These words on a recent Time Magazine cover are intended to unnerve us with the ominous future of a techno-invasion. Computers are getting strapped around us and stuck on us, moving into our watches and our glasses, "attempting to colonize our bodies."
Journalists Lev Grossman and Matt Vella explain in the article. "We are used to technology being safely Other, but the Apple Watch wants to snuggle up and become part of your Self. The reality of living with an iPhone, or any smart, connected device, is that it makes reality feel just that little bit less real. One gets over-connected, to the point where the thoughts and opinions of distant anonymous strangers start to feel more urgent than those of your loved ones who are in the same room as you. One forgets how to be alone and undistracted."
To never be alone and undistracted is especially alarming in light of the parable of the four soils where Jesus warns us of the spiritual hazards of distractions. Whether our concerns are in the next room or in the Syrian desert, life can get quickly crowded by any number of cares, anxieties and desires. The ephemeral chokes out the infinite (Mark 4:18–19).
But your wrist doesn’t need to be cuffed to an Apple Watch to feel distractions colonizing your life. The average iPhone pings and push notifies our attention with the cares of the world in real time. The latest news and chatter can rob our focus, knock our lives off center, and drown out the voice of God.
To help find healthy balance with technology, I recently sat down with two seasoned fathers in the faith: David Wells and Arthur Hunt. Wells is the author of the new book God in the Whirlwind: How the Holy-Love of God Reorients Our World (2014). Hunt is the author of the new book Surviving Technopolis: Essays on Finding Balance in Our New Man-Made Environments (2013).
Both men appreciate the benefits of digital communications technology. And both of their books attempt to help Christians think critically about the place of technology and distractions in our lives. I asked these men about the iPhone — the problems it introduces into our lives, the toll on the Christian soul it potentially causes, and the solutions for wise balance it forces us to envision.
Final Descent Into Technopolis
We begin at 40,000 feet. Man has a long history with technology, reaching back to simple things like shovels and spears. Historically, technology helps our lives achieve convenience and efficiency. But over time, technology moved outside the boundaries of problem solving.
"We have reached a period in which all forms of cultural life have surrendered to the sovereignty of Technology," warns Arthur Hunt. "We are now under a Technopoly, which says absolutely nothing is going to stand in our way of technological progress. We put so much cultural stock in sort of headlong rush into the future without any clear telos [goal]. The only real telos is it has got to be bigger, it has got to be faster, and it has got to be newer. Somebody might ask: Well, what is wrong with this? Well, it advances the notion that our purpose in life is to be a satisfied consumer of material goods. So the next big thing is not the coming of God’s kingdom, but the coming of the curved TV screen."
In fact Christians do have a clear telos, says David Wells. "Our objective in life is to become God-centered in our thoughts, God-fearing in our hearts and God-honoring in all that we do. This is a society of distraction. If we allow it to overwhelm us and press us into its mold, it will take time away from those things that are central: our focus upon the reality and the presence and the glory and the goodness and the greatness of God. So in that sense it becomes a real competitor."
The aim of technology and the aim of the Christian life can easily run counter.
"We get computer pings and beeps. We all understand this," Wells said. “But the large question is this: What is this doing to our minds when we are living with this constant distraction? What happens to us when we are in constant motion? When, in fact, we are addicted to constant visual stimulation, what happens to us? That is the big question. The average person shifts tasks every three minutes. Half the time we interrupt ourselves! So what is this doing to us deep down? The smaller question is: How do we find time for the things that are really central in our lives as Christians? "
These are twin problems we must address.
Part of the problem is that we get drawn in to the lie that our lives are rendered irrelevant if we fail to connect in social media every day, multiple times a day, every waking hour. "People on Facebook update their status on an hourly basis, because if they don't, they have become obsolete," says Wells. "But the most relevant thing in the world is what is eternal. And in that sense, the eternal is the most relevant, the most up-to-date thing that anyone could find."
Wells: "The average person shifts tasks every three minutes. Half the time we interrupt ourselves."
The Internet is constantly working to make us highly impatient people, Wells warns. "We want to go on to the next thing now, immediately. It cannot be too soon before we move on. But the knowledge of God, learning to walk with him through all of the conflicts, anxieties, difficulties, injustices of life — that is a life process. It takes time for this knowledge to mature in people. And we rob ourselves of that if we allow ourselves to be shaped by this culture of distraction."
Whether we are interrupted by external beeps for notification, or interrupted by internal cravings for distraction, our minds are changing. And this gets to the most serious concerns Wells has for younger Christians. "We are losing the capacity for attention, by which I mean the ability to focus on something and to think about it. And if we lose our capacity to focus, how will God be the central organizing thing in our lives? How will we become God-centered in our thoughts, if we are fragmented in our thoughts? And how are we going to be God-honoring in our lives, if our lives are just bits and pieces of information? That is the problem."
These are serious problems, and not unique to Christians. But where do we go from here? How does Scripture help us navigate these concerns? How do we protect our time and attention to focus on what is eternally relevant? Hunt and Wells offer five takeaways to help us survive life in Technopolis.
1. Count the personal costs of a device along with the benefits (Hunt). "First I think the Bible informs us to walk circumspectly with eyes wide open. To some extent I think we should be like the children of Issachar, men who understood their times (1 Chronicles 12:32). We live in a world that is constantly changing and telling us that we need this new gadget and what this new gadget will do for us. We should be asking: What is this new gadget going to do to me personally? And what is it going to do to my family, to my community, to the world? " Every gadget comes with benefits. Every gadget comes with relational costs.
2. Be the master over your technology, don’t get mastered by it (Hunt). Don’t be a passive recipient for technology, but use technology to achieve the ends of your life. “We need to be masters of our technologies and not the other way around. The consumer should not be consumed.”
3. Moderate your use (Hunt). We are not monks. Separating ourselves from technology completely is not an option for us. Thus, "we should practice the virtue of moderation, or what the Bible calls self-control. We should learn to redeem the time because the days are evil (Ephesians 5:16). Time is short, because we are going to die. Therefore, we need to make the best use of our time." And our attention is finite and limited. Create patterns in your life to strategically withdraw from technology.
4. Hone your skill to distinguish the significant from the insignificant (Wells). "We must learn to organize our internal world. If we don't do that, we cannot see the distinction between things that are really weighty in life from those that are ephemeral and flashy and superficial; those that are true from those that are wrong; those that really matter from those that we can brush off. The capacity to do that is what the Bible talks about under the language of wisdom. We today might think of wisdom today as smarts. But in the Bible it is really not. It is a heart thing, the ability to see life for what it is by our knowledge of God. The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, because we are seeing our lives with the rays of eternity (Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 1:7; 9:10). When you see life in that sort of light, it looks very different from the way that life looks like on the Internet."
5. Discipline yourself by reading books (Wells). "We need to keep exercising our minds by reading, because it exercises our minds to understand sentences and follow narratives. We need these abilities to study Scripture."
For the health of our soul, we must learn to get alone undistracted.
Only in thoughtful silence can we order (or re-order) our lives by the greatest and most relevant news in the universe. "The greatest, deepest, most glorious thing that we can know is what God has revealed to us of himself in his love and his holiness," Wells reminds us. "Everything else pales into insignificance. If you focus on the shiny stuff that glitters for a moment, at the end of your life you will find that your hands are empty."
Tony Reinke is a content strategist and staff writer for Desiring God and the author of Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books (2011) and John Newton on the Christian Life: To Live Is Christ (2015). He hosts the Ask Pastor John and Authors on the Line podcasts, and lives in the Twin Cities with his wife and their three children. He also blogs at tonyreinke.com.