On Neil Postman, the Grand Canyon, bad AWANA kids, virtual reality and the reason for distraction.
My opinions are like Jehovah’s Witness pamphlets: free and unsolicited. So when I was asked to write my opinions on various forms of technology (which I wasn’t), I wholeheartedly agreed.
As I was trying to forage for some kind of authority to speak on the matter of technology, I came up a byte short. I’m not tech savvy. I have several times asked my wife to make my phone turn into a camera. I also tend to misplace my phone. As a point of dark irony, it knows where I am far more than I know where it is. I text with the dexterity of a camel playing “Moonlight Sonata.” Yesterday, I tried to post an Instagram pic and ended up mouth breathing on my screen until it timed out.
Apart from those—what shall we call them?—detriments, let it be noted that I am also a frequent user of technology. I can write a mean email. You know GIFs? I can do them. I also have a physiological addiction to Craigslist, and my YouTube history is searches for “cats getting scared,” “things exploding in slow motion” and “BEN SHAPIRO absolutely DESTROYING liberal SNOWFLAKE SJWs!!!!”
Now that my ethos is thoroughly established, I would like to offer a few observational flotsam on this technological sea on which we float. The intention of these observations is not to vilify or fear monger, but to point out that adoption of any technology without the accompanying ethical and moral considerations of wisdom can leave those technologies open to abuse and misuse. These are not meant to be exhaustive, just a few thought snacks you could munch on.
1) I am speaking of technology in the sense that most of us have in mind—smartphones, television, computers, video game systems. Namely, anything with a screen. I am not speaking about things like medical and agricultural advances, space travel, military advancements, Invisalign, etc., which certainly would fall under the heading of technology in a broad sense.
2) I know all the following points about technology deserve far more attention than I will give them here. They are complex and multi-faceted. I know you know that, but I need to know you know that I know that. It’s not my fault; I’m an Enneagram 5. So let me just say that now, or else this post will die the death of a thousand qualifications.
Questions that need answering
The late cultural critic Neil Postman was dubious of new technology, yet he also recognized the benefits that can come from their acceptance. What he feared was a society where the newest technology was unquestioningly consumed. He suggested we ask three questions when we are presented with any new technology.
- What problem is this new technology purporting to solve?
- Is that really a problem?
- What new problems will present themselves as a result of our initial problem being solved?
These questions are meant to give us pause. What exactly are we asking this tech to do for us? New technology will become a crutch. Are you willing to live with that crutch?
I have had more than a few friends tell me, with lamentation in their voice, that they just got their 10-year-old an iPhone. They said it as if they just decided to put down the family dog. Apply the questions above to this scenario. Think about the tech in your life and your kids’ lives and apply the above questions.
This does not mean we abandon the tech per se, but, rather, it’s about being thoughtful about what we allow in our lives and being aware of its effects. Bad tech bathes in the thoughtless and shallow mind, that baptismal where the vapid and carnal are submerged.
We were skirting the Grand Canyon on a road trip several years ago. The road had been meandering through scrubby pine trees and throwing its hips out around sharp bends. The kids had been watching a movie on the DVD player, but it had since quit working for some unknown reason. So we were all enjoying the tease as the vista flirted with us through the trees. As we drove up over a small hill, the earth dropped out from under us, the sudden expanse between earth and sky increased by 5,000 feet and was belted with layers of rock, flaky and crisp as grandmother’s biscuits. Little butts lifted out of seats with gasps of wonder. They were positively effervescing. Just then, the DVD player kicked back on. Six little eyes were sucked off of the sublimity of the experience and lost in computer animation.
Wonder, the most profound and sublime experience of being human, was choked out by technicolor images on an eight-inch screen. Unchecked technology can pluck the wings from wonder.
Destruction of imagination
Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy is one of my favorites. It is epic in its scale, nefarious in its intentions. We are now on the third book of the trilogy. The first book, The Golden Compass, had my kids entranced from the first chapter. My voice was hoarse from reading way past bedtime, all of us huddled over the pages under a yellow cone of light from the desk lamp. The first time I read the book I can remember the images that fed my imagination. Lyra, the protagonist, under the winter night sky, the northern lights dancing overhead, her breath crystallizing in the freezing air. Or Lorek, the armored bear, fighting for his life against the Bear King, knocking his lower jaw off with one massive swipe of his paw.
Then we watched the movie. Not bad. But I asked the kids how they had pictured Lyra, or the golden money or the bears when we were reading the book. They couldn’t remember. The movie had supplanted their imagination. It had destroyed it in this context. Their idea of what Svalbard, the bear city far in the North, looked like will now be the images from someone else’s imagination. If imagination is the forming of images and concepts not present to the senses, then the world Pullman provided the paint for has been whitewashed and graffitied with someone else’s image. This is the destruction of imagination by definition.
