The church must start thinking seriously about technology, as I’ve written. My last post briefly covered some of the good of technology and explained that technology always comes with tradeoffs.

Now it’s time to examine some of those tradeoffs.

Ignoring the Immediate

The first negative effect of modern technology is that it nudges us to ignore who or what is right in front of us. Sherry Turkle, one of the foremost researchers in this area, writes,

These days, we want to be with each other but also elsewhere, connected to whatever else we want to be, because what we value most is control over where we put our attention.[1]

Devices and services today promise their users they will never be bored. There is always a social network to check, a video to watch, and news to catch up on, and all of it is designed specifically for us.

This is why we instinctively grab for our phones in the checkout line, at stoplights, at the dinner table, and, yes, even in the restroom.

When we’re all distracted by a universe of our own making, there is little time for engaging in risky, personal interactions with strangers or family members. After all, there is no certainty these interactions will bring happiness, so the urge to jump back into our personalized portal is all the stronger.

Citing Proverbs 27:17, Tony Reinke, author of Twelve Ways Your Phone is Changing You, says,

The most shaping conversations we need are full of friction, and we simply cannot have them on our frictionless phones.[2]

For Christians, ignoring the people God has in front of us is especially problematic, as he often works through the people around us to conform us to his image and to show us tangible expressions of his love. C. S. Lewis said,

[God] works on us in all sorts of ways. . . . He works through Nature, through our own bodies, through books, sometimes through experiences. . . . But above all, He works on us through each other.[3]

When we’re lost in our phones, we may be missing what God wants to reveal to us through the people right in front of us.

Constant Distraction and Eroding Attention Spans

Perhaps not surprisingly, all the time we’re spending on our phones is eroding our attention spans. In a 2013 Microsoft study, humans living always-on, connected lives in Canada were found to have shorter attention spans than goldfish.[4]

While goldfish can hold their focus for an average of nine seconds, those surveyed in Microsoft’s study were only capable of focusing for an average of eight.

Regardless of the survey’s scientific merit, the study emphasizes something most people sense intuitively—that we are more distracted than ever, constantly feeling overwhelmed by the onslaught of information that floods our eyes and ears.

To keep up with it all, the average adult checks their phone 150 times a day.[5] That means adults are spending an average of almost two hours a day on their phones. For most smartphone users, their phone is the first thing they see when they wake up, and the last thing they see before going to bed.

Even tech CEOs know there’s a problem. In an open memo to all Microsoft employees, Satya Nadella, the company’s CEO, said the world we live in is one where “the true scarce commodity is increasingly human attention.”[6]

An extreme example of how people are altering their behavior to cope with the constant distractions of modern life is “phubbing.” Sherry Turkle explains that the term “means maintaining eye contact while texting.” According to Turkle, phubbing is commonplace among her students, and they say they do it with relative ease.[7]

While the phenomenon of phubbing is concerning, so are the effects of distraction on literacy.

Literacy

Here again, the words of another powerful person inside one of the tech giants are illuminating.

In an interview with Charlie Rose on PBS, Eric Schmidt, then the CEO of Google and now the Executive Chairman of Alphabet (Google’s parent company), said,

I worry that the level of interrupt, the sort of overwhelming rapidity of information—and especially of stressful information—is in fact affecting cognition. It is in fact affecting deeper thinking. I still believe that sitting down and reading a book is the best way to really learn something. And I worry that we’re losing that.[8]

Schmidt is highlighting the deepening worry that many have about the digital world’s effect on literacy.

It’s not that words on a screen are inherently less readable, but that people don’t read text on a screen the same way they read text on the page. Tony Reinke writes,

With digital text on our phones, we are conditioned to skim quickly. With a printed book in hand, we naturally read more slowly, at a pace realistic for retention. . . . But we have been trained not to linger over digital texts.[9]

David Brooks likens the problem of comprehension in the digital age to that of a trying to read at an endless cocktail party. At cocktail parties, there are multiple side conversations going on as guests mingle with one another and work their way around the room.

Cocktail parties are great for entertainment, but not so great for concentration.

Brooks argues that the endless stream of social media and news forms the same background chatter as an endless cocktail party. Trying to read in that environment is simply too distracting, and it prevents one from forming what he calls “crystallized intelligence”—

the ability to use experience, knowledge, and the products of lifelong education that have been stored in long-term memory. It is the ability to make analogies and comparisons about things you have studied before. Crystallized intelligence accumulates wisdom over the years and leads ultimately to understanding and wisdom.[10]

Brook’s term “crystallized intelligence” captures the heart of the concern over literacy—that people are reading as much or more than ever, but are comprehending less and less, and therefore not accumulating wisdom.

Loneliness

The most significant negative effect of modern technology is loneliness, which I wrote about in detail here. I won’t re-hash that same material here except to say that loneliness is an epidemic in our culture and is wreaking havoc on our mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health.

I’m excited to turn from the good and the bad of technology to what the Bible says about it, but before I do, I have to take the time to explain why technology is not neutral. That’ll be the theme of my next post.


[1] Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (London: Penguin Books, 2015), 19.

[2] Tony Reinke, Twelve Ways Your Phone is Changing You, 125.

[3] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco: Harper, 2009), 163.

[4] Timothy Egan, “The Eight Second Attention Span,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/22/opinion/the-eight-second-attention-span.html (accessed July 15, 2017).

[5] Kenneth Burke, “Here’s How Often the Average American Checks Their Phone Every Day,” TextRequest.com, https://www.textrequest.com/blog/americans-check-their-cell-phones-150-times-a-day/ (accessed June 29, 2017).

[6] Alyson Gausby, “Attention Spans: Consumer Insights, Microsoft Canada,” https://graysonpope.files.wordpress.com/2017/07/microsoft-attention-spans-research-report.pdf (accessed June 27, 2017).

[7] Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation, 4.

[8] Dyer, From the Garden to the City, 164–165.

[9] Reinke, 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You, 84.

[10] David Brooks, “Building Attention Span,” The New York Times, July 10, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/10/opinion/david-brooks-building-attention-span.html (accessed June 8, 2017).

Published by Grayson Pope

Hey, there. My name is Grayson. I’m a husband and father of three. I serve as a writer and editor with Prison Fellowship. I’m also the Managing Web Editor of Gospel-Centered Discipleship.