During the first five or so years I taught Discipleship and Ethics, some students would push back and argue with me during the technique/technology class—they wanted to defend the use of technology. Following Ellul, I made the point that I was not attacking specific technologies. Rather, my concern was society’s general shift to adopt any tool or technique that was perceived to be more efficient without reflecting critically on its potential alienating impact.
The push-back no longer happens.
No student has argued against my general thesis in that class session for years. At one level it is counter-intuitive. Students today use much more technology than in 2000 when cell phones were not ubiquitous, and there were no smart phones, tablets, etc. One would think that students would feel much more defensive today. But they are not. My sense is that no one pushes back now because, in their being, they feel the alienation that Ellul describes. They feel the truth. They have no problem filling the white board with both positive and negative effects of efficient technologies in their lives. This shift from push-back to no-resistance is like a carbon monoxide detector going off. Something has changed. The danger level has increased. What are we doing to let in fresh air and lessen the toxins?
Two years ago I added a new assignment after the class on technique. I ask students to do the following and write a reflection letter on the experience:
Choose a day in the week ahead for a fast from electronic communication (cell phone/mobile devices, e-mail, Twitter, Facebook and any other internet based forms of communication). You may choose the length of the fast, all day would be ideal, but less than that is acceptable.
It has proven to be a powerful assignment. Here are a few examples of common reflections:
“I began to see that all my efficiency is at the expense of something I hold dear...relationships.”
“I felt a sense of freedom that I have not felt in a while; actually, I felt human. The world does not hang on my shoulders; it will not fall apart if I do not answer the phone. My relationship with my wife felt a lot more profound even though we didn’t talk much but simply enjoyed each other’s presence. My time felt abundant and the day went by less faster.”
“It was a struggle to wrestle with how I can reduce the control technique has over me when I live in a society that is conditioning me to rely on technique.”
“To my great surprise, this day felt like a day off. The irony was that I did a lot of work, but it felt like a day off. I enjoyed the fact that I did not have to continually check my phone, wondering if I had missed a text from someone that I might need to get back to. I did not need to check my Facebook or e-mail. I did not have to see the blue light of a computer or kindle or tv screen. I did not have to be controlled by anyone else’s convenience nor did I feel compelled to initiate a question or conversation with someone I felt obligated to. I did not feel bad or guilty for a conversation not happening.”
“I realized how often I check my phone for calls and emails. [I] would reach for the phone only to remember it wasn't in my pocket.”
“In my most consumed moments of social media and technology there are instances where I become aware that I am looking for something. I ask myself in that moment: what am I looking for? What do I need right in this moment that I think social media can fill? Is it friendship? A connection? Personal meaning? Motivation? Am I avoiding something? Am I seeking attention? Recognition?”
“The first thing I felt: Addicted.”
“I discovered I thought I could be in two places at once. I believed I could be on the floor playing with one of my daughters and also responding to a question via my phone. This is not true, the moment I pick up my phone I am no longer in the same space my daughter is in.”
“I now realize just how much of a priority I give to these forms of communication without even realizing what control it has on me. I had to literally lock my phone away because I was finding that I would just naturally look at it without thinking. Why has this become such an addiction?”
Some students also shared action steps they planned to take such as turning off their phones at a set hour each evening, having a no-phones-at-the-table rule during family meals, not carrying their phone at home—treating it like a land line, or committing to regular fasts.
I encourage you to try a fast, or do it again.
Share what you learn and ideas on how to lessen communication technologies’ alienating power in our lives in the comment section below.
In recent years we have listened to part of a college chapel talk by Shane Hipps. He tells a moving story about the significance of presence and ends with the following statement that I encourage you to reflect on today:
“The digital age has taught us that our presence doesn’t matter. . . God became flesh and lived among us. We all have bodies too. . . Something about presence matters. . . May we become God’s presence in a world of absence, in a world desperate for that kind of tangible presence.”