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The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity

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Rage against the machine | Christlike living in a high-tech world (1/2)

We use our devices every day. But how often do we consider how they use us? What does it mean to live wisely as a disciple in our high-tech age?

In this piece Matt Jolley, part of the Culture & Discipleship team at LICC, examines the nature of our relationship with digital technology – and, specifically, with our phones – in the modern world, before asking what role this tech might have to play in God’s mission, helping us grow as disciples made in his image.

This two-part series accompanies Wisdom Lab: Rage Against the Machine, in which the author explores this topic further. Wisdom Labs help churches and small groups explore issues facing Christians today.

 

A generational case study

Through her in-depth research on post-millennials, celebrated sociologist Jean Twenge uncovers some eye-opening realities about the everyday tech habits of Generation Z.[i]

There are plenty of benefits to being born after 1995. On average, post-millennials are physically safer than their parents and grandparents. But, in many cases, that safety is linked to less time spent outside the house. Psychologically, far more of them are seeking help for poor mental health than their predecessors, with much higher rates of teen depression and suicide. Research shows that in general, they spend less time seeing friends and work fewer jobs.

So, where does all this excess time get spent? According to Twenge’s field research, the answer is often ‘on their phones, in their rooms, mostly alone, and often distressed’. In fact, her research has shown that ‘increasing screen time was generally linked to progressively lower psychological well-being’. The more time people spent on their devices, the more likely they were to suffer with anxiety and depression, and vice versa. And phones seem to possess more destructive power than other forms of technology, as social media in particular leads to feelings of loneliness and exclusion.

These trends aren’t as prevalent amongst older people – but screen addiction is far from a uniquely post-millennial problem. And if this wave of poor mental health is washing over the generation of ‘digital natives’ – those who grew up with smartphones and keep their devices within arm’s reach at all times – might it serve as a canary in the coalmine, highlighting the direction we’re all heading in this tech-saturated age?

Indeed, perhaps the most shocking thing about Twenge’s findings is that they aren’t really shocking at all. It probably won’t even surprise you that the average UK adult spends six and a half hours a day on screens: 40 per cent of our waking lives! We all know that we spend a lot of time on our devices – my phone literally tells me how much time I spend on it each day – and yet the dopamine rush that comes with each new notification keeps reeling me back in.

Maybe I’m being too harsh on digital technology. After all, our devices are just inanimate objects, and we’re the ones who have the power to decide what we do with them. Or is there more to it?

 

Technology and discipleship

As digital technology becomes ever more deeply embedded in our culture, relationships, and economy, it’s time we looked a little closer at our tech habits, paying attention to what we use, and to how it might be using us.

This isn’t just important for our mental health; it’s essential for our discipleship. How can we use digital technology to magnify, rather than mutilate, the image of God in us? How can it serve, rather than hinder, our effectiveness for the mission of God? And what practices might make this possible, as we seek to live wisely on our frontlines?

In this article and its sequel, written in the run up to our Wisdom Lab on technology, we’ll grapple with these questions and suggest some ways forward for Christlike technology use. Here in part 1, we’ll seek to listen well – to the Word, the world, and each other – to understand the nature of our relationship with digital technology (looking especially at phones), and why it might be the way it is. Then, we’ll imagine what role technology could play in helping us live out our identity as image-bearers, partnering with the mission of God. In part 2, we’ll consider how to create a response, exploring some practices which could reorientate our habits and our hearts towards a wiser relationship with technology, before asking what it might mean to communicate the good news in a world of tech.

But first, a definition might be helpful – what do we mean when we say ‘technology’?

For every generation, there’s a temptation to see things that were invented before we were born not as ‘technology’ but as facts of life. However, at its broadest level, the word ‘technology’ simply refers to the use of tools to transform God’s creation for practical purposes.[ii] These ‘tools’ can be either things (like a phone or a laptop) or methods (like production-line manufacturing) or the theory underpinning it all. The ‘practical purposes’ we seek to achieve can either align with or stand against God’s purposes for his world. Either way, once the genie of new technology – from the wheel to selfie filters – is out of the bottle, it changes our world for good.

 

Listen – what’s going on and why?

So far, we’ve already begun to sketch out the nature of our relationship with phones and personal devices. But, to understand how we got here – increasingly reliant on technology, with a growing number of people developing ‘nomophobia’ (where time away from your phone causes anxiety and distress) – we need to briefly zoom out, and look at our relationship with technology more widely.

At this point, it’s important to note that technology isn’t all bad. In fact, it’s incredible! As a result of technological progress, our lives are easier, healthier, and safer. We have more access to a world of information than ever before, more sophisticated medical diagnostics, and so much of what we want and need at our fingertips. Over the last 18 months, as we’ve been confined to our homes and forced to isolate, digital technology has sustained our connection to other people, enabling friendships and even churches to keep functioning.

