Should We Engage Digital Media? Why Unplugging Isn’t the Answer by Jonathan Cutrell

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living.” - Annie Dillard

Every day, the average adult in the United States wakes up and immediately engages with some type of digital media for the majority of the day. That’s not a euphemism; including the time spent sleeping, eating, working - in everything we do, we spend more time with digital media than any other activity in our lives.

On average, U.S. adults spend over 12 hours a day consuming digital media.

Three out of four US adults own smartphones, and check them over 100 times a day.

What else do you do, consciously, more than 100 times a day? What else do you do that takes over 12 hours of your day?

With the emphasis on digital media only growing, there has been a major backlash—specifically, a moral backlash—against mass consumption culture. The concern revolves around the loss of sacred human experience, a lack of authenticity, the dangers of mass amounts of information readily available, and the growth of narcissism.

But not everyone sees it this way.

According to a recent Qualtrics study about Millennials, just over half of millennials believe technology has improved their relationships, and 91% believe they have a healthy relationship with technology. In the same study, over half of Boomers believe that technology has ruined their relationships.

Not as many studies have been done regarding Generation Z yet. However, we do know a few things about them. Some early studies are encouraging. Gen Z’s sense of fiscal responsibility exceeds that of millennials, and many are already saving for retirement at a very young age. However, other research shows the relationship between teenagers, social media activity, screen time, suicidal behavior, depression, and other negative consequences. For the first time in 24 years, the suicide rate is higher than the homicide rate for teenagers. In 2015, 3 times more 12-14 year old girls committed suicide than in 2007. Quoting from a September article in The Atlantic:

Teens who spend three hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide, such as making a suicide plan.

This data suggests that lots of screen time and a lack of “in person” time is a contributing factor to unhappiness and isolation in teenagers.

This complex relationship with technology between generations has led to impassioned messages from pulpits on the dangers of technology, the evilness of our televisions, and the hidden darkness behind the dark screens we spend so much time engaging.

The solution according to many of that Boomer generation (and some of the Luddite-esque counter-culture millennials) is to unplug and avoid digital media all together, as often as possible. And, in some ways, this is an effective strategy; if there are no screens, there can be no problem caused with screens. “A ship in harbor is safe — but that is not what ships are built for.”

Certainly, we may benefit from some digital sensory deprivation therapy. Indeed, the practice of technological abstinence is a popular variant of “detox.” Culture seems to be catching on to the strange darkness that seems to lift when they forget their phone at home one day, and yet we remain in an infinite loop, returning to the devices that promise an easier life, more connections, and an app for everything.

We even have apps for using apps less, like the app “Space.” (The rich irony in this particular case is the app mentioned was created by Dopamine Labs, a company that directly and shamelessly engineers digital applications to trigger dopamine releases, leading to addictive behaviors.)

As a parent, it’s difficult and perhaps even impossible to determine what level of engagement with screens is appropriate for my child. As with most things, the easiest solution is drastic - falling to one side or the other on the dichotomy. Moderation, of course, is harder to grasp than giving in or giving up.

While unplugging can be a good practice to develop self control, awareness, and perspective, abstaining from digital devices as they are directly poisoning your mind is akin to fasting for the purpose of avoiding obesity. The point of practicing the former is shadowed by the fear of the latter.

Adolescents with Adolescent Technology

Growing up, I learned about computers from my father. I will always remember the sound of dial-up ringing through the house, and the anticipation I would feel as the page load speed slowed to a halt. I knew that I had been “bumped” - someone had called our house phone, interrupting my AIM chat.

I grew up with the Internet. No, not in the sense that I had it all along - but rather that as I grew up, so too did the Internet. Many millennials share this reality - the awareness of a distant past where the Internet was relegated to “You’ve Got Mail” for 30 minutes with an after school snack. And even further back, when TV was the only screen we had.

I was fortunate to have strong Christian leadership at home. My parents presented a united front, loving but firm. The moral compass was set out on the table in the form of a Bible and an unwavering weekly church attendance schedule. I was taught about hard work, dedication to excellence, integrity, and loving my neighbor. I was taught moderation. I was taught that little good could happen after midnight. I was taught about the dangers of lust and the freedom in honesty.

And, while learning those things, I learned to engage technology. First, a time limit to play Super Mario on Nintendo 64. A similar restriction on time sitting in front of the TV. Then, with a quota set on my internet usage. Isn’t everything moderated when you have the regimented schedule of an adolescent? The schedule of school left me and other millennials with little choice in the matter; our screens were shut off, and we went to a fully present-world place, both physically and mentally.

