Going Deep on Our Smartphone and Social Media Habits

An Interview with Alastair Roberts

Ah, the enigmatic smartphone. We are still just beginning to realize the layers of questions and implications related to our all-pervasive devices.

  • How are they changing us?
  • What are the spiritual consequences of our digital addictions?
  • Why do we compulsively check social media?
  • Why do we check our devices first thing in the morning?
  • Why does digital technology lead to isolation and loneliness in so many?

Perhaps there’s some help to be found in north England. Alastair Roberts is a thinker and writer who recently finished his doctoral studies at Durham University and has shown himself to be immensely helpful on these themes. To talk with Alastair is to go deep, and as you’ll see below, his careful and thorough answers to our three questions richly reward a thoughtful reading. Perhaps set aside some time to work through it all. You will find it is certainly worth your time.

Alistair, if a young Christian adult came to you, wondering about whether their personal smartphone habits were healthy or not, what are the preliminary diagnostic tests you would offer?

Let me start by highlighting that we are discussing smartphones. We should not let its name deceive us. The smartphone is not just a glorified phone. That we use the term “smartphone” is an accidental result of the path taken by its technological evolution. The smartphone is, in fact, a personal mobile device that is at once a camera, computer, calculator, gaming platform, means of sending mail, GPS, PDA, phone, reading tool, miniature music and video player, window onto a neighborhood and connected world, and many, many other things besides.

As a device, the smartphone as it typically and currently exists must also be understood as a technological counterpart to two key developments in the character of the Internet. The first of these developments is the rise of the social web (related to what some have termed “Web 2.0”), resulting from the shift of the Internet from a less structured and open realm, populated by a more distinctive demographic of creators and publishers, to a heavily colonized realm of mass participation, social networking and interaction, and sharing, which is dominated, shaped, and policed by powerful companies such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter.

The second and later of these developments is the rapid rise of the app. Our connection to the online world on our mobiles is now overwhelmingly dominated by the use of apps — chiefly within an environment established and managed by Google or Apple — rather than by mobile browsers.

The app represents a wider diffusion and greater immediacy of the connected realm into our lives. Rather than the more determined process of “going online” by opening a browser on our mobile devices, we are always connected through mobile apps. Being connected functions less as a purposeful action than as a continual state, part of the unconsidered and ubiquitous wallpaper of our contemporary existence. The app-based experience of the online world is localized, personalized, and a continual background to our experience. The smartphone is a landmark development in the process that Marva Dawn has termed the “technologizing” of our intimacy and the “intimatizing” of our technology. Keeping all of this in mind is essential as we continue this conversation.

If we are to assess whether our smartphone habits are healthy or not — and this is hardly a question that should be exclusive to young Christian adults! — perhaps a helpful place to start is by challenging the underlying cultural script that typically drives our adoption of new technologies. This script is one that rests heavily on choice and potential as such and the notion of freedom from — upon the removal of constraints, limitations, and restrictions — and is much less attentive to the reality of freedom for — to our being liberated to become more fully and faithfully human in communion with God and each other.

The familiar cultural script is that more is typically better — more interactive, faster, more efficient, more connected, more fluid, more integrated, more social, more intimate, more inclusive, more “user-friendly,” — and that the further our limitations are rolled back, the freer we become. Yet many of us are rediscovering the truth of Edmund Burke’s dictum that many of the restraints upon us, and not merely our liberties, should be reckoned among our rights and the grounds of our freedom. Pursuing unguarded liberty with things puts us in very real danger of having those things “take liberties” with us (1 Corinthians 6:12). The loss of natural limitations often doesn’t leave us better off, and many struggle to re-establish these broken barriers in the far less certain form of sanity-restoring disciplines.

The diagnostic tests that we should run — and should continually be running — ought to be informed by a clearer concept of what our freedom is for and the sorts of shapes that it takes. The bigger questions that we need to address are as follows: Do our particular uses of our smartphones, and our use of a smartphone more generally, have the actual effect — not just hold the theoretical possibility — of making us better servants of God and of our neighbors? Are our smartphones tools that facilitate our commitment to the central purposes and values of our lives, or are they — and our habitual modes of using them — constantly distracting, diverting, or obstructing us from them?