But in the modern world, as digital technology infiltrates every aspect of our lives, we’re often left entirely dependent, both for work and leisure. Like fish swimming in the ocean, we’ve got so used to it that we’ve almost stopped noticing it. And since we’ve stopped noticing it, we’ve become blind to the ways in which it’s forming us. We’re so focused on the myriad ways in which we can use digital technology to shape the world that we forget that it’s not neutral, but affects and changes us. Think about social media: instead of embracing the detailed, nuanced, messy, and beautiful reality of human experience, we condense down our lives and thoughts to a couple of paragraphs of written text, down to 280 characters, down to an image, down to a six-second clip, down to a five-second disappearing video… until we can’t have a real, in-person conversation without glancing down at the phones in our laps.

Each device or upgrade brings with it a worldview. To quote Marshall McLuhan’s famous saying, ‘the medium is the message’: we may only see our devices as mediums for finding and sending information, but they carry their own message about how the world should be, and how we should exist within it. If to a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail, then to the person with a phone, everything looks like a text. As such, these devices make some things possible or easier and other things much harder, or even impossible.

For example, as I sit writing, my phone is within arm’s reach on the desk. This phone tells me that I should always be contactable, and so makes it a lot easier to stay in touch with friends through numerous messaging apps. However, it also makes it much more difficult to disconnect from the outside world, as I constantly need to keep up with the latest news and flow of texts. So it needs to always be near me – even as I sleep, making it the last thing I see at night and the first thing I see in the morning (and, conveniently, when the blue light affects my sleep, I can reach for the phone to while away the night-time hours – talk about a vicious cycle). And it makes it impossible to focus on the task at hand, as I’m distracted by an endless stream of angry tirades on Facebook, a distant friend’s holiday pictures on Instagram, and funny cat videos on Twitter – and I don’t even like cats.

Neil Postman stated that we’re living in a ‘technopoly’, where technology has come to dominate our worldview – and he was writing back in 1992, before smartphones were even invented![iii]

He believed that technology was forming us at the deepest level, right down to our values. Through constant updates and upgrades, we’re told that newer and more efficient equals better. As it serves our every need and whim at speed, we’re taught that convenience, ease, and security are the measures of success. When this leaves us dissatisfied, we’re implicitly told that the solution is just to find new tech that gives us more convenience and ease – not to question whether these are actually the goals that we want to be aiming towards. And so we welcome the next innovation, marvelling at what technology can do, without considering whether that’s what technology should do.

What we need is an ‘out of water’ experience, where we take a step back, outside the technological worldview that’s become so prevalent, to evaluate whether the direction we’re being led is one we’re happy with. To do this, we first need a clear idea of what it means to be human, and a clear idea of what we should be aiming towards.

With that in mind, let’s turn to the ‘imagine’ step.

 

Imagine – what should be going on?

Thankfully, we have a reliable picture of what it means to be human, and it comes in the opening pages of the Bible. In Genesis 1:27, we read that ‘God created humanity in his own image’. Even when sin enters the world a few pages later, this image remains. However, the effect of sin means that the work of our hands, including the devices we create, have the potential to be used for good, but also for bad.

In Genesis, Adam creates culture by naming animals, but humanity also builds the Tower of Babel, seeking to become like God and find greatness apart from him. In Exodus 31, gifted craftsmen utilise the technology of the day to build the ark of the covenant, yet human hands also build the golden calf in the next chapter. More recently, technological advances have given us incredible diagnostic powers in medicine and helped us save lives, whilst at the same time advances in weaponry have made us terrifyingly effective at killing one another. Technology can be used to make our world more like heaven, turning us outwards to wisely garden this planet, loving God and serving others. Or it can turn us inwards, away from God and towards our own selfish concerns.[iv]

But God’s mission goes beyond the fall. In Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, all creation is redeemed and reconciled (Colossians 1:20), and this includes our technology. It can all be used for his glory. It can be restored to play its role within the new creation that will one day come, as the kings of the earth bring their glory – including the best of their technological creations – into the new Jerusalem (Revelation 21:24).

Though these broad-brush strokes are helpful, what does this mean for digital technology, and for our phones, in particular? How might our phones magnify or mutilate God’s image in us, and how might they help us to join in God’s mission on our frontlines?

To answer that, we need to dig into what it means to be made in God’s image. There are many different facets to this, but for now let’s explore three dimensions.

Firstly, we’re made to be creative. We reflect our creational design when we actively engage with the world around us to make something of it, reflecting our creator God – and our phones can serve this purpose. However, they can also take away from it by leading us into passive consumption, where we disengage and descend into a world of endless scrolling and mindless escapism. On my phone, I certainly know that some apps call me to engage and some encourage me to passively consume – we’ll explore how we might relate to specific apps in part 2.

Secondly, we’re made to work (Genesis 2:15) and to find meaning and purpose in what we do. As we do this, we partner with God’s work to turn the garden into the garden city, making the world look more like it will in the new creation. Digital technology can serve this world superbly – I wouldn’t have been able to work from home for the last 18 months without it! But, it can also get in the way of this meaningful work, where we’re led away from focusing on what might be a difficult project to the easy convenience of distraction that our phones offer.

Thirdly, we’re made to be in relationship and community (Genesis 2:18). Our digital technology can again serve this purpose well, as the pandemic has proven. Video calls and instant messaging have enabled us to remain in close contact with people we can’t see in person. However, we should also learn from 2 John 12. Here, the author has much to say, but instead of using paper and ink (the cutting-edge technology of the day), he wants to wait for and prioritise physical communication, ‘so that our joy may be complete’. The earliest of Christian communities realised that physical, embodied connection is where relationships can truly flourish, in a way that virtual connection can never achieve. Much like the teenagers that Twenge researched, our happiness is complete when we put the screens down and meet face-to-face.

God’s salvation story across Scripture builds to this place of embodied connection around table fellowship – this will be the everyday reality in the new heaven and earth, where we join with God for the great wedding feast. This is the goal we’re aiming towards, and so this is the goal our technology should serve. When this happens, it’s very possible to use technology in a way that glorifies God and helps us, as disciples, to grow in his image.

 

Looking forwards

This piece has started the process of listening to where we’re at in our relationship with technology, and has imagined tech’s biblical role within God’s mission. In part 2, we’ll go further, looking to create a response – through both everyday habits and practices within our own lives, and strategic action on our frontlines – which brings our tech use more in line with the way God would have us live. And we’ll think about how we might communicate the good news of the gospel in the midst of a high-tech age, all leading up to our Wisdom Lab on 27 September 2021.

Before you move on, you might want to take a few minutes to reflect on your own digital technology using the questions below.

Questions to consider:
  1. How many hours a day do you spend on a screen, and specifically on your phone? Is this more than you’d like?
  2. Do you think technology has a role to play in God’s mission? How so?
  3. Does the way you use your phone magnify or mutilate the image of God in you?
  4. How often does your phone lead you towards distraction, and get in the way of meaningful in-person connection and conversation?
  5. What might it look like for your phone use to be shaped by biblical values?

 

TL;DR:

  • We use technology more than ever, and screen time was skyrocketing even before the pandemic. Though increased screen usage is linked to poorer sleep and mental health, we’re still drawn in by it. Given we use tech so much, and it’s clearly affecting us more than we realise, it’s important to engage with it as disciples.
  • Our technology isn’t neutral – it tells us something about who we are, and about how the world should be. When we excessively use this technology, like phones or social media, we’re buying into that worldview, and we’re shaped as a result.
  • However, tech isn’t all bad – in fact, it’s allowed some massive strides forward in what we can accomplish, and in improving our quality of life. Praise the Lord for technology!
  • But, as we’ve become increasingly reliant on it, our society has become a ‘technopoly’ where technology, and what it says about the world, dictates our value systems. All too often, we assume that ‘new and more efficient’ equals ‘better’, but we forget to ask whether technological upgrades really improve our lives.
  • Our phones are telling us that to flourish as humanity we need convenience, immediacy, and virtual connection. We need to recover a biblical understanding of what it means to be human instead and think about the biblical role of technology within God’s mission.
  • Tech has the potential to corrupt God’s creation, but also has a role to play in redeeming it. This happens when it leads us towards the highest good, which is embodied table fellowship.
  • We’re made in God’s image, which means we’re made to be creative, to work, and for relationship. So, technology – and our phone use – serves this purpose where it enables creative thinking, facilitates meaningful work, and sustains connection. But it violates God’s purposes when it leads us to passive consumption, distraction, and gets in the way of physical, in-person relationships.

 

Digging Deeper:

Anyone who’s begun to do any research into this topic will know that there’s a sea of resources out there. To get you started, here’s a brief suggestion of places you could go for further reading:

Neil Postman, Technopoly (Vintage: London, 1993): A great introduction for anyone wanting to work out how technology became so dominant.

Albert Borgmann, Power Failure: Christianity in the Culture of Technology (Brazos: Grand Rapids, 2003): Borgmann asks how we can continue growing as disciples in a world of convenience and ease.

John Dyer, From the Garden to the City (Kregel Publications: Grand Rapids, 2011): Dyer explores the role of technology throughout Scripture, both as a force for good and for evil.

Sherry Turkle, through her writing and TED talks, explores the idea that as we spend more time communicating through technology, we risk losing the ability to have meaningful face-to-face conversations.

Andy Crouch, The Tech-Wise Family (Baker: Grand Rapids, 2017): Crouch gives a simple list of ten concrete commitments for putting tech in its proper place in our lives.

Matt Jolley
Culture and Discipleship – Research & Development

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[i] Though Twenge is writing with the American context in mind, many of her conclusions also apply to the national picture in the UK.

[ii] This definition is taken from John Dyer’s book, From the Garden to the City: The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of Technology (Kregel Publications: Grand Rapids, 2011).

[iii] For more on Postman’s work, and other sources to help you grapple with this issue, see the ‘Digging Deeper’ section at the end of this article.

[iv] Dyer unpacks the way that technology can be used both to serve and violate God’s purposes much more in his book.

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Matt Jolley

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