If we look closely, we see a parallel phenomenon that deserves more attention. The technology advancement itself acted as a moderator of engagement. The speed and availability of the Internet, for example, left me on my own with my thoughts rather than a distraction while laying in bed before falling asleep.

In this sense, the firehose we have today wasn’t turned on drastically and in one swift motion, but instead slowly and smoothly.

My parents didn’t know the effect of their teaching on my future interaction with the Internet. And though I didn’t avoid every bit of darkness the screens had to offer, I was given the opportunity to apply that moderation and ethic to my interactions online.

Of course, as with most cultural shifts, the younger generations adopted social media usage first. I and my friends were on MySpace years before my parents even knew what the word Facebook meant, much less participating. And so, while millennials were parented and moderated through our adoption process of these massively powerful technologies, the boomer generation was not.

As millennials were leaving home for college, Boomers began adopting Facebook. The helicopter parent just earned an even lower hovering privilege.

But a major difference was at play during this late adoption. The Boomers were unfettered - their access to technology essentially unlimited. By the time these social platforms had critical mass of adoption, technology no longer limited access to 30 minutes and a dial-up connection; instead, Facebook found its way into everyone’s pocket. Furthermore, Boomers have more time and space than ever. With an empty nest and no parents telling them what to do, the only restriction left to contend with is their job and their own willpower to put social media on hold. And even work doesn’t hold them back; some studies suggest over 60% of individuals visit sites like LinkedIn or Facebook every day during work hours.

In many ways, the Boomer generation is technologically adolescent, but the technology itself is mature. This gives way to a potentially damaging mismatch, like a high schooler thrown into a full-time job.

And yet, though the usage of technology is rapidly growing amongst this group of people, so are the cries of fear and warnings of the nefarious agendas embedded in the screen.

Rejecting the Idea of Organic Technology, and Surveying the Agenda of the Technologist

The technology does not advance on its own. The advancement comes from the intentioned efforts of individuals. These individuals have a stake in the advancement, and this is worth looking at to understand where technology comes from.

Technology is often treated as a cold and inhuman thing - calculated, almost alien. A distant discoverable resource. And yet technology is human - a pure expression of direct manipulation of elements and physics by human hands. In this way, it is no different than cultivating the land for food, at an atomic level. Somewhere between the atomic level and the metaphysical realm, there lies the human intention.

Humans involved in the creation and advancement of various technology approach with an agenda. We have common agendas - hierarchies of needs, for example. We have cultural agendas, adopted in response to cultural situations or historical events. We have sub-cultural agendas, adopted as a response to belief. And, we have individual agendas, informed by all kinds of unique experiences.

It would be unwise to ignore these agendas as we interact with them. In this way, we are paying attention to the company we keep. This is a biblical mandate with many references supporting being mindful of the people you associate with. 1 Corinthians 15:33 says: “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company ruins morals.’” This simple truth should inform our thinking and behavior in all things, not only in who we choose to be physically present with. If technology is an extension of humanity, then are we not keeping some company when engaging technology?

It is important, for example, to recognize that some digital platforms are created with the specific intent of creating addictive behavior and incessant return to the platform. These platforms are often funded by advertising dollars, and the advertising dollars are earned as a direct metric from attention garnered. Thus the bottom line for the company creating these platforms is directly affected by the amount of time you spend engaging it. Their incentive is shaped not by the quality of your life, but the quantity of your time. If we participate in this cycle, we must recognize the part of the machine we play.

If we participate mindlessly, we become the target of designed addiction. If we participate mindfully, we must know that we are not immune to failure. Remind yourself of the biblical perspective on getting to close to a dangerous thing. Proverbs 6:27 - Can a man scoop a flame into his lap and not have his clothes catch on fire?

Separating the Creation from the Material

We also know that we are made in God’s image. In response to that creation, we in turn have the opportunity to form voids into something meaningful.

Technology is, again, the rearrangement of atoms, but not at random. With intent, we can shape technology for the sake of positive and righteous efforts. Empowerment over addiction. Empathy over jealousy. Intimacy over voyeurism. Vulnerability over lust and power. Learning over binging. Awe over horror. Integrity over performance. Protection over exploitation. Accountability over secrecy.

The material is not the determining factor; these elements have no other intrinsic nature to them. What we do and how we do it - that is what imbues technology with meaning.

Caring for the shape of our effects matters. Caring about the negative results of a valorous effort - that becomes our job.

The fear of technology and the fear of change

Fear of change is nothing new; it’s embedded into our nature. We fear change because the unknown path may entail a less than desirable outcome, while the known path is one we have endured before. We believe that what we have endured before, we may endure once again. It is safe.

