Balancing Acts – Shalom and Smartphones

tom b

Editor’s Note: Tom Beutel, a regular contributor to PeaceSigns, is Professor Emeritus of Computer Science at Mount Vernon Nazarene University in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Balancing Acts is a monthly feature of PeaceSigns.

by Tom Beutel

Neil Postman died in 2003. But, Postman’s books – Amusing Ourselves to Death, The Disappearance of Childhood, and Technolopy to name a few –  speak to issues related to technology and humanness in a way that is still relevant and though-provoking.

Postman was a self-proclaimed “social critic.” While his writing was not expressly Christian or that of a peacemaker, he nevertheless held the belief that our relationship with technology was such that it affected our humanity, that for many technology is, in fact, a “god.”

Had he lived to see the smartphone – the first iPhone was not released until 2007 – he would likely have viewed it as the epitome of the technological issues about which he was concerned.

While one can certainly argue that technology in general, and smartphones in particular, bring undeniable benefits, it is also true that smartphones facilitate serious problems. Many would argue that no “thing,” smartphones included, can be blamed for problems that arise because of their use. The saying “guns don’t kill people, people do,” captures the idea that it is not the things themselves, but rather how they are used that is the key.

Postman, however, along with others, would argue that things are not completely neutral, that they have an embedded “ideology.” This idea was not new with Postman. Marshall McLuhan in 1964 introduced the phrase and concept that “the medium is the message.” What this means is that “a medium affects the society in which it plays a role not only by the content delivered over the medium, but also by the characteristics of the medium itself.” (Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_medium_is_the_message)

Postman’s premise, reminiscent of Paul’s words about the love of money in I Timothy 6:10, is that it is our relationship to technology that is the problem. We want to be around it, we look to it for answers and for pleasures, we place our trust in it. In doing so we not only put technology in the place of God, but we cause harm to our relationships with ourselves, others and creation. Here is what Postman has to say:

“..at some point it becomes far from asinine to speak of the god of Technology – in the sense that people             believe that technology works, that they rely on it, that it makes promises, that they are bereft

when denied access to it, that they are delighted when they are in its presence, that for most people it             works in mysterious ways, that they stand in awe of it, and that, in the born-again, they will alter

their lifestyles, their schedules, their habits, and their relationships to accommodate it. If this is not a             form of religious belief, what is?”

Neil Postman, The End of Education

Which brings us to the problems with smartphones. While smartphone sales are slowing, it is estimated that 1.5 billion (1,500,000,000) smartphones will be sold this year, 2016.  (http://www.gartner.com/newsroom/id/3339019 ) Many of these will be Christmas gifts, many for teens or younger children. A survey by the American Academy of Pediatrics shows that 75% of four-year-olds own a smartphone! (http://www.glitch.news/2015-11-10-75-percent-of-4-year-olds-own-smartphones-survey-finds.html)

Problems with smartphones, and by extension with computers, tablets, etc., are varied and many. Spending too much time online, accessing too much information or information that may not be reliable, and being on one’s device when with others are just some examples.

A major problem is addiction to one’s phone, tablet or other portable technology. According to Tech Addiction, “smartphone addiction is actually a very real problem affecting thousands across the globe.” (http://www.techaddiction.ca/smartphone-addiction-problem.html) Addiction to one’s smartphone, tablet or other device, like any similar addictions, affects relationships with others, interferes with physical and intellectual development in children, and distracts from engagement with and enjoyment of other pursuits. You can find information about smartphone and device addiction and even take a “test” to see if you are addicted at these sites:

  • The National Center on Addiction and Abuse: Does Smartphone Addiction really Exist?

http://www.centeronaddiction.org/the-buzz-blog/does-smartphone-addiction-really-exist?gclid=COjM9bWsvNACFQSAaQodj5YJeg

Another real problem associated especially with smartphones is that of using your cell phone while driving. It should be common sense that one cannot drive and text at the same time. Even talking on a cell phone can be a significant distraction. Here are some disturbing statistics:

  • Nearly one fourth of car accidents in the US are the result of texting and driving.
  • According to the National Safety Council cell phone use while driving accounts for 1.6 million auto accidents each year.
  • 33% of drivers age 18-64 admit to reading or writing text messages while driving.

Source: Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/17/12-step-e-tox-curb-electronic-device-addiction_n_3936807.html

All of this is very interesting, but is it really a shalom issue? One aspect of shalom is that of relationships; healthy, right relationships with God, self, others and the environment. Smartphones and other modern technologies can so dominate our lives that they in essence become our “god.” Our relationships with ourselves are harmed when we become overly-dependent on technology, possibly even addicted.

Interacting less frequently in face-to-face exchanges, using our phone or other device in a group or in a public venue such as a restaurant, or even causing physical harm through accidents negatively impact our relationships with others. And, there are numerous problems with smartphones and other electronic devices with respect to the environment including use of non-renewable resources, use of toxic materials, and improper disposal.

All-in-all the issue is complex. As peacemakers we need to be aware of the problems associated with use and overuse of smartphones and other electronic devices, take steps in our own use of these technologies to promote shalom, and encourage others to do the same.

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