“I fear the day that our technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.”
I have never felt I’ve had a compulsive personality. I like to think, long and hard, before I leap. The happy privations of childhood have stood me in good stead: a couple of drinks and my heads spinning and I reach for the soft drinks; an hours TV and I’m itching for a good read; retail therapy is definitely for those who need therapy; even the mannish addictions of fast cars, TV sport or ‘adult’ entertainment leave me asking “what’s the fuss?” Frankly I’d rather go for a good walk, or curl up on the sofa with the missus and watch The West Wing.
But there is one exception. I must admit it has taken me by surprise. I’d always looked askance at all those robots on the tube or sitting in a coffee shop with heads bent, eyes fixed and their fingers flicking away imaginary flies from a lump of plastic. I was a late adopter but three years ago I finally capitulated and got a smart phone. Obviously I bought it for all the right reasons: I needed a handy camera to take pics of the kids; I wanted a daily readings app to avoid lugging a bible around; by using iBook’s I could save shelf space and the planet. Having resisted, all my livelong days, ten thousand siren calls, I’d finally fallen for the iGod in my pocket.
Calling a spade a spade
I don’t know how many of us are addicted to our smart phones but a brief glance around any public space suggests not just a few. Couples sitting in a café pouring sweet nothings into their screens; teens being dragged by parents through galleries and gardens glued to Snapchat or Instagram; itinerant tweeters blundering into lampposts and pedestrians. We don’t stop and simply enjoy a sunset anymore: we’ve got to snap it and post it. A lull in the conversation with a friend or at the meal table and we reach for the phone like a wino for his bottle…
Turning to the phone at a mealtime, checking email or texts during conversation lulls or simply catching up with the news at the end of the day; all these, I’ve noticed, I do without a second thought. It’s only afterwards when I’m late to bed and can’t switch my mind off that I think to myself, “why did I do that?” I haven’t seen my wife or kids all day and yet at mealtime I’d rather read another article posted on Facebook trying to make sense of Trump than catch up with the wife or kids. You don’t need excessive alcohol or drug dependence to spoil a relationship: let your smart phone do it for you!
To surf or not to surf
I often can’t decide whether my phone is a blessing or a curse. There are certainly many pluses. I now have a camera and video recorder in my pocket, instantly available. Being of a certain age and a male, I’d never lower myself to purchase a sat-nav but, hey, I’ve got one thrown in and no more need to swear at those blasted traffic jams. What’s-app and Facebook keep me in touch with the triumphs and struggles of friends near and far, and I’ve made contact with many a long forgotten school chum and youth group scallywag. Timing meals is now a doddle as I can track the wife’s footsteps real-time by satellite. If I’m feeling uninspired there are millions of talks just a flick away. I can carry a thousand books around in my pocket. I don’t have to wait above a minute for a bus. I need never get lost. There is no sphere of knowledge beyond my grasp or even difficult to access.
The dark side
‘Corruptio optimi pessima’ i.e. the best, when corrupted, becomes the worst: The more powerful the technology, the greater the danger. Here are some of the pitfalls I’ve observed:
- The immediacy. All the great spiritual traditions will tell you there’s no free, or easy, lunch. Spiritual or intellectual maturity is an arduous journey. Plato claimed that ‘seven years of silent inquiry are needful for a man to learn the truth, but fourteen in order to learn how to make it known to his fellow-men’. Clicks don’t build up wisdom or character; only time and hard knocks can do that.
- The credulity. If information led to wisdom and knowledge to truth then the Internet generation would be astounding the world. Social media seems to have driven the cult of a fact-free, post-truth agenda that elevates personal opinion above objective truth. ‘It must be true; look at all my ‘likes’ and Twitter followers’. Thanks to our too-clever-by-far friends at Facebook, we only get the news that confirms us in our prejudices; broad-casting has been replaced by narrow-casting and, hey presto, we’ve got a reality TV star in the White House.
