“The point of stultification”

The August 23 issue of WORLD and the September 8-15 issue of TIME both contain commentaries on the obsession many people today seem to have with technology–particularly of the hand-held variety. I find it interesting that two completely different publications with completely different worldviews both took a similar approach to the same topic within such a small time frame.

In WORLD, Janie B. Cheaney’s column, entitled “Generation distraction,” starts off imagining what it would have been like if Pentecost had occurred only a year ago, in a culture so obsessed with digital technology. After this imagining she writes, “This corrupt generation is still corrupt–they all are. But this generation is also supremely, unprecedentedly, distracted. And that may be even worse.” Cheaney goes on to postulate on the possibility that this distraction “suspends the normal course of sin by disengaging desire.” That is an interesting idea, and one that could be fully explored. Later, she asks whether it might be possible that crime rates have fallen in the past ten years because “our many distractions consumed some of our evil desires.” More than likely, though, the reality is this assertion Cheaney makes: “If we lust after the latest in technology, it’s only so we can be distracted better. Smartphones allow us to carry our distractions everywhere we go. Google Glass, an ‘optical head-mounted display,’ allows us to wear them. Up next: live feeds embedded in the brain, a science-fiction fantasy that may not be far off.”

Ultimately, this level of distraction is not going to aid in anyone’s sanctification. Cheaney cites pornography as just one example, what she calls “the obvious example.” We have all heard the stories of the days of yesteryear when pornography was accessible only in photographs or magazines that were kept hidden in shops and hidden at home, often in a secret stash it was hoped no one would find. With the advent of videos, pornographic movies became available. Still, stores that sold or rented them generally had them in separate spaces that were not visible to the general public and were accessible only to adults. And there was still, in general, a desire to be discreet about the use such material. Then the internet made it possible for anyone with a computer and an internet connection to access pornography almost anytime. And that was not all that long ago; I never sent an e-mail until my freshman year of college. All of the portable devices that provide internet connectivity now, and the nearly ubiquitous availability of wireless connections, mean that anyone who wants to view pornography can access it almost anywhere.

While pornography may be the “obvious example” though, there are plenty of other things that digital technology tempt us with–even many that in and of themselves are not bad. E-mail is a wonderful communication tool, one that I use frequently and very much appreciate. However, having had a BlackBerry, I know that if I can access my e-mail anytime I am prone to do just that. Not only do I like the idea of not being accessible at every moment of every day to whoever may want me at that moment, I need to disconnect from the those demands from time to time. In other words, even if I wanted to have constant access to my e-mail, is that really healthy? Do I really need to get notified every time there is a status update on Facebook, or could it wait until next time I sign in on my computer? I’ve made the decision that I don’t need, or particularly want, that access, so I have, by choice the simplest, dumbest cell phone I can find. It doesn’t even have a camera. (Gasp!) I use it to make and receive phone calls and texts, and that’s it. I cannot even receive pictures sent by someone else. I am not suggesting that this disconnect from the digital world makes me any better than anyone else, or even that it is for everyone. I am well aware that there are some times when the ability to access the internet via my phone would be really convenient. I am simply making the point that it is entirely possible to live a full and content life without it.

That is the point that Patton Oswalt makes in his TIME column, entitled “Why I Quit Twitter–and Will Again.” He explains that on June 1 he decided to take a break from all social media, planning not to return until after Labor Day. Initially he jokes about all the incredible things he accomplished without the distraction of social media, only to come clean and say that none of those incredible things really happened. What did really happen though, was this: “A couple of times, in line at a grocery store or coffee shop, instead of taking out my phone to stiff-arm the creeping ennui, I’d look around instead. At the world. At the people around me.” Did you even realize that we arrived at a point in our culture where this kind of behavior is novel–worthy of an entire column in one of the nation’s preeminent news magazines? Oswalt may not have realized it until he was the one not checking his phone. What did he see when he resisted the phone and looked around him? “Most of them [were] looking at their phones. We now inhabit a planet where the majority of population is constantly staring downward, entranced, twiddling like carpenter ants. Do pickpockets know they’re living in a second renaissance?”

The TIME column also features to startling statistics about the current addiction to smartphones. “Millenials and Gen X-ers keep their smartphones handy 22 hours a day,” says one. “The first thing that 80% of Americans do after waking is check their smartphone,” says the other. You may think my use of the word “addiction” was too strong, but try naming any other activity someone could be involved in twenty-two hours a day or consistently do immediately upon waking and not have it be considered an addiction….

Toward the end of her column Cheaney, drawing on Neil Postman’s seminal work Amusing Ourselves to Death, writes, “As a society, we’re in danger of distracting ourselves to the point of stultification. Ominous events become last week’s news cycle. Enemies steal past our outer defenses while we’re looking elsewhere. Everything matters, so nothing does. Little by little, we insulate ourselves from desire, the longing at our core that makes us human, both for good and evil.”

Digital technology and social media can be wonderful tools, so long as we use them rather than letting them consume us. In Ephesians 5:18, in The Living Bible, Paul writes, “Don’t drink too much wine, for many evils lie along that path; be filled instead with the Holy Spirit and controlled by him.” I do not think it would be wrong to suggest that the exact same principle applies to digital technology. If I may so bold, “Don’t become obsessed with technology, for many evils lie along that path.”

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