The Bad of Technology

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).

You Are Jesus’ Cup of Tea

Trust him. And when you have done that, you are living the life of grace. No matter what happens to you in the course of that trusting — no matter how many waverings you may have, no matter how many suspicions that you have bought a poke with no pig in it, no matter how much heaviness and sadness your lapses, vices, indispositions, and bratty whining may cause you — you believe simply that Somebody Else, by his death and resurrection, has made it all right, and you just say thank you and shut up. The whole slop-closet full of mildewed performances (which is all you have to offer) is simply your death; it is Jesus who is your life. If he refused to condemn you because your works were rotten, he certainly isn’t going to flunk you because your faith isn’t so hot. You can fail utterly, therefore, and still live the life of grace. You can fold up spiritually, morally, or intellectually and still be safe. Because at the very worst, all you can be is dead — and for him who is the Resurrection and the Life, that just makes you his cup of tea.

—Robert Farrar Capon, Between Noon and Three (H/T to Alan Jacobs for the quote)

The Good of Technology

In my last post, I said the church must start thinking deeply about technology. To help move our thinking in that direction, it’s helpful to understand the good and the bad of technology.

Let’s start with the good.

The Benefits of Technology

The benefits of technology are almost too numerous to list. Here are some things that come to mind:

  • We can easily share and access the most impressive library of knowledge ever assembled.
  • We can reach loved ones via phone call, text messaging, or video calling almost anywhere in the world.
  • We can keep up with more people than ever before and have more diverse social networks than ever before.
  • We can attend college classes without having to stop our lives and live on campus.
  • People like me can work from home and live wherever they want if they have Internet.
  • We no longer have to stop for directions of pull over to read a map because of navigation apps like Google or Apple Maps.
  • We can edit documents in real-time instead of re-typing entire pages or using whiteout to cover up mistakes made on a typewriter.
  • We can take and save unlimited pictures and easily share them with friends and family, or the world, if we wish to.
  • Non-verbal children and adults with autism or people who have lost parts of their mouth or face to cancer can now speak through a computer.
  • Some deaf children and adults are able to hear through implants made possible by technology.

I think you get the picture.

Examples like these should be no surprise because God intended for us to develop technology to make something of the world he created and gave us dominion over.

God made Adam and Eve and placed them in a garden, then told them to be fruitful and multiply, and to fill the earth and subdue it (see Genesis 1:28).

If you fast-forward to the end of the Bible, you see the New Heavens and the New Earth coming together in its most potent form in the New Jerusalem, which appears to be some sort of technologically sophisticated city of the future.

As many have noted, mankind’s story starts in a garden and ends in a city. But you don’t get from the garden to the city without technology.

Technology has made our lives easier and better in so many ways, but it never does so without tradeoffs.

Technology Comes with Tradeoffs

Rod Dreher sums up the tradeoffs of technology (and in particular, the Internet) well in The Benedict Option,

I work as an online journalist and spend most of my weekdays [dipping in and out of social media and skittering from site to site.]

And guess what? It’s wonderful. It has made my life better in more ways than I can count, including making it possible for me to live where I want because I can work from home. The Internet has given me a great deal and does everyday.

But the Internet, like all new technologies, also takes away. What it takes from us is our sense of agency.

… There’s a scientific explanation for that. At the neurological level, the Internet’s constant distractions alter the physiological structure of our brain. The brain refashions itself to conform to the nonstop randomness of the Internet experience, which conditions us to crave the repetitive jolts that come with novelty.

… The result of this is the gradual inability to pay attention, to focus, and to think deeply. Study after study has confirmed the common experience many have reported in the Internet age: that using the Web makes it infinitely easier to find information but much harder to devote the kind of sustained focus it takes to know things.

You may have never thought about the tradeoffs he mentioned because the further along a society is in the adoption of a technology, the harder it is to see these tradeoffs.

My next post will survey some of the tradeoffs of modern, digital technology.

