16 August, 2022

‘Continuous Partial Attention’: The Impact of Smartphones on Us, Our Kids, and Our Faith

by | 1 May, 2022 | 1 comment

By Tyler McKenzie

In a punchy scene from Gulliver’s Travels, the Lilliputians (the little people) think Gulliver’s clock is his god because he keeps checking it. After interrogating him, the Lilliputians conclude the following: “And we conjecture it is either some unknown animal, or the god that he worships; but we are more inclined to the latter opinion, because he assured us . . .  that he seldom did any thing without consulting it. He called it his oracle, and said, it pointed out the time for every action of his life.”

Already, in 1727, author and Irish clergyman Jonathan Swift was satirizing how enslaved humans are to time. It’s cutting cultural commentary. Fast-forward to today and ask yourself, What might the Lilliputians think our god is now? What do we check incessantly? What do we consult before we do anything? What is our oracle? Answer—the smartphone.

It’s the first and last thing we touch each day. We pick it up in unceasing intervals. We can’t leave home without it, or panic ensues. It sits face-up on the dinner table, next to us on the couch, on our nightstand while we sleep, and within arms-reach in the car. It owns us.

Smartphone Side Effects

Steve Jobs’s iPhone changed our lives in 2007 in much the same way Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press changed history in 1440. Smartphones have become such a problem that both iPhone and Android have developed features that monitor screen time. Each Sunday, when I get a screen time update, I wonder how I got anything done the previous week. The iPhone also has a “pick-ups” counter that will report how many times you pick up your phone. If you want a healthy dose of self-loathing, check it out.

The iPhone’s release started a smartphone explosion over the next decade and a half. By 2011, 35 percent of the American population owned a smartphone. Last year, Pew Research reported the number of smartphone users reached 85 percent.

Psychologist Jean M. Twengy published an article in The Atlantic in 2017 called “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The article reported an acceleration in all sorts of mental health problems, antisocial behaviors, and extended adolescence among youth starting in 2012. Twengy cited research to support the hypothesis and summarized it all by writing, “If you were going to give advice for a happy adolescence based on [our data], it would be straightforward: Put down the phone, turn off the laptop, and do something—anything—that does not involve a screen.”

If you are 25 or older, you can probably remember a time when you didn’t carry in your pocket this portal to everything. You remember boredom. You remember sitting in waiting rooms and . . . waiting. Maybe you’d pick up a well-worn magazine to read. You can remember killing time on long car drives by counting the number of different state license plates. Nowadays, before leaving on that long drive, you’d better be sure the tablets are charged “or we’re staying home!”

Incessant Interruptions

In 1998, Linda Stone coined the phrase, “Continuous partial attention” (and added that it “is our new default setting”). Boy, was she was right!

Carey Nieuwhof asked us to imagine that all the incessant buzzes, chirps, and rings on our phone are like knocks on the front door. Imagine: You wake up early . . . go to your prayer spot . . . coffee . . . Bible . . . journal . . . and you start to pray.

“Our Father, who art in heaven . . .” and all of a sudden, knock knock! You go to your “front door,” and it’s your friends from the group text. “Good morning! Check out allllllll these funny GIFS.” You roll your eyes, silence the thread, and head back to your spot.

“Hallowed be thy name. Thy king . . .” Knock knock! It’s your calendar, “Hey! Just alerting you to a meeting in an hour. Travel time is 12 minutes. Traffic is light.” OK, got it.

“Thy kingdom come. Thy . . .” Knock knock! “It’s mom. Just checking in.”

Knock knock! “I need an opinion on this report ASAP.”

Knock knock! “Want me to pick up a sandwich?”

It goes on and on and on . . .

Knock knock! “It might storm.” Knock knock! “Want cheese on that sandwich?” Knock knock! “You need some steps—get up and walk around!” Knock knock! “Did you hear what the president said?” Knock knock! “Here’s some random spam you didn’t order.” Knock knock! “Word on the street has it that . . .” Knock knock! “Did you wash my uniform?” Knock knock! Knock knock! Knock knock! All. Day. Long.

All of this scared James Williams, a 10-year Google veteran who was part of the team that masterminded the data-driven advertising model we know all too well. (His work won him the Founder’s Award, Google’s highest honor for employees.) Yet, as he watched the product of his work, he began to feel uneasy. He noticed how distracting and addicting it was. He was horrified his technology could chop into pieces and then colonize every moment of human attention.

Fast-forward a few years, and Williams won the Nine Dots Prize for his scathing critique of the tech industry. He wrote, “The liberation of human attention may be the defining moral and political struggle of our time.”

Tech-Free Techies

Do you think Williams is a conspiracy theorist with anxiety? Google CEO Sundar Pichai told the New York Times in 2017 that his 11-year-old son doesn’t have a phone. Pichai said his family has rules regarding technology. “At home, our television is not easily accessible, so that there is activation energy before you can easily go watch TV. I’m genuinely conflicted . . .”

Pichai isn’t the only techie genuinely conflicted. Stories out of Silicon Valley tell of tech executives who pay for their kids to go to device-free schools, such as the Waldorf School in San Francisco. The Times wrote,

Inside a concrete block at the top of a hill in San Francisco, 27 nine-year-olds are handed needles and ordered to sew. Across the hall, eight-year-olds churn butter by hand, while downstairs four-year-olds are busy carrying out their duties: sweeping up, washing dishes and dehydrating fruit. This is not a child-labour camp in the heart of America’s richest city. It is a school, and among the tech crowd it has become much sought after. The San Francisco Waldorf School, you see, has a strict “no screens” policy. In fact, it is deliberately “analogue,” a throwback to a time when it was all blackboards, pencils and paper—but with a new-age twist. . . .

CBS News reported nearly 75 percent of Waldorf students have parents who work in tech. The tech elite in America, The Times concluded, are paying “up to $40,000 a year to wall off their kids from their creations.”

I guess their technology is OK for your kids, just not their kids.

The Power of Unplugging

The Hippocratic Oath is an ancient pledge in which physicians vow to practice medicine with the highest ethical standards. A thousand years ago, some Christian doctors made it their own.

I wonder, When will “Big Tech” adopt something like a Hippocratic Oath? I would encourage Christian leaders serving in tech not to wait for the government to intervene or for their bosses to get a conscience. Embrace the existing ethical standards and lift them higher.

And church leaders, we may not have influence over the consciences of the big technology companies, but we do have influence over our congregations. One of our highest responsibilities in this moment is to help our people unplug from distractions and rediscover intimacy with God.

Continuous partial attention is spiritually devastating when it is our default setting because it debilitates our capacity to pray. In other words, it hampers our ability to hear, see, adore, petition, experience, and commune with God. And Christians can’t have a relationship with God without prayer . . . at least not much of one.

Tyler McKenzie

Tyler McKenzie serves as lead pastor at Northeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky.

1 Comment

  1. Joel Suggs

    Mr. McKenzie,
    I’ve never owned a smartphone.
    I was born in 1960, and am a groupie of the Amish/Anabaptists. Our children did not own one until they were 18. I prayed God would give our children two main things: physical health and an attention span. He has answered our prayer, beautifully.
    They both attended CCU…We heard you speak at our son’s graduation ceremony in ’17.
    I like your observations here.
    Thanks very much for writing about this topic.
    Sincerely, Joel Suggs – Cincinnati, Ohio

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