Are you reading this on a smartphone or tablet that you carry around with you every day? That you’re holding in your hand right now?
In reality, that’s pretty amazing—given that just a few decades ago, this was the stuff of science fiction. Even when the first iPhone came out, its functionality was limited. But the number of smartphones and the number of apps have exploded, and now we can order pizza, stream a live event, and check our newsfeeds all with the flip of a thumb. And we are on the brink of even more incredible technology: virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and beyond. It’s truly an amazing time to be alive.
All this digital technology makes our lives simpler and puts a lot of power at our fingertips. Yet we should remember that these kinds of technology are still incredibly new, and few of us know how it actually works or how to ‘fix’ an app when it crashes. More importantly, we probably don’t completely understand how all this new technology is influencing our thinking, altering our behaviors, and re-orienting our societies.
We are starting to understand some of its effects. Studies have shown that our Facebook feeds can influence how we are feeling—making us happier or sadder based on the posts we are shown. The streaming revolution has made directors and producers turn every episode of a show into a ‘cliffhanger’ so that we will keep binge-watching. Certain apps are changing the way that we date and communicate with one another. And we have all heard about the dangers of texting and driving, if we haven’t attempted it ourselves.
But there is probably more going on than we realize (just like putting lead in our gasoline seemed like a great idea for a surprisingly long time—it was finally phased out in 1995!). So we ought to be a little cautious and humble in the face of all this fast-moving change. One thinker put it this way: “We are all robots when uncritically involved with our technologies” (Marshall McLuhan).
If we are not aware, it is easy for all this technology to control us, instead of the other way around.
Don’t Become a Robot.
Many app developers and websites make their money through advertising, so one of the things they build into their creations is a certain addictive quality. Notifications, likes, and posts are designed to pull us in more and more to this or that app, program, or game. As our screen time increases, our real lives can suffer. If we are not careful, we can easily start to look and act like an addict when it comes to checking our phones, commenting, and scrolling.
Psalm 115 describes another kind of object that people made with their hands, and became very dependent on—idols. This is not to accuse us of making our phones our deities, but the warning to limit our dependence on something so finite should not be lost on us. There could be damage to our relationships and maybe even danger to our sanity…
Another painfully apparent challenge is the nastiness that comes out online. Behind the safety and anonymity of a screen, we share harmful and hateful words, images, and videos that we would never utter or display in front of someone’s face—even Facebook Live has been used to broadcast hate-driven torture. This is one of the greatest perils of digital technology: it brings out the worst of who we are in Twitter tirades, cyber bullying, ‘revenge’ pornography, and more.
Where does all this darkness come from? While some blame the new technologies themselves, there is a much simpler answer. The things we create, the tools we shape, simply reflect that brokenness that already exists inside of us as human beings.
Jesus said it this way: “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within” (Mark 7:21-23). The darkest parts of the web simply are reflections of the darkness that already lurks within us.
So ultimately it is up to us how this technology will shape and change us. We ought be honest about our own brokenness and human tendency to mock from a distance. We have to recognize the danger in the anonymity that digital technology brings. If we are upfront about this, we will be in a much better position to make digital technology and our use of it better for ourselves and others.
Humanity has a great history of creating technology that rushes ahead so fast that it hurts and damages people. Only after we cause great damage, and can stand back and survey that damage, do we slow down and figure out how to make our technology safer. When the car was first invented, there were no seatbelts, speed limits, or stop signs—let alone airbags, automatic braking, and parking assists. We created all those things to make our use of cars more controlled and safe.
In a similar manner, we need to develop new social norms and curbs to help us use digital technology to enhance, rather than detract from, our humanity.
What can that look like?
See the heart behind the screen.
We must remember that behind every profile, every online account, and every comment, is a person. Another human being, just like us—with hopes and dreams as well as failings and insecurities. It is common for us to respect people, even strangers, we come across them in public. We say hello or we might step out of their way if they are coming out of the store with their arms loaded down.
Christians have a deep reason to respect everyone: we believe that all people are created in the image of God. That is why Jesus told his followers to “love your enemies.” We can’t lose that idea of respect, of love, when we’re operating in digital spaces.
Instead of just venting scorn and shame, what if we could start expressing and extending forgiveness to one another in the digital world? We all make mistakes, and it could just as easily be you who is on the receiving end of scorn and shame. Jesus put it this way: “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone” (John 8:7). In a broken world, where we all are going to make mistakes and end up hurting one another, forgiveness is the only thing we have that can keep communities connected and ongoing.
We all need forgiveness to repair the damage from our mistakes and move forward in our relationships. Forgiveness takes work, but it comes with a great reward. The Apostle Paul’s words seem especially pressing today: “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32-33). Even those who don’t follow Christ can probably see that our digital world would benefit from a little more forgiveness, compassion, and kindness.
Diversity at our fingertips
Here’s another idea: although it’s tempting to surround ourselves with people who think, look, and act just like us, what if we used our digital technologies to seek out people who are different from us and learn from them? It is now easier than ever to access and hear about different political movements, people groups, and organizations. We can check websites, watch videos, and even participate in online dialogs or live events that open our hearts and minds to others. In other words, we should learn how to be hospitable in the digital world, welcoming in people who we don’t normally know or won’t normally come across.
That doesn’t mean we must agree with everything we come across or learn about, but we should at least hear what they have to say. This is the path toward greater understanding and knowledge. As book of Proverbs says: “An intelligent heart acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge” (18:15).
Be biased toward the genuine connections.
And although our screens can isolate us when we misuse them, they can bring us together and deepen our connections when we use them well. We know this personally—how wonderful is it to Facetime or Skype with a friend or loved one who lives on the other side of the world? Also, it incredible how so many relationships that begin online translate into face-to-face friendships and even marriages!
This power of connection is also true on a larger scale. Through crowdfunding, we can back exciting new creations on sites like Kickstarter, and help bring new and exciting ideas and projects into the world. When disasters strike, even in remote corners of the world, we can generate millions of dollars in donations in the space of a few hours for those who are hurting. When we use technology like that, it brings us together, deepening our humanity and connection to one another.
So, although we should be humble and intentional, we can also get excited about all the changes and opportunities technology is bringing into our world. All of these advancements, in the Christian view, are an outworking of the great responsibility God has given to humanity—to work and cultivate the earth. Of course, we don’t always get this right, but as with any other new technology, from fire to the car and beyond, the more intentional we are with it, the better we’re able to use things to benefit ourselves and others instead of causing harm.
Here are some things that all of us can do to be more intentional and thoughtful in our engagement and use of digital technologies:
- Download a tracking app onto your digital devices and see how many times you touch your device during a day and how much screen time you are logging. Are you addicted? Is it too much? How can you rearrange your digital habits towards healthier patterns?
- Use technology intentionally. Set boundaries (no screens at dinner) and create questions that help you make good decisions (would I say this in person to someone?).
- Keep it human. Behind every profile is a real human being, who is just as broken and beautiful in God’s eyes as you are.
- Use digital technologies to understand people different from you instead of as a platform for attacking and de-humanizing them.
Other voices in this conversation: