Are iPhones Making Us Unkind?

Are iPhones Making Us Unkind? November 4, 2009

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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