We experience change throughout our lives, and yet our brains seek a sense of homeostasis - a stable sameness that is responsible for the term “normal range” as it relates to our vital signs. But homeostasis isn’t limited to our physical being - it is also related to our spirituality and psychology.

We are instinctively comfortable with the familiar. We resist changes to our paradigm, as rebuilding from the ground up may cause a sense of loss for the years when our paradigm was incomplete. Psychologically, we also have an innate drive to remain consistent with our commitments.

Our resistance to change is responsible for much conflict in the church, the home, and on the bridges between generations. It is also likely responsible for the fear of technological advancement.

Technology is knowledge, knowledge creates change, and change incites fear

In the 1600s-1800s, a group of individuals known as the Luddites destroyed textile machines that threatened their jobs. The fear of the technology wasn’t specifically a fear of the machine, but rather a fear for their own interests. The knowledge and skills that these workers acquired through training was now going to be replaced, putting them out of a job or dropping their pay significantly.

What does technology do? Unless we are discussing artificial intelligence and the manufacturing of independent consciousness, technology is ultimately a shifting of knowledge from the human mind into a machine form. This shift has many effects, which are distinguishable throughout history.

The Invention of Knowledge Sharing

The invention of the printing press took the knowledge necessary to create lettering on a page, and put that knowledge into a machine. This allowed the machine operator to use their mind and efforts operating the machine, which was much more efficient than the hand-letterer. The result of this innovation propagated the spread of knowledge in written form to a massive audience, simply because the leveraged knowledge of letter-printing was transferred to a machine.

In a way, the invention of the printing press had exponential effect. It not only made the process of letter-printing, previously a task requiring much skilled knowledge, trivial, but it also opened an avenue for knowledge sharing en masse.

The invention of computers gave us a new way to embed knowledge into machines. Computers could be likened to an advanced printing press; taking the symbolic information we have stored in our minds, and transferring it to magnetized disks that can be read and duplicated at a massive scale. In this way, the computer is the machine that allows the creation of new machines.

The exponential knowledge sharing that has occurred as a result of computing has caused a number of incredibly deep and wide cultural shifts.

  • Immediacy of information - If something happens anywhere in the world, we can find out related details, immediately.
  • Stage presence - each of us has a relatively cheap (or free) platform on which we can reach people and speak publicly.
  • Individualism - Because of the immediacy of information and the ability to develop a stage presence, people have shifted back towards highly individualistic perspectives on life, cultivated through their own personal consumption and creation of media.

These shifts have obviously caused major change in culture, and this major change has triggered the message of rejection mentioned before.

But what is being rejected - the inevitable changes in our world as a result of the spreading and sharing of knowledge at an exponentially faster rate, or the technology (the computers) themselves? Are we treating computers the same way the Luddites treated the textile machinery?

If we want to have input into the future of our world, we must participate in the creation and continuation of good in our culture - that is, in digital media. Knowledge changes people.

(Plethora of bible verses about knowledge, admonishing that knowledge is not to be avoided, but instead embraced.)

Proverbs 18:15 ESV
An intelligent heart acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge.
But it is the knowledge of God that is perfect and good.

If we want to take part in the world and in the sharing of the knowledge of God, we must participate in the creation and continuation of good in the knowledge transfer of digital media.

Unplugging is not the answer; self awareness, control, mindfulness, and intentionality is the answer.

The fears, then, have been reduced to a fear of change or loss of control. The answer isn’t to avoid technology, as we must participate in digital media to share the knowledge of God with the world. It is, instead, to meet our challenge face to face, fearless and trusting God to guide us. To seek self awareness, mindfulness, and self-control, and to intentionally engage digital media and technology. Furthermore, not only to engage by consumption, but to engage by creation - to interact with and build the knowledge of God by advancing good in the media sphere. To open conversations, as occurs here on Q, about our morality; to not avoid change, but instead to invite change. Not to destroy the machine, but instead use it as the printing press was used to print the Gutenberg Bible: to spread the knowledge of God, good, and loving one another.

How can we practice intentionality and self control in an increasingly noisy digital space?

Here are a few practical ways to develop good habits while participating in our digitally rich culture.

1. Make consumption an intentional and trackable activity.

Don’t allow yourself to fall into the trap of mindless surfing (channels, or the web, or the App store, or social media feeds, or news feeds…). Plan your engagement with all things digital. Treat this as a budget of energy. No, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t browse and read spontaneously necessarily, but rather that you should make it a practice to be mindful of where your energy is going. One way to do this is to take notes as you browse. Open a note app, or keep your favorite physical pad next to your computer, and write down thoughtful or important parts of your browsing experience. If you find yourself doing anything out of habit, ask: “Does this contribute to my life in a meaningful way?”

