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).

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)

How Long Will You Hide Your Face from Me?

As I wrote in my last post, our world is more personal than ever but also more impersonal than ever, causing us to often feel like a nameless face among a sea of other nameless faces. And it’s making us lonely.

In fact, loneliness is now an epidemic in America.

A recent study on loneliness in the lives of Americans age 45 and older found that more than one-third of people in this demographic describe themselves as lonely, citing a “perceived lack of social support and a shrinking network of friends” as the primary causes.

The same study showed that lonely adults are twice as likely as those who are not lonely to feel they have deep connections through the Internet. In other words, those who believed they had meaningful connections online were actually lonelier.

Alone Together

Loneliness is more widespread among younger generations, particularly Gen Z, or iGen. Jean M. Twenge has been studying generational differences for 25 years, but she’s never seen anything like what’s happening with iGen: skyrocketing rates of teen depression and suicide that have put Gen Z on the brink of “the worst mental-health crisis in decades.”

What’s behind the meteoric rises in mental health issues and loneliness? “Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones,” says Twenge. She goes on to say,

The twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we’ve not seen in a very long time, if ever. There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives — and making them seriously unhappy.

Depressed. Unhappy. Lonely.

Perhaps one would expect this sort of dramatic language from a sociologist, but Twenge’s concerns are shared by physicians, including Vivek Murphy, who served as Surgeon General from 2014 to 2017. Murphy writes, “During my years caring for patients, the most common pathology I saw was not heart disease or diabetes; it was loneliness.”

The Cost of Loneliness

OK, we’re lonely. But what’s the big deal? Murphy explains the cost:

Loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity. Loneliness is also associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety. At work, loneliness reduces task performance, limits creativity, and impairs other aspects of executive function such as reasoning and decision making.

Social isolation is the central challenge facing our era according to New York Times columnist David Brooks, who notes that “social isolation produces rising suicide rates, rising drug addiction, widening inequality, political polarization, depression, and alienation.”

There is a cost to the “personal” world we have created, and that cost is the person.

How Long Will You Hide Your Face from Me?

There is nothing more serious than losing the face of God. In Psalm 13:1 the psalmist moans,

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?

Psalm 27:9, 44:24, 51:9, 69:17, 88:14, and 102:2 all record psalmists begging God not to hide his face from them.

Adam and Eve used to enjoy walking with God in the cool of the Garden of Eden, but after succumbing to sin they were cast out, never to see God face to face again.

When Jesus was hanging on the cross, he cried out in agony, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” For the first time in eternity, the Father turned his face from his Son, and it almost killed Jesus.

Nothing is more devastating than losing our Father’s gaze.

The Devastation of Loneliness

Why is the turning of God’s face away from us so devastating? In a remarkable talk, Andy Crouch observes,

The moment we were born, we were looking for a face. Because until we see a face, until another sees us, we do not who we are. And we look for someone who would look at us. … But at some point in every human life, the gaze shifts, the face disappears — no one is looking for us. That’s loneliness.

So many of us feel like no one is looking for us.

It’s as if we don’t exist, a sentiment hauntingly captured in Arcade Fire’s song “We Exist”:

They’re walking around
Head full of sound
Acting like
We don’t exist
They walk in the room
And stare right through you
Talking like
We don’t exist
But we exist …

The great challenge for the church in an impersonal world is to see the people everyone else is staring through.

I’ll talk more about that, along with calling the church to rise to the occasion, in my next post.

Saving Face and the Personal Paradox

“We all are born into the world looking for someone looking for us, and we remain in this mode of searching for the rest of our lives.” —Curt Thompson, The Soul of Shame

You’ve likely experienced the awkward moment when you realize the guy next to you in the grocery store aisle, who greeted you unusually loudly, is not greeting you at all. Instead, he’s talking to a nameless, faceless entity on the other end of his Bluetooth-enabled phone call.

You feel embarrassed, of course. But more than embarrassment, you feel overlooked, forgotten.

So you try to save face. You blush and explain that you thought he was talking to you, but your efforts are only met with a head-nod and vacant smile before the man turns and is gone.

To him, at that moment, you are not a person to engage in conversation or a neighbor deserving of niceties. You are a person without a face. A non-person.

While that kind of interaction was once novel due to the high price of smartphones and Bluetooth headsets, the mass adoption of smartphones and earbuds (and now, AirPods) has formed a world where we expect facelessness.

Now we desire anonymity, and sometimes demand it; a reality our “personal” devices are more than ready to facilitate. Yet our “personal” devices are also impersonal.

The Personal Paradox

If you’ve paid a convenience store cashier, taken the subway, or hailed an Uber lately, you more than likely enjoyed exercising your power as a citizen of the digital age, while simultaneously sensing the hollowness that comes with being a nameless face in a sea of nameless faces.

This is the paradox of the modern world, that it is more personal than ever but also more impersonal than ever. Stephen Marche, writing in the Atlantic, notes,

We are living in an isolation that would have been unimaginable to our ancestors, and yet we have never been more accessible. Over the past three decades, technology has delivered to us a world in which we need not be out of contact for a fraction of a moment.

… Yet within this world of instant and absolute communication, unbounded by limits of time or space, we suffer from unprecedented alienation. We have never been more detached from one another, or lonelier.

In a world consumed by ever more novel modes of socializing, we have less and less actual society.

Most of us feel that societal void, at least those of us who have some memory of a pre-Internet world. We bemoan parts of what was lost — but only parts. Because, if we’re being honest, it’s kind of nice.

The Dream of Personal Computing

Booking a flight, boarding a plane, and laying your head on a hotel pillow later that same day, all without knowing the name of a single person you encountered, is a modern bliss. There is no friction, no awkward small talk with uncomfortable silence.

As Rod Dreher writes in The Benedict Option, “To go through the screen of your computer or smartphone is to enter a world where you don’t often have to deal with anything not chosen.”

It’s just you and your devices connecting you to the people and content of your choice. The dream of personal computing come true.

Churches often allow for that same level of impersonal anonymity. And many of us like that, too. You can watch services online or, if you go in person, sing along with the worship, enjoy a sermon, and leave without connecting with another person in any meaningful way.

If you do sign a card or give online, you become an entry in a database and receive “personalized” emails that rely on metadata instead of first-hand knowledge. And you can stay in this impersonal state of connection as long as you wish.

The Redefinition of “Personal”

Here we return to the paradox mentioned in the opening line, that our world is more personal than ever but also more impersonal than ever. It’s not entirely accurate to call our devices or our world “personal,” but that’s part of the problem.

We have allowed mass-market consumerism to redefine the word — which used to refer to one’s private life, relationships, and emotions — to mean something like, “you are the center of your own universe.”

The smartphone isn’t a “personal” device in the traditional sense of the word; it’s a device that makes “I” the center of my own universe, which caters to my unspoken desires for constant connection, endless knowledge, and relentless distraction, all perfectly curated according to my preferences.

What happens when everyone is the center of their own universe? We get lonely.

In my next post, I’ll tell you about the loneliness epidemic in America and why it’s ultimately a spiritual problem.