Why the Church Must Think Deeply About Technology

The year 2007 is now thought to be one of the defining years in history. A moment where everything after was different.

Much like 1440, when Gutenberg’s printing press changed the world forever, 2007 left the world a different place because of the Internet.

The Internet wasn’t invented in 2007, but it was made highly accessible and personal on a mass scale through the release of Apple’s first iPhone and the rise of social media.

It seems difficult at times to remember the world before 2007. Think back to that time.

Before 2007

In 2006, there was no iPhone or Twitter. Facebook was in its infancy, confined to college campuses. Most people had what we now call dumbphones, meaning phones without full internet access.

Most of us were still texting on a number pad (remember T9?), though a few of us, mostly business professionals, had Blackberry’s with a full, physical keyboard.

We were just coming out of the dial-up Internet phase and had finally stopped receiving those AOL update CDs in the mail. The Internet was largely something you accessed at home or at work, not something that went with you when you left.

Can you believe that was just 12 years ago?

Rapid Change

The rate of technological change today makes it hard to keep up with all that’s happening, let alone reflect on how technology is shaping us. Change is nothing new, though. Even technological change. Since the beginning of time, life has continued to increase in complexity at a more rapid pace. But complexity requires wisdom.

Each societal, cultural, or technological change in our world requires wisdom to navigate the new, more complex world. We used to have decades or centuries to develop a base of wisdom through living and thinking deeply, but that world no longer exists.

Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman calls this phenomenon of rapid change “liquid modernity.” Bauman says we used to live in an age of “solid modernity”—a period of social change that was fairly predictable and manageable—but now we live in “liquid modernity”—in which change is so rapid that no social institutions have time to solidify.

Rod Dreher writes in The Benedict Option, which David Brooks of the New York Times has called the most discussed and important religious book of the decade,

The most radical, disruptive, and transformative technology ever created is the Internet. It is the ultimate facilitator of liquid modernity because it conditions the way we experience life and frames all our experiences.

Perhaps more dangerous than the speed of technological change is that we can become used to the rate of change and no longer wait to evaluate whether or not a new development actually delivers on its promises.

Andy Crouch writes in his book The Tech-Wise Family, “We are stuffing our lives with technology’s new promises, with no clear sense of whether technology will help us keep the promises we’ve already made.”

After 2007

There is no doubting that technology has changed the world since 2007, particularly through the digital revolution, which includes things like the mass adoption of smartphones and social media, along with the almost ubiquitous access to Wi-Fi.

And there is no doubting that technology has made our lives far easier in many ways. At the same time, there are many who are concerned with the effects of our increased reliance on technology.

I don’t know a single parent who isn’t asking questions about screen time or when to allow kids to have a smartphone. We’ve all heard the reports about the negative effects of too much time spent on social media or seen entire families out to eat in total silence because they are all glued to their phones.

But we haven’t all heard the church talking about technology in terms of discipleship, or how it changes (for better or worse) spiritual formation.

Technology in the Bible?

Since technology is always new and changing, many in the church don’t think the Bible has direct wisdom to offer in this area, but that’s not true. The Bible has some very interesting things to say about technology, as I’ll explain in a future post.

This assumption that the Bible doesn’t address technological concerns might be why most of the Christians I talk to have spent very little, if any, time thinking deeply about technology through a theological framework.

But we must.

Outside of God himself, there is nothing shaping our world more than technology right now.

To help us think about technology through a theological framework, some future posts will cover things like:

  • The Good, the bad, and the ugly of technology
  • Biblical considerations of technology
  • What should we do? (where I’ll suggest a framework for thinking through decisions about technology)

It’s Time for the Church to Save Face

The great challenge, I wrote in my last post, for the church today is to see the people everyone else is staring through.

Vivek Murphy, U.S. Surgeon General from 2014 to 2017, says, “For our health and our work, it is imperative that we address the loneliness epidemic quickly.”