This doesn’t mean we don’t ever watch movies. The appropriation of other’s imaginations isn’t a bad thing. Part of the wonder of being human and in relationship is that our imaginations can synergize and augment each other. Our imaginations need to cross-pollinate. Problems can arise, however, if the imagination atrophies through lack of use and we become consumers of imagination and not producers. Only a good dose of boredom can cure it.
This concerns the amount of facetime we get with screens. There have been lots of depressing studies about how much we stare at screens, hunched over, thumbs typing. The future human will be a cockeyed Quasimodo with thumb gout. So much for Nietzsche’s Superman.
We are made in the image of a Creator. It stands to reason we would, among other things, create. In order to create, we need to be free to imagine. Imagination itself is fed and nurtured by wonder. Our kids have proclivities toward creating that we have the opportunity to fertilize when they are young. Imagination is a garden that we are meant to cultivate with wonder in childhood so we can create fruit the rest of our lives.
Weed is legal. Do you smoke? If not, why not? What reasons will you give your kids why they ought to avoid it? My reason, as far as it goes, is that life requires a sharp sword and a steady hand, but marijuana makes the mind dull and flaccid.
I think we can employ a similar reasoning to screen time, and it has nothing to do with the morality of it. This world is equipped with all kinds of pitfalls. Jesus tells us to think like a snake; no accident here on his choice of creatures here. The serpent beguiled Eve, and he hasn’t stopped beguiling since. He is smarter than you. The surest way to be sharp is to increase your wonder.
Encouragement or Entourage-ment?
Okay, I was pushing it in the heading there. This a quick one, just to ask you to pay attention to how often your conversations with fellow Christians (or unbelievers, but particularly Christians) turn toward talk about entertainment instead of encouragement in the faith. It’s easier to talk about Netflix’s Stranger Things than the even stranger things in your soul.
“But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called today, so that none of you will be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (Hebrews 3:13).
The tree of no-legged
I was an AWANA kid. I had the vest, the plastic crown, knew the pledge. I was ambitious. I started as a mule in Cubbies running plastic jewels up to Pioneers for this kid who called himself “Apostate Paul.” I did a stretch of time-outs for breaking-and-entering, helping myself to the vanilla wafers in the snack room with the five-finger discount. Doing time was boring, man, nothing to do but memorize verses. But if you want to be a youth on the march, you gotta pay your AWANA dues.
There was this kid named Scottie. Blond. Big glasses. The kind of kid whose boogers never saw a tissue. He was doing his verse on Genesis 2:15-17, and when he came to the tree part, he said, “. . . the tree of the no-legged of good and evil.” The kid couldn’t even pronounce knowledge. Can’t approve a workman who can’t pronounce “knowledge.” Scottie never saw Chums and Pals.
There is a difference between knowing about something and knowledge. Or, perhaps you could say there is knowledge, and then there is No-Legged. Knowledge is experiencing a thought, having a relationship with it; to have a mental concept that your mind can manipulate, ponder and place in different contexts with other concepts. Think of a topic you know well. You understand and can explain it in different contexts and levels. Compare that to looking something up on Wikipedia and bloviating about it five minutes later to win an argument. It requires no thought of your own, no sacrifice or experience. Grace is free, but truth has to be bought.
Instant access to “knowledge” can make us think we are more knowledgeable than we really are and pacify our responsibility to understand. Consuming information is not the same as digesting it. Tech can certainly help us become knowledgeable when we have wonder and discipline flying as our wingmen, but it is also very easy to be no-legged. Then you end up like Scottie, going nowhere.
Many books and articles have been written on this one. This is the propensity to use our phone cameras to immortalize the ephemera of our lives. It’s easy to make fun of this one, which I am not against, but it can be easy to scoff at this phenomena and miss the bone-munching cancer it is a symptom of.
My kids do not yet have cell phones, but often they ask me to video them doing this or that. I tell them I will take a video of them doing whatever they want with the condition that they will agree to never watch the video themselves. That pretty much killed it. They don’t ask anymore. If there were some kind of app that allowed a person to take a pic or video of themselves and it would automatically post to the internet without them being able to preview it first, how many selfies would we see? I’ll bet you a bag of loose mustard very few.
Now why would that be? What can we surmise from this strange desire to stage a picture of breakfast food next to an open Jesus Calling devotional?
