COMMENTARY
Look up: How smart phones make us dumb and alone
by John Stonestreet
Opinion
Cellphone

New technologies have connected us in incredible ways. But it can also mean that we find ourselves living in different worlds.

A new viral video has taken Facebook and the Twitterverse by storm. But it’s not another “epic fail,” or another cover of Disney’s “Frozen” or a parody of the latest blockbuster popcorn flick. It features a spoken word poem by YouTuber Gary Turk, who challenges a world of Internet users glued to their computers and phones to “look up.

“I took a step back and opened my eyes,” he says, “I looked around and realized this media we call social is anything but, when we open our computers and it’s our doors we shut.”

Part of the video shows a couple who meet by chance on a street corner, end up marrying, having kids, and growing old together. But then Turk rewinds, taking us back to that same street corner and their fateful meeting. Only this time, the young man is holding a smart phone, and never takes his eyes from it as his would-be bride passes him by. Their life together never begins.

“All this technology we have, it’s just an illusion,” Turk observes, “community, companionship a sense of inclusion. Yet when you step away from this device of delusion you awaken to see a world of confusion.”

There are few things more confusing than the modern phenomenon of loneliness in a crowd. Everywhere we go, we see faces glued to glowing screens. And now a new generation is arriving on the scene—one that’s never known a world without high-speed Internet access, instant sharing, and mobile apps.

“We’re surrounded by children,” says Turk, “who since they were born have watched us living like robots and think it’s the norm. Now the park is so quiet it gives me a chill to see no children outside and the swings hanging still. There’s no skipping, no hopscotch, no church and no steeple. We’re a generation of idiots, smart phones and dumb people.”

Writing in The New York Times, Karl Greenfield shows just how dumb we’ve become. In his piece, entitled “Faking Cultural Literacy,” he cites data showing that most Americans frequently pretend to know more than they actually do. Social media users in particular are prone to “like” and share articles they haven’t read, or offer opinions on movies they haven’t seen, and sound off on political issues they haven’t taken the time to understand.

The tendency to isolation in a super-connected world is only beginning to make headlines. And yet there’s another problem: new “user smart” technology now ensures we often see different headlines.

In an unsettling TED talk from 2011, Eli Pariser explains how Facebook, Google, and even major news sites now display different content for different users. Algorithms keep track of each person’s browsing habits and tailor search results and news feeds to show only what the software guesses we want to see.

Sitting in front of screens, cut off from real human contact, we’re becoming even further isolated in what Pariser calls a “filter bubble,” where all we hear are echoes of our own opinions.

We Christians of all people should know that, as the great Christian poet John Donne wrote nearly 400 years ago, “No man is an island, entire of itself.” And as Paul reminds us, “you are the body of Christ, and each of you is a part of it.” And yet too often we find ourselves living on our own little virtual island, cut off from our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Well, it’s time to get off our islands.

As the brilliant Dr. Sherry Turkle explains in her book, “Alone Together,” we do that not by ditching phones, tablets, computers or social media accounts, but by reclaiming control over them.


John Stonestreet is the Director of Strategic Partnerships for the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and also directs conferences and curriculum projects for Summit Ministries.

Published, June 3, 2014
Copyright© 2014 Prison Fellowship Ministries
Reprinted with permission
BreakPoint is a ministry of Prison Fellowship Ministries



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