No doubt most of us have not only taken up an act of mortification for these 40 days of Lent, but also a positive act of holiness as a means of deepening our commitment to our faith. However, I would like to offer some suggestions about an area of our lives where more of us could do with a little more asceticism not only during Lent, but year-round as well. It is how we interact with our cellphones on a daily basis.
In the book Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction is Hijacking Our Kids—And How to Break the Trance, author Nicholas Kardaras notes that today's young people, as a result of having grown up in a world that has never been without smart phones, are spending more time staring at screens than their predecessors. So much so that physicians are seeing an increase in a spinal, lower back, and even joint problems as a result of excessive cellphone use. Something we have all seen and possibly even cringed at, as we've walked through a crowded room with nary a soul interacting with one another.
As someone who watched a lot of TV as a kid but eventually grew out of the habit, I was willing to chalk these mannerisms up to being the latest generational “thing” that today's youth would also in time outgrow. However, according to Kardaras this does not seem to be happening, and after I actually read one of the sources cited in a talk given by Ascension Press's Fr. Mike Schmitz, I realized that the problem went far beyond bad posture.
The Dark Side of Our Tech Obsession
In his 2010 book The Shallows-What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, author Nicholas Carr describes how despite having access to more information than in any other time in history, we seem to be losing our ability to retain, make sense of, let alone gain any wisdom from our ever-growing knowledge because of the virtual manner in which information is transmitted over the internet. Several chapters of the book go into great detail about how over two decades of empirical studies have, with few exceptions, pointed to the fact that our overuse of the internet has negatively affected our cognitive processes, even to the point of stunting physical neural growth in some cases. Carr sums up the issue by stating,
“What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”
What this means is that our overuse of the internet has conditioned the brains of far too many people to both physically and mentally engage life in a very “shallow” manner. All the while the rich cognitive and emotional (to say nothing of spiritual) depths of our human experience are left untapped.
Now, thanks to the sheer ubiquity of smart phones, tablets, and even watches, which are now the dominant way people access the internet, this conditioning has only increased. These devices have become what Irish vlogger Dave Cullen calls “the Ego in my hand”, whereby people have allowed themselves to become trapped in a vicious symbiotic relationship dedicated to their mutually assured distraction.
On one side you have people who play the role of a kind of reality TV star, by weaving a narrative about themselves in order to elicit a prescribed set of responses from viewers. And on the other side you have people who practice what I call techno-occultism in which their devices act as modern day scouring devices, with which they peer into the depths of cyberspace in order to pry into the lives of other people. A “space” that, in a world that has largely left God behind, has been imbued with a spiritual quality that makes it into a kind of man-made mockup of the real spiritual realm. A fake world that nevertheless still draws both groups of people into it, because they believe they can acquire some sort of knowledge, wisdom, or even intimacy with others that for some reason they feel they can't find in the real world.
But What About Personal Agency?
I can already see the comments that these personal devices are like any other inanimate object, and are only as “good” or “bad” as the person using it. Normally I would agree, but in this specific case however, I would be more cautious in making that assertion. According to former Google insider Tristan Harris, Google and the rest of Silicon Valley, in their quest for market dominance, made the decision long ago to win what Harris termed the “race to the brain stem.”
They not only deliberately designed programs such as Facebook or SnapChat, but also the actual look and feel of smart phone themselves, to bypass the brain's higher functioning centers and instead target its success and reward mechanisms. Hence, when you use a smartphone, even if you don't use social media, you are still using a device that has been tweaked and refined for the last two decades to not be put down.
I think at an instinctual level, we all realize this and as MIT professor and author of Alone Together, Shelly Turkle has stated, the instinct is correct:
“Technology proposes itself as the architect of our intimacies and today there is no coyness about is aspirations to substitute life on the screen with the other kind. Technology is seductive when its affordances meet our human vulnerabilities.”
Perhaps living as we do in a world where all of the hard realities of physical survival have been virtually eliminated, it is not surprising that we would turn inwards to find new problems to solve. As a species we have always designed tools and techniques to help us tame the world around us, but now it seems that for the first time in history we are designing tools to shape the world inside of us.
For it is one thing to design devices to aid us in doing routine mental operations, but another thing entirely to try and quantify and configure the habits of our hearts, let alone all the other operations of our immortal soul. And yet as Kardaras, Carr, and Turkle all point out, we are living in a world filled with personal devices that have been designed and are being used to do just that.
Thus in the end, the solution to our culture's infatuation with smart phones is not going to be found in the device or any sort of app for it. The problem is not with the smartphone, it is with you. It is about you dealing with the “vulnerabilities” in your life, especially the ones that are most apt to be used against you in the form of some Silicon Valley marketing strategy.
Tips for Going Forward
I do find it fascinating that Shelly Turkle referrer to technology's attempts to draw us in as meeting our “vulnerabilities.” It is a good word, and an apt description of the our own struggle with sin, and how we as Christians already have a means, in the person of our Blessed Lord, for our vulnerabilities to be assuaged.
And it is through prayer, fasting, mortification, and almsgiving that we can hold the allure of those vulnerabilities at bay, but more importantly they make us more amendable to receive God's grace which is the only means by which we can overcome them entirely. This is why Lent is the perfect time to rethink the way we use our smart phones or other personal devices, so that we can be freer to devote more of our hearts and minds to God.
So much has already been written about the various practices that we can do to recalibrate the way we use our smart phones—turn off notifications, text less and talk more, turn off all devices at least an hour before bed, and as much as possible put away all electronic devices on Sundays and other holy days. All of them are good and go a long ways to help keep one's perspective that smart phones at the very least should be seen as tools to accomplish certain tasks, and not a toy with which to indulge in an adolescent frame of mind, which is already too prevalent in our culture (don't get me started!).
The only one I would add is a trick I heard Catholic speaker Timmerie Millington mention once, and this is use the Greyscale function on your phone, so that you screen is in black and white. It sounds odd, but after listening to Tristan Harris talk about how much Google and Facebook uses the color red for their notifications specifically to use our warning instincts against us in order to get us to use their product, I knew it was true. Try it for 40 days and see what happens!