- The compulsion. Addiction and joy are polar opposites. There is an eerie similarity between an alcoholic and their bottle and a commuter and his smart phone. There is a self-absorption and an unsmiling intensity about both. To my shame I have too often snapped at my kids when they interrupt my online reverie’s: the tremendous effort needed to break my concentration makes me wonder if some deeper unconscious need isn’t being met by the magic box in my palm…
- The superficiality. “A little learning is a dangerous thing” says the poet, and I’ve found the temptation to speed-flick through the deluge of emails, texts, articles and posts hard to resist. “Drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring’ Pope goes on: don’t just have a sip at the fount of knowledge, have a real swig. True understanding of an issue takes long hours and hard work. How many times have I fired off a comment to a Facebook post without doing the hard work of understanding both sides of the issue?
- The disconnect. Think of those couples sitting in cafes mesmerized by their phones; or, nearer to home, there’s me and the wife enjoying a much-anticipated date night and spending the first hour answering texts. All technology tends to ‘disincarnate’ us so that we live life at one-step-removed. Our souls crave connection with earth, sun and stuff that’s alive; we shrivel without real faces to smile at, real arms to hold us, real words to revive us.
- The intrusion. So we’re having a meal with a friend and we leave the phone on the table. Or we’re having a deep moment with our partner and there’s a beep from our pocket and the magic is lost. The message is clear: your friend or partner is not important enough to deserve your complete and uninterrupted attention. If your wife is expecting and is 2 weeks overdue then I understand. It’s hard to think of many other circumstances where it’s THAT important…
The cure for miss-use isn’t non-use but correct use. The first step towards becoming free of a habit that’s getting too habitual is to admit that there’s a problem. The second step is to put some positive habits into place to counter the destructive ones. Here are some ideas that I’ve found useful:
- Go stop. Have a 24-hour rest from your phone, each week. There’s a very good reason why we have the fourth commandment: it tells us that there is something more important that work, shopping, computer games, social media or whatever it is that you can’t imagine not doing for 24 hours in a week. For myself Sabbath (which doesn’t have to be Sunday but it works best for us) is about the 5 ‘F’s’: faith, family, friends, fun and re-flection. I still use my phone to read a book, check the weather or phone a friend but I try not to use it for the compulsive things that, for me, are Facebook, news articles and Internet surfing.
- Go smart. Pick your own boundaries but here are some suggestions: no phone in the bedroom at night- I leave it in the kitchen; minimise use at mealtimes with family (mum reading to the kids is my excuse), friends or housemates; during life’s inevitable lulls and downtimes only pick up the phone if there’s no-one nearby to talk to; when outside, connect with God or nature before reaching for the you-know-what.
- Go deep. Resist the temptation to always flit around; send a longer, more thoughtful email rather than a quick text or Snapchat (or better, phone or go and see them!). Save a thought-provoking Facebook post, twitter quote etc. and reflect on it, read round it or pray about it. Or turn it into a blog!
- Go wide. Try and listen to alternative views. Don’t de-friend those who post annoying and ‘heretical’ views; you don’t really know your side of the argument until you’ve attempted to understood the other sides. You’ll never spot fake news, true bigotry or dangerous propaganda unless you take a wide sweep of opinions and listen to stuff you find uncomfortable.
- Go high. “If they go low, we go high’- so said Hilary Clinton. We are far more abusive in stating our opinions online than face-to-face. Let’s not say anything online that we wouldn’t say to the person’s face. I’ve also found that it’s a bad move to respond immediately to a provocation. Sleeping on it has saved me from many an ill-conceived riposte; if I feel that I simply MUST say something then it rarely ends up as wise, kind or helpful.
Masters or servants
We have come a long way in a very short time. When I was 13 I was the first in my class to have a calculator and I thought it was the cutting edge of technological brilliance. When I started work a vast mainframe computer filling a large suite of offices had a fraction of the power that is now packed into a device smaller than that calculator. There’s little wonder that the world held Steve Jobs of Apple in such awe: he placed a god-like power into our hands, unimaginable to even our recent contemporaries.
Like any created thing, smart phones make wonderful servants but woeful masters. I want to enjoy the benefits without it gaining a grip on my heart. If I leave it behind, it shouldn’t ruin my day. If it breaks, it shouldn’t bother me. I want to be able to take it or leave it, answer it or ignore it, give it away or take it back again. As the good Lord said: “Life is more than your mobiles and your body more than your laptop…therefore do not worry”.