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S1E10: The Useful Distraction of Smartphones
(The following is the manuscript for episode ten of season one of the Breaking the Digital Spell podcast, which premiered on October 23rd, 2018. Available wherever you get your podcasts, or you can listen online here.)
I got my first cell phone for my 16th birthday: it was a Nokia flip phone with no Internet access and restricted call/texting functionality past 10PM. This was in September of 2007, just a couple months after the original iPhone hit store shelves. As a newly-minted 16 year old, I was just happy to have a cell phone to text my friends. The iPhone was really cool – the worship intern for my church’s youth ministry got an iPhone on day one – but I didn’t think it’s features were necessary. I was more than content with smashing a number multiple times to get a certain letter and doing this over and over and over again – the touchscreen keyboard of an iPhone was just bling.
I didn’t hold that opinion for long though. Fast forward three years to 2010 and the original iPhone was now obsolete compared to the new iPhone 4. Gone was the curvey plastic design of old – the rectangular metallic body was in and it looked amazing. My middle brother Travis received an iPhone 3GS for his birthday – which is just a few weeks before mine – and as the older brother I could not stand the injustice of my little brother having an iPhone before I did. Once the iPhone 4 was released I went to the AT&T store and dropped $800 on the phone – $300 of it was the cost of the actual phone and $500 of it was the security deposit I needed to pay because, in order to buy this phone, I needed to leave my parent’s phone plan and start my own plan, and since I didn’t have a credit score at the time, AT&T required a security deposit nearly twice the cost of the phone I was buying! I got that deposit back at the end of my first year, but in hindsight, my love for the iPhone and my unyielding desire to have one made me do something irrational and stupid.
We opened this season of Breaking the Digital Spell up with a comparison of two dystopias, one from George Orwell and one from Aldous Huxley. Orwell believed that what we feared – the iron fist of totalitarianism and government control – would ruin us, while Huxley believed that what we loved – our comfort, our leisure, our entertainment and distraction – will ruin us. My love for the iPhone when I bought it didn’t ruin me in the moment (although it certainly ruined my savings). Seven years later, however, I think Huxley was on to something about what we love ruining us – and I think smartphones, while making our lives better, are simultaneously ruining them in the process.
According to Statista.com, it is expected that there will be 2.53 billion smartphone users in 2018, and that by 2019 that number is expected to climb to 2.71 billion – an increase of 180 million in the span of a single year. Those numbers are estimates, but they show that the meteoric rise of smartphones shows no sign of slowing down. Of that 2.71 billion projected for next year, 230 million of those users live in America, which comprises 68.4% of the entire American population – nearly 7 of out 10 Americans own a smartphone. And the habits of those 7 out of 10 Americans are not good: again, according to Statista.com,we check our phones 47 times a day on average, and 85 of us use it while talking to friends and family. 80% of us check our phone within an hour of getting up and going to bed, and within that hour, 35% of us can’t even make it five minutes without checking our phone To make things more depressing, 47% of us, at one point in time or another, have tried to reduce their smartphone usage and cut back on the screen time, and the icing on the cake is that of those 47% that tried to cut back, only 30% were able to do so successfully. Smartphone addiction is real, and smartphone manufacturers realize that while they make an awesome product capable of doing many good and helpful things, they’ve also made a product that has a reliable track record of producing compulsive, addictive behaviors in its user base. Its why, with this most recent iOS update, Apple has included internal phone tracking capabilities to give you data about your phone usage (and, I might say, with more reliability and precision than similar apps that came before it), and Google has done the same thing for Android. The jury’s still out on whether or not these measures will work on not, but just as we are starting to reach a point in society where we are really beginning to question social media’s effects on us, we are really beginning to question our smartphones as well. To quote Tony Reinke from his outstanding book “12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You”:
“We are embodied creatures, and that means that the way we use digital technology changes all of us – mentally, physically, and spiritually. Solomon warned us to not divorce our minds from our whole bodies, the very temptation of the touch-screen age. Study after study has shown that too much time on our phones has profound effects on our physical health, including (but not limited to) inactivity and obesity, stress and anxiety, sleeplessness and restlessness, bad posture and sore necks, eye strain and headaches, and hypertension and stress-induced shallow breathing patterns. The physical consequences of our unwise smartphone habits often go unnoticed, because in the matrix of the digital world, we simply lose a sense of our bodies, our posture, our breathing, and our heart rates. Our overwhelming focus on projected images causes negligence with regard to our bodies.” - Tony Reinke, 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You
I’m not going belabor the point that smartphone addiction is a real and serious issue. Chances are you’ve felt its effects in your own life and need no reminder that you struggle to get away from your phone, and I’m not here to try and convince anyone to toss their phones out the window. This is a podcast about asking questions about the technology and media we take for granted, and honestly assessing the full range of impact they have on our lives and how those impacts shape the way we think about God and love our neighbor. And it should go without stating: smartphones, when properly used, are wonderful tools for the Christian. The smartphone combines the access of the internet and the malleability of digital text into something you can quite literally hold in your hand, which makes reading the Bible, listening to sermons, counseling a friend and praying for them long distance, and more all the more easier and doable. Phones can track our health and help us manage our time and our finances, and we can store valuable information about our jobs and families and carry it with us on the go. Many of us couldn’t do the jobs we do without our phones – my iPhone 7+ is the most important tool I have in managing the social media accounts I’m in charge of, and combined with my MacBook my workflow is seamless and efficient because of it. We all know that our phones are used for legitimately good and praiseworthy things. The problem is that – just like television, just like the Internet, and just like social media – you cannot adopt just the good things about smartphones. You either adopt all of the things smartphones bring, good and bad, or you adopt none of those things. And the bad things that smartphones bring have not only physical consequences on us, but spiritual ones as well.
