12 August, 2022

The Slavery of the Digital World

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by | 1 July, 2022

How to Break the Chains and Build a Tech-Wise Life for You and Your Children

By Tyler McKenzie

I believe history will remember 2007 as a defining year. Why? In 2007, a nuclear-sized tech explosion occurred. Facebook transitioned from a college to global phenomenon. Twitter went global. “The cloud” took off. Hadoop began expanding the ability of any company to store and analyze enormous amounts of unstructured data (which enabled big data and cloud computing). Amazon released its first Kindle. Google introduced Android. And (drumroll please) Steve Jobs introduced the first-generation iPhone. As I mentioned in my May/June Engage column (pp. 12-14), by 2012, more than 50 percent of Americans owned a smartphone. Last year, Pew Research reported the number had reached 85 percent.

If you were born in the 21st century, you are what sociologists call “digital natives”—you don’t remember a time when smartphones were not prevalent.

Children and young adults are seemingly captivated by their screens and social media for hours on end, and yet researchers say they are experiencing an acceleration of mental health problems, anti-social behaviors, and extended adolescence.  

Sherry Turkle, a sociologist and psychologist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, suggests that devices which accompany us everywhere introduce a brand-new dynamic to the parent-child relationship. Children—rather than just competing with siblings for their parents’ attention—now must compete for attention against iPhones and iPads, Siri and Alexa, Apple watches and computers. Turkle writes, “A generation has grown up that has lived a very unsatisfying youth and really does not associate their phones with any kind of glamour, but rather with a sense of deprivation.”

Building a ‘Tech Rule of Life’

I’m not anti-tech. Technological innovation is a form of cultivating the earth (Genesis 2:15, New American Standard Bible) and an exercise of the mind. When technology advances for the good of humanity, we are operating in our God-given sweet spot as a species. However, as technology advances at breakneck speed, we should be asking, Has our tech outpaced our ethics? The problem is we automatically assume that new means good, progress means better, and easier means happier. Subsequently, we do no real theological reflection on these advancements until it’s too late.

I believe the best solution is to build a “Tech Rule of Life.” This puts tech in its proper place under the rule of Jesus. A rule of life is a set of intentional rhythms and restrictions you accept to keep you (and your kids) walking in the way of Jesus. They are like bumpers at a bowling alley; as you roll down the lane of life, a good rule keeps you on track toward the goal.

Tech-Wise Values for Families

In Andy Crouch’s book The Tech-Wise Family, he lays out his family’s tech rule of life. It is very thoughtful. He’s way further down the road than me. He begins by introducing six big-picture values upon which a rule of life can be built. I’ll summarize five of them:

1. We use tech to build our closest relationships. Crouch writes, “Technology is in its proper place when it helps us bond with the real people we have been given to love. It’s out of its proper place when we end up bonding with people at a distance, like celebrities, whom we will never meet.”

As I wrote this, I pulled up the front page of the Wall Street Journal and with just a few clicks I could give you a full profile on the stock market. I can tell you about iPhone sales in China, Elon Musk’s latest entrepreneurial adventure, and the best and worst airlines of 2021. I can tell you about the spread of hunger in Afghanistan and drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. But can I tell you my neighbor’s name? Tech is out of its proper place when I’m giving most of my attention to that in which I have little investment rather than the people I have real power to shape.

2. We use tech to have healthy conversations. Crouch writes, “Technology is in its proper place when it starts great conversations. It’s out of its proper place when it prevents us from talking with and listening to one another.”

Tech distracts us from being good conversation partners, and conversations on social media are generally unhealthy. People either rage on each other or engage in self-promotion. It’s our own little stage where we perform for the attention (or pity) of others.

Have you ever noticed that we cast ourselves as the hero, sage, or victim in every post? “Look at my holy rage! Look at my accomplishment! Look at my suffering! My brilliant political take! My perfect marriage! My glamorous social life! How sophisticated I am! Look at me!” It’s not about conversation. It’s about egotism and outrage.

3. We use tech while remaining mindful of our physical limits. Crouch writes, “Technology is in its proper place when it helps us take care of the fragile bodies we inhabit. It’s out of its proper place when it promises to help us escape the limits and vulnerabilities of those bodies altogether.”

When tech is causing us to lose sleep and stay up late, when it’s turning our lives sedentary, when it’s making us constantly available to work (even on weeknights, then on weekends, then on the Sabbath and while on vacation, and then during worship services), it’s not healthy.

