out our faith.
We learn to love, then, not primarily by acquiring information about what we should love but rather through practices that form the habits of how we love. These sorts of practices are “pedagogies” of desire, not because they are like lectures that inform us, but because they are rituals that form and direct our affections.
Now here’s the crucial insight for Christian formation and discipleship: not only is this learning-by-practice the way our hearts are correctly calibrated, but it also the way our loves and longings are misdirected and miscalibrated—not because our intellect has been hijacked by bad ideas but because our desires have been captivated by rival visions of flourishing. And that happens through practices, not propaganda. Our desires are caught more than they are taught. All kinds of cultural rhythms and routines are, in fact, rituals that function as pedagogies of desire precisely because they tacitly and covertly train us to love a certain version of the kingdom, teach us to long for some rendition of the good life. These aren’t just things we do; they do something to us.
My dad used to say, “First you make your habit, then your habit makes you.” Our smartphones are making us in their image. They are training our hearts to believe that god-like authority without vulnerability is where the good life of flourishing can be found. These screens are shaping our loves. “We become what we worship because we worship what we love,” writes Smith, “which is why John Calvin refers to the human heart as an ‘idol factory.’ We can’t not worship because we can’t not love something as ultimate.”
The distractibility of the internet and our smartphones is carving shallow channels in our brains, but the water fills our hearts. We drink what we love, and suddenly righteousness has lost its appetite (Matthew 5:6), even though we “know better.”
Reforming Our Loves
I want to be wise about my smartphone use. But wisdom and love have to work hand-in-hand, and re-training my heart and habits will take a lot of work and a lot of grace. Only my love for others can overcome my love of scrolling. If you, too, want to love well and master our machines, we are going to have to retrain our hearts.
For starters, I am putting away my phone as soon as I get home from work in the evenings. At church last Sunday, I eschewed my ESV mobile app for my actual Bible and plan to continue that practice. When our family went out for dinner a few nights ago, I left the phone in the car.
These are just a few of the first steps I have begun to make. I don’t have many answers, but I do see how my heart has been swayed by the promises and possibilities of the internet. And I want that to change.
Fittingly, Andy Crouch has a new book coming today called The Tech-Wise Family, and it looks great. A guest post he wrote at Ann Voskamp’s blog will give you a good preview of the book and maybe even a couple actionable steps you can take in the meantime. And The Gospel Coalition’s Tony Reinke has a new book out called 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You that should also prove to be of tremendous value.
And in the meantime, we can pray for sobriety about how deeply our technology has trained and formed our hearts. We can pray for discernment, for perspective and for the grace to make the most use of our time (Ephesians 5:16-18).
Because surely our Lord and Savior has better things for us to be about than checking the next notification.