Since we had them in our hot little hands, we have been assured how much our smartphone would make life easier. But has it been easier? I am not sure. More importantly, though, is what else has it been doing to our lives? Tony Reinke has written a theologically reflective book on what he thinks is happening.
To be clear Reinke is not anti-technology, nor is does he see it as the solution of the future. Following Chesterton, who was reflecting on his own technological revolution with the invention of the telephone, “Chesterton believed that materialism was behind both ideas: the phone will damn us or the phone will save us. It is just as idolatrous to blaspheme a phone as it is to worship a phone. The solution is for us to wisely enjoy the smartphone – imaginatively, transcendentally, as something that should deepen our wonder” (p206). This is what Reinke sets out to do, to make us aware of the changes smartphone, not to demonize it or idolize it so we might use it wisely. “To that end, my aim is to avoid both extremes: the utopian optimism of the technophilic and the dystopian pessimism of the technophobe.” (p20).
Towards the end (p189), Reinke sets out a summary of his warnings:
- Our phones amplify our addiction to distractions (chapter 1) and thereby splinter our perception of our place in time (chapter 12).
- Our phones push us to evade our limits of embodiment (2) and thereby cause us to treat each other harshly (11).
- Our phones feed our craving for immediate approval (3) and promise to hedge against our fear of missing out (10).
- Our phones undermine our literary skills (4) and, because of our lack of discipline, make it increasingly difficult for us to identify ultimate meaning (9).
- Our phones offer us a buffet of produced media (5) and tempt us to indulge in visual vices (8).
- Our phones overtake and distort our identity (6) and tempt us toward unhealthy isolation and loneliness (7).
Some of these warnings I was aware of. Some were not as relevant to me. But some were a surprise, a little like realizing the food you were eating that you thought was diet was actually making you fat. This was true of the embodiment warning (2). Reinke reminds us that church is an embodied experience, whereas most social media is the opposite. This means that I can choose who I relate to on social media (people I like) whereas at church I need to love the people that are there (whether I like them or not). Social media is reducing my skills in embodied love.
But it is not all bad news. Reinke suggests some ways forward in understanding the issues and problems that the changes that smartphones have produced (p190).
- We minimize unnecessary distractions in life to hear from God (chapter 1) and to find our place in God’s unfolding history (12).
- We embrace our flesh-and-blood embodiment (2) and handle one another with grace and gentleness (11).
- We aim at God’s ultimate approval (3) and find that, in Christ, we have no ultimate regrets to fear (10).
- We treasure the gift literacy (4) and prioritize God’s Word (9).
- We listen to God’s voice in creation (5) and find a foundation of delight in the unseen Christ (8).
- We treasure Christ to be molded into his image (6) and seek to serve the legitimate needs of our neighbors (7).
Some of these I am glad to say I have put into practice, but others I need to keep working on. However, I don’t think I would have without someone shining a light onto the changes that were taking place.
At the end of the day, this is a book that is worth investing time and money in, especially if you have teenagers in the house or you are ministering to them because they too are going to need help navigating how their smartphones will develop them.
Reinke is a journalist associated with the Desiring God ministry. The book is published by Crossway 2017.