Life After the Dash from Zero to 2 Billion

A Review of Two Recent Books on Smartphones and Social Media.

None of us can miss the most striking change in material culture in our lifetime. In a single decade we have dashed from a world with zero smartphones (if you don’t count the clunky pre-2007 ancestors of the iPhone) to a world with 2 billion of them. We’ve taken a kind of cross-cultural trip to a new world stuffed with glowing rectangles—and apparently, we’re traveling on a one-way ticket. We’re still getting over the jet lag, and the queasy discovery that although we bought these devices because of what they promised to do for us, they’re also doing something to us.

 

Winston Churchill’s tribute to the architecture of the House of Commons—“We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us”—has endured as an aphorism because material culture, like buildings, so often slips into the background. Only when we’re compelled to pay attention—as happens when we experience the disorientation of cross-cultural travel or when, as in Churchill’s generation, we must rebuild buildings that had been suddenly destroyed after standing for centuries—do we really see the reflexive power of culture, the ways that human life is shaped by material things.

But none of us can miss the most striking change in material culture in our lifetime. In a single decade we have dashed from a world with zero smartphones (if you don’t count the clunky pre-2007 ancestors of the iPhone) to a world with 2 billion of them. We’ve taken a kind of cross-cultural trip to a new world stuffed with glowing rectangles—and apparently, we’re traveling on a one-way ticket. We’re still getting over the jet lag, and the queasy discovery that although we bought these devices because of what they promised to do for us, they’re also doing something to us.

This is one reason we need artists and writers (and Churchill was both). They help us pay attention to how our culture shapes us, bringing hidden cultural patterns to light, putting them in context, and ideally restoring in us a sense of agency and possibility rather than passivity and inevitability. That is very much the aim and the result of two important, though different, recent books: Tony Reinke’s 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You and Donna Freitas’s The Happiness Effect: How Social Media Is Driving a Generation to Appear Perfect at Any Cost.

Reinke—a senior writer for desiringGod.org—writes with heartfelt passion as a Christian: “Eternity, not psychology, is my deepest concern.” Freitas—who teaches at Hofstra and collaborates with Christian Smith’s Center for the Study of Religion and Society at Notre Dame—writes with the more measured, though still empathetic, voice of a scholar and researcher. But their perspectives converge on what you might call hopeful alarm—a conviction that our devices are busily shaping us into people we never wanted to be, along with at least a glimmer of promise that we can find a path out of our mediated mess.

Better Way

Reinke begins his book with “a little theology of technology,” which is fundamentally a reminder of the good, God-given, and constructive role of all human culture in the “garden-to-city unfolding of history.” Like many authors, he treats all of humankind’s skill- and tool-based transformation of the world as equivalent to “technology”: “a trajectory of shovels, sickles, and horse-drawn plows, and then tractors, irrigation systems, and now GPS-guided (and GPS-driven) equipment.” I think treating this as a single trajectory is misleading—if technology were just more tools, we wouldn’t need a new word for it. There’s a wider and more significant gap embedded in those transitional phrases “and then . . . and now” than Reinke implies. Still, he’s right that this whole story is part of the larger human calling to cultivate and create in the world, with potentially glorious results.

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