Taming Technology image

Taming Technology

Last week I received an email from my kids’ school explaining why from September phones & other mobile devices are going to be banned:

• While technology can bring advantages to teaching and learning its use in schools has been shown to have a negative impact on working memory.
• We increasingly see students using their mobile phones during break and lunchtimes instead of talking, laughing and getting involved in activities. Over time this impacts on the ability to form meaningful relationships and wider interests.
• Clearly the internet is an amazing tool and it is part of our role at school to educate your daughter to use it safely and wisely. Students do not need a mobile device to allow us to do that.
• Social media and the internet can be a needless distraction in the working day.
• The risks of over exposure to social media and the internet are well documented. They can also lead to online bullying and abuse. We want to work with you to reduce our students’ dependence and vulnerabilities to such media.

I thought this was both a good move on the part of the school and also fascinating – we seem to have reached something of a watershed in which the warnings about our technological dependency are sounding increasingly loud and clear.

Last Sunday I finished a three-part teaching series relating to technology (on the body; on sleep and death; and on phones & social media) so my ears have been especially attuned to stories and articles about the subject. There is so much for us to think about in this area but the huge benefits and downsides technology brings can be summed up with three words: Connectivity, Efficiency, Possibility.

Technology enables us to connect with more people, and at a greater distance, than ever before. I’m grateful for the ability to store countless names and contact details on my phone; I’m grateful I can talk easily – and for free! – to friends all around the world; I’m grateful for the ministry opportunities this connectedness brings.

But I also know that this connectivity is not all positive. Social media encourages me to keep adding contacts, even with people I don’t actually know, and too easily my sense of personal security and worth can begin to depend on how many ‘friends’ I have. Connectivity has a way of ever-expanding and filling whatever space is allocated to it – which means we can end up feeling we have to be permanently available to everyone: and that is prostitution, not freedom. Our connectivity means that people expect us to respond to them, even if we don’t know them. In the age of print media we didn’t expect the author of a book or magazine article to respond to our praise, criticism or questions – in the digital age we do. Why?! Connectivity can be exhausting.

I wouldn’t want to go back to the days before online banking. I like to be able to find exactly the product I want very quickly online and have it delivered where I want it when I want it. I like not having to queue at a ticket office or visit a travel agent to organise my entertainment and travel. The digital revolution allows us to be so much more efficient in so many areas of life.

But what offers us efficiency can in reality make us less productive, because it keeps us so distracted.

A remarkable piece of research reported in the Harvard Business Review on how our phones distract us concludes that,

[The] cognitive capacity is critical for helping us learn, reason, and develop creative ideas. In this way, even a small effect on cognitive capacity can have a big impact, considering the billions of smartphone owners who have their devices present at countless moments of their lives. This means that in these moments, the mere presence of our smartphones can adversely affect our ability to think and problem-solve — even when we aren’t using them. Even when we aren’t looking at them. Even when they are face-down. And even when they are powered off altogether.

(Emphasis added.)

Technology trains us to be distracted. The big tech companies want us to stay distracted. Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the rest don’t want us to focus but to keep coming back to them, so they can target us with personalised ads and earn more money! That might be efficient for them but it’s not for us.

Digital media has made so many things possible that were previously unimaginable. Technology can facilitate incredible creativity; it provides limitless business potential; it enables us to do things that just yesterday would have seemed incredible.

But this world of possibility also has its downsides. Firstly because as well as good possibilities technology expands our capacity for rebellion against God. (As an obvious example, just consider how many technological breakthroughs have been driven by the porn industry.) Secondly because the dream of possibility can itself become something that keeps us from focussing on the things we should. It is possibility that fuels FOMO – we can’t stop checking our email and Facebook and Instagram because there is the possibility we might miss out on something essential if we do.

Over coffee a friend identified this to me as the “I’m just…” phenomena. Even when we know we shouldn’t be distracted by our devices, when we know we’re meant to be focussing on the task or people physically in front of us, how often do we find ourselves saying, “I’m just…” Just answering a text, just booking an appointment, just checking the weather, just looking at Instagram… The device makes it possible for us to be present everywhere except the place we’re in.

Use, don’t be used
Humans are tool users. One of the reasons our phones are so addictive is that they fit in our hands in the most deliciously tactile tool-like way. But too often they are as destructive as a perfectly balanced hammer would be if we turned it on our own heads.

As I’ve been reflecting on these things I have developed a number of self-preservation techniques that help me keep technology as a tool I use rather than something I am used by. Not everyone will need to adopt the same techniques but I do think all of us need to be on the defensive – or we all just end up being used. The strategies I’m employing at the moment include these:

1. I’ve deleted my Facebook account. I don’t like the way Facebook monitors and profiles and sells. I don’t need hundreds of ‘friends’ I don’t even know. I don’t need the distraction. I just don’t need it.

2. I’ve taken Twitter off my phone. I can still access it via my laptop, but that takes slightly more effort and I’ve barely looked at it since Easter. I was just weary of it.

3. I’ve taken Strava off my phone. This was a biggie for me – constantly checking what my cycling and running friends had been up to – and feeling guilty if they were doing more or going faster than me. Like Twitter I can still access Strava on my laptop, but I’m not looking so often, and I’m feeling less guilty.

4. I’ve never had email on my phone – it’s just too demanding. I try to keep email within tight bounds, only checking it at certain points of the day rather than constantly toggling back and forth to it.

5. I’ve stopped using Google for search. As with Facebook I don’t like the way Google tracks and personalises and sells. So I’ve switched to DuckDuckGo, which doesn’t do those things.

6. I’m leaving my phone behind more often. Many people panic more if they forget their phones than if they were to forget their underwear – but once you get used to going technological commando it is incredibly liberating. Not having my phone with me cuts down on so many distractions. Ask yourself, “Will I really need my phone?” If you’re honest, most of the time you won’t.

7. I take screen fasts – points in the day, a day in the week, holidays, when I try not to have my head buried in a screen but to be present with myself, other people, and God. It feels good.

Technology is a gift – but so often that gift ends up as a burden. If we’re to be the humans we were created to be we need to tame it. It is meant to be our tool, not our master, idol or security blanket.

Go on – walk out the door without your phone. You can do it.

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