By Dilawar Khan
In the early 19th century, a group of weavers and textile artisans made a name for themselves by protesting the rise of machinery in Britain. These “Luddites,” as history has come to know them, became a byword for technological resistance and ignorance. If I’m perfectly honest with you, I readily identify and resonate with their kind. It took me well into the year 2012 to start texting and another year and a half to add a data plan to my first smart phone. Even the nomenclature bothers me; what’s smart about a phone? I think it right to resist fads and trends to a certain degree. What my stubbornness wouldn’t permit me to realize until late in the game, however, was that I can’t turn myself into the kind of person who waves a shovel in the air anticipating the end of culture as I know it. It’s just too easy to be reactionary in an attempt to preserve something. Much like the lithium ion battery changed the way I looked at power tools, I’ve come to see the place for the devices we all carry back and forth on a daily basis. The metaphor doesn’t quite fit, however, as I propose to explore why tablets, smart phones, and phablets, as they’ve come to be called, are so much more than tools. I wish this article had five simple steps to offer you, but the truth is that nothing is easy about it. As we step into the realm of wise stewardship, we can only beg to be illumined by grace and scripture.
If you consider the broad strokes of history, man spends his time attempting to do what he can to better his situation. Improvements in technology generally produce a greater ease in culture as free time becomes more readily available. Think through the wheel, the yoke, and every improvement in metallurgy that’s ever been; you’ll see an increase in time for thought and other pursuits spring up in the wake of breakthroughs. The circuit board is no exception to this rule. I can avoid hyperbole and still claim the world has never been the same since the PC. While we struggle to fulfill a dominion mandate, wrestling with the original posture of humanity over creation, we continue to live with the effects of the fall. Remember that pesky business about toil being increased and thistles in the ground? The scope and scale of our worlds have changed, but humanity hasn’t. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes about the balance between law and freedom; but his particular emphasis is on the responsibility of believers to one another. In 6.12 Paul states plainly that he “will not be mastered (dominated) by anything.” People look for things to live by: swords, wealth, pleasures and treasures of all shapes and sizes. To my recollection though, broad swathes of culture were never put at risk from an overly enthusiastic tendency to identify with the wheel and the plow.
The age we live in presents us with things that are more than tools. If I consider my iPhone for a moment, in many ways it wouldn’t stand up to a hammer. It’s a key that I keep in my pocket- but not with my actual keys, that might scratch the screen. It’s both a door and a window, capable of opening up information and giving me access to people and places that I might have otherwise spent hours, if not days, trying to find. Everyone in this day and age is at least somewhat familiar with the dangers of the internet. We’re all trying to navigate our way through a virtual world that is filled with echoes of the actual one. There’s thievery, sexual immorality, violence, and access to every other vice you might wish to avoid. From the benign but ridiculous cat memes to the evils of webpages catering to one night stands and affairs, we know it’s all out there. The change in our technological landscape might be different, but we aren’t. This is the first check anyone should conduct before venturing off into the online world. If we’re tempted to think that we’re improving as rapidly as our devices, we’ve been beaten from outset. Remembering our Genesis is of vital importance.
Do you accept the communal nature of mankind? “It is not good for man to be alone,” God himself says. We see community present in the Trinity; and the promise of heaven is one of perfect community with Christ and his people. As we return to that 1st Corinthian letter, Paul is frequently calling them out on their failures with regard to relating to each other properly. What would he have to say to a population causing itself spinal injury because of how long they stay hunched over a phone? The telephone itself was a marvel of connectivity, the mobile made it easier to keep in touch, but what’s seemingly changed with the smart phone? Options, options and more options; it’s all the rage and the average cell phone user today employs a minimum of three means to reach out to others. Three way calling is no longer something people will pay big money for. We’ve got greater access to people than ever before; but the issues haven’t changed. Divisions run rampant. People learn to associate with likeminded individuals found online because they aren’t learning to manage conflict in reality. The approval of an internet group can be an easy substitute for genuine affirmation. We begin to set our markers for success on the number of likes we get on posts, while disapproval can be cast off, deleted, or isn’t an option at all. On the surface all of this seems extreme, but think about all the missing context.
A professional chef posts an image of dinner, a baking whiz sets up a cake that looks like an entire landscape, a youtuber claims that repairing your own transmission is easy, and all of a sudden the race is on. There’s a grand game of one-upping taking place all across the world on a daily basis. More than ever people ask themselves why they can’t look like a certain picture, do things like a certain video or have the things they see posted all over. The crucial juncture has arrived, the internet is a place of terrible anonymity and exaggerated identity. Meaningful community grows up around the dispelling of the first and a developing honesty about the second. So at a given moment, someone online can act invisibly and without fear of the consequences that a real life scenario would produce. Have you ever played a video game online? The number of times someone will threaten to kill you after one is astounding, particularly if you’re as bad at some of them as I am. I believe these responses to be tame in comparison to some of what occurs on other websites. In the face of our own anonymity, and that of others, it’s very easy to be de-humanizing.
What is my identity? Who am I? Historically, it’s been deemed a question for the ages. The story of Narcissus provides us with a powerful Roman reminder of this. The young hunter, Narcissus, full of life and strength, rejects the love of a nymph named Echo. She is turned into a voice, and becomes the selfsame concept, while he falls in love with himself and wastes away, eventually being transformed into a flower. Ovid saw a great waste in the young man, whose self-obsession is now considered a disorder. It is certainly reminiscent of the innumerable “selfies” posted all over the internet. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to commemorate something, but peel it away a little and the camera will constantly remind you of how beautiful you are… or aren’t. The stream of these going up is also somewhat reminiscent of the evil queen’s mirror in Snow White. Classical heritage and our children’s bedtime stories warn us about being concerned with who’s the fairest of them all.
What does the Bible have to say? After his famous series on love in 1st Corinthians 13, Paul proceeds to speak of growing up as being a stage in between. He wanted to put off childish ways because “now we see through a mirror dimly.” In the book of James, the man who stares at his reflection intently immediately goes away and forgets what he looks like. The juxtaposition between that man and the one who looks into the Scriptures is a necessary one. Both of these sections deal with Christian conduct and undoubtedly point us towards our own failures in assessing our identity. We can suffer neither anonymity nor exaggerated identity in the light of Scripture.
We will constantly wrestle with the tools we have available. Even things as a simple as human hands have been used to fashion idols and this is because the heart is inclined to do so. What makes the smart phone such a unique threat is the constant access available out of pocket. If we’re not careful, it becomes a little pool for us to waste away in front of like Narcissus. Text Neck is a medical phenomenon now precisely because that threat is real. Maybe someone you know isn’t using it to substitute for self, but rather for others. Learning to deal with people, even the ones we disagree with, is a life skill that can’t be overestimated. How will we fulfill the Great Commission without it? There’s vice and virtue to be found in places online, but all of it is virtual. Without the presence of real people and real relationships, operating in the multiple dimensions that we were created to live in, people will continue to report feeling lonely even as they achieve greater connectivity than ever before. The advantages offered by our technology as greater than ever before. Using them properly isn’t a question of simple steps, but rather a daily evaluation of whether we’re using the device or it’s using us. The phone is smart precisely because it’s capable of taking us into a microcosm at will. Do we emerge the better for it, or are we transformed into lights, sounds and pretty things?