How My Smartphone Makes Me Dumber, and Other Concerning Things

Technology, social media, souls, communication, and the nostalgia I have for a past without these worries and a future with too many of them. And what happens now in the in between. Read at your own risk. 

I graduated from college a while back, so now I’m thinking about who I want to be for the rest of my life, and how to shape my life in a way that creates space for the Lord to enter into the daily rhythms of my soul. I don’t want this period of my life to be defined by what the rest of my friends are doing, the rest of my generation is doing, and what the rest of the world is moving toward and holding onto. That sounds like the frightening world of high school.

This isn’t 9th grade, and I am hopefully very different from the 14-year-old Joanna with poofy hair stuffed under a swim cap, working out the plot of the fairy novel she’s working on while she swims endless laps at synchro practice, mouth sore from braces getting tightened and rubber bands pulling her teeth into submission, insecure about how tall and strange she is in the mirrors of the pool locker room and ugly in her Costco 8-pack grandma underwear and ninja t-shirt. (Thank God.)

Even though I am very different from that Joanna, there was one thing she had that she didn’t even realize was a gift: she could pour her selfishness and insecurity into private writing, and she grew up inside her words. And no one was watching her. Perhaps a close circle of friends were emailed her latest story chapters or shown a copy of a scribbled poem – 14-year-old Joanna was just as hungry for affirmation and appreciation as 20-year-old Joanna – but  I can just notice it better and call it out now.

As a person in the communications field, it’s interesting and very valuable to reflect on my own personal interaction with online media. I’m thinking back to the magic of getting a facebook account at 15, and pouring my heart out in online message conversations and the hundreds of Shakespeare competition photos I am still tagged in. Ah, vintage nerdy facebook. Before my friends were cool and studying in Ireland and going on missions trips to India. Before my world was a whirl of competing for who has the most fascinating life and constantly monitoring and maintaining online appearances and connections.

I think 14 or 15-year-old Joanna is still part of me when I sit down, for instance, with a group of new acquaintances from church at a Midtown diner and they all pull out their phones for no reason other than they have them and they are making sounds in their pocket that tell them they are considered significant by people that are not at this table. How dull, I think, to come and try to make friends with people who keep twisting their bodies to dive into their tight jeans pockets to be affirmed and connected, because missing out on a mysterious vibration and its message is more of a concern than letting me finish my sentence. How completely the opposite of fascinating and engaging.

Do I sound cynical? Good. I should be. I majored in talking about this.

Meanwhile, my phone is turned off in my purse, because that is what I have always done, because I want people to know that they are important to me, and that is what I was taught to do. To me, pulling out your phone at a social gathering has always been as gauche as bringing extra people to a private party uninvited. But these are simple manners from the world of conservative homeschooling, where the politeness read about in Austen and Alcott has transferred over into my reality, a reality where I visit friends to share tea and deep conversation instead of mutual social media acknowledgement, a reality where my heart’s closest friends value these old-fashioned ways of life as I do. This is a part of my alternative education in which I feel a deep sense of pride and identity.

But despite homeschooling and old books and this redundant anti-social media conversation that I am having right now, I am not Alcott’s Jo March scribbling away in her attic with ink stains on her hands. I am Jo Rutter in her basement with her laptop, and we are very unlike in 2013. I have looked at beautiful things and thought of them filtered in an Instagrammed frame, because I want to be fascinating. I have thought of quips, rolled them over in my mind, and put them in tweets with clever hashtags, because I want to be funny. I have meticulously crafted Pinterest boards with the snippets of a person I could never afford to become, because I want to be beautiful and successful. I have surrounded myself with unhappiness and discontent, and invited others to watch me and click buttons to tell me who I am.

I went upstairs earlier and interrupted my mother’s recorded lecture for seminary to tell her, heatedly, everything I’ve just told you. Most of my frustration with constant connection is from having a smartphone. I’ve had it since February. I don’t have rich people Wifi all the time so usually it hasn’t taken up a lot of my life, but at home I’m constantly plugged into the swirling vortex of what all of my friends far away are doing. In the name of staying connected, I’ve sent ridiculous Snapchat faces, and in the name of drowning out insomnia, have played Sudoku on an app until the wee hours of the morning, falling asleep to numbers arranging themselves in my brain. I do not like this.

Meanwhile, my journal sits on my bedside table, untouched for a week at a time, and my mandolin lies in its case on my floor, making no music. 14-year-old Joanna used a simple, trite story of a boy and a girl in a magical land to work through 120 pages and 3 years of tortured adolescence, and hammered out her angst in Chopin on the piano. She painted her longing for heaven, which she neither understood nor could articulate yet, in colors of Debussy. If writing and music are so necessary for my soul, what am I doing expressing my life through Twitter before I write about it?

When did I become so shallow?

I’m thinking back to reading Technopoly and Propaganda. I’m thinking back to Media, Religion and Democracy with Dr. Brown, and SSFT with Dr. Jones, and how I left that class every day with this sense of eminent doom and personal responsibility for the stupidity of rising generations trusting the media as a source of truth. (I’m feeling nauseous as I type that. Being a Comm major will ruin you.) I’m thinking to a few days ago, when my brother Caleb told me some Guinness-type meme fact from Instagram. “How do you know that’s true, Caleb?” “Um, it’s here on the internet!” Ye gods. We’re all going to get flushed down some black hole of dumb, and unless I have anything to do with it, my precious Caleb will be there first one to go, retweeting inspiring things misquoted from Einstein and Lincoln until he has no idea of objective truth anymore.

I have horrible visions of my children learning their ABCs with screens strapped to their faces sitting in a plain room taught by robots, where reality itself has shifted to a programmed world and human interaction no longer exists. Truth is subjectively decided to be whatever has been upvoted the most, and is constantly fluctuating. No one is taught facts. People only get their news from intensely personalized and opinionated blogs, and communicate through memes and tweets instead of actual conversation. These things might not happen, and they also might. My children might grow up in a world that rejects these screens and they’ll scamper around fields and go to some alternative school where they live on a farm and grow cures for cancer. I hope this is the future. But they also might wear Google goggles and go to Google school and sleep in Google pods. This is what I fear.

So as I hold my smartphone and look into its black empty face, I am drawn back to a past where none of my friends have phones, and pushing away from a future that might be completely dominated by depersonalizing technology. I am cautious here, in between the nostalgia and the fear. This is where I can make decisions, and choose what kind of life I have and how my smartphone is part of that. I am caught between being shallow and being disconnected.

Hugh MacLeod said it well: “The price of being a sheep is boredom. The price of being a wolf is loneliness. Choose one or the other with great care.” If I am a sheep, I will keep tweeting until my brain falls out of my ear like Jello. If I keep using Facebook to stay in touch with people I don’t actually care about for the sake of feeling needed, I will turn into a computer person saying things through statuses and likes instead of saying them with my words and my hands and life. Dramatic? Yes. So are Google pods.

I will not come quietly, Future. I am no sheep. I will scream my questions at you until I die even if people tell me I am ridiculous, because someone needs to be asking them. I will not do what Progress with a capital P tells me to do simply because it is faster and what everyone else is doing. I do not need to update, to buy the newer model, to stay current, to keep moving for no purpose other than to keep moving. I refuse to accept opinions as truth. I refuse to be a vapid, impersonal consumer. I will rage against you.

This is my social fight as the wolf. This is what frustrates me when I sit at the diner table with people who are all checking their phones. This is what frightens me when I see an entire subway car or restaurant full of people on their phones, like a scene out of an apocalyptic movie. This is what annoys me as my own parents play Words with Friends sitting next to each other on the couch. These are the things that make me wonder who we as a people are becoming, and whether these choices are made consciously or made like sheep. This is why communication as a discipline matters.

But there is another, less easily pinned-down fight. This fight is the one within me. This is the fight where I find 14-year-old Joanna resurfacing. I think she was wise in ways I have lost. At a time of my life where I’m figuring out what I’m passionate about and who I want to be – a second adolescence, actually, in many ways – I find that the last thing I need in my life right now is a mirror for my own self-absorption, which is what my phone has become. On any given morning, you can find me refreshing my presence on social media; I am reflecting upon and reestablishing myself online as a way to affirm and construct my identity itself, and doing so with hundreds of other people doing the same. This overwhelms me. It is too much.

So this morning I’ve asked myself the two questions that I want to shape my choices right now in this space of my life: What is necessary? And what is wise?

Do I need to play Sudoku to fall asleep? Is it wise to play solitaire when I am bored on the train? Or is it wiser to allow myself to encounter God in those empty moments?

Do I need to say this personal political conviction on Twitter? Why is this helpful or necessary to anyone? Or is it wiser to research this political issue online to form an even clearer, more holistic idea of what I believe and allow that to influence the way I vote and converse intelligently in person with others and shape culture?

Do I need to stay in contact with friends through Snapchat? Is it necessary to spend time and thought on sending amusing images that will disappear in less than 10 seconds, never to have lasting significance again? Or is it wiser to write them a meaningful message that affirms their importance in my life, something they will be able to have forever?

What is passing? What is eternal? These questions are important because I am both. I’m trapped in between. My body will pass away. My soul lives forever. So does yours. I am a body, with fingers that tap out messages and a mouth that speaks. I am given a certain time between 1 more day and 80 more years do to something eternally meaningful with my body. That isn’t a lot of time. And if I spend most of that on things that pass away, things that are vapid, things that don’t build anything lasting, I am not being wise with this life.

Social media is not bad or good. People are bad and good. And I am both of those as well, and it’s therefore very important that I allow God room to prune and grow those good things, and to refine away the bad. If I am insecure about my weight, it’s wiser to go to the gym while listening to encouraging music than it is to look at Pinterest pictures of skinny women and go to sleep bitterly disappointed with myself. If I am lonely, it is wiser to be around my family and reach out to people in need than it is to curl up into a social media ball and watch TV and look at other peoples’ lives that look happier than mine. I must be careful to not let God and real people get crowded out by the apps on my phone, which is why I deleted most of mine this morning. I must be careful to express myself through media like music and writing, which requires work and time, instead of a quippy online interaction that has little eternal meaning. I must cultivate wisdom more through rich literature instead of funny gifs, because it will last longer.

I am eternal. So are you. We must be very, very thoughtful about what we pour our life into, and why, because I’m convinced the world does not need more sheep. God put us in a world, but told us not to belong to it. We as a culture might need to think about that one a little more.

Join me?

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