It came on quickly. No one anticipated the outcome and there is still significant uncertainty when considering future implications. Even Steve Jobs had very little idea how the smartphone would transform society. To him the iPhone was an mp3 player that could also be used to make cellular calls and texts.(5) Since that time (only 12 short years), as other developers have capitalized on the capabilities of these micro-computers they have moved beyond an expensive novelty item to a device that few people can live without. Even while traveling in rural Kenya this summer it was not unusual to see a Maasai warrior pull out a smart phone from behind his belt to catch up on world events.
Our second reading by Cal Newport, ‘Digital Minimalism’ suggests that too many people enjoy what they perceive to be the benefits of this constant digital connection while failing to recognize the stress it induces and the lower levels of genuine productivity it causes. Further, although because of the portability of the smartphone it has invaded every aspect of life including mealtime, the bedroom, and (trust me when I tell you this) the classroom. They have been permitted to steal time away from familial connections, been used as tools for bullying, created unending disruptions and put people in harms way as they seek to capture the next viral selfie or video.
Even many retail outlets and restaurants now frequently offer free WiFi connection. They recognize that people are less likely to linger in their brick and mortar establishment if they are not able to maintain constant connection through their phone. Materialism and hedonism become even further entrenched through this constant digital connection and it also encourages greater and riskier attempts to secure one’s 15 seconds of fame. All of which are reliant upon each individual being fully immersed in all that the digital age has to offer.
My own son, who recently graduated from the University of Tennessee with a degree in Biochemistry and Microbiology with the intent to go into dentistry, has abandoned dental school in order to capitalize on what he recognizes is the next entrepreneurial wave – utilizing the significant changes taking place in brain structure from heavy use of smart phones to promote products and services. He is allegedly about to sign on his first multi-million dollar company to his startup marketing venture. I am not thrilled about the implications of this venture but I applaud his recognition of the impact technology has had in transforming the way we think and act.
As Richard Foster reminds us in his classic book ‘Celebration of Discipline’; “In contemporary society our adversary majors in three things: noise, hurry, and crowds.”(Foster 15) It’s laughable to consider that this was originally penned in the mid-1970s even before the advent of the home computer. Without the intentionality promoted by Newport toward minimal digital connection what chance is there to develop spiritual disciplines or encourage others to do the same. How will anyone hear the ‘still, small voice of God’?
So, it would be easy for the church to promote a mass boycott of smartphones and other digital gadgets to restore sanity and the opportunity for spiritual growth. It would also be slightly too simplistic to see this latest cultural shift as just another demonic attack in the grand battle of spiritual warfare. However, I am afraid if the Church chooses to take a position such as those it will only serve as further proof that it is outdated and antiquated, having nothing useful to say to the contemporary world.
However, perhaps it is possible for the Church to capitalize on many of the same innate psychological predispositions that are currently being exploited through technology? What could provide a more powerful infusion of dopamine than a transcendent experience with the creator of the universe? Maybe that was part of God’s plan for dopamine to begin with. Maybe the Church should reconsider the seemingly endless efforts to join in with the ‘entertainment’ industry in our worship services while at the same time recognizing that attention spans and the ability to be still and disconnected for long periods of time have been irrevocably altered. How can we foster transcendent connection with God while also discerning new ways for people to listen and hear the whisper of God’s voice? This is the cutting edge thinking the Church should be considering as people serious about discipleship begin to ask new questions and consider alternative possibilities for worship, Bible study and developing faith communities.
Perhaps as research continues to be conducted the church needs to find a way to hold technology companies accountable for the societal problems they are causing, in the same way that alcohol, tobacco and gambling enterprises have had to admit their faults and contribute toward restitution. It is unlikely that it will ever be possible to completely reverse the impact that the micro-computer has had on society. We are only a few, short years away from an entire generation who has never known life without the smartphone. But maybe the Church needs to be the entity that leads the way to establishing appropriate parameters both for the use and limits of technology in order to promote genuine community now absent from the lives of so many. There is already a groundswell of those encouraging limits developing as evidenced by this week’s text. This is the wave the Church needs to be prepared to catch. There has not been an opportunity like this for the Church to lead the way in promoting genuine community since the Jesus Movement of the 1960s. An entire new generation is in desperate need of meaningful, 3D relationships which has been the ‘business’ of the Church since the beginning. Maybe instead of decrying what has transpired as a result of the digital age we should be praising God for the opportunities it will offer to meet individuals, help them find healing, and guide them toward experiencing the true reason for their existence in knowing the God who created them.
Newport, Cal. Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2019. P. 5
Foster, Richard J. Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth. San Francisco: Harper, 2003. P. 15
“BibleGateway.” I Kings 19 NRSV – – Bible Gateway. Accessed March 22, 2019. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=I%2BKings%2B19&version=NRSV.
Berger, Jennifer Garvey, and Keith Johnston. Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders. Stanford, CA: Stanford Business Books, an Imprint of Stanford University Press, 2015.