Are iPhones Making Us Unkind?

googleTechnology changes us.  We’re often aware of how helpful it is, and thus we rush to use and apply it.  But we’re not often aware of the effect it has on us.

You may recall the seminal 2008 article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” by The Atlantic writer Nicholar Carr (his blog is engrossing).  In the piece, Carr explores how using the use of Internet technology affects the way we think and act.  Carr notes that he has noticed the diminishing of his own attention span since using Google.  For those of us (myself included) who make extensive use of cutting-edge technology, the essay is a must-read. (Illustration: Guy Billout)

I have a keen personal interest in the devolution of thinking.  But I have a greater interest in the devolution of morality, and specifically, Christian morality.  How does this relate to Google and technology?  It’s actually quite simple.

As I noted above, technology does not only better our lives.  It has negative influences as well.  Al Mohler has written of the “morality of knowledge,” a matter he tied to the development of the atomic bomb.  That is, as our capacity to create and master technology increases, so too does our capacity to wreak havoc on the earth.  Even if technological innovations are morally neutral, after all, we are inherently sinful.  Whatever we develop, then, we will use for good–and for evil.

Let me make a connection here of a much smaller magnitude.  I want to suggest that our constant connection to the Internet, supplied to many of us by constant access to the Internet through computers and, more recently, smartphones like the iPhone, is tempting many of us to decrease our attention span, focus on our own narrow (often silly) interests, and live less kindly than we should.  How on earth could this be so?

We can use our iPhones for good purposes–getting directions, accessing needed emails, finding phone numbers for places to call, and so on.  I use mine for things like that.  But with our laptops, we can also be tempted to use them as social crutches, means by which we can evade classroom lulls, boring spans, unwanted conversation partners, and more.  Do a quick test–have you done this recently?  How often?  Regularly?

I know I’m certainly tempted by my laptop and my phone to tune out from the long, slow, mundane rhythms of everyday life.  The Internet, however and wherever it’s accessed, promises instant gratification of my small desires.  As I’ve said, this can be fine–who would begrudge a traveler in the airport checking his phone, or a student writing a quick email to his wife in class?–but it also can be personally harmful.  Technology of whatever contemporary form can provide us an easy means of escape from the realities of life that are meant to shape us.  Many of us are letting it do just this kind of work.  Our character, meant to glorify God on a moment-by-moment basis, is suffering as a result.

What are some scenarios in which this might play out?

  • At church, you might busy yourself on your phone instead of talking to the awkward person who sometimes annoys you.
  • In class, you might update your Facebook page instead of developing character–not to mention actually learning something–by listening to your teacher.
  • At home, you might be texting on your phone, or watching funny Youtube videos, instead of getting on the floor and playing with your kids.
  • When in the grocery store, you might call someone you can’t really focus on and prattle on, meanwhile avoiding small but potentially meaningful interaction (and witness) with folks around you.

How do I know that things like this can happen?  I’ve done them (gasp).  As a sinner, a cheerful modern narcissist, I may do them again.  Also, it may rain in Seattle at some point in the future.

But I am trying not do these things.  I want to be able to slog through the tough stuff of life.  I want to be able to focus on a 45-minute sermon so that I can grow in godliness.  I want to be able to learn from a two-hour lecture so that I can think well about lots of things–and not just the things I deem worthy of learning (which may not be the only things the Lord wants me to learn).  I want to be able to minister grace not only through long conversation on plane rides, but in small doses to the people in my church, not to mention my grocery store.

I want, in short, to be a thoughtful, focused, kind person, a person of strong character, who doesn’t reach at every spare moment to gratify his small and narrow desires.  I don’t want to be That Guy–and he is legion–whose emails and texts, often featuring insightful sports commentary and inside humor are so compelling that he can’t look me in the eye while I ask him about how his family is doing.  This kind of person is common nowadays.  We can all be tempted to be him.  But he’s not a kind person.  He has, in some areas, weak character.  He is missing the opportunity to glorify God in the small, mundane, seemingly meaningless things of our earthly sojourn.

I’m going to use technology–hopefully cutting-edge technology–but I want to use it wisely and well.  I want to be a modern person, but I want lots of traditional stuff, traditional fiber, to inform how I live.  I want to be able to think long and deeply; to listen intently; to focus extensively; to converse meaningfully; to extend grace continually; and to glorify God relentlessly. I want to use technology; I don’t want it to use–and weaken–me.

Is Google making us stupid?  In some ways, I would say yes.  Are iPhones making us unkind?  I fear that they are.  If we are to use technology well, it seems to me that we need to think hard about this question, and questions like it, and constantly recommit ourselves to capturing every second, every minute of our days to give glory to our great God and Savior.

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  • I have read, and enjoyed that article on Google. However, in my opinion, the simple fact is that technology doesn’t make me anything. I decide to be flippant, distracted, and uncaring…or responsive, trustworthy, etc.

    I just bought a new netbook. It’s the first computer I’ve bought in over four years for myself. At times, I have ignored my kids because I’m exploring my new toy or working on school. I chose to be distracted, not Google.

  • Al Mather

    This article looked interesting, got part way through it, and got an email, had to check facebook, and . . . uh, . . . it was kind’a long.

    And I would second Dan’s comment.

  • kc

    You know, come to think of it, your iPhone is making you unkind. So just to be safe, I think you should turn it over to me.


  • I would be interested in your thoughts on the possibility (and desirability) of responses to the harmful tendency of technology that go beyond personal resolutions. How as churches, for example, can we disciple people to use technology in constructive and Godly ways? Should technology impact what we teach at seminary? How?

    Have you seen any examples that you think are helpful models?

  • Thank you for addressing this! One of our supporting church pastors just visited us (we are missionaries to Western Europe), and he spent most of his time glued to his iPhone. Being a former IT professional and geek, I get the benefits of technology and am used to people being distracted by it. And yet, this case was extreme.

    He would ask us about our ministry, then after the first few words of our response would start playing with the iPhone and interrupt us midstream with trivial things from it (“Hey, it’s 70 degrees back home”). Here he had decided to come 5,000 miles over to visit us, yet he was more immersed in the constant info he was receiving from elsewhere. What did he learn about our ministry or how we were doing? I doubt he retained much of anything, but, hey, he got to see the first pictures of Janie’s new puppy back in the States.

    I don’t need constant adoration, and I get that missionary stuff can be boring. But I’m confused because he paid to travel and be here, he asked for the whole interaction, yet it seemed he was doing his best to avoid listening to or interacting with us at all. The worst part? His flip attitude when his wife gently suggested he put the phone down and talk. You’d think his wife was the one to drag him over here. He seemed to believe that if he wasn’t constantly Facebooking or Twittering his congregation that they’d all leave.

  • owenstrachan

    C. Holland,

    Wow. That’s quite an anecdote. It grieved me to read your story. Yet I think that this kind of thing is commonplace nowadays, even in the evangelical community. Your experience is, honestly, the quintessence of the problem. Here this guy is engaging with missionaries–those pushing the gospel to the lost–and he can’t be bothered to put his phone down?

    Frankly, I feel bad for his wife. Change that–I feel bad for the wives and kids of goofballs like this.

    Very nice site, by the way. I’m linking to it.

    Thanks to others who have commented. So you know, I don’t actually think that one’s iPhone reaches into one’s soul and changes one’s heart. But I’m glad for the feedback. Yes, technology benefits us, just as it can harm us. Matt, your question is a good one. I’m thankful for good sound technology, good mics, iPhone apps, blogs that can feature edifying content for free, and much more. I’m blessed by technology in all kinds of ways, some that I’m likely overlooking.

    Please continue to keep me on my toes, as always!