Adolescence and the Pings, Not Pong
Adolescents have been offered a license to post without any accompanying ethical framework. Is it fair to blame teens for misusing tools that didn’t exist in our childhood? If I had been given a phone with an ability to take and post pictures when I was thirteen, I would not have photographed many things to be proud of. What kinds of public mistakes would I have made if emboldened by this new possibility?
We are now all engaged in what sociologist Erving Goffman calls “the arts of impression management.” Thanks to social media, adolescents are often forced to grow up in public at earlier ages and stages. They are embarking upon an ancient challenge, to know thyself, while broadcasting each awkward step along the way. Is it fair to criticize the young for not acting more maturely? Today’s pings are just a more sophisticated version of Pong. As one of the original video games, Pong was slow, methodical, even predictable. And yet we loved it. Pong didn’t require much sophistication.
The speed could be shifted, but the rules remained the same. Hit it back. The game could be locked in place, stuck in an endless loop. One could walk away for a while and nothing would change.
Take an eye off the screen, a hand off the controller, and one may not even lose a point. Today’s teens are playing ping, not Pong. Pings are those beeps and blurps that tell us we have a new message, a new update, a new headline to consider. Pings are the notifications that float across our screen all day long. They are rooted in instant messaging and constant connection.
Creating Christian Consumers
I’ve served on staff at a few different churches throughout Silicon Valley for the last decade and a half, including a medium-sized church, a young church plant, and a multisite megachurch. At each, we felt the strong temptation of the digital age—the temptation to pursue relevance at any cost.
We found ourselves spending inordinate amounts of time and energy trying to create spaces that looked, sounded, and felt like whatever we thought was most relatable to popular culture at large. Ultimately, though, we discovered that any sort of sustained emphasis on relevance invariably led to satisfied Christian consumers who’d found a product they enjoyed, but rarely led to anything deeper.
The most transformative experiences people were having in our communities, we slowly realized, had nothing to do with the lights, sound, and spectacle. Transformation was happening in much more tactile ways—through personal relationships and the profound simplicity of studying Scripture, praying, and sharing meals together.
The Early Church Used “New Technology”
Jesus’ first followers were at the forefront of a new kind of textual technology. From quite early on they used the codex, with sheets stuck together to comprise something like a modern book, rather than the scroll, which couldn’t hold nearly so much and which was hard to use if you wanted to look up particular passages.
In fact, though the codex had been in use already, the type the early Christians developed was more user-friendly than the earlier models. They really did want everyone to be able to read this vital and life-giving text.
Faith and Technology
What does it look like to trust in God? And how does trusting in God relate to all of the modern technologies that currently exist. We know, quite well, that for some quite close to us, technology is seen as a sin, to be avoided at all costs. For others, and probably for us, there is this tension, between trusting in God and trusting in the advancements that our modern world provides us with. Well, there is a parable, not from the Bible, but I would argue helpful nonetheless, that addresses this question quite well.
It had been raining for days and days, and a terrible flood had come over the land. The waters rose so high that one man was forced to climb onto the roof of his house to avoid the floodwaters, faithfully praying to God to save him.
As the waters rose higher and higher, a man in a rowboat appeared, and told him to get in. “No,” replied the man on the roof. “I have faith in the Lord, the Lord will save me.” So the man in the rowboat went away.
The man on the roof prayed for God to save him. The waters rose higher and higher, and suddenly a speedboat appeared. “Climb in!” shouted a man in the boat. “No,” replied the man on the roof. “I have faith in the Lord; the Lord will save me.”
So the man in the speedboat went away. The man on the roof prayed even harder, knowing that God would save him.
The waters continued to rise. A helicopter appeared and over the loudspeaker, the pilot announced he would lower a rope to the man on the roof. “No,” replied the man on the roof. “I have faith in the Lord, the Lord will save me.”
So the helicopter went away. The man on the roof prayed again for God to save him, steadfast in his faith.
The waters rose higher and higher, and eventually they rose so high that the man on the roof was washed away, and alas, the poor man drowned.
Upon arriving in heaven, the man marched straight over to God. “Heavenly Father,” he said, “I had faith in you, I prayed to you to save me, and yet you did nothing. Why?”
God gave him a puzzled look, and replied “I sent you two boats and a helicopter, what more did you expect than that?”
Original Source Unknown, Adapted by Stuart Strachan Jr.
The Four Royal Sons
In The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen retells a tale from ancient India: Four royal brothers decided each to master a special ability.
Time went by, and the brothers met to reveal what they had learned.
“I have mastered a science,? said the first, “by which I can take but a bone of some creature and create the flesh that goes with it.?
“I,? said the second, “know how to grow that creature’s skin and hair if there is flesh on its bones.?
The third said, “I am able to create its limbs if I have flesh, the skin, and the hair.?
“And I,? concluded the fourth, “know how to give life to that creature if its form is complete.?
Thereupon the brothers went into the jungle to find a bone so they could demonstrate their specialities. As fate would have it, the bone they found was a lion’s. One added flesh to the bone, the second grew hide and hair, the third completed it with matching limbs, and the fourth gave the lion life.
Shaking its mane, the ferocious beast arose and jumped on his creators. He killed them all and vanished contentedly into the jungle.
The Greatest Problem with Video Games
The greatest problem with video gaming is not that gaming is innately evil, but that it’s addictively good. Gaming taps our social competitiveness, our love of narrative, and our interest in problem solving.
As gaming franchises grow, digital dreamscapes are becoming holistically immersive. The greatest problem with TV is not that TV is innately evil, but that TV is endlessly good at giving us exactly what we want whenever we want it. Our on-demand platforms continue to bulge with options.
The Great Scourge of Modern Communication
E-mail is the great scourge of modem communication. It facilitates the passing on of simple information, yet it forces complex matters to be presented In a fashion that makes what is difficult appear easy and, in many cases, what is peripheral seem central. E-mail distorts. It allows thoughtful and reasonable communication to appear deranged and toy laden. And if you read e-mail with only half of your synapses firing, you are doomed. Coffee helps, but e-mail still adds to the darkness of the looking glass.
How Strangers Become Friends
There’s been a lot of talk about friendship because of Facebook and the internet. You can collect friends and “likes” and begin to feel pretty good about yourself, depending on how many you accumulate. Our foundation, the John & Vera Mae Perkins Foundation, has about 3,500 likes right now, and I suppose that’s pretty good. But I’m not sure that’s the kind of friendship that is strong enough to carry us through and across the hard lines that have isolated us from each other. I think you can actually have a lot of those kinds of friends and still be lonely, separated, and afraid.
Columnist E. J. Dionne Jr. tells of a conversation Marc Dunkelman had twenty years ago with his grandfather, a retired salesman. They talked about how to find the best restaurants in an unfamiliar city. Marc was excited about a new app that would make it easy for people to find the best places to eat and that would even show them which restaurants were nearby. But his grandfather was not as eager to embrace this new technology.
He said that whenever he went on a sales trip to a new place he would look for a “friendly looking stranger” and ask him to recommend a good place to eat. In the process this stranger would often become a new friend and someone that he would see when he returned to the city. “That’s how I got to understand the world—by talking to strangers,” the older man said. “With all these fancy technologies you’re talking about, how are people going to get to know one another? You ask me, I think it’s going to make everyone lonely.”
I Forgot My Phone
From the YouTube video description:
Imagine a day when a young woman’s daily routine unfolds normally, with one exception: She forgot her phone. She wakes up in the arms of her lover who idly strokes her arm as he does his email. At a birthday party, guests fuss over getting a picture of the cake. When it’s time for a celebratory toast, the focus is on taking photographs of the champagne.
