This year I am writing a monthly column in Christian Renewal, a Reformed news magazine based in Southern Ontario, Canada. I believe their website is under construction and so I will be posting my articles on this blog after they are in print. Similar to the blog, this column provides a great platform to share some thoughts about our life in the digital age. Although my first article begins with a story I shared in a previous post, it does take a different direction.
Dining with our Digital Devices
CR Issue 7: January 16, 2013
While eating at a restaurant the other day, a scene at a nearby table caught my attention. Two parents and three teenagers sat together with heads bowed low and eyes downcast. No one uttered a word. They simply remained frozen in this reverent posture, even while a waitress busily placed their food before them. When the waitress walked off without a single “thank-you,” the food and the family remained lifeless, leaving me to wonder how long this display of public piety would last. Then, to my surprise (and amusement), a cacophony of clicking noises shattered the silence as each individual revealed the cell phone they had been concealing beneath the surface of the table. Once forks replaced phones everyone began to eat.
Our Lives Behind Screens
This scene caught my attention not in the novelty of the paradox it presented, but rather, in its normalcy. Today, a family dining together, yet alone, does not appear out of the ordinary. It is widely acceptable to be among friends and family with eyes fixated on phones. We are content to sit with one another without feeling it necessary to communicate with one another. Take a quick look at your surroundings and it is apparent that a vast majority of time is spent staring into the screens of digital devices.
One explanation for this phenomenon is that our devices always seem to be capable of providing more services. Today, a phone is not simply a device for calling friends. It is a messaging center, road map, and personal library. It plays music, movies and television shows with a click of a button. In short, it provides a portal into the World Wide Web, granting us access to endless rivers of information and entertainment. Teenagers, when asked recently which function of a smartphone they could not live without, placed “calling someone” behind texting, Internet browsing, taking photos, and checking email. To understand just how much time we spend behind our screens let’s look at a few statistics.
According to a Pew Research report, nearly half of American adults (30+ years old) and close to two-thirds of American young adults (18 – 29 years old) owned a smart phone in 2012. Additionally, 90% of older teens (14-17 years old) and 60% of younger teens (12-13 years old) own their own phone. The majority of the time spent on these devices is for texting, with the average adult sending and receiving close to 42 texts every day. Teens, on the other hand, send and receive nearly 105 texts during their waking hours. The Massachusetts-based web analytics and online marketing company, Hubspot, recently reported that the average teen girl sends and receives an average of 4,000 texts every month!
When we are not texting, we are busy consuming a smorgasbord of social media services provided by Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr, Twitter, and LinkedIn. For some perspective, consider the average time spent on these sites in the month of January, 2012, alone. Facebook users devoted 405 minutes perusing the profiles and pictures of friends and acquaintances. Tumblr and Pinterest users gave 90 minutes of their time that month to each network. Those who “tweet,” tweeted for nearly 20 minutes, while professionals on “LinkedIn” spent 17 minutes updating their resumes.
Currently, Internet use is the second most popular media activity in America. It only takes ten minutes of email exchange to produce more text than the entire Library of Congress. Television remains America’s number one pastime with 4 hours and 40 minutes spent every single day (not month) in front of the tube. Keep in mind that this statistic does not include the relatively modest hour that 135 million Americans spend every month playing video games. It does, however, include the personal 20.5 annual hours spent watching YouTube, which accumulated 20.5 billion video views in the span of a single month last year.
Certainly, there is no end to statistics that illuminate the time we spend behind screens and with the proliferation of e-Readers, GPS devices, and tablets these figures are projected to continue mounting in the foreseeable future.
Asking Questions about our Digital Life
But so what? Is there anything “wrong” with spending time connected to our digital devices? If there is, can we really expect to turn the tide against the inevitability of technological progress? These are the questions circulating in my mind as try to make sense of the statistics. Wrestling with possible answers I considered the scene in the restaurant once more.
The family around the table shared a common posture: bowed heads and downcast eyes. In Christian circles, such posture is associated with prayer. Today, this posture indicates new digital rituals of texting, browsing, or surfing. In his recent book, Where Mortals Dwell: A Christian View of Place for Today, Dr. Craig Bartholomew discusses the pervasive nature of rituals, showing that such practices cannot be confined solely to churches or places of worship. After arguing that all of our lives are in fact religious, he concludes: “Sadly, in our consumer culture, our rituals are generally unconscious, and this says much about what we really value.”
From this perspective, we can return to the statistics of our digital age and uncover the values that directe our unconscious rituals. We do not have to limit ourselves to the fruitless task of arguing that a digital world is one devoid of value. Certainly there is value in the fact that I can send my article from Austin, Texas to Canada in seconds. There is value in having the ability to listen to the London Philharmonic Orchestra on and iPod that also contains images of my new nephew and niece whose baptism I missed. The blessings of the digital age are abundant, but it is easy to wax-nostalgic about a better time before instant communication and mobile devices. The problem with this approach is that too often those who fall into this trap become techno-Pharisees, hammering out a list of digital “Dos and Don’ts.”
I think another approach is necessary if we confess as Christians that the entirety of our lives, in indivisible wholeness, are to be a heartfelt response to the life-sustaining Word of God. If this is our confession then our life-encompassing religion, and by extension our approach to digital devices, will not simply be about “morality.” Instead, it will be about examining the habits of our hearts in order to become conscious of our unconscious rituals. It will be about exposing the extent to which we are seduced by the devices in our lives and exploring how well our life lived before the screen reflects a life lived before the face of God, coram Deo.
Craig Bartholomew, Where Mortals Dwell: A Christian View of Place for Today (Baker, 2011).
Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why we Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011).
Hal Ableson, Ken Ledeen, Harry Lewis. Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness after the Digital Revolution (Boston: Addison-Wesley, 2008).
 The paradoxical phrase, “Alone Together” is the title of a recent book by Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why we Expect more from Technology and Less from Each Other. Turkle is the Director of an MIT Initiative on Technology and Self.
 Statistic found in Hal Ableson, Ken Ledeen, Harry Lewis. Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness after the Digital Revolution (Boston: Addison-Wesley, 2008).