Adrift in the Screen Age
Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
The speed and amount of data coming at us on our computers, laptops, and cellphones, and soon through our glasses and watches, is startling. We produce every two days as much information as existed from the dawn of time until 2003. Moreover, we open ourselves to this digital flood all day, every day. The average American spends eight-and-a-half hours in front of a screen.
Is this a problem? It is in some cases. Take Kord Campbell who may be the poster boy of the new communications world. He was highlighted in a New York Times article which revealed that he sleeps with an iPhone or laptop on his chest. Nearby a workstation has two computers gushing with new emails and online chats. He escapes into video games during times of emotional stress and forgets family dinners. A daughter laments that he favors his technology over her. His wife worries about his technological addiction, but “if I hated technology, I’d be hating who he is.”
Reread that last line. Hopefully, we are more than our technologies, but we are shaped by the relentless visual images and bits of data on our screens with their instant distractions and momentary satisfactions. Even before the screen age, it was easy to become lost amidst the hectic pace of modern life. Years ago I got pneumonia and was in a hospital for two weeks. Suddenly, all of my many daily crises faded to nothing. I just wanted to go home and hug my wife, and I had an overwhelming awareness that I should devote my life connecting to people and to God.
Not everyone gets such a direct call to change. Many, like Mr. Campbell, are trapped as they build their walls of sound and their towers of information technologies. Item by item, we wall ourselves in and avoid intimate contact with our God and our fellow man. Like the Tower of Babel, our technologies have entranced us, and in our pride we believe that nothing is impossible for us. Too often, our pride has left us not with ultimate power, but with ultimate babble—endless amounts of superficial contacts. And in the end, as in the Biblical story of Babel, we “do not understand each other” (Genesis 11:4-9).
Despite the tempting buzzes of our shiny machines, we must remember the fundamental F’s—family, friends, and faith. Mr. Campbell and those who are adrift like him should consider these six ways they can get back on course.
- Turn off computers early in the evening.
- Put down your cell phone and pick up your children.
- Dedicate instrument-free periods, like when you are driving.
- Check your e-mail only once an hour or less.
- Join communities that are not online, like church events or a club, sport, or gardening.
- Join your family at dinner.
These are small things but they can lead to the big things, maybe even the biggest thing of all if we will listen.
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION: How many hours do you spend on a screen each day? Is it too many? What can you do to control the use of communication technologies for you and your family, your grandchildren? What are some new rules that you could put in place to control its use? In our churches, how can we counter the lure of the screen? What activities will draw people, especially young people, to our embodied and incarnational faith?
Lord, I struggle to hear you over all the noise.
Instead of hearing the good news, I only hear a dull roar.
We live in a new Babel and it babbles all the time.
I am drawn into the stream of shiny images pouring from my screens.
You are the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.
There is nothing else.
So burn away the dense fog of noise and images around me.
Let me lie down beside your still waters and
Feel the shining rays of your son.
You are my peace; You are everything.
Let me rest softly in the palm of your hand. Amen.
Dr. Phillip M. Thompson is the Executive Director of the Aquinas Center of Theology at Emory University. Previously, he was the director of a leadership certificate program, LEAD, in the School of Public Policy at Georgia Tech and for a decade (1984-1994) was a trial attorney. He is the author of two books, Between Science and Religion and Returning to Reality, Thomas Merton's Wisdom for a Technological World.