A photographer from the Boston Globe captured this image from a movie premiere. The photo clearly depicts the reality of the smartphone age. Juxtaposed in this photo are two kinds of people. Nearly everyone’s eyes and hands are on their phones as they try to “capture” the moment and immortalize it forever. In contrast, an elderly woman leans cooly on the railing, gazing on the entourage as they approach, and simply being there. This photo is one example from Tony Reinke's new book, 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You, showing that our smartphones have changed us. We need to recognize how.
12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You
After several years of research and preparation, Tony Reinke has released this book to shed light on some of the ways our smartphones are affecting us. When discussing technology, there are two common extremes that arise which Reinke wants to avoid. One extreme is the “utopian optimism of the technophiliac,” which supposes our phones are making us smarter, relationally deeper and generally better humans at every turn. The other extreme is the “dystopian pessimism of the technophobe,” which supposes that our phones are having exclusively detrimental effects, making us more shallow and less competent in the world.
Technology was made for humans, not humans for technology. Without critical reflection on our use of it, technology will make slaves of us all.
Instead, Reinke seeks to chart a middle ground, whereby Christians can thoughtfully reflect on technology’s place in our lives. The current norm in our world is the thoughtless utilization of smartphones, combined with a thoughtless consumption of media. In contrast, we must know the purpose and goal of our lives, wisely utilizing technologies to those ends.
As his title implies, Reinke offers 12 key ways our smartphones are changing us, or, perhaps, how they are revealing who we really are:
1. We are addicted to distraction, checking our phones at an alarming rate, distracting us from God, life and the world around us.
2. We ignore flesh and blood in preference to our smartphones.
3. We crave the immediate approval that “likes” provide via social media.
4. We are losing literacy and the ability to follow long flows of thought.
5. We feed on the produced, fantasized images of life, staging our own experiences to produce an inflated image to others.
6. We become like what we “like,” dwelling on things we never knew we wanted until they were presented to us.
7. We become lonely as we use our smartphones for semi-personal interactions through apps or to simply block out the world around us.
8. We get comfortable in secret vices—sins that are easily accessed and easily hidden by our smartphones.
9. We lose meaning as the quantity of needless information available makes it difficult to access quality or needed information.
10. We fear missing out on information and/or affirmation.
11. We become harsh, letting out our frustrations with others in very public ways.
12. We lose our place in time and get lost in a vague sea of instant-access material.
Reinke makes the case that smartphones have the power to enslave us when we use them uncritically. When engaged thoughtlessly, our smartphones will actually generate demand within us for a certain kind of consumption and use. Steve Jobs did not set out to create the iPhone because people were clamoring for one; he created something that became desirable to the point of perceived necessity. This should not be. The smartphone should be a tool used for a greater purpose given to us by God. Technology was made for humans, not humans for technology. Without critical reflection on our use of it, technology will make slaves of us all.
Yet, Reinke also shows that smartphones aren’t evil; humans are sinful. He writes, “My phone screen divulges in razor-sharp pixels what my heart really wants.” Reinke offers a theology of technology which includes nine principles from Scripture we must “rehearse to ourselves in the digital age.” We must become more virtuous people, changed from the inside out by the grace of God given in Jesus Christ. When our priorities, desires and decisions are founded upon His will for us in Christ, the smartphone can be a tool to enhance our lives, not harm them.
What Should We Do?
Reinke ends his book by making a positive case for how we should thoughtfully approach and use smartphones as Christians. As you contemplate exactly what to do with your smartphone, consider these diagnostic questions to examine your current smartphone use, and propel you to use it more wisely:
1. Am I engaged in habits of nothingness? Are you aimlessly and purposelessly spending notable amounts of time on your smartphone? This shows a lack of healthy use.
2. Am I engaged in habits of holiness? Are you investing time in habits of the Christian life? These could include prayer, studying Scripture, community, contemplative rest, corporate worship and more. Is your smartphone use enabling or inhibiting these habits?
3. What do those closest to me think about my smartphone use? Ask your roommate, parents, spouse, children or whomever you spend time around what they think about your current smartphone use. Is it too much? Does it get in the way of relationships and responsibilities? Be willing to receive honest feedback and correction without becoming defensive.
4. Do I need a smartphone? You read that question correctly. Some people do truly need a smartphone for their work, but many of us simply want a smartphone. What truly valuable areas of your life would be affected if you no longer had a smartphone?
5. What is the definable use of and purpose for this smartphone? If you have established that you will own a smartphone, you must critically and thoughtfully plan for exactly how you will and will not use it. Having a specific plan can keep you from falling into the traps of mindless and destructive overuse.
6. What activities on my smartphone can I replace with more meaningful practices? Instead of relying on your smartphone for social interaction, spend intentional time cultivating relationships with people in your proximity. Instead of scrolling through dozens of tweets from pastors and theologians for encouragement, read a book from an ancient author, slowly digesting their argument and message.
7. What activities on my smartphone can I embody? It may be better to sit down and work out math problems on pencil and paper with your child than to let a program on your phone entertain them with educational games. Instead of taking a quick picture and posting it to Instagram, what if you sat down and drew that flower you noticed? Even if you aren’t much of an artist, you will probably remember the beauty you observed far longer because you slowed down to appreciate God’s creation.
It is important to remember that we desperately need the power of God to be at work in our hearts, by the Holy Spirit, to give us desires that are in conformity with Christ. No plan for smartphone use alone will make us worship and desire God over the things of this world. Through prayer, thoughtful reflection and communal accountability, with the help of the Holy Spirit, you can become a smarter smartphone user.