Will my smartphone make me stupid?

Hello again – I’ve been absent for a while, dealing with a major life transition (same wife and kids – thank God – but new job, new location, and what feels like a new life).  But enough dust has settled and boxes unpacked to make writing possible.  So here we go:


I’m moving into the world of smart phones and will get my very own shiny little handheld tomorrow.  I’m feeling this strange mix of giddy attraction and dread – I’ve played with one before and what they can do is dazzling and dizzying.  But then there’s this sense of foreboding – what am I invoking in this smartphone?  Will this phone become more than just a phone? (actually, it’s not called a phone but a device.  What’s behind that language?)  What place in my life do I want to give this thing?

I could be making this a bigger deal than it need be but then I should tell you about my Pac-Man problem during university.  Besides, the manufacturer of this phone claims it will change everything (sort of like the ad above claiming a phone will save us).  As of tomorrow, my life will never be the same again, transformed because of my phone … er, device.

And according to a growing body of research, those claims are not that far off the mark.  I will be changed indeed, just not in ways I might hope.  Here are a few canaries I’ve spotted lately flying out of the technology coal mine:

Professor Sheryl Turkle, in her book Alone Together, outlines the effects of technology on our intimacies.  “Technology promises to let us do anything from anywhere with anyone. But it also drains us as we try to do everything everywhere. We begin to feel overwhelmed and depleted by the lives technology makes possible. We may be free to work from anywhere, but we are also prone to being lonely everywhere. In a surprising twist, relentless connection leads to a new solitude. We turn to new technology to fill the void, but as technology ramps up, our emotional lives ramp down.”

Then in a sobering “this is your brain on technology” piece, a New York Times article chronicles how our devices change the way we relate, the way we think, our capacity to respond, the very shape of our brain.  A blog piece at ThinkChristian reflects on the whether our copious time before screens leads to objectification of people.

And recently I was listening to Q a while back (a fine arts and culture radio show on CBC).  It spring-boarded off of an incident you might recall, where a concert at New York’s Fisher Hall was stopped by the conductor because of a smart-phone ringing. The host of Q, Jian Gomeshi, wonders about the limits of our phones and whether we need to (gasp!) turn off the ringers and alarms because they’re distracting us from art.  I’d go much further and wonder if they distract us from much of living.

Gomeshi asks: “Maybe we’ve become a weaker species with the advent of mobile devices.  If we can’t relinquish our connectedness for Moller, Kronenberg or even for a child’s recital, what have we become?  Here’s to being brave and missing a text or two.”

How about the courage to think hard about the role and place of technology.  Enter Albert Borgmann, one of the finer thinkers on technology.  He notes that technology is less a neutral tool and more “an inducement, and it’s so strong that for the most part people find themselves unable to refuse it. To proclaim it to be a neutral tool flies in the face of how people behave.”  I’ve seen too many gatherings of people with everyone staring at some form of screen or another to argue with him.

While technology promises to make life easier, Borgmann wonders if there are certain burdens we should not want to get rid of.  It seems so contrarian, but are there things in life we should not relinquish because they are difficult or inconvenient?  Perhaps the quest for convenience actually deforms us?

I’ll be honest, sometimes I’m glad to get a voice mail instead of a real person.  I can quickly pass on a message or avoid a longer conversation and get on with things.  But just maybe there’s a difficulty here that would be more important for me to embrace than convenience or efficiency?  What if the burden of depending on someone else and asking for directions is better for me, more community building, than downloading directions?  Perhaps the inconvenience of attending a worship service with average worship and preaching is more life-giving than listening to a podcast in my pajamas?  Maybe the challenge of revealing too much in a face-to-face conversation through my tone, body language and presence is more enlivening than a 140 character tweet or Facebook update?

Borgmann reminds us that technological devices, like a smart phone, are not the enemy.  Rather we must ask “How do we gather technological devices together into the good life? Nothing by itself makes for a better life.”  That’s why I’m feeling mixed about my smart phone – it is not the enemy but it’s not a neutral thing either.  How can I allow this device in to make for a better life?  How can I be street-smart about my smartphone before it turns me foolish?

One of the ways to think and talk about the place and role of technology, Borgmann writes, is the need to place “reasonable bounds on their use … how we sit with technological devices in our home is morally significant.”

So here’s a few commitments I’m making as I gather this device into my life:

  1. If I’m meeting you for lunch or coffee, I will keep my phone off the table, generally out of sight.
  2. I will honour the person who is giving me the gift of their presence instead of an incoming call, text or email that might barge into that conversation or meeting.
  3. I will keep a weekly technological sabbath, a day of unplugged living as a practice to remind myself that I am a created, embodied being not a virtual one.