More specific diagnostic questions could include such as the following:

  1. Is my smartphone making it difficult for me to give the activities and persons in my life the full and undivided attention and self-presence that they require and deserve?

  2. Do I habitually use my smartphone as an easy escape and distraction from the difficult task of wrestling through the experience of lack of stimulation and boredom to the rewarding reality of true engagement?

  3. Is my smartphone use squeezing out my inner life, encroaching upon time that would otherwise be given to private contemplation, reflection, and meditation? Do I use it as a way to distract myself from unsettling truths and realities that can slowly come into focus in moments of silence and solitude?

  4. Am I using hyper-connectedness to substitute a self unthinkingly immersed in a shallow and amniotic communal consciousness and its emotions, for the difficult task of developing my own judgment, character, disciplines, resolve, and identity?

  5. Are my uses of my smartphone arresting and hampering my processes of deliberation and reflection, encouraging reactive judgments and premature decisions?

  6. Is my use of my smartphone mediating my relationship with and understanding of myself in unhealthy ways?

  7. Is my smartphone a tool that I use, or has it fettered my attention and time to other persons and activities that are wasteful and overly demanding of them?

  8. Are my uses of my smartphone preventing me from developing and maintaining healthy patterns and routines in my life, disrupting my sleeping patterns, interrupting my concentration upon my work, habituating me to the fragmentation of my time and attention?

  9. Is my smartphone usage consuming time that I used to or could potentially devote to worthier activities? Do I use my smartphone to “kill time” that I could otherwise fill with prayer, reading, writing, edifying conversation, face-to-face interactions, and more?

  10. Are my uses of my smartphone conducive to the faithfulness and freedom of others? Am I using my smartphone in ways that create unhealthy demands and pressures upon them?

Of course, as they are the epitome of multipurpose devices, our uses of our smartphones are complex and varied, and their effect upon our lives in the aggregate is often difficult to assess for this reason. Consequently, it is important to attend both to particular uses of our smartphones and the space that they occupy in our lives more generally. Alan Jacobs’s recent article in The Atlantic on abandoning his smartphone for a “dumbphone” is a good example of the benefits of “disaggregating” the purposes and uses of our smartphones and determining which of them truly enrich and equip our lives’ purposes and values and which do not.

One of the things that Jacobs observed, for instance, was that his smartphone represented a highly intimatized device for him in a way that his dumbphone could not. I suspect, however, that even a dumbphone would be intimatized for many of my own and younger generations, for whom intensive texting has represented a means of maintaining a persistent low-level hum of sociality throughout our day-to-day lives and activities (and significantly different patterns and levels of mobile phone uses and addictions can often be observed between the sexes in these respects).

These diagnostic questions are tests that we need to perform upon ourselves. We should beware of issuing general condemnations of devices or media more generally and of the communities that use them. Although there are common patterns of dysfunctional usage, these patterns of usage, while often encouraged by our media and devices and even more so by communities of users, are seldom straightforwardly determined by them.

Digital communications technology is “disembodied.” Life in the local church, on the other hand, is “embodied,” and it properly grounds us bodily. As the church, we gather for fellowship, baptism, communion, and preaching. We are the Body (how could it get more embodied?!). If we ignore all this in favor of “digital fellowship,” what do we lose?

I would like to quibble slightly with the statement with which you open this question. Although I have often used the term myself, “disembodied” is a term that might distract us from or render us forgetful of some issues that merit closer attention. Perhaps the most important of these is that we are constantly bodily engaged when go online, yet engaged in a way that consistently exalts one of our organs and senses over all of the others.

The Internet is chiefly ordered around the eye and its mode of perception. The Internet renders the world as a unifying spectacle and its users as spectators and image projectors (a reality that Guy Debord presciently predicted in his 1967 book La Societié du Spectacle). This “spectacle” increasingly mediates and intermediates our relationships with ourselves, our world, and each other, and detaches us from the immediacy of human experience, relationship, and our natural lifeworlds.

