Life in 2019 is complicated, and I bet 2020 will be too.
Maybe you’ve felt it? A barrage of information floods us constantly, even if we’re trying to be intentional about how we live. A notification from my news app will inform me about political protests in Hong Kong. Friends ping me on Snapchat or iMessage as I peruse a Twitter feed.
I recently had to turn off the sound on my work computer because the email notifications were coming in so alarmingly fast. Sometimes I close Apple mail for that same reason.
Sometimes I literally lose my train of thought because of some kind of notification, and I need to re-center by shutting down all devices and entering into prayer. This is not a good sign! Our devices should serve us – not we them!
Alas, our psychology often cripples us. Facebook did not always have the *like* button. Of course now we can slide our finger for a love, laugh, or cry emoji, and even an anger option. These little digital affirmations from others get at the parts of our neurology that seek social approval. The effects are staggering. Some of us do almost anything to get noticed, to gain approval, to earn *likes*.
A few months ago I read Andy Crouch’s Tech Wise Family. I recommend that little book, and it inspired to begin a few new practices:
1. Putting my phone to bed. Literally, my phone sleeps in the kitchen now next to the family iPad and Kaile’s phone.
2. No screens in our main living space. My iMac, which used to camp out in our living room, is now my work computer.
3. We have integrated songs into family life. This isn’t always easy, but I it’s getting easier as Silas and Maelin continue to grow. But, just tonight we sang them to sleep. And we sang on the way to preschool. And during our morning routine. Basically it is happening all the time these days, and I count that as a win.
4. We are renewing the effort to keep musical instruments available in the main space of our home. Again, this is a challenge with the tinies around, but it’s worth the effort!
Blogger and author Cal Newport proposes the digital equivalent of what Michelle Kondo does for living spaces. If you’re unfamiliar with her work, the gist is an emphasis on decluttering by keeping only what brings joy. If it doesn’t bring joy, it needs to go.
Since moving to San Francisco three years ago and now living in Silicon Valley, I’ve essentially become a minimalist. For a year we had no car [we now have two older wagons]. I bike commute. We are well-versed in the Salvation Army donation run.
It feels so good to part with physical items we don’t need anymore – an old shelf, toys, a piece of furniture that someone else could love.
Amidst this, I must admit my digital life has not received the same level of care. Yes, I have established habits in my home that seem to serve. But I’ve got much farther to go.
Seeking to preserve the positive aspects of social media, smart phones, and other new technologies while also getting honest with where I’m at right now, here are my guiding values:
1. Does my tweet or post encourage or support others and increase the love between people? Kid pictures and silly comments have a place. A post or two in a day, for me, is quite enough.
2. Less scrolling, more living. When I look around me at a coffee shop, it feels like I see a lot of thumbs sliding through social media apps, and I do mean a lot. There is no end to the scrolling, yet each day contains 24 hours to love and experience people, face-to-face conversations, God’s expansive world.
3. Stay behind the curve. With computers, phones, cars, houses, and pretty much everything under the sun, there is almost no need for the next new thing. Companies hype their products to generate revenue, but once we have that new product, do our lives change meaningfully? For me, the answer is usually no. I can be content with something older.
Side note on what it means to stay behind the curve: have you ever looked back at someone’s old Instagram posts? I freely admit how I used some ridiculous filters back it 2012. At this point, I think of it as *digital vintage*. Digital pictures from 6 or 10 years ago end up being meaningful in a similar way to 1970s chemical prints. Yes, our phones are better now, but they’ll be better in 10 years. So what is the rush?
4. I dump the apps and gadgets I don’t really need. For a while I used Strava to track my bike rides. Eventually I asked the question: why? I knew my commute was about 18 minutes. I deleted it. Same thing happened with a FitBit someone gave me. Initially it was kind of cool to know I had walked 7,965 or 17,353 steps, but at a certain point it because useless information. I’m now looking to give it away.
Here’s where I get a bit romantic. I love old items, ancient houses, nostalgia, days gone by. I sometimes dream about a work desk with a typewriter, rotary phone, and plenty of old [heavy!] plume pens. Oh, and some stamps! It would be a heavy oak desk, and behind it you’d find books – lots and lots of books, and they’d be on solid built-in shelves. The office would be in an aged home with worn wood floors, plaster walls, a porch out front – there’d be a farmhouse kitchen.
Maybe I’d ride a vintage motorcycle like my brother’s old Hood. Would I shop at a downtown with stores and know all the owners? I could write letters and correspond with friends abroad! Um, I’m getting carried away!
This is not realistic, to be sure. Maybe the old house part, maybe even the motorcycle part – but not so much the office part. The reality is a great many technologies in our world serve us meaningfully. I love to see how we can become more connected to one another and to the needs and opportunities of the global community.
At the same time, there are certain items I just don’t find helpful. Google home might be really helpful for some family out there, but I find that I can turn out the lights with a switch, thank you very much. I can do a Google search on my phone, but sometimes I can just live without knowing the population of Liberia or the World Series winner from the mid 2000s. Chances are, it was the Yankees anyway [can we just be honest for a second?]
I don’t want to come across as ungrateful. Google Home could be amazing, for example, if I had limited mobility. I am super thankful for a lot of what the iPhone has brought, for banking and social media apps, for so many of the digital advances that have come along over the decades – it’s nice to have a blog to share thoughts!
The philosophical question of what technology actually does for us is what I want to keep at the forefront of our minds. No one fully understands the power of the digital technologies and their eventual, cumulative effect of how we continue in relationship to one another, our world, and dare I say – God.
I’ll close with some biblical wisdom from Ecclesiastes. The author, likely King Solomon, is reflecting on how life contains a time – a season – for everything. One line from chapter three goes like this:
…a time to tear down and a time to rebuild…
Right now is a time in my life to tear down some old ways of approaching technology. For me, it’s a season of letting my phone sit for longer periods of time, a season of not knowing the answer to a question that might not be all that important anyway. It’s a season of reflecting in a journal and reading books, of listening to friends and playing with my kids. It’s a season of detaching, to some degree, from these delightful little rectangles that paradoxically connect us – yet also separate us from one another.
May we find a way to live well, allowing technology to enrich our lives and relationships, yet keeping it in service to us, and not we to it.
If you have any thoughts on technology and its place in your life, I would love to hear in the comments section below.