It was refreshing to read another Cal Newport text this week – Digital Minimalism. His premise of ‘technology as distraction” resonates with me. In fact, I want to shout out PREACH IT CAL! I agree with almost every technology concern he raises in his writing. I have been/still am concerned about the role our phones, smart watches, tablets, laptops, desktops, etc. play in our day to day life. Notice I say “our”. I’m not exempt. The struggle is real and logically I know I need technology balance in my life. Many [users] – the term I will use throughout this blog to refer to consumers of technology – are addicted to the immediacy of “notifications”, i.e. a blinking light, ping from the phone, vibration, colorful banner of words that emerges (from social media, text message, email).
“Smartphones are really hard to put down. The buzzing of push notifications, the nagging red bubbles on apps, and endless feeds create the perfect storm of distractions. They keep us constantly engaged with the device. And that’s kind of the point. Our apps and devices have been carefully designed to hook our attention for as long as possible… Former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris who recently co-founded the Center for Humane Technology raises that question. He has become one of the most outspoken critics of how devices are intentionally made to hook users at the cost of their time and comfort.”
There is certainly personal and professional harm that can come from overuse of technology in our everyday life. But the reality is technology is here to stay. I work really hard to not be “that old” person who is talking smack (negatively) about “today’s world”. I hear, and sometimes engage in, conversations lamenting about the good old days before technology, the evil of present technology, and the fears for the future generation. And yet, these same people, including myself, check our smartphone when we’re done chatting. One grave concern, besides generalized distraction, is the change in relationship interaction via technology with family, friends, coworkers, customer service, etc. Relationships have been redefined by social media. As a member of Facebook, I suddenly have 500+ friends (some I barely know) who, according to Mark Zuckerberg, are supposed to be interested in my mundane daily activities or impressed by my amazing vacation photos. Sometimes I might even throw out a political ranting – assuming of course my 500+ friends care about my political view!?!? In 2017, the average technology user spent approximately two hours/day on social media. TWO HOURS. That accounts for only a fraction of the average eleven hours of “screen time”/day per person (TV, computer, phone, etc.). How ironic that one of the main complaints of people in today’s world is “there is not enough time in the day to get things done”. Enough said.
All the lamenting in the world will not change the fact that technology is here to stay. Even though we recognize its potential harm, we also need to acknowledge its value. I’m not naive enough to believe that completely abolishing technology is the answer to our broken world – we’ve been broken all along with or without technology. It has pushed us (especially Christians) to face new and different temptations and distractions, but it has also provided more access to resources and connections (i.e. Bible app, books, blogs, journals, online groups to connect). We can go about the business of discipleship more efficiently. Speaking of discipleship, my research focus on Somali refugee resettlement and resilience in Columbus, Ohio, has been impacted by technology.
THE GOOD: For the non-refugee, technology offers access to immediate information, statistics, opportunities to donate and volunteer, and resources. You can find pros and cons to the refugee crisis and form your own thoughts and opinions simply via Google. As a refugee, access to technology is imperative. It helps the refugee access resources, connect with loved ones, learn to navigate the resettlement experience, and learn about your new culture. THE BAD: There is evidence that technology also helps to dehumanize refugees’ all the while instilling hate and fear. “These studies suggest that the media may not only promote dehumanization of immigrants and refugees through depictions that highlight potential threats to the host society, but provide ready justifications for the dehumanization and consequent outcomes. Esses says that the resultant dehumanization of immigrants and refugees may appeal to members of the public, serving to justify the status quo, strengthening boundaries between newcomers and established residents, and defending against threats to the established residents’ position in society.” And then there’s …THE UGLY: The reports states: “There is a tendency, both among many politicians and in sections of the mainstream media, to lump migrants together and present them as a seemingly endless tide of people who will steal jobs, become a burden on the state and ultimately threaten the native way of life. “Such reporting is not only wrong; it is also dishonest. Migrants often bring enormous benefits to their adopted countries.”
So there you have it. There’s no perfect answer to balancing our use of technology, but I believe Cal Newport’s prescription is pretty close. Personally, I already began the digital decluttering process approximately one year ago. I removed Twitter and Snapchat accounts and began disengaging from Facebook and Instagram – with the idea that relationships aren’t nurtured through social media (and that the toxic political rhetoric and hateful banter profoundly impacted me). However, all these “step-backs” haven’t spurred increased face to face relationship connection. I especially want to commit to Newport’s take on reclaiming leisure. “Doing nothing is overrated, cultivate high-quality leisure to replace low-value digital distractions and avoid falling back into old habits. Prioritize demanding activity over passive consumption. Use skills to produce valuable things in the physical world. Seek activities that require real-world, structured social interactions.” Oh, and by the way, I’m looking forward to the day (less than a year away) when we finally reclaim our leisure time…now consumed by Facebook, computer, electronic books, and the blog site. Target in sight!