The contemporary person, for instance, may not feel that they have truly had their exotic vacation before that vacation has been rendered in the form of Instagram pictures, tweets, and Facebook status updates. The Internet becomes a sort of mirror within which we incessantly regard ourselves, establishing a cosmetically enhanced presentation of our selves and our personal realities. While not dismissing the possibility entirely, I would highly caution anyone who trusts too heavily in a reality encountered through the mediation of the “specious” realm of the spectacle. While the Internet can be of great service to real-world communities, it is a poor substitute for them.

Our digital-communications revolution also ultimately rests upon a physical infrastructure (from our massive data centers with their high environmental impact to the tactile immediacy of our mobile devices). For instance, particularly when we are talking about our mobile devices, we need to give consideration to just how intensely they are developed with our bodies in mind and how seamlessly and intimately our bodies learn to relate to them (most of us have experienced phantom vibrations from our smartphones at some point). Many people sleep with their mobile devices and keep them on their persons at all times. Most of our mobile devices now operate using the finest flicks and lightest strokes of our fingers and, especially with the advent of devices such as the Apple Watch, are increasingly designed to relate ever more closely to our bodies.

While they may engage our bodies, in addition to the “speciousness” I have already mentioned, it is the “frictionlessness” of these devices and the world that they open to us that is most notable, the ways that they dispense with the resistance of materiality. While the materiality of what some have termed “meatspace” bounds and binds us by such naturally differentiating factors as physical distance and locality, the physical distinctions and separations of our bodies from each other’s, and the structural and relational givenness of families, communities, and societies into which we arrive, such bounds and bonds disappear online.

Communities that arise within “frictionless” conditions operate very differently from traditional communities, much as substances like water behave peculiarly in zero gravity. The appeal of digital fellowship often arises from the lack of friction, either keeping people together or holding them at a remove from each other. Without the friction of obvious bodily difference intervening, for instance, many people find it much easier to experience or project a sense of oneness of mind with others. Without the friction of spatial distance holding me within my immediate locality and apart from people in other parts of the world, it is much easier to abandon difficult relationships with my neighbors for easy and undemanding ones with people very similar to me. However, by holding me in relation with people who are unlike me and often opposed to me, the friction of materiality forces me to grow in healthy ways that I might not otherwise choose.

“Digital fellowship” has a tendency to be a lot more homogeneous and homogenizing than its material counterparts. For instance, I recently remarked upon the dulling of our sense of generational difference and the honor due to our elders in the online world, where we all learn to address each other as peers and contemporaries. Similar observations could be made about office-holders and authority figures. Many of our social-media networks encourage an unhealthy over-familiarity, informality, and intimacy in our relationships with persons that God has placed over us. The structures of our social media almost universally represent society in the form of detached and self-defining individuals who chose their own affiliations, relationships, and preferences. I am struggling to think of any that truly reflect the givenness of our identities, the unchosenness of most of our relations, the significance of differences between different people’s statuses in life, and the ways in which we are subject to authorities and the claims of wider communities. Our differences are reduced to the level of indifference, and society is flattened out.

It is easy to forget online, for instance, that our pastors are not just persons with theological opinions and dispensing spiritual counsel, but that they have been placed over us to watch over our souls and represent an authority exercised by our congregations more generally, an authority to which we are called to be subject. No theological blogger or online Bible teacher can take that place.

You wrote what I think is one of the most important paragraphs I have ever read about social media — in a blog comment of all places! You said,

The Internet can enable us to form connections with people with whom we have extremely particular things in common, making possible highly stimulating, enriching, and deepening interactions. I wouldn’t be where or who I am today were it not for online interactions sustaining and helping me to develop a perspective that often bears little relation to my immediate contexts over the years.

This said, while I have undoubtedly gained an immense amount from these, I have frequently found them to be a retreat from the challenge of actual relationships with Christian neighbors with whom I differ, a temptation amplified for me by virtue of the fact that I can naturally be an extreme introvert, prone to reclusiveness. When you know that there is a place where everyone largely agrees with and values you, one can develop a reluctance to go to a church where you are not so valued, understood, or appreciated. The narcissism that can be characteristic of romantic ideals — romantic ideals that can actually drive us away from our real partners into escapist and emotionally comforting reveries — can also cause us to replace the concrete relationships of our given contexts with idealized communities in which we can forgo the struggles associated with the transformation of actual communities and the need to adapt to and be vulnerable to others.