4. We use tech for cultivation, not consumption. Crouch writes, “Technology is in its proper place when it helps us acquire skill and mastery of domains that are the glory of human culture. . . . [But] when we let technology replace the development of skill with passive consumption, something has gone wrong.”

One of the great dystopian portrayals of this is in the film WALL-E, a masterpiece from Pixar. Here’s my overzealous synopsis: When the people leave our trashed planet on a spaceship, tech takes over. It makes life easy. People live to consume rather than cultivate or create. They grow more sedentary, unskilled, and obese with each generation. Tech locks them into this cycle, which ends up being a downward spiral into meaninglessness and unhappiness. Yet the brave captain, Wall-E, and Eve defeat the evil tech. The captain takes everyone back to earth with a plant. The movie ends with a comical scene where they walk out of the ship and he tells the kids, “You kids are gonna grow all kinds of plants. Vegetable plants. Pizza plants!”

Point is, comfort doesn’t build character, passivity doesn’t build courage, and luxury doesn’t build wisdom. What makes our era of technology different is our tech works by itself. For all human history, technologies were things like farming tools or weapons. All of which require human effort. Now we have Roombas that sneak out while we’re at work and cars that are learning to drive themselves.

5. We use tech to cherish the created world. Crouch writes, “Technology is in its proper place when it helps us cultivate awe for the created world we are part of and responsible for stewarding. . . . It’s out of its proper place when it keeps us from engaging the wild and wonderful natural world with all our senses.”

This one is self-explanatory. Go for a walk! Leave your phone! Every experience doesn’t have to be documented, shared, and experienced secondhand through a screen.

Real-Life Practices

From this values-rich soil, we can begin to build a tech rule of real-life practices. These practices aim to limit tech in healthy ways and leverage it to nurture our faith. What follows is a list of practices I’ve mostly stolen from others.

  • Start with a digital detox (and repeat when necessary). This is exactly what it sounds like—30 days off all technology not essential to your job. We’re addicts. We don’t have the discipline to cut back just a little. We need to start with something radical.
  • Implement the 1-1-1 Rule. Go phone-free one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year.
  • Do not permit screen usage during meals.
  • Do not permit screen usage during worship.
  • Do not permit screen usage at big life events. I officiate lots of weddings. Five years ago, it was popular to have a wedding hashtag. People could snap pics of the party and post them in one place. Today the trend has flipped. Weddings have quickly gone from hashtags to “unplugged services.” I’ve asked new couples why they insist on this, and they say something like, “We don’t want to see people’s phones; we want to see their eyes and their smiles.”
  • Shape space around conversation. How is the most comfortable room in your home shaped and furnished? What’s the centerpiece? Is it the TV?
  • Share passwords with spouses; parents have total access to kids’ devices.
  • Set time limits for everyone’s screens.
  • Permanently switch phones to DND (do not disturb).
  • Turn off notifications.
  • Don’t load social media apps onto phones.
  • Don’t start the day with your phone. Don’t let a newsfeed or timeline set your emotional temperature for the day.
  • Limit unnecessary phone usage in front of kids.
  • Don’t reward kids with more screen time.
  • Limit tech usage to one screen at a time.
  • Watch only quality television. This one is big. We should consume entertainment for art, learning, formation, and fun. Stay away from the tawdry stuff that capitalizes on the thrill of violence or sex.

Your Rules and Rhythms Determine Your Life

When it comes to technology, you already have a rule of life. You already have screen habits that are forming you into who you will be over the long haul. You have shaped your homes around what you want to shape you. You have social media habits. You have a weekend rhythm. You have a morning routine when you wake up and an evening routine when you wind down. You may have drifted into it unconsciously—you may never have written it down—but it is forming you.

I lovingly encourage you to put tech in its proper place. A good rule doesn’t constrict you; rather, it frees you from the slavery of the digital world. You will be less anxious and angry, more joyful and present in the moment. You won’t turn your brain off to mindless consumption, you’ll turn your brain on to people, nature, and learning.

You will read more, chat more, notice more, and hang more with loved ones. You will get hours of your time back. You will get your attention span back. It will be easier to pray and read Scripture. Also, you won’t hand your soul over to politicians, brands, social media platforms, apps, and news corporations each day.

Your rules and rhythms will determine your life. Build a rule worth living.

Tyler McKenzie

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

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