My answer: we have no idea who or what we are. Social media can be a form of echolocation. We use it to bounce off others’ opinions and triangulate our own shape, location and worth. It’s a strange type of Battleship where the other person has your pieces and has placed them on the board, in some space and time, and we guess at our identity and location based on their feedback. This really deserves more treatment than it will get here, but I think we tend to misinterpret the motivation. It is not narcissism in the sense that we are enamored with ourselves, at least not at first. I think this starts as a genuine hollowness of identity. We aren’t looking to be idols, we are looking for ideas; any hint of what we are or are meant to be. Are we the materialized matter of others’ opinions?
Will work for dopamine
This was a new category of experience.
I was sitting in a Subaru passenger seat in a dark basement. It was bolted to a steel frame, which was bolted to the floor in the middle of a room set back four feet from any wall.
“Do you see anything yet?”
“Yeah, just a white room with dots everywhere. Like pegboard.”
“Ok, hold on a sec.”
Then I was in a three-walled villa. Where the fourth wall would be was a balcony overlooking the Mediterranean. I turned my head to the right to see a schooner with its mainsails billowing lazily in a breeze. I looked to the left and saw a table with a pearl-handled gun lying in wait next to a bust of Beethoven. I walked to the balcony and looked down. Forty feet below me, water crawled up on yellow sand and burbled around smooth, sunken rocks. A bird chittered somewhere.
“This. Is. Insane.”
On the balcony to the left was a garden. Pale flowers genuflected toward the sun and nestled into their bed amongst sheets of green leaves. A vine with orange, trumpet-shaped flowers crawled over the side and climbed down the wall. Tiny beads of dew, set like jewels in the petals, sparkled.
“Oh, it gets better,” he said.
With a flicker of pixels I was in a deserted city, cars askew on the streets and bits of litter skittering along the ground. In the seat I turned completely around to look behind me. The city continued as far as I could see in an eerie silence. Above me the skyscrapers leaned in and glinted in the sun.
“Reach down to your hips and push the trigger on your middle fingers,” came a voice. I saw my armless, gloved hands reach down and come up with two hungry looking guns. Then came the robots.
This was my first experience with the Oculus, the current state-of-the-art virtual reality gaming system. It was engaging, immersive and radical. Two thoughts immediately came to mind:
1) How will this be used for porn? Call me old fashioned. But man never made any tech he couldn’t sell sex by, and you can take that to the bank.
2) When will this new, fun, adventurous reality, which ladles gravy boats of glistening dopamine atop our brains, supplant the wall-to-wall much crappier reality most of us live in?
Dopamine is a multi-functional neurotransmitter. One of its jobs is reward and reinforcement. Kids, the little crackheads, will go to where the dopamine is. Video games give our brains a rush of dopamine and create positive feedback loops to bring us back to the juice for a bigger hit. Social media is fashioned with this express purpose in mind; each “like” or retweet gives a you a Scooby Snack of dopamine and a high probability you will keep coming back.
I said in the beginning that we don’t want to make decisions that are fear-based. It does not follow, however, that after the application of wisdom we ought not avoid certain things. As a parent, all things being equal, you might not be able to compete with systems that can offer these kinds of rewards. Consider not letting them into your house at all. Don’t get into a battle you can’t win. It’s a lot harder to kick a crystal meth habit than not start one in the first place.
Aldous Huxley, author of the dystopian and freakishly prophetic book Brave New World, wrote in his follow-up book Brave New World Revisited:
They did not foresee what in fact has happened . . . the development of a vast mass communications industry, concerned in the main neither with the true nor the false, but with the unreal, the more or less totally irrelevant. In a word, they failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions (emphasis added).
They failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions. We are experiencing the truth of this statement in increasing powers of magnitude. Huxley wrote this in 1958 when we still had four stations on TV, and Howdy Doody was in full swing. Now our distractions are fully immersive and growing. But what exactly are we distracted from? And why are we prone to it?
Romans 1:18: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.”
God’s truth is clearly seen through what has been made. But we rejected the divine power and eternal nature in our lives. The mechanism of our rejection is suppression. We will not suffer the knowledge of God because of what it requires of us and shows us about ourselves and him. The suppression of truth, however, brings about all kinds of hollow, empty thoughts, leaving a void that is painful, frightening and depressing. Distraction is one way we have learned to deal with the sequelae of suppression. It is a non-engagement with reality, a place to hide from our lostness.As I said in the introduction, tech is not bad, per se, and much of it has valuable applications. Other uses of it can be devastating. We need wisdom and shrewdness, not fear or ignorance, to direct our decisions. Wisdom casts a spell over tech and reveals to us its true form. Proverbs 4:6 says, “Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you; love her, and she will watch over you.”