Navigating the Digital Landscape
Sitting at my daughter's choir practice recently I became both convicted and convinced that the smartphone had now replaced the television as something pastors would need to rail against every so often. As I sat trying to control the world with two thumbs instead of being present in the moment, I realized I was biting into the fruit of continuous knowledge...and I didn't like it. Did I really need or want to know that a terrorist attack had happened, or wicked storms were raging somewhere, or that someone at home had not taken out the trash?
In that moment, I longed for the simplicity I had known the majority of my life. I was also reminded of how God's shoulders were meant to bear such heavy burdens, not my own.
Don't get me wrong. "Smart" devices have huge upsides. A supercomputer greater than the ones that put man on the moon sits in my pocket, enabling me to read, write, research, craft my schedule, and communicate virtually anytime and anywhere I want. Just ask the folks who get my 2:00 a.m. emails.
It's the proverbial downside that has me troubled. While cyber-bullying, social media feuds, and fake news have become bitter realities, the problem is more complicated than that. Sherry Turkle, in her brilliant new book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, borrows from Henry David Thoreau's back-to-nature experiment on Walden Pond in mid-1800s Massachusetts. There, Thoreau built a simple cabin with only three chairs as furniture. Says Ms. Turkle, "These three chairs plot the points on a virtuous circle that links conversation to the capacity for empathy and for self-reflection. In solitude we find ourselves; we prepare ourselves to come to conversation with something to say that is authentic, ours. When we are secure in ourselves we are able to listen to other people and really hear what they have to say. And then in conversation with other people we become better at inner dialogue" (emphasis mine).
Ms. Turkle, who has spent the last 30 years studying the psychology of people's relationship to technology, claims that "technology disrupts the virtuous cycle." She uses Vanessa, a college junior as an example, "As long as I have my phone, I would never just sit alone and think...When I have a quiet moment, I never just think. My phone is my safety mechanism from having to talk to new people or letting my mind wander. I know that this is very bad, but texting to pass the time is my way of life."
Before you write this off as one millennial's preoccupation, ask yourself the question, "Who's not guilty?" Have you ever rolled over on your phone in bed? Or practiced phubbing -— the art of
talking to others while looking at your phone? I'll confess. I have.
Checking For Pleasure
A cohort of HR execs from Fortune 500 companies testify to this epidemic, now tracking the amount of time their employees spend aimlessly looking at these devices. The situation at Randy Learn, a large international consulting company, may be familiar to your own experience: "You come in, get some coffee, work on your laptop, listen for your name to be called, make your contribution, and then go back to your computer. A good meeting leader will give you a 'heads-up' signal about five minutes before she calls on you so that you can close out your email and get ready to speak." As someone who leads countless meetings, I can attest that this behavior runs across all gender and age divides. But is this the preferable option?
Are we bad people? Not really. The human biological system was designed by God to release a pleasureable chemical called dopamine into our bodies during certain activities as an incentive to accomplish tasks and complete goals. Dopamine is highly addictive, and can be found in cocaine, alcohol, and nicotine. Gambling also can release high amounts of dopamine.
Simon Sinek, in his book Leaders Eat Last, claims that social media can hijack our dopamine system, "Texting, e-mail, the number of likes we collect, the ding, the buzz or the flash of our phones that tell us 'You've got mail,' feels amazing. As it should. We have associated the dopamine-releasing feeling of 'ooh, something for me' with getting a text or e-mail or the like. Yes, it's true, we hate all that e-mail, but we live for the ding, the buzz, or the flash that tells us something's there. Some of us have formed neural connections that drive us to carry our phones in our hands at all times, often looking down and hitting refresh a few times, even though nothing has come in. 'Gimme dopamine!'"
So if solitude and self-reflection bring a wholeness to our conversations and relationships, how do we as Christians navigate the minefield that is our digital landscape?
Reconnecting To Reality
As Abraham Heschel writes in his classic, The Sabbath, "the solution of mankind's most vexing problem will not be found in renouncing technical civilization, but in attaining some degree of independence of it." To this point Rod Dreher, author of The Benedict Option, promotes the concept of a "Digital Sabbath," "It's a day of rest in which people disconnect from technology -— particularly computers, iPads, and smartphones -— so they can reconnect with the real world. The Digital Sabbath is not a punishment," writes Dreher, "but rather a means through which one can lay aside the world's cares (at least the ones communicated to us via digital technology)."
Fasting from good things necessary to life and our enjoyment for a higher, spiritual purpose has been the practice of believers for centuries. The fruit of the Spirit, self-control, is a gift from God that enables us to crowd out the "other" voices in our lives that vie for His attention. (My daughter Leah, literally raised on social media, is following Dreher's advice, and retreating to a flip phone as a method of self-control.)
A Silver Lining
As I said earlier, the news about techology's affects on our lives isn't all bad. "There is a silver lining in the way technology has clouded our lives with nonstop toil and leisure," writes Andy Crouch in his new book, The Techwise Family, "it gives us an amazingly simple way to bring everything to a beautiful halt. We can turn our devices off. Close the laptop. Slide the little on-screen button on your phone to the right and watch its screen go not just blank, but black."
What did I discover at choir rehearsal that night? Simply, God has designed me to be present, to add value, and to express empathy to those around me. To accomplish this I must slow down, quiet myself, and be a first-class noticer of others and God's activity in my life. Consider Moses, a natural-born leader who led Israel out of bondage into the Promised Land. His defining moment came in a time of solitude when he "turned aside" to see a bush burning but not consumed. This may be the greatest miracle of the entire Exodus account.
So let's "turn aside." Let's unplug and rediscover the joy of community. In so doing, we will only make Jesus more attractive to a world that needs Him desperately.
Crouch, A. (2017). The Techwise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Techology in Its Proper Place. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books
Dreher, R. (2017). The Benedict Option. New York: Penguin Random House LLC
Heschel, A. J. (1951). The Sabbath. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux
Sinek, S. (2015). Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don't. New York: Portfolio Penguin
Turkle, S. (2015). Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. New York: Penguin Publishing Group