“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.)
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.