But it’s not just health and work that are affected. Loneliness shrivels the soul. When no one is looking for us, we don’t know who we are. When no one is looking for us, we don’t know we are loved.

It’s Time for the Church to Save Face

But there is Someone looking for us. There is Someone who loves us. The church knows who that Someone is — Christ — and has been commissioned to tell the world who he is while displaying the kind of love he showed that declares we are not alone.

If the church wants to obey the Great Commission to reach the world for Christ and the Great Commandments to love God and neighbor, it is imperative that we address the loneliness epidemic quickly.

To combat loneliness, we must recover personhood. We must save face, which is to say we must restore the face, the personhood, of individuals. We must bring a personal gospel — a gospel which sees and affirms the dignity of each human while calling them to repent and turn to Christ — to an impersonal world.

All our talk about restoring culture does nothing if we don’t first restore the people in it. “We have lots of ways of talking about renewing and restoring culture; [but] it comes down to something very simple: in this world, and in the world that’s coming, the restoration of culture is the recognition of persons,” says Andy Crouch.

Impersonal churches cannot recognize persons, though. Impersonal churches cannot reach an impersonal world because impersonal churches have nothing to offer the world it doesn’t already have.

We don’t need another place to find weak social connections, fun activities, or online content; these can be found in abundance elsewhere. We don’t need another place to be a nameless, faceless entity.

We need a place where someone is looking for us. A place where we can first hear about the God who is looking for us and then discover a family that’s looking for us — a family that sees us.

And the good news is, the church can be just that. It already has been.

The Dignity Revolution in the Early Church

In the most technologically advanced society in the history of the world to that point, early Christianity flourished. In the impersonal, imperial Roman empire, Christianity revolutionized the concept of personhood by showing people the true meaning of personhood — of being seen, known, and loved by a personal God by recognizing persons of every possible status.

The revolutionary act of the early church, says Crouch, was “to see them all and know them all by name, and name them all as brothers and sisters. Is it any wonder that the early church grew?”

This high view of personhood was not mere sentiment. One particularly moving example of how this played out in and around the church comes to us from Dionysius, who was an overseer of the church in Alexandria when it was being devastated by a plague. He records how the church responded to the persons being ravaged by the disease:

The most … of our brethren in their exceeding love and affection for the brotherhood were unsparing of themselves and clave to one another, visiting the sick without a thought as to the danger, assiduously ministering to them, tending to them in Christ, and so most gladly departed this life along with them; being infected with the disease from others, drawing upon themselves the sickness from their neighbors, and willingly taking over their pains …

In this manner the best at any rate of our brethren departed this life, certain presbyters and deacons and some of the laity. … So, too, the bodies of the saints they would take up in their open hands to their bosom, closing their eyes and shutting their mouths, carrying them on their shoulders and laying them out; they would cling to them, embrace them, bathe and adorn them with their burial clothes, and after a little while receive the same services themselves, for those that were left behind were ever following those that went before.

But the conduct of [those outside the church] was the exact opposite. Even those who were in the first stages of the disease they thrust away, and fled from their dearest. They would even cast them in the roads half-dead, and treat the unburied corpses as vile refuse.

In a world marked that treated sick people as garbage to be discarded, the church saw each person as a person worthy of dignity, respect, and decency.

When their community was overrun by a mass of infected, faceless people, the Christians rushed in while everyone else rushed out.

This church was not content to refer people to a third-party nonprofit or a para-church ministry — they did the ministry themselves.

And how could they not? When Christians see each person as a person, how can they not have the same kind of compassion for them that they first saw in their Master?

The best response to such love is one offered by the church father Tertullian: “See how they love one another and how ready they are to die for each other!”

Seeing People for Who They Are

If the church of the 21st century wants to be faithful to Christ’s call to reach and love the world, she has to save face, to recover personhood.

She has to learn to recognize persons of every possible status.

She has to learn to see them all and know them all by name, and name them all as brothers and sisters.