On being ruled by devices

I recently sat in on a presentation delivered by the president of a prominent evangelical seminary. The topic was discipling the next generation–what some have nicknamed “the smartphone generation.” At one point, our presenter pulled out his own device. “The next generation will not remember a time without one of these,” he said.

That Zoomers are inured to supercomputers in their pockets is not shocking. But the point is usually meant as a set-up for a more audacious–but no less fashionable–assertion: because the next generation won’t remember a time without smartphones, they can’t imagine a future without them.

Hence, the countless articles from evangelicals about discernment and technology, all assuming a kind of techno-inevitability. These typically present as a moderated position between two extremes–a “third way” between total adoption and extreme luddism. Many writers have recently questioned the third way approach to politics. It’s time to do the same with technology.

In his insightful critique of a “third-way” approach to politics, James R. Wood focuses on retrieving the telos of politics itself. The same can be done–and is being done–for technology, especially with an eye toward emerging technologies like AI. But it is also important that we apply such questions to current technologies–even devices like smartphones which so many of us have grown accustomed to. As Jon Askonas points out in his essay, “Why Conservatism Failed,” it was the adoption of new technologies like the Pill that did more to transform the household than anything else. Like a steroid to a muscle, technology causes the nascent power of the idea to explode. Transgenderism lay dormant in academic circles for a while but has now arrived in mainstream culture largely because of innovation and advancement in sex-reassignment surgeries.

That Christians today are departing from historic Christian teaching about sex, gender, and contraception in the time it takes to fill a prescription or set-up an appointment is a warning to us today. What if the next major technological shift to threaten Christian discipleship isn’t sitting in some R&D lab but in our homes right now?

What I hope to offer is a practical diagnostic for Christians that helps them discern what technologies they will and will not adopt based on the purpose of technology to support humans in their calling to live freely before God and in community with one another. I call it the Terminator Test: does it aid human life, or does it try to replace it? I recently applied it in my own life to that smartphone I’m not supposed to imagine life without. Here’s what I learned.

Smartphones aren’t conducive to freedom

Everyone from Patrick Deneen to Death Cab for Cutie has discovered the crushing yoke of expectations placed on us by smartphones. So much was evident when I compared my life with a smartphone to someone without one.

As a user, I had special access to life online. I was accessible whenever and wherever. Every bit of content in the world was at my fingertips. And yet, I was far less free than the typical Amish man–an example Deneen employs in Why Liberalism Failed.

The Amish man’s religious views preclude him from owning a smartphone among many other modern devices. He has no internet access, no email, no social media, no online identity. And yet, he rises with the sun and sets his plow down as he wishes. He lives and dies by the fruits of his own labors. He joins his family every night for dinner, undistracted by emails or texts from a workaholic boss. He doesn’t receive a barrage of push notifications warning him of social media trends or new seasons of Netflix shows.

Moreover, Deneen says, the Amish man is free from the very techno-inevitability we assume of the smartphone generation:

We regard our condition as one of freedom, whereas from the standpoint of liberal modernity, adherents of Amish culture are widely perceived to be subject to oppressive rules and customs. Yet we should note that while we have choices about what kind of technology we will use–whether a sedan or a jeep, an iPhone or a Galaxy, a Mac or PC–we largely regard ourselves as subject to the logic of technological development and ultimately not in a position to eschew any particular technology. By contrast, the Amish–who seem to constrain so many choices–exercise choice over the use and adoption of technologies based upon criteria upon which they base their community. (107)

The Amish community makes free decisions about tech-adoption based on their religious and anthropological convictions. Masked by utilitarian language, most of us have our decisions made for us, and by extension, for our children. The Covid-19 pandemic only exacerbated the problem. Kids now need a barrage of apps, tablets, and computers to do the schoolwork many managed to do perfectly fine with pen and paper.

But smartphones have attacked an even more fundamental aspect of human life. Together with the internet, smartphones have effectively moved all meaningful public speech and dialogue online. Texts and tweets are now the way to engage family and friends, express outrage over injustices, and empathize with those who are suffering. But as those raised on smartphones know, you must hit send. If you don’t, you’re not just silent. You don’t actually exist.

“Out in this vast Binary Sea / Zeros and ones patterns appear / They’ll prove to all that we were here / For if there is no document / We cannot build our monument,” sings Ben Gibbard. Bound to the smartphone, he realizes, you’re not free to simply be.

Smartphones isolate us from one another

How can a device that claims its primary function to be connecting humans with one another affect real alienation? A quick glance in a public crowd reveals how smartphones atomize users and cause us to lose sight of those around us.

The sheer ubiquity of smartphones today suggests any nonuser either lacks the means to acquire one or simply refuses to adopt them. Of the latter, a majority are elderly. They may be naive to just how radical their declaration of freedom really is, but that doesn’t mean they don’t feel the cost of their resistance.

QR codes are replacing menus. A struggling airline industry wants to move every part of the travel experience to an app. My last rental car didn’t have GPS. “You just plug your phone in,” the agent said incredulously. Every time we complicate the basic contours of life with smartphones, we tear against entire sections of the social fabric–especially those who have gone before and go without.

As I learned on the subway, being without a smartphone makes you a pretty good target for grandmas and beggars. To my shame, I talked more with them that day than I had all last year. Most simply wanted to be seen and heard, connected to the community they feel is pushing them out. But in a world that is being remade in the image of smartphone users, their dignity and place in society is even more tenuous.

It’s not too late to turn back

In the end, I determined my smartphone was more Terminator than tool. With it in hand, I was more machine than man. So, I gave it up. I’ve been asked why I did so countless times now. I’ve discovered my answer naturally starts to sound more like a religious testimony than a product review.

I tell them that giving up a smartphone is hard work, like sanctification. But as painful as the process of growing out of established patterns can be, forming new ones according to the Creator’s design is massively rewarding.

But the initial leap of faith–of swapping the SIM cards–is daunting. The smartphone generation, and even Millennials like myself, don’t see them as our elders do. We build our very identities around them, occupying the universe they let us create around ourselves. With them, we make as the Heavenly Maker makes. But it is a false making, one that mistakes us as the little gods over our little worlds. I’ve learned giving something like that up is less like a calculated decision and more akin to leaving a cult.

I’m privileged enough to have a job that doesn’t require a smartphone. I know many don’t. Their costs are higher than mine and their penalties more severe. I also recognize that many will arrive at different places on various devices even while agreeing the third-way approach to technology is deficient. But as long as most of our elites are persuaded by techno-inevitably, all of us will be asked to plunge deeper into the abyss. It’s only going to get harder to dissent. If we are not able to ask these questions about current devices, we will be unable to ask them of future, more sinister technologies. 

This is neither an exercise in hysteria nor self-congratulation. Of sinners, I was the foremost. I found the Light by the courageous efforts of others. They are the builders in the Resistance against the Terminators. Most of us will be users. The best way we can serve the movement is by rejecting the current third-wayism and embracing a whole new paradigm for technology adoption.

Will we have dominion over our devices, or will it be the other way around?

*Image Credit: Unsplash