A few months ago, I wrote a post about multitasking in which I discussed many of the problems with the usage of technology that facilitates our propensity to do too many things at once. This post sparked some disagreement. I turn now to the question of how Christians should engage technology, particularly as these interactions tempt us to multitask. Before beginning this project, though, I want to reintroduce the problem.
It has been almost 25 years since the late Neil Postman published a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death. The thesis of his book was, as Postman put it, the possibility that Aldous Huxley’s vision of the future in Brave New World was right and that George Orwell’s in 1984 was wrong. Postman wrote:
In Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore technologies that undo their capacities to think. What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifigual bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.
Postman’s words serve as a fitting invocation for this discussion. Indeed, as apropos as Postman’s argument was in 1985, it is even more so now. What follows are some thoughts about how Christians can – and should – escape the dangers detailed by Postman and avoid becoming trivialized and enslaved by the diversions of our technology.
Be Patient and Acknowledge Limitations
The tendency to multitask is motivated in part by our inability to wait. Instead of concentrating on the task at hand – for instance, listening to a lecture – we feel compelled to check the headlines, respond to an e-mail, check our schedule, etc. immediately . Why do we feel this way? We are an impatient generation, and our impatience does not stop with the inability to sit through a 50-minute lecture. It also carries over into our careers, our relationships, and our spiritual lives. It is important that we recognize that at the root of these tendencies lie habits and attitudes that are spiritually unhealthy.
First, we are consumers. If we don’t like what is being presented to us in class or if we are bored by our friend, we are quick to jump to the next thing. We have manifold options before us and we see no reason to stick with one if another would be more enjoyable. We think this is our right. As a result, we reduce everything to its entertainment value, which becomes the sum of our moral system.
Second, our priorities are wrong. Or, perhaps more precisely, we haven’t thought about what it means to have priorities. We sometimes seem to treat everything as equally important and unimportant: this lecture, that e-mail, the latest blogs, a video on YouTube. The fact that we have no priorities becomes more evident when we think about how often we interrupt face-to-face conversations to answer the phone or even to check e-mail. What are we saying to the person in front of us when we do not give him our full attention? We are saying: “You are not important to me.” Our priority should be to the people who are immediately before us. After all, their time is as valuable as our own, and we are commanded to love them as we love ourselves.
Third, we refuse to acknowledge our finitude. We believe we can do everything at once, or at least that we can be more efficient by doing multiple things at the same time. Some of us honestly think that we can listen to our friend talk to us and read our e-mail on our phone at the same time. This is impossible. Recognizing this fact means admitting our human limitations, which is a healthy exercise for us.
Lastly and most significantly, we have lost the spiritual discipline of meditation. In an age in which Yoga has become a trendy fad, Christians have forgotten what it means to spend hours in prayer; we can barely even spend 10 minutes in prayer without feeling uncomfortable. Waiting on God is at the heart of faith. Abraham had to wait many years to see God’s promise to him fulfilled. As David writes at the end of Psalm 27, we need to be reminded to “Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.”
Set Boundaries and Trust God
As I watch people interrupt conversations to text message or read e-mail on their iPhone, I am struck by the thought that we no longer have any concept that there are appropriate and inappropriate times to do these things. At the risk of sounding like an old crank, I want to point out something: Kids, this is rude! Please, it should be obvious that when we’re having a conversation, you cannot simply tune out to send a text message or to check the score on your iPhone. Put it away, turn it off.
Part of what prevents us from having the courage to turn off the cell phone and simply sit down for coffee is the constant worry that we will miss something. We exaggerate our own importance and the magnitude of the tasks before us.
Jesus confronted a similar situation at the home of Mary and Martha. The Gospel of Luke tells us that Martha was “distracted” by all the preparations that she thought had to be made. In contrast, Mary was relaxed and sat at the feet of Jesus, listening to him speak. When Martha came to complain to Jesus that there was so much work to do, Jesus said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42).
Observe the Sabbath
Craig M. Gay, a professor at Regent College in Vancouver, has insightfully suggested that our widespread failure to keep the Sabbath is a symptom of our worship of profit and convenience. It shows our “modern preoccupation with the pursuit of the temporary life at the expense of any consideration of eternal life.”
I think our Sabbath-breaking and our multitasking are rooted in the same disordered thought pattern, and I believe actually keeping the Sabbath is an important step to breaking out of this trap. As Jesus tells us, the Sabbath was made for man, and God’s intention was that we would use it as a day of rest (Exod. 23:12). It was not a day for productivity; it was a day for refreshment.
Properly observed, the Sabbath reminds us of things that are eternal and it adds perspective and depth to our rushed and scattered lives. To some of us, the thought of 24 hours spent without doing any work is unfathomable. To us, keeping the Sabbath is an act of faith in God, a declaration of trust that he will provide for us, and a recognition of our own limitations.
The keeping of the Sabbath is an essential spiritual exercise that allows us, in the words of Psalm 46, to “Be still, and know that I am God.”
Stop Whiling Away Your Time
A few have pointed out there is nothing inherently wrong with these new technologies. True, but uninteresting. The proper question is not whether using a particular technology is itself wrong but rather whether its usage causes us to miss out on something else that is better. What is the opportunity cost of all of our Internet usage, our multitasking, our IMs, our hours on Facebook? As I have argued, the way we approach all of this “work” is inefficient, but I want to suggest something else as well: much of it is unnecessary and fruitless, and it comes at a great cost.
You sit down at your computer to write a paper. The time is 11:00 p.m., and the assignment is due tomorrow. You tell yourself, “I’ll start my paper as soon as I check my e-mail.” When you open our inbox, a friend starts a chat with you in Gmail. Then you have to check Facebook and end up looking through eleven different people’s profiles. You then update your own. Back in Gmail, you start another chat, which leads you to YouTube. You look at the clock. It’s already 1:15 a.m. Sound familiar?
I think that many of us waste hours every day engaged in the kind of procrastination I describe above. Procrastination, at its heart, is the misuse of time, a resource that is a gift from God. Just as we are to steward our wealth, so should we steward our time.
I think a large part of the reason we cannot keep the Sabbath is not that we have too much work but that we do not work well. If we commit ourselves to minimize procrastination, we will find that we have more than enough time to keep the Sabbath. I also think we will find that we can experience a deep rest that is far more humanly fulfilling than the guilt of hours stolen by procrastination.
I am not saying that any technology is inherently bad. That reaction would be as unthinking as the mindless consumption I critique. Rather, I have argued that our usage of technology needs to be channeled. Technology can be a valuable contribution to the human experience, but it can also easily become a diversion that serves no greater purpose than to entertain and that provides cheap pleasure at the sake of real relationships, good work, and deep reflection.
Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (New York: Penguin Books, 1985), vii-viii.
Craig M. Gay, With Liberty and Justice for Whom? The Recent Evangelical Debate over Capitalism (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1991), 238.