This is a series of classes I created for my congregation in January and February 2019 that I captured digitally so that they could be used by other communities or small groups or for members who are unable to be present in class. Below are links to the eight sessions that the class covered.
Session 5: Cell Phones and the Continually Connected Life
This is the fifth part of a now eight-part series on faith in a digital age. It expanded due to the richness of the discussion on the internet and the amount of material I couldn’t cover in this first week. The outline of the series is:
This is a series of classes I’ve been teaching with my congregation that I’ve been attempting to capture digitally so that they could be used by other communities or small groups or for members who are unable to be present in class.
Cellphones and cellular technology are neither good nor bad, but they can impact our lives in positive and negative ways. In my early adult life, I avoided having a cellphone, they were an unneeded expense and they were not as capable as the modern smart phone is. I remember a time when I was a young lieutenant in the army and the unit I was a part of was on funeral detail which meant that we were on call if a veteran died to give military honors. We had been on this detail for months which meant I couldn’t leave Ft. Polk where I was stationed in case a phone call came in, but one weekend I waited until late on Friday night and then drove to College Station where my girlfriend at that time lived. Sometime after I departed, we were assigned a funeral and if I’d had a cellphone, they could’ve contacted me and I would have returned and nobody would’ve realized I left, but I didn’t, and I returned to my answering machine full of messages which I responded to one by one. It was a valuable lesson for me in my life, but it also represents an earlier time when we didn’t take the connections that cellphone makes possible for granted. We live in a world where we can