The 'Smart' Life
Most will remember the moment they purchased their first mobile/cell phone. For me it was while at university, aged 19. I didn't really need it, and what I wanted it for–to be accessible at any time in any place–is something I now wish I could reverse. Technology has come a long way in those (almost) two decades; at one point, the computing power that most now slip into their pockets, was housed in data centres the size of an average gymnasium! Furthermore, the original design–to make calls, store numbers, send and receive texts, and play snakes (you'll be dating yourself if you remember that one)–has metamorphosed beyond all recognition. Now we send email, turn on the coffee machine, check schedules, bank, book taxis, flights and trains, read the Bible, and–everybody's favorite way of killing a debate–fact-check on the Internet. And all that from a sliver of glass and metal we house in our shirt pocket.
To some this might sound like an ideal scenario. Surely if it makes me more efficient, or allows me to work remotely, then this must be for the better? What can be the harm of having a device that can perform every computing/life function I will ever need at the touch of a screen?
I have been thinking about this question for some time; actually ever since I first noticed changes taking place that frustrated me. It was through reading a secular book called The Shallows that I realised the impact that technology, and in particular the smartphone, was having on me. I noticed that there were occasions when I would pick up my phone to perform a legitimate and necessary action, and it wouldn't get done. Why? Because my original intention was replaced by a deluge of notifications. There would be a text from a friend, 2 calendar reminders, 12 emails (mostly spam), and that's before I even got to Facebook and Twitter which were never ending. Sometimes I would be left standing with my phone in my hand, staring blankly at the screen, with a feeling that I had picked my phone up for a purpose, but now it eluded me. Other times I would just simply put my phone away without even remembering I had picked it up for a reason. After a while, I named this phenomenon 'smartphonitis.'
I can't be sure, but I don't think that I'm the only person to suffer from it! Since my own self-diagnosis I have asked around and I have discovered that there are others who complain of the same contagion! Actually I think it might already be pandemic status. If you can empathise with the symptoms above then it is quite likely you have contracted it.
But the worst thing about smartphonitis is its impact on our spiritual life, and in particular on the way it can shape our character for the worse. Hands up who has stopped Bible reading to check a notification? I have! Who has stopped praying because their phone is vibrating. Who has determined to have a quiet time but been unable to put down the phone? If we're being honest then we all know a little about this.
Before outlining some of the most insidious problems presented by smartphonitis it is necessary to make something clear. This post is not a rant against the supposed evils of technology, far from it, I love technology, and I am a heavy user (too heavy) of it. There is nothing intrinsically evil about a smartphone, or using it! But there is an inherent danger to the Christian, which is to do with the negative attributes it encourages us to inculcate.
In Ephesians 5 Paul gives instructions as to how christians should walk. Admittedly smartphonitis was not a problem in first century Ephesus, but the principles hold true regardless of the age. Let's see how three of the most dangerous technology problems stack up against scripture.
Previously, when someone presented something that was clearly dubious as a fact, a debate ensued. We had to use our mind, our powers of logic–inductive and deductive–to assess whether what the person was presenting was true. This is healthy and to be encouraged. However, now we just pull out our phones (I am guilty of this!), and we have the answer within seconds. Great, or is it? This presents two major problems; firstly, our powers of logic are eroding as quickly as our now redundant conversations, and secondly, what we are being presented is not necessarily true anyway–if one thing about the internet is true, it is that it is the platform of choice for people with less than truthful agendas.
The result is that we have lost the ability to think for ourselves; to work things out rationally, using the guidelines of Scripture as our parameters. Recently a younger christian asked me for my opinion on a particular 'hot-button' issue. Rather than just tell him what I thought, I urged him to get hold of some of the key books, and read the key passages and make a study of it. 'Is there 'like' an executive summary version?' was the response! This is a classic symptom of brain substitution. While this might sound amusing, it is actually potentially disastrous. What we think matters greatly. God tells us to 'walk circumspectly' (Eph. 5:15), that is in a careful manner, 'not as fools, but as wise.' In other words, to increase in the discipline of thinking the right thing, and not in the wrong thing. But if we are permanently wired to an ancillary brain to which we have outsourced the larger part of our thinking, then not only do we lose the power to think, but we also can't trust the quality of what get's thought for us. Our mind potentially becomes the Devil's playground.
To readers under the age of 25, it might surprise you to know that there was once a time when you had to write a letter, and worse still, wait for an answer! Now we send a text, an iMessage, a WhatsApp, a Viber, or if you're an older internet user, an email (delete as appropriate) and we get restless if we don't receive a response within a few minutes! 'They've seen it, why haven't they replied! The danger here is dependent on whether you are the sender or the receiver. To the sender the temptation is impatience: to the receiver the temptation is poor time management. Neither is a Christian virtue, but in Ephesians 5 the emphasis is upon 'redeeming the time' (5:16). The thought really is 'buying back the time,' which while presenting interpretive difficulties, gets the point across: 'Time is a valuable commodity! Don't waste it because the age in which we live is evil.' Having your agenda determined by whoever has just popped up in your notifications is not redeeming the time. I understand that we all have people–line manager, spouse, children–whose demands must be met instantaneously, but treating everyone like that is a recipe for disaster. You simply cannot do it, and get done what must get done.
Recently, while travelling on a train, my attention was drawn to a middle-aged couple just sitting across from me. From their attire and demeanour it appeared that they were returning from a day out together, but it was also clear that something was up! They weren't really speaking. He sat there and stared into the English countryside, while she sat and checked her Facebook timeline. Every so often she would pop her head up and announce that 'Brian and Sheila are now in Melbourne' or 'Mandy's son Jack, you know the one who plays Rugby with Kevin, well there's a picture of him here taken in Birmingham with Lewis, Ryan and Henry, but no Joe. I wonder what's happened there?' What was clear was that they had run out of real conversation, and for want of something better to say, she was allowing her virtual presence to dictate her real one.
The potential problem here for the believer is huge. The online world has been engineered (by the Devil Himself) to present the best version of yourself, which is probably more likely a fake version of yourself. This presents temptations. When we look at someone else's online presence and assume that it is their 'reality' we are tempted to secretly wish that we had their life, marriage, house, calling, family, assembly. We end up becoming dissatisfied with our circumstances and can slip into a state of discontentment. What happens next depends on your personality. Some go all out to 'climb the ladder.' Others slip into a 'slough of despond' while some just resort to jealousy. Each is a different manifestation of a loss of focus. It doesn't need to be said that none of these are Christian virtues. Paul instructs; 'Be ye not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is...giving thanks always for all things' (Eph. 5:17; 20). In other words, when you look at someone else's life and wish it was yours, understand that the will of the Lord is different for each, and give thanks! (my amplification).
If we're being really honest these are issues that all of us suffer from, just as the Ephesians likely did as well, because we are human. The discernment is in understanding the propensity for technology to inflate the impact and exacerbate the reaction. May God give us all help to use technology unto His glory. This is the true 'smart' life.