Again, hear me well Facebook fans and Apple cult members.  I’m not a Luddite or calling for an Amish renewal, I’m not at all saying technology is evil, the internet is the great Satan, and my new cell number the mark of the beast.  I’m simply wondering about the proper place and role of technology, and how we might guard that place and role.

How do you place reasonable bounds on technology in your life?

11 thoughts on “Will my smartphone make me stupid?”

  1. Great piece I ironically read and replied to from my iPhone when I would have been fast forwarding through dvr’d commercials. Arcade Fire sang a similar message on “we used to wait”.

  2. To remember that technology is a man made tool, that was originally meant to help us in our workplace and that is all that it is, is important. For work purposes, I have had to learn self control. Don’t check that email after certain times, let that call go to voice mail, and wait to address some issues until later – they will wait.

    I also find that by keeping the original purpose for technology in mind, I keep priorities in check…hugs get given and received, phone calls to people get made (conversation and connection), and the things that matter eternally are not forgotten or put aside. Perhaps to some it would seem that I am minimizing what technology is or represents, my apologies, at the same time I have learned that technology has its place and can be helpful, as long as it stays in its place.

  3. So your cell phone no has a 666 in it. That’s what happens when you move back EAST.

    Here in BC we have something called smart meters which our BC Hydro is installing. It sends out a signal a few times per day which, according to them, will give you the same exposure to microwaves over your life time as a one hour cell phone conversation. People, who obviously have nothing better to do, are up in arms. They are writing letters to their local politicos, organizing rallies; the usual thing that 21st century people do when they are retired and have just taken the dog for a walk (and picked up the warm poo, of course) and are now at a loss as to what to do before Oprah comes on. I’m sure that they are using their cell phones for organizing the rallies while cooking up a quick hot lunch in the microwave. And then on to Oprah, which is put on the TV through wi-fi because they are too cheap to sign up with a local cable provider.

    Next week I’ll tell you what I think of the teacher’s strike. FIRE THEM ALL!! Oh darn, let the cat out of the bag.

  4. I work for a Broadband company and hear the relentless cries of customers about “not enough”. What is enough speed and bandwidth is certainly a topic that many people care about. There is a large percentage of people that expect the ability to access whatever they want online in miliseconds. (dispite popular belief it is a quite complex accomplishment). How did we get to this point in history that the unimaginable is now expected.
    Being a slave to technology is a curse. I say it all the time……..Yet I still work in the industry to deliver it because that is what I know how to do.
    Thank you for pointing out that there needs to be a line. A line between the technology that consumes us and the life we chose to lead dispite of it.
    After all, Our savior is Jesus who never knew the internet.

    1. Thanks Paul – so the question is, then, how do we live with technology, not as its slave but with it present in our lives hopefully leading to a good life? That requires lots of wisdom. It’s interesting to think of how Jesus would’ve used smartphones or the internet if he lived today. But he did use technology – being a carpenter, I’m sure there were tools developed at the time to assist in carpentry. Thankfully its not an either-or issue but a question of wisdom for living.

  5. Great reflection Phil! thanks! A topic I’ve been pondering about in the last year – as I’ve sought to give attention to what it means and takes – to stay present. Lots of pressure (internally and externally) to increase the speed of our lives…and me thinks technology is one huge gift that needs continual critical reflection. I want a new normal….that doesn’t mean walking away from it all….but also doesn’t suck me into accepting pseudo as normal (community, relationships, productivity etc). I always appreciate your perspective – and critical thinking (without a critical spirit). Cheers…

  6. Phil, it’s a great article and is one of interest to me as I’m studying communications engineering myself.

    About technology, I feel we as Christians now need to be more aware of the aspect in which technology and more broadly vast amounts of information affects our mind. I have known that in general, more information in short bursts like which is available these days in news articles, tweets, facebook status updates etc. tend to make our attention span smaller and smaller as time goes by. So, you would find that the younger generation can’t deal with longer passages and books as comfortably as people could maybe a few decades ago. This affects the current generation greatly in understanding the scripture especially, according to my experience, because much of understanding the scripture comes from a bigger picture of what it is saying, i.e. connecting different passages in scripture and making sense in context.

    Other than that, there are certain technological advances which are clearly dangerous according to me. There are some projects being carried out in the best universities in the world that I know of which are scary to think about. I think in the larger sense, technology does add to our sense of having things under control and hence to less need for God.

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