On a recent camping trip, my husband awoke to find his beloved iPod touch unconscious in a pool of water that had somehow penetrated our tent. Upon hearing his distress, I made a beeline for my duffle bag and began rummaging in search of my iPhone 3GS. Within seconds, I found it securely enclosed within my sweatshirt, where it had remained free of moisture throughout the night.
Although my husband’s device was significantly less costly than my own, the potential loss was distressing. If you do not understand this particular concept of loss, you are probably not the owner of a smartphone. After packing up, my husband turned to me in the car and said, “I probably wasn’t ready for one anyway.”
It was not hard to identify the source of guilt that this statement came from: the idea that technology, while not evil itself, provides an almost limitless playground for our immaturities and selfish interests to run free. An environment that humans may not yet nor ever be responsible enough to frolic in.
To this, there is some truth, as having a smart phone constantly handy brings temptations to the forefront of my life. Everywhere I go I can avoid responsibilities by distracting myself with endless amounts of articles, games and social media outlets. I can flood the world with every thought and feeling that comes into my head (as if each one was actually valuable) and then proceed to constantly check if anyone has commented on how witty I am.
And yet, I do not believe that technology in and of itself is bad. Furthermore, despite the “disaster as punishment” philosophy that Pat Robertson preaches and John Piper sometimes hints at, I do not believe that my husband’s iPod touch mishap was the direct hand of God intervening in the “sin” of his smartphone use.
I do however believe that this particular incident (being forced to ponder life without a smartphone) gave me a chance to reflect on the ways in which smartphones can shape us and become not just phones but actual “lifestyles” and “philosophies,” the losses of which, are quite jolting.
Of course, the idea that the smartphone is capable of shaping us is not just a potential Christian debate, but a secular one as well. In his NPR interview, Nicolas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, gives a somewhat technophobic answer to this question, stating that the plasticity of our brains allows them to adapt to the distracted and impatient modes of surfing and skimming that we practice online. On the more positive side, tech-enthusiast Brian X. Chen, author of Always On: How the iPhone Unlocked the Anything-Anytime-Anywhere Future — and Locked Us In, argues that evidence of these changes is slim, and that given enough time, society will become more aware of the positive and negative effects of smartphone use and will be able to integrate them in a way that is socially acceptable. To shorten, the etiquette of the digital age is still being formed.
Nevertheless, amidst the “trending” period, the smartphone has become the predominant vehicle through which we live our lives. We use its alarm to wake us up. We then spend those extra five or ten snooze minutes awake in bed, checking our email. We plug it in on the way to work or school in order to listen to the new album or podcast that we downloaded the night before. We use it to answer any information question that comes up in a discussion. We reach for it every spare minute we have in order to check up on what other people are doing or to manage our own image, and finally, in those downtime hours at the end of the day, we slink back to the couch, where, with the tv playing in the background, we search for more entertainment and distraction.
Of course, as Christians, we recognize that the advent of the smartphone lifestyle allows us a chance to reflect not just on how the smart phone affects our brain and behaviors, but also on how such changes affect our soul, and our process of sanctification. To begin what is surely a limitless discussion, I would like to address two ways that the smartphone can be used to aid Christians in their daily, soul-shaping activities.
1) The Smartphone Gives Us a Chance to Identify and Confront our Sins Head-On.
Do you want to know what your sins are? Yes, there is an app for that. Or rather, there is a whole legion of apps, which, in conjunction with the data from your use of them, will proclaim to you very clearly what your issues are. Given its individualist nature, the smartphone has become not only an extension of the self but an augmentation of the self, in which every proclivity is amplified. In other words, via the smartphone, I can travel much further in whichever direction I am already heading.
For instance, if I am already feeling bad about myself, constantly comparing myself to others on Facebook will allow me to wallow further in these feelings of inadequacy. If I am already prone to being a control freak and being organized is of utmost importance to me, I can use my smartphone to make lists, sort through my inbox, and gain a sense of control over my digital world. Such examples are endless.
So what do you struggle with? Are you self-absorbed? Are you lazy? Do you place too much emphasis on efficiency? Just keeping track of your smartphone habits for one day will probably give you enough information for analysis. For instance, how often do you go on your smartphone? What modes or states of being precede these habits? Is it when you are bored? stressed? feeling depressed, jealous, or unmotivated? What do you do when you go on your iphone? Do you play games? Do you read up on trendy things so that you will fit in? Do you Facebook stalk what other people are doing and compare yourself to them?
Chances are it won’t be too hard to pinpoint your exact weaknesses. And while simply being aware of them won’t prevent you from having to face their daily temptations, it can guide you in setting up physical boundaries. Are their any apps that you need to delete? (Ex: The baby monkey game is ridiculously adorable, but if playing it has become an obsession, you may need to delete it for a while.) Are there any alternative strategies that you can put in place for when you are feeling down? (Ex: For me, going for a walk, calling a friend, or creating new things through cooking or sewing does a great job of curing a bad mood.)
2) The Smartphone Gives Us a Chance to Order Our Priorities
Given the amount of time we spend on smatphones, it is not just our sins that will become transparent, but also our priorities. For instance, though we are told as Christians to put God first by spending time with Him in prayer, in scripture and in reflection, we are probably not whipping our smartphone out of our pocket because we are eager to check that prayer list email or read the next chapter of Hebrews.
And yet, these are just the sorts of things that the smartphone makes possible, by allowing us to have on hands at all times, not only a copy of the Bible, but a bounty of lifelines that connect us to fellow Christians in both the local and global church.
Of course, our smartphones should in no way become the sole envoys through which we conduct our faith. Interestingly enough, there are an increasing amount of Christian apps available for the smartphone, including iConfession (put out by the Catholic church for confession on the go) and and Chrisitian Cafe (the online Christian singles community) that make this very concept possible. Take a look at the description for iChristian:
“Now your iPhone/iPod Touch is a missionary, preacher and the evangelist! The iPhone/iPod Touch application “iChristian” (“Become A Christian”) contains the minimum of required information to become a Christian. After the prayer of salvation, you may register as a Christian. If you would like, you may request a certificate of a Christian.”
While there is a large amount of commentary on the usefulness, ridiculousness, and even evil nature of these apps, I don’t think they give much cause for concern. For the majority of believers, I think the issues of when and how often are more important and more pattern-shaping than the issue of how. In other words, I think it is more likely for a Christian to make too few attempts (digital or otherwise) to spend time with God than for a Christian to become obsessed with utilizing an app such as iConfession every spare minute.
Finally, just to be clear, while smartphones do offer some great tools for making our faith a priority, sometimes the best way we can show commitment to God, our family, or anything else is by turning our smartphone off. Just as we might designate a certain amount of time to checking in with email, correspondence and social networks online, it would do us well to designate some time to being unplugged. During meals, while hanging out with our kids, while in quiet meditation, etc. Sometimes this means turning it off completely, sometimes this means momentarily turning off those pesky alert signals. The important thing is to make sure you are not always connected to, and thus, always at the mercy of your smartphone.
As it turned out (to return to the incident at the beginning of this post) my husband’s iPod only gave us a good scare. After flatlining for quite some time, and showing severe signs of water damage, we were able to resuscitate it with several rice treatments (if you do not know about this technique, I highly recommend that you check it out in preparation for future mishaps). And while I do not wish on you the kind of scare that we had, I do hope that you will take a moment to reflect on your own smartphone habits and how they may shape your soul.