You have limited attention in a given day. Recognize where it goes, and decide how you prioritize that attention with thoughtfulness. Do not allow yourself to fall prey to wandering and gazing without intent; everything on purpose.

2. When you share on social channels, have a reason.

Have you ever wanted to ask your friend, “Why are you posting that selfie?” (I’ll assume you don’t take selfies, as this is a sophisticated publishing platform.) Perhaps the answer is a little bit uncomfortable. I imagine the conversation, if we were totally honest, would go like this.

You: Why are you posting that selfie?

Them: Because I want my friends to see where I am.

You: What friends?

Them: The ones that follow me on Instagram.

You: Why do you want them to see where you are?

Them: Because I feel good about where I am, and I want to validate my appearance, both physically and socially. I also have a feeling of incompleteness that I can only fill by pursuing relationship building and performing my life online.

Of course, this is incredibly contrived, but also quite likely to be true. Before you post something online, think about why you are posting it. What is the goal? Is it a personal goal? Are you developing real relationships, or are you creating a public performance or spectacle to gain attention? Make it a habit to have and know your reasons, and attune those reasons to something meaningful and valorous.

3. Prefer Excellent Creation Over Mindless Consumption

If you create bad content, no one cares. You are wasting your time, and you aren’t being a steward of your talents if you create things of less-than-incredible quality. If what you are publishing, building, or otherwise sharing with the world is sub-par, don’t share it at all. This excellence will shine and allow your efforts to matter.

4. Maintain a core sense of identity, and derive your participation from that identity

What you know, who you know, and what you share are not your identity. Your identity can only truly be found in Christ. When we place our worth in our relationships with people, regardless of the digital sphere, we trade our true identity in favor of a fleeting, cheap, hollow, counterfeit identity. This is the start of the downward cycle of pursuit of value that can never be satisfied.

Retain the boundary between your identity and your interactions in life, both in the digital sphere and in your physical world.

5. Participate confidently, but with awareness

Take the time to decide whether your participation on a platform is going to reflow the river of time in your favor, or against it. Will it negatively affect the people you are close to? Those for whom you are responsible - your family? Your friends? Will it take time away from you that you wish you could regain? Will it tend to tempt you towards evil thinking?

Remember the effects of seemingly neutral things. The air conditioner, encouraging individuals to spend time inside their homes, resulted in fewer people meeting in neighborhoods. An innocuous technology that improved the quality of life, but had unintended consequences.

When designing technology, consider these second-order consequences. Do you know what you are affecting? Are you willing to address the unknowns if they occur? This is the only way to responsibly participate: with full conviction that what you move from one place

6. Treat technology as a passing artifact, here today and gone tomorrow

Each of the technologies we use is a temporal artifact, readily erased. If we are eternity-minded individuals, we know that our creations here on earth, whatever they are, are temporal. The temporality of these things should remain present in our minds, and if there is an eternal reason to extinguish something temporal, so be it. Do not defend technology for its own sake, but rather only as a means to connect the temporal understanding to a better picture of the Kingdom. A place to be cultivated, and to express the redemptive reality of the Kingdom of Christ, where there is otherwise darkness surrounding.

Consider always whether you are spending your time well. Does something stand in the way of you fulfilling your Kingdom-oriented purpose? The one we all share, the Great Commission, or your own personal call? Remember the mentality of Paul - practicing a daily death of self. It’s easy to utter, but difficult to put into practice. Perhaps today’s death is deleting a social media account, not based on a fearful message, but rather on a mindful imperative of intentionality.

Ultimately, technology is agnostic; an expression of humanity, birthed simply out of our existence and the broken shadow we cast in the shape of our Creator. Our participation with technology, however, should be put on display in front of our eyes. Are we seeking life-giving behavior in step with the fruits of the spirit? Or, are we falling prey to our brokenness, feeding it through mindless subsistence? Binging, jealousy, deceit, withdrawal, idleness, laziness, narcissism, loneliness, anxiety, bullying, perversion, lust, violence, gossip, closed-mindedness - these destructive behaviors are to be avoided. Does your participation with technology lead you towards these, or other evils?

If I could admonish you towards one thing, it is to simply be mindful of your participation with technology and digital media. As C.S. Lewis characterizes in Screwtape Letters in the voice of the nefarious demon Screwtape:

It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.