A lunch with friends is silent—everyone is on a phone. When she goes bowling and makes a strike, none of her friends give her a high five; they’re all texting. She can’t share a moment of laughter with her boyfriend when they go out to a comedy club. He has replaced actual laughter with a post “about laughter” that he shares with his online friends.
Never Leaving Their Work
Because of the modern rhythms of work that are mediated through personal computers and phones, people, in the words of one cultural commentator, “leave the office, but they do not leave their work. They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash—like a dog.” More often than not, our “days off” are days where we are spatially at home , but emotionally and mentally at work . Do these “days off” constitute a Sabbath day?
Our Brains on the Internet
Sometime in 2007, a serpent of doubt slithered into my info paradise. I began to notice that the Net was exerting a much stronger and broader influence over me than my old stand-alone PC ever had. It wasn’t just that I was spending so much time staring into a computer screen. It wasn’t just that so many of my habits and routines were changing as I became more accustomed to and dependent on the sites and services of the Net.
The very way my brain worked seemed to be changing. It was then that I began worrying about my inability to pay attention to one thing for more than a couple of minutes. At first I’d figured that the problem was a symptom of middle-age mind rot. But my brain, I realized, wasn’t just drifting. It was hungry. It was demanding to be fed the way the Net fed it—and the more it was fed, the hungrier it became…
As [Marshall] McLuhan suggested, media aren’t just channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And 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.
Our Leisure Time Rising on the Internet
Leisure has changed significantly since the dawn of the internet age. A 2008 international survey of 27,500 adults between the ages of 18 and fifty-five found that people spend 30% of their leisure time online. Of all the countries studied, the Chinese spent the largest amount of time online with 44% of their non-working hours spent online.
Stuart Strachan Jr., Source Information from TNS Global, “Digital World, Digital Life,” December 2008.
The Progress Paradox
Yet despite all of these advancements, we are more discontent than ever. Gregg Easterbrook wrote a book on this very topic entitled The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse. In First World countries, he argues, even as the advances I have just cataloged have materially improved the physical comfort level of everyone in those societies, the rates of depression and psychosis continue to rise.
People feel their lives lack meaning, and they can’t seem to find any remedy to the plague of their own consistent discontentment. A clear example is transportation across long distances. It has never been easier, and yet still we complain!
I remember sitting recently in a brand-new airport terminal reading a historical account of the Pilgrims on the Mayflower crossing the North Atlantic in perilous conditions in November of 1620. These intrepid people lived for many weeks in the dark and crowded below-deck area, eating cold biscuits and putting up with the stench of the vomit caused by the incessantly heaving little ship.
A clear example is transportation across long distances. It has never been easier, and yet still we complain! I remember sitting recently in a brand-new airport terminal reading a historical account of the Pilgrims on the Mayflower crossing the North Atlantic in perilous conditions in November of 1620. These intrepid people lived for many weeks in the dark and crowded below-deck area, eating cold biscuits and putting up with the stench of the vomit caused by the incessantly heaving little ship. A woman even gave birth in that setting.
As I was reading this book, I overheard a well-dressed businessman as he was walking by me, talking with immense annoyance on a cell phone: “Yeah, it was a total nightmare! We were sitting on the tarmac for over an hour before we finally took off! Now I’m probably going to miss my connecting flight!” His voice trailed off as he bustled past me, and I chuckled to myself about his perspective. He was certainly not thinking how blessed we are to be able to cover thousands of miles by air in the astonishing comfort of a modern jet.
Find the room where your family spends the most time and ruthlessly eliminate the things that ask little of you and develop little in you. Move the TV to a less central location—and ideally a less comfortable one. And begin filling the space that is left over with opportunities for creativity and skill, beauty and risk. This is the central nudge of the tech-wise life: to make the place where we spend the most time the place where easy everywhere is hardest to find.