In the previous episode we did on social media, we ended the episode with the unanswered question of “why is it so hard to break away from social media?”. In many ways it’s almost impossible to talk about smartphones without talking about social media, because social media’s meteoric growth is parallel to smartphone’s meteoric growth as well. Part of the reason why we can’t break away from social media is because our smartphones are now tailored towards making social media as accessible as possible that wherever our smartphones go, social media goes with us. It used to be that checking MySpace and Facebook required you to be at a computer, which was anchored to a desk and not something you could check at any moment of the day. Smartphones empowered social media with the mobility it needed to fully saturate our lives and society, and where social media tries to convince you through timelines and algorithms that you can handle an endless waterfall of content, smartphones convince you that you can and should have access to that waterfall of content 24/7 a day. Social media combined with smartphones can be a good thing, but it can also neutralize us under the allure of the waterfall of content our screens put forth. This quote from Tony Reinke is lengthy but listen his commentary on C.S. Lewis and in the Screwtape Letters and ask yourself if you’ve experienced what he describes as the “Nothing” strategy:
What I am coming to understand is that this impulse to pull the lever of a random slot machine of viral content is the age-old tactic of Satan. C.S. Lewis called it the “Nothing strategy” in his Screwtape Letters. It is the strategy that eventually leaves a man at the end of his life looking back in lament, “I now see that I spent most of my life doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.” This “Nothing strategy” is “very strong: strong enough to steal away a man’s best years, not in sweet sins, but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why, in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that the man is only half aware of them, or in the long, dim labyrinth of reveries that have not even lust or ambition to give them a relish, but which, once chance association has started them, the creature is too weak and fuddled to shake off” … Lewis’ warning about the “dreary flickering” in front of our eyes is a loud prophetic alarm to the digital age. We are always busy, but always distracted – diabolically lured away from what is truly essential and truly gratifying. Led by our unchecked digital appetites, we manage to transgress both commands that promise to bring focus to our lives. We fail to enjoy God. We fail to love our neighbor. - Tony Reinke, citing C.S. Lewis, in 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You
And to be clear – this “nothing” strategy Reinke and Lewis talk about is not just caused by social media. Push notifications have increased in pervasiveness from all sorts of apps, all with the aim of distracting you away from the real world to the screen. I know in moments of boredom I’m just as prone to check the stock market as I am to check social media, and my phone buzzes the same for a text message and a stupid push notification from Amazon enticing me to spend money on something I don’t need. My point is that smartphones (and dumb phones, to be sure) are tools of immense usefulness and tools of immense distraction, and we cannot use for good without exposing ourselves to crippling distraction. And this crippling distraction profoundly affects how we think about God and the way we love our neighbor.
