The Smartphone and the Soul
It’s still a good quote, even though it’s dated:
Fax machines, emails, telephones, beepers, an over-committed schedule, the press of people’s needs…these are the tools of mass destruction for spiritual leaders. Their development and deployment often proceed without inspection. They threaten to shut down the spiritual leader’s communion with God. Once that happens, the leader’s effectiveness is destroyed. The leader becomes a casualty of a struggle that is as old as humanity – the drowning out of eternity by the screams of temporal concerns. (Reggie McNeal, A Work of Heart)
Fax machines? Beepers? Other technologies have taken their place, most notably smartphones. According to the one report, smartphones have had one of the fastest penetration rates of any technology ever introduced. I remember seeing a secret review unit of the iPhone in 2007, less than a decade ago. It’s impossible to go anywhere without seeing one now.
Is the phone in my pocket a tool of mass destruction for the soul? Does it hinder my connections with people and God? Maybe there is some danger. Consider what these numbers reveal about Canadians between the age of 18 and 24:
- When nothing is occupying my attention, the first thing I do is reach for my phone — 77% agree
- I check my phone at least every 30 minutes — 52% agree
- The last thing I do before I go to bed is check my phone — 73% agree
- I often use other devices while watching TV — 79% agree
Since smartphones aren’t going away, we’d better learn to live wisely with them. Secular books like The End of Absence and Christian books like The Joy of Missing Out and The Next Story explore what technology is doing for us, and how we should now live.
I have two thoughts.
First, pastors and church leaders have to go first. Technology gives us great tools, but always at a cost. Unless we’re careful, we’ll get swept away in the currents along with everyone else. I heard a pastor speak recently about some of the habits he’s cultivated to maintain his spiritual life in an always-connected world. He checks email only twice a week. He’s disabled email on his smartphone. He puts his phone away when he arrives at home and refuses to check it. While I’m not suggesting that we should adopt his habits, I am suggesting that we think carefully about the habits we want to cultivate so that our souls can thrive.
Second, we need to disciple in light of this technology. People haven’t changed, but some of the pressures we face are new. We’re constantly connected, instantly available, and glued to screens from the moment we open our eyes in the morning to when we shut them at night. As Michael Harris writes in The End of Absence, “That is the end of absence— the loss of lack. The daydreaming silences in our lives are filled; the burning solitudes are extinguished.” We need to disciple others in light of these new realities, and consider practices that guard our souls in this always-connected world.
We live in an always-connected world. While I’m happy about this, there are trade-offs. We need to think carefully about how to live well with this technology, which is a gift, but also a potential danger to our souls if we’re not careful.