This simple nudge, all by itself, is a powerful antidote to consumer culture, the way of life that finds satisfaction mostly in enjoying what other people have made. It’s an invitation instead to creating culture—finding joy in shaping something useful or beautiful out of the raw material of the world. Children, in particular, are driven to create—if we just nudge them in that direction. They thrive in a world stocked with raw materials. But too often, and with the best of intentions, we fill their world with technology instead.
The Sacred Alters of Modern Life
Our 24/7 culture conveniently provides every good and service we want, when we want, how we want. Our time – saving devices, technological conveniences, and cheap mobility have seemingly made life much easier and interconnected. As a result, we have more information at our fingertips than anyone in history.
Yet with all this progress, we are ominously dissatisfied. In bowing at these sacred altars of hyperactivity, progress, and technological compulsivity, our souls increasingly pant for meaning and value and truth as they wither away, exhausted, frazzled, displeased, ever on edge. The result is a hollow culture that, in Paul’s words, is “ever learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth” (2Tim.3:7) — increasingly so.
The Saturated Self
Looking into his life and out to the wider world, Kenneth Gergen writes about The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life, arguing that “social saturation brings with it a general loss in our assumption of true and knowable selves”. To flesh out his thesis, he offers a window into his life.
I had just returned to Swarthmore from a two-day conference in Washington, which had brought together fifty scholars from around the country. An urgent fax from Spain lay on the desk, asking about a paper I was months late in contributing to a conference in Barcelona. Before I could think about answering, the office hours I had postponed began.
One of my favorite students arrived and began to quiz me about the ethnic biases in my course syllabus. My secretary came in holding a sheaf of telephone messages, and some accumulated mail, including an IRS notice of a tax audit and a cancellation notice from the telephone company.
My conversations with my students were later interrupted by phone calls from a London publisher, a colleague in Connecticut on her way to Oslo for the weekend, and an old California friend wondering if we might meet during his summer travels to Holland. By the morning’s end I was drained.
The hours had been wholly consumed by the process of relating—face to face, electronically, and by letter. The relations were scattered across Europe and America, and scattered points in my personal past. And so keen was the competition for “relational” time that virtually none of the interchanges seemed effective in the ways I wished. And he goes on, noting that even ten years earlier none of these observations could have been made. Two decades later, each is even more true. In a sober summary, he states, “The fully saturated self becomes no self at all.” Yes, I feel numb . . . I no longer feel what I need to feel to be human.
Taken from Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good by Steven Garber, Copyright (c) 2014, pp.48-49. Steven Garber. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
How Do Screens Impact Happiness? A Scientific Study
In an article for The Atlantic, social scientist Jean Twenge shares the results of a study on the activities of American teenagers and their impact on happiness. Some of these activities included screens and some did not. Her conclusion was stark and unsettling, “there’s not a single exception. All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness.”
Source Material from Jean Twenge, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The Atlantic, September 2017.
The Uniqueness of Conversation (And why Technology Can’t Replace In-Person Communication)
In an interview with MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle, Megan Garber asks what makes in-person conversation unique, compared to all the other ways we communicate these days:
Conversations, as they tend to play out in person, are messy—full of pauses and interruptions and topic changes and assorted awkwardness. But the messiness is what allows for true exchange. It gives participants the time—and, just as important, the permission—to think and react and glean insights. “You can’t always tell, in a conversation, when the interesting bit is going to come,” Turkle says. “It’s like dancing: slow, slow, quick-quick, slow.
You know? It seems boring, but all of a sudden there’s something, and whoa.”
Occasional dullness, in other words, is to be not only expected, but celebrated. Some of the best parts of conversation are, as Turkle puts it, “the boring bits.”
In software terms, they’re features rather than bugs. The logic of conversation as it plays out across the Internet, however—the into-the-ether observations and the never-ending feeds and the many, many selfies—is fundamentally different, favoring showmanship over exchange, flows over ebbs. The Internet is always on. And it’s always judging you, watching you, goading you. “That’s not conversation,” Turkle says.
Video is Everywhere
Video is now everywhere. Whatever happens in front of any other Wi-Fi-connected digital camera in the world can be mediated to us and to our vision. Amateur video is pouring into public platforms every second of the day.
More than twenty-four thousand minutes of new user video is uploaded to YouTube every minute of every day. This means that the tonnage of new video content uploaded to YouTube in the next fifty-eight hours would require an unbroken lifespan of eighty years to watch.
Watch Out for Those “Railroads”
In 1829, Martin Van Buren, then governor of New York, wrote the following to the president:
The canal system of this country is being threatened by the spread of a new form of transportation known as ‘railroads.’The federal government must preserve our canals for these reasons:
If canal boats are supplanted by railroads, serious unemployment will result.
Captains, cooks, drivers, hostlers, repairmen and lock tenders will be left without any means of livelihood.
Canal boats are essential to our defense.
In the event of trouble with England, the Erie Canal could be the only means by which we could move supplies …
The Almighty certainly never intended that people should travel through the countryside at the breakneck speed of 15 miles per hour.
What Hath God Wrought?
In the crypt of the Capitol, there hangs a bronze plaque commemorating the inventor of telegraphy, Samuel Morse…In 1825, Morse returned to Washington to paint a portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette, the leading French supporter of the American Revolution. While Morse was painting, a horse messenger delivered a one-line letter form his father:
“Your dear wife is convalescent.” By the time Morse arrived in New Haven, Connecticut, his wife had already been buried. Heartbroken by the fact that he was unaware of his wife’s failing health and lonely death for more than a week, Morse stopped painting and started pursuing a means of rapid long-distance communication.
The painter-turned-inventor actually set up shop in the Capitol. Morse tested his telegraph prototype by sending messages between the House and Senate wings. According to the Senate doorkeeper, Isaac Bassett, many senators were skeptical, but Morse was able to secure a $30,000 congressional appropriation to build a thirty-eight-mile telegraph line along the Baltimore and Ohio Railway from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore.
On May 24, 1844, a large crowd gathered inside the capitol to witness Morse tap a message in the language he created, Morse Code. The message itself was chosen by Annie Ellsworth, daughter of the US Patent Commissioner Henry Leavitt Ellsworth. And while many can recall those infamous [sic] words from a high school history class, few know that is a sacred verse of Scripture. Annie aptly chose Numbers 23:23 in the King James Version, and it did not return null and void. Moments after the four-word message was received at a railroad depot near Baltimore, the same message was relayed back to the Capitol: “What Hath God wrought?”
When Values Turn Vicious
The digital age’s technological advancements boast three major contributions to the improvement of human experience, which in turn have become its undeniable values:
- We have access to what we want when we want, as quickly as our fingers can type and scroll.
- We have access to an endless array of options when it comes to just about anything.
- Everything, from online profiles to gadgets, is endlessly customizable, allowing us to emphasize our preferences and personalities.
While these contributions have added some comfort and convenience to parts of our lives, the added value is coming at great cost, as our collective desire for and devotion to digital technology becomes increasingly excessive. Particularly in the ways these digital technologies have influenced the church, many of us have gone off the rails.
Even good things have dark sides when taken to their extremes. When values aren’t held accountable, they turn vicious. Sadly, for so many, that’s exactly what’s happened. These once positive contributions of the digital age have resulted in our undoing: The speed of the digital age has made us impatient. The choices of the digital age have made us shallow. The individualism of the digital age has made us isolated.
Young People and Smartphones
Fully 93% of 18-29 year old smartphone owners in the experience sampling study used their phone at least once to avoid being bored, with respondents in this age group reporting that they did so in average of 5.4 surveys over the one-week study period. Similarly, 47% of young smartphone owners used their phone to avoid interacting with the people around them at least once during the study period, roughly three times the proportion of older smartphone owners who did so.
Aaron Smith, “U.S. Smartphone Use in 2015,” Pew Research Center for Internet, Science, and Technology, April 1, 2015.
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