Preface: This is the first installment in a three-part Challenge series centered around the topic of modern technology and the Christian life. The thesis is this: in our time, three key aspects of our humanity are at risk – concentration, memory, and empathy. This threat to the full expression of our God-designed humanity deserves our attention because, as Hans Rookmaker famously asserted, “Jesus didn’t come to make us Christian; Jesus came to make us fully human.”
Solitude, silence, and meditation on scripture have been among the Christian spiritual disciplines for nearly two millennia. But in our own time, they face a unique threat. In a sentence, it is the disorganization of our own minds fostered by the most powerful attention-scattering tool ever encountered by mankind: the Internet.
[Now, that sounds awfully alarmist, doesn’t it? So let’s answer a few key questions right from the start. Is the Internet evil? Absolutely not. Need we all become Luddites and turn against every expression of technology? By no means! Am I saying we should discourage Internet usage outright? Hopefully my choice to write an article for an e-publication makes my response clear enough. So with all that said, I want to invite you to dig in with me as I make a case about the risks and remedies of excessive Internet immersion.]
Nicholas Carr persuasively argues in his book, The Shallows, that we are becoming increasingly shallow thinkers in the presence of Internet-enabled devices that demand and divide our attention: “We focus intensively on the medium itself, on the flickering screen, but we’re distracted by the medium’s rapid-fire delivery of competing messages and stimuli.” (118) The result is that we rush and skim and think less deeply.
The medium itself, Carr says, discourages linear, complex thought, encouraging us instead to multitask our way through the maze of hyperlinks and simultaneously-open windows. But study after study indicates that such multitasking – which feigns productivity by giving us a chemical high via increased dopamine in the brain – actually impedes learning, resulting in memory errors, increased processing time, delayed completion time, and heightened impulsiveness. 1
You may be wondering at this point: why be concerned about the medium of the Internet – isn’t what matters how individuals choose to use the tool? Like Carr, I would contend that the Internet itself, no matter how we use it, is actually uniquely equipped to distract us, as research indicates that the stimuli that distract us most are “novel, have an abrupt onset, change over time, or are distinctive compared to other stimuli.” (142) In other words: pop-ups, instant messages, movement and lighting of text, and even things like low-battery warnings, make Internet-enabled devices inherently distracting.
So what’s the big deal if we’re distracted a lot? The surprising news from Carr is that our immersion online seems to be making us shallower thinkers overall, not just when we log on. We become used to haphazardly flitting from one thing to another – happily avoiding the heavy lifting of deep, sustained thought – all the while unaware that our brain’s ability to think deeply is slowly being dismantled. Carr concludes: “Dozens of studies […] point to the same conclusion: when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. It’s possible to think deeply while surfing the Net, just as it’s possible to think shallowly while reading a book, but that’s not the type of thinking the technology encourages and rewards.” (115–116)
The more immersed we are online, the less deeply we care to – and then are even able to – think. This should be particularly disconcerting for Christians whose faith is supported by in-depth, contemplative reading of its scriptures and thoughtful engagement with the world. The first and greatest commandment is that we love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, & strength. We must not throw away our capacity to use our minds to their fullest in the pursuit of truth.
It’s time – past time for most of us – to set limits around our device usage. Here are two I recommend:
- Refuse to check your phone first thing / last thing every day. Ask yourself: “What are the first and last things I look at each day? What’s my first impulse when I’m bored or stressed?” The answers to these questions may give us a window into our addictions…and even our idols.
- Refuse to be shackled to your phone 100% of the time. My father-in-law enacted this simple fix in his home, which I think is a great idea: consider setting out a cell phone basket and charging station in your entry hall and encourage others in your home (family, roommates, dinner guests) to leave their devices there for a few hours at a time so they’ll be free to engage meaningfully with those present. You might be surprised about the kind of interaction you get.
What steps do you take to set limits? Share your ideas with fellow Summit alumni!
If this discussion interests you, mark your calendars for the October 25th Summit Forum with Paige Gutacker on The Internet and The Soul!
Challenge is a piece from the Alumni Network’s monthly e-newsletter RE:SOURCE. Subscribe to the newsletter here.