Is distracting technology damaging our capacity for concentration and contemplation?
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A few years ago Microsoft ran a commercial for the Windows Phone 7. It portrayed a variety of people immersed in their smartphones while oblivious to their surroundings. The series of vignettes includes a distracted father sitting on a see-saw leaving his daughter stranded high on the other end, a hapless man absorbed in his smartphone while his legs dangle in shark-infested water, and a bride walking down the aisle while engrossed in her phone.
The commercial is not only amusing, it rings true – many of us are frequently distracted by our glowing rectangles. Ironically the commercial was promoting a new smartphone (albeit one that promised to "get you in and out and back to life" quicker).
It’s understandable our digital devices are compelling – they instantly connect us to our friends and family, help us navigate roads and cities, and also provide news and entertainment. Digital technology has brought blessings in education and medicine, and has helped spread the gospel message to the ends of the earth.
But many decades ago, prophetic voices like Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman warned us that while we may shape our devices, our devices also shape us.
Nicholas Carr, in his provocatively titled 2008 article "Is Google Making Us Stupid?", observes that the Internet "is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles." He laments that once he "was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski."
More recent research in neural science has demonstrated our brains remain malleable and change in response to the things we do. Our technological activities gradually shape and sculpt our brains in particular ways.
Gary Small, a neuroscientist and author of the book iBrain (Wm Morrow, 2009), suggests our "high tech revolution has plunged us into a state of continuous partial attention" and we "no longer have time to reflect, contemplate, or make thoughtful decisions."
St. Augustine already had an inkling of this thousands of years ago when he observed that "habit, if not resisted, soon becomes necessity."
It turns out the alluring draw of many of our apps may not simply be an unintentional side-effect of pleasing aesthetic design. In his recent book The Tech-Wise Family (Baker, 2017), Andy Crouch observes that the "makers of technological devices have become absolute masters at the nudge." These "nudges" come in the form of alerts and notifications which reward us each time we are distracted.
The business model for many services relies on revenue from targeted advertisements that require attracting as many eyeballs as possible and keeping them coming back. These nudges have become increasingly sophisticated, with some social media companies hiring behavioural scientists to help advise developers on tuning apps so they play on a user’s dopamine levels.
Jeffrey Hammerbacher, an early social media pioneer, once lamented in an interview with Businessweek magazine, "The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads."
Some companies have recently been formed to provide technical solutions to the distractions that arise from digital technology. Flipd is a software company that has created an app to help people spend less time on their phones and remove distractions. The app has been adopted in universities to monitor students’ smartphones and encourage them to remain focused during classes and lectures. Another program called SelfControl helps users block distracting websites while working on their computers.
While technical solutions can provide helpful aids, the problem is not just with our time and our eyeballs – it gets to our hearts. For many our screens are continually with us – when we rise up, when we lie down, and when we walk along the way.
In his book You Are What You Love (Brazos, 2016), Canadian philosopher James K.A. Smith suggests our habits and rituals are like liturgies that point our heart in a particular direction. Our digital devices foster habits that have significant shaping implications.
Smith suggests we need to look beyond what we are looking at on our smartphones, and consider "the rituals that tether us to them throughout the day," rituals that are "loaded with an egocentric vision that makes me the center of the universe."
The Scriptures warn us that "above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it" (Proverbs 4:23). The heart is of strategic importance – once it is captured everything else follows along. If habits shape the heart, Christians ought to devote significant attention to their habits and rituals.
Crouch’s book The Tech-Wise Family includes a variety of results from a survey by the Barna Group of parents with 14- to 17-year-old children. The survey results clearly reveal how parents are wrestling with technology in the home, with most parents indicating technology and social media make it "more difficult to raise kids today."
Crouch provides some practical guidance for "putting technology in its proper place" by outlining "Ten Tech-Wise Commitments" for a healthier family life with technology. These commitments are meant to nudge us in a better direction and include advice such as remembering the "rhythm of work and rest," and to "show up in person for the big events of life."
Crouch does not merely prescribe countermeasures, but in several sections of candid honesty he shares how his own family has struggled with keeping technology in its proper place.
Canadian author Arthur Boers, in his book Living Into Focus: Choosing What Matters in an Age of Distraction (Brazos, 2012), builds on the writings of the Christian philosopher Albert Borgmann by suggesting what we need to cultivate are "focal practices."
These practices include things like family meals, cooking, gardening and hiking. He suggests focal practices are things that take time and effort, that connect us widely and deeply, and remind us about things that matter.
In addition to such focal practices, Christian traditions offer a rich set of historical practices we can retrieve. Perhaps the best antidote to the challenges of the modern digital age lie in rediscovering the practices found in ancient spiritual disciplines. These include things like Sabbath keeping, Scripture reading, prayer, fasting, solitude, silence and serving others.
We need to resolve to periodically stem the stream of nudges from our digital devices to re-centre ourselves in Christ. Establishing daily and weekly rhythms where digital devices are intentionally and regularly set aside will serve to keep technology in its proper place. It will also have the benefit of helping us avoid the silly situations portrayed in the Microsoft phone commercial.
But more importantly, if habits shape the heart then these habits will serve to point our hearts back to God.
Derek Schuurman is a Canadian living with his wife and daughter in Grand Rapids, Mich., where he serves as a professor of computer science at Calvin College.