If you’ve read the first two parts of this post, you may have the mistaken impression that I’m a technophobe. It would be silly to be “against technology.” Since the cave days, man has innovatively employed techniques to accomplish his tasks. Using utensils for eating, maps for finding one’s way, or traps for catching food are all uses of technology.
My beef is not with technology (“smart” gadgets in this case) per se. I’m simply appealing for smart choices, i.e. to consider the often overlooked impacts of these gadgets, their costs, and to control our voracious appetites for them. They easily become distractions from life’s deepest needs rather than the answer. Most importantly, smart gadgets should not be our masters.
It would be equally foolish to overlook the obvious benefits of devices like cell phones with GPS, cameras, and certain app’s. They offer convenience and time savings. They offer obvious advantages in emergencies (e.g. when trapped in a vehicle or under rubble with your cell), serve to stop crime, and serve as public surveillance. If those were their primary use – to improve healthcare and public safety – I’d be right there with the rest of the world toasting the smart gadget revolution. But I seriously doubt this noble purpose (health and safety) was prominent on Steve Jobs’ radar, or that this is the primary reason people own them.
So, my question is at what cost do we gain the convenience of these smart devices? And my assertion has been that the losses might well prove to outweigh the gains.
As I’ve already tried to argue, smart technology has already exacted a cost beyond what we can afford – socially, emotionally, physically, and relationally. We have made serious compromises to the quality of communication and our relationships, to personal growth, and to our children’s physical development. Smart technology threatens to make us dumber in these fundamental facets of our humanity.
The ultimate price is a spiritual one. First, as just suggested, smart devices encourage a reductionist version of what it means to be humans created in the image of God. The term “smart technology” betrays a common misconception: that intelligence is primarily or only about obtaining and retaining as much information as possible. Indeed, science has long recognized memory as one kind of intelligence. But to reduce intelligence to such a narrow definition ignores kinds of human intelligence such as critical thought, value judgements, social and emotional intelligence, creative intelligence, spatial intelligence, and physical intelligence, to name a few, i.e. the kinds of intelligence that make us uniquely human. Without them our masses of information are meaningless.
Next, we need to dispense with the mistaken notion that smart technology sets us free. Go back to the college girl standing in the hall, who was so immersed in her texting that she couldn’t notice her fellow classmate trying to get her attention. I mean “couldn’t” not simply “didn’t want to.” Like so many others, she has become a slave to her gadget. How many do we know who, during down time with their friends or dates, simply sit and text in each other’s presence? And we’ve all heard of people having panic attacks when they realize they’ve lost their phones. This is not freedom but entanglement and slavery. Smart phone addiction, like any other addiction, dominates, beats us up, and eviscerates us of our spirits.
Smart technology, not kept in its place, isolates rather than brings us together. Texting or phoning someone easily creates the false notion of having connected with them. Look back over a day. Compare the number of friends you’ve texted versus the number you’ve talked to face to face. Relationships can only develop in any truly meaningful way through physical contact. This is possibly the most obvious and most discussed fallout from our use of smart devices. And, this too is a spiritual cost since true spirituality does not exist in a vacuum while we sit on our lotus leaves and stare down into your palm held devices. Spirituality is essentially relational, bodily presence, and involves engagement with others and God.
Information overload can also rob us of life’s natural and healthy mysteries. Mystery keeps us humble, thoughtful, patient, and appreciative—all qualities of a healthy spirituality and all qualities that quickly diminish when we’re glued to a smart phone. It has always amazed me how people rely on their phones to guide them simply from one end of town to another – calling their destination constantly along the way, updating where they are, and chatting. Why do people have to continually phone people they intend to meet in just a few minutes? Go ahead and call if you know you’ll be late or have to cancel, but for Pete’s sake, plan out your trip and get off the smart pacifier! No one has had to do this for centuries. Why now? Text me before you come? No, just meet me as arranged and enjoy the ride! Look around, celebrate your place, meditate, and pray on the way. Be reminded that life is full of contingencies, and be content. We don’t need to have matters constantly under our thumbs.
Smart gadgets are increasingly drawing us into mere abstractions of life—voices on a phone, texts on a screen, pixels in our palms—rather than enabling us to live the real thing—hand in hand, face to face. There is a reason God not only made us physical beings in a material world but also became part of it all himself. He must obviously love the world he created. Embracing creation must be his way to truly know and love us, and for us to know and love each other.