Well, it happened. I am now the reluctant and mostly unwilling owner of a portable, Orwellian telescreen, or, as most people call it, a smartphone. In view of the 10th anniversary of the iPhone, and for cathartic ends, I will now engage in the jeremiad that I have effectively deferred for the last few years. Caveat lector: if imprecation and lament are not your thing, do not read any further.
There have been a few memorable moments over the years that have irreversibly affected my opinion of cellphones. In 1993, when I was 16 years old, I worked part time at the A&W inside Town East Mall in Mesquite, Texas. One slow, quiet weeknight just before closing, I vividly remember the sound of loud talking approaching, but it was unusual, for all I heard was one voice. Sure enough, when the woman turned the corner and became visible to me, I could see her speaking into a (probably rather large) mobile phone. I don’t know if she was always a loud talker, or if she was just wanting to be seen.
Back then, having a cellphone at all was a bit of a status symbol, mostly for business people or those with disposable income. But I remember thinking at that very moment how obnoxious it was for someone to walk around like that and inflict their conversation on the whole Food Court. I had never seen that before, and I hoped to never have to see it again. (Insert chuckle.)
It was sometime in the early or mid-2000s, once cellphones were no longer restricted to the wealthy and important, that I recall seeing a TV advertisement that was marketing an innovative feature: a camera phone that could send the photographs to other phones via a message. A couple was waking up in bed, and the man took a picture of the woman and sent it to her; she then used her phone to snap a picture of him. All I could think was how much I don’t want that, and I couldn’t imagine why someone would see that ad and think they had to have it.
Then sometime in the late 2000s, I clearly recall what I saw while I sat in my office at Harding University, looking out the window facing the Benson Auditorium. It was summer, and a conference of some sort was being held on campus. A plenary session in the large auditorium had apparently just ended, because scores of people came pouring out of the doors down the sidewalks. What struck me was how many people were looking down at their phones, not talking to anyone. I would estimate that only 5% of the people did not have a phone in their hands or at their ears. I had never seen anything quite like that, but, by this time, knew that I would be seeing it more and more.
Incidents like these no doubt hardened my resolve never to become one of those people. I have resisted each stage as long as possible. Although my wife had a prepaid cellphone in case of emergency on the road and later got a real cellphone, I only acquired my first cellphone in 2011. And by “acquired,” I mean it was acquired for me. I didn’t really need it. I had a phone in my office and at home. I didn’t want to talk on the phone while I was driving, worshiping, or playing racquetball.
But something sinister was already afoot in 2011. “Did you get that text I sent you?” “No, my phone doesn’t receive texts.” (Insert looks of disbelief and/or contempt aimed in my direction.) It seems that if we wanted to continue communicating with the outside world, then texting was the necessary next step. So in 2013, my family and I graduated to phones that could send and receive text messages. And it wasn’t a bad phone; the little keyboard on my “slider” is definitely superior to images of buttons on a flat screen.
Very soon, however, the discussions turned to which “apps” I could or should be using. But my phone doesn’t do apps. (Same looks of disbelief and/or contempt, but about four years later.) Then around 2015, my family got smartphones for themselves. Yet I resisted.
Let me be clear about the reasons for my resistance. I am not a Luddite or technophobe. Obviously, I appreciate the convenience of having a cellphone in an emergency or the good that can be accomplished from something like a blog post, which many people read on their smartphones. Many helpful tools, from GPS to Uber, are expedited by the smartphone.
My problems with cellphones, and smartphones in particular, can be boiled down to the fact that, given the way most people use them, there is virtually nothing virtuous about them. They are not being used just for directions, Uber, or reading a great blog.
Think of the four cardinal virtues—justice, temperance, courage, prudence. Someone more creative than I can perhaps articulate how smartphones enhance those classic virtues; I don’t see it.
Take the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. I can say with even more confidence that smartphones do nothing to increase those. Conduct the same exercise with the fruit of the Spirit (joy, peace, patience, kindness, self-control, and so on) or any spiritual discipline (prayer, meditation, silence, worship, study, and so on), or the two greatest love commands. Smartphones do not help, but almost always hinder us from cultivating these virtues and disciplines.
And most observant people recognize this. There is a growing consensus that smartphones have altered human behavior. Christians usually acknowledge that the alteration has been for the worse. On at least three separate occasions in the last couple of years, I’ve had the opportunity to ask large groups of Christians an open-ended question about what our idols are and what things distract us most from what should be the chief goals in life. Invariably, they hold up their phones (yes, they have them in Sunday school).
No one seriously hazards that these phones are helping us be better people. No one thinks that a smartphone in every hand has increased true human flourishing or the imitation of Christ. If becoming like God is the goal of the moral life, then—and this really is my main point—the use of smartphones is an ethical issue, but one that is seldom discussed or even considered in this light.
Aside from the actual content that fills smartphones—which mostly ranges from the banal to the reprehensible—and aside from the havoc that they wreak on basic human relationships, anyone concerned with the moral life cannot ignore that some of the worst aspects of consumerism are visible in the smartphone industry.
Our modern world is in bondage, in a way that no other era has been, to a consumerism that touches rich and poor alike. In our age of pluralism and dizzying diversity, the lifestyle of consumption may be the one thing that unites nearly all Americans.
Brad Gregory describes this cycle of consumption as “acquire, discard, repeat.” That is: Purchase the newest manufactured good, immediately become dissatisfied with said purchased good, discard this now hopelessly outdated piece, and then do it all over again. Bigger and better, limited only by your resources, your credit limit, and the quickly-depleting resources of this planet.
“Keeping up with the Joneses” has never been as important as it is now, where your status is determined by the kind of phone you carry and vehicle you drive. This is not the pursuit of the good life, but, as Gregory says, the “goods” life. As a society, we are not freer, but more enslaved. Nowhere is this self-imposed slavery more evident than with smartphones.
If this seems like an exaggeration, then call to mind the lines that stretch for city blocks when each new iPhone is released, an event that has taken place every year since 2007. The thing that people couldn’t wait to have eleven months ago is now obsolete. Why, they wouldn’t be caught dead with an iPhone 6! Making us discontent with our present possessions is the fuel that drives this part of the economy. And such lack of contentment is directly opposed to the teaching of Jesus and the apostles (consider, for example, Luke 12:15-21; Phil. 4:11-13).
We have to hand it to the marketing and advertising departments. If the goal is to make people desire today something they had no idea they even wanted yesterday, and, by tomorrow, turn that want into a perceived necessity that they cannot live without, then the marketers have been wildly successful. If you resist this consumerist cycle and don’t drink the Kool-Aid, you will be mocked by the cultured despisers. Trust me.
By the way, it is impossible for me to understand why an old-style cellphone seems to invite so much derision. As I implied by noting the reactions that I have gotten for so long, being so “behind” on the latest gadgets, I have found people to be more judgmental about someone’s mobile phone choices than about any other manufactured goods. Such reactions are even harder to fathom coming from Christians.
If I say that shunning a smartphone is, for me, to shun distraction, temptation, and the world, would it then be an acceptable choice? But why should I even have to justify having a simpler phone? I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some churches out there that ridicule people who bring a print Bible to the assembly. Christians, of all people, should respect another’s choice of a simpler automobile, house, clothing, life, and, yes, even phone.
But now it’s over. After months of being deceptively overcharged on my phone bill, I recently decided to switch my cellphone carrier to a less expensive company. So we took a family trip to the local store. I held out my phone and asked the employees there if I could keep it. After they stopped laughing, they said that their SIM card would not work in it. (Don’t ask me why.) When I asked if I could special order a similar phone compatible with their SIM card, I might as well have asked if they could install a telegraph line in my living room. And all this for a phone that is less than five years old and is perfectly good. The system essentially forces the unwilling to become participants in the consumerist, acquire-discard-repeat pattern.
And thus it happened that I now own a smartphone. Ironically, it would cost me over $30 a month more to keep the old plan and carrier with the old phone that does much less. So in the name of good stewardship, I went with the cheaper option, but cannot help feeling defeated.
There need to be people who can testify to what life was like before smartphones, when the human community standing next to you was more important than the remote community of social media and infotainment, when people still spoke to one another in the neighborhood or in line at the store or at the ball game, when people’s faces were not constantly glued to a hand-held screen, when people knew where on the page their favorite Bible verse fell. My brother, Allan, is the only person I know who still has the slider phone (he just got a new one), and for all the right reasons. May his kind increase, though I know it won’t.
Although I now own a smartphone, I will still try to be one of those witnesses to pre-smartphone life. So, yes, I will still watch where I’m walking and driving, look people in the eye for conversation, and not check my email or Facebook or surf the internet on my phone. I will never stifle an engaging conversation or good debate by saying, “Hey Siri,” or, “Ok Google.” I will do my best to treat this phone like my slider, though I know that a moment of weakness while waiting at the DMV may eventually get the better of me.
The reality is that we are in a new situation that will not soon be reversed. It is a situation analogous to that of Moses, who tried to regulate divorce for the hard-hearted. It is like the challenge facing the apostle Paul, who tried to regulate the conduct of slave-masters in a society that assumed the practice. We must start with and accommodate the premise that almost everyone is already enslaved to their electronic devices.
The question we must ask, then, reflects the challenge faced also by Moses and Paul: how can we infuse into this less than ideal situation a measure of perspective and good sense?
We cannot deceive ourselves into thinking that our justifications or solutions—for instance, “I can read my Bible on my phone!”—are ideal. They are terrible accommodations, and we should rather be clear-eyed about the extent of the enslavement. How can we pull ourselves up a level or two on the continuum of human flourishing that smartphones threaten to drag us down?
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