In our “Conclusions, Part One” episode, we ended the episode with the idea that television and the internet paved the way for secularism to gain a greater influence in the church, not to mention among society as a whole. With the combination and global acceptance of smartphones and social media, we are now on the other side of that influence running its course in our culture, and we live in a distracted age made possible by powerful computers in our hands that feed us a limitless amount of distraction. And make no mistake: this distracted, content-saturated age shortchanges our ability to think about God in addition to influencing what we believe about him. As Alan Noble, author of the insanely good “Disruptive Witness” explains:
Modern media technology focuses largely on two goals: capturing our attention and gathering our data. While the latter has troubling implications for our privacy, the former has a direct effect on our ability to encounter and contemplate the holy. Innumerable gadgets, websites, channels, streaming services, songs, films, and biometric wristbands vie for our attention. Without our attention, their existence is unjustified. So, each piece of technology we own does what it can to make us pay attention to it, like an overly eager child tugging on our sleeve, begging, “Look what I can do, Dad!” It is not that every spare moment is fought for; our technology covets every glance. Flashing lights, vibrations, bells ringing, little red dots, email alerts, notifications, pop-up windows, commercials, news tickers, browser tabs – everything is designed to capture our attention. And there is good reason to believe that technology will only continue to progress in this direction. . . . Barring a catastrophic event or a drastic shift in the structure and goals of modern technology, we can expect that for the foreseeable future our society will be in part defined by technology designed to continually distract us. - Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth In A Distracted Age
Alan continues on to summarize the work of American cognitive scientist Daniel J. Levitin and the implications of multitasking on our minds and how all the distractions we live with – chiefly, but not exclusively caused by our phones – give us mental fatigue. Alan again:
We are addicted to novelty, ,and as with most addictions, it takes a toll on our bodies: we become mentally fatigued, “scrambled”, as Levitin describes it. In this way, the modern mind is often not prepared to engage in dialogue about personally challenging ideas, particularly ones with deep implications. The fatigued mind would rather categorize a conversation about God as another superficial distraction, requiring little cognitive attention, than a serious conversation that ought to cost us, at least cognitively. - Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth In A Distracted Age
If you’ll recall from Episode 5, we discussed how God, in revealing himself through the spoken Word to the authors of Scripture who then codified it in the written Word, bounded his revelation to a medium that values high levels of cognitive interaction. I’m not going to repeat the “how do you read a book?” exercise again because I’ve done it in several episodes now, but reading a book requires abstract thinking, contemplation, focused meditation, and other cognitively intense activities, and that if the God of Christianity was to be understood through the medium of the Word, then this God must value abstract thinking, contemplation, and focused meditation as well, and desires that to be reflected in how we worship him. Smartphones short circuit that, because smartphones are the means through which a million distractions are presented to us that keep us from abstract thinking, contemplation, and focused meditation. This is another longer quote, but listen to Alan one more time:
Multitasking forces us to make millions of tiny decisions (What song should I listen to? Should I share this article? Should I check that text message? How should I reply to this email?), and this wears us out cognitively. The result is that when it comes time for us to make important decisions, we are too exhausted and are more likely to make mistakes. Alternatively, we may avoid making a decision all together. When there are an almost infinite number of options, its hard to choose just one. Decision overload is as much a problem as it is for digital multitasking. A good friend of mine once explained that although he believed there is a God, he didn’t know which religious account of God is true because there are so many different religions. When I asked him why he didn’t try to discover the truth, he replied that it was just too overwhelming. A distracted and secular age does this to us: we are cognitively overwhelmed by the expanding horizon of possible beliefs. Our frantic and flattened culture is not conducive to wrestling with thick ideas, ideas with depth, complexity, and personal implications. It is a culture of immediacy, simple emotions, snap judgments, optics, and identity formation. In such a world, is it any wonder that Christians so often speak past their listeners?” - Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth In A Distracted Age
I cannot stress enough how valuable Alan Noble’s book Disruptive Witness is because it’s one of the first books of its kind to connect the consequences of living in a world with distractions, especially with the endless and convenient amount of distractions caused by our smartphones. The result is that the Gospel message doesn’t fall on deaf ears, but distracted ears. The Gospel becomes just one more source of distraction and noise amid a backdrop of endless distraction and noise, and our smartphones contribute a significant amount of the noise and distraction we experience in our lives. And it’s not always pointless distraction either – maybe that email we need to read is legitimately important, maybe there’s a situation that we are monitoring and need to communicate with others about, or maybe you’re checking your bank accounts after seeing some strange transactions show up. Again, our smartphones are useful tools, but they’re also tools of immense distraction, and this immense distractions distracts us from thinking about God and influences the way we think about God. God is no longer a subject we ought to give the fullest amount of our attention to; instead, he is one possible option of belief amid a myriad of other beliefs we encounter in the waterfall of content put forth by our phones. And if you do believe in God, what do you believe about him? Do you believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God or solely the writings of its authors passed off as having a divine source? Do you believe God created Adam and Eve or that their account is fictional, allegorical, or metaphorical? Do you believe the flood of Noah was literal or figurative? Do you believe the signs and wonders in Exodus actually happened or that they’re exaggerated accounts of Moses’s clash with Pharaoh? Do you believe Jesus was fully God and fully man at the same time, or just a man – maybe a man who never actually existed? Do you believe Jesus was actually crucified as the fulfillment of God’s plan to redeem his people from the curse of sin, or was Jesus crucified for being a political troublemaker? Do you believe that Jesus Christ is coming back one day to judge the living and the dead, or is our charge as Christians to simply create “heaven on earth” for our fellow man? Like Alan said just a bit ago, “a distracted and secular age does this to us: we are cognitively overwhelmed by the expanding horizon of possible beliefs.” And make no mistake – if we are to live as faithful Christians in this culture, we must take this into account as we proclaim the Gospel. We must, as the title of Alan’s book suggests, be disruptive witnesses.
Smartphones and social media aren’t going anywhere, but they’re not the only players contributing to the distracted age we now live in as Christians. On the next episode of Breaking the Digital Spell, we set our eyes towards the horizon of new technology and media, some of which already exists and is growing in acceptance and usage – and some of which, quite literally, covers our eyes so that all we can see is whatever digital world we want to live in.