How do you break free from the constant lure of online likemindedness in order to jump into the awkwardnesses of embodiment? What do you tell yourself? How do you preach to yourself? And what are you learning as you do?

I tend to think through argument — so excessive likemindedness, while initially enjoyable, gradually leaves me feeling dissatisfied and unstimulated. This natural instinct, for which I am immensely grateful, has encouraged me to seek out difference and argument online and to give thought to ways in which we can argue faithfully and to mutual benefit. In resisting the lure of online likemindedness I have been spurred by a recognition that homogeneous communities tend to have exaggerated blindspots and unaddressed weaknesses. Exposure to the challenge of people who perceive, experience, inhabit, and understand the world differently is a necessary spur to growth. To the extent that online communities are homogeneous or homogenizing, it robs us of this.

I have also come to appreciate that the problem isn’t solely with the “likeness” dimension of likemindedness, but also with the “mindedness.” Social media is an abstract realm that consistently privileges the mind over the body. However, the Christian faith has always been grounded in the life of the body. As Christians we don’t just share beliefs, open up about our feelings, and give opinions: We share meals and open our houses to others; we give to those in need, we meet together, and are physically present to each other. A “community” that lacks these elements is hardly worthy of being called a community at all. This doesn’t mean that online relationships can’t be deeply and often surprisingly enriching. However, when they are they are straining towards something that can’t be achieved within the confines of the virtual itself.

Embodiment goes far beyond encountering people with different beliefs and opinions. Embodiment involves intense exposure to the friction of the world, myself, and other people in their obstinate and frustrating reality. Developing a carefully managed online representation of myself is relatively easy; living as a faithful Christian in the unobserved moments of my life is considerably harder. There is a constant danger of substituting an online representation of myself for the lived reality of my life, living vicariously through the former in a way that papers over the failures and corruption of the latter. This isn’t just true of my own self, but also of social reality. In the egalitarian uniformity of our social-media profiles and the exclusivity of our walled social-network neighborhoods, realities such as poverty, disability, and age and the people who live with them are largely invisible to us.

Living our lives vicariously in the realm of the online spectacle to the neglect or dissembling of reality is a structural form of hypocrisy. If I am to obey the calling of one who desires truth in the inner parts, it is imperative that I address and wrestle with the self I dare not project, that I engage with the social reality that lurks behind the façade, and that I am present to the people who are invisible in our society’s spectacle.

Back to the quote, speak to the person who has a strong presence in social media, and they show up to church on Sunday where they feel undervalued, misunderstood, and unappreciated. What advice do you have for them to know that, yes, they are likely exactly where God wants them to be?

I have been struck by how distorted an impression of social reality online media can give. The sharp sense of dissonance between our “strong presence” in social media and our seeming lack of “presence” in the Sunday morning meeting can be illuminating of this. When we experience this sense, it is perhaps a sign of our excessive self-regard that our first thoughts run to our supposed right to be more appreciated, rather than to the fact that so very many of the people we worship with in our churches have little or no presence in our privileged and exclusive circles on social media.

Our online contexts are dominated by relatively affluent, cosmopolitan, Western, highly educated, literate and articulate, young, middle-class persons. Children, the elderly, the poor, those with less education or lower levels of literacy, and persons from less cosmopolitan and non-Western contexts are largely invisible. That is, the majority of the human race.

James counsels the rich hearers of his epistle to glory in their “humiliation,” because they and their riches will pass away as a flower of the field (James 1:9–11). When we experience a sense of invisibility in our local churches, it may be God’s way of teaching us something about the superficiality and ephemerality of our privileged online statuses.

It may also be that God wants us to attend, not to our own sense of entitlement, but to other people’s lack of visible presence in realms where our education, wealth, connections, articulacy, and level of access grant us a high profile and a hearing. Perhaps we may think more deeply about how we can serve others; our gifts and statuses have been given to us for the sake of our brothers and sisters in Christ, not merely for our own, and we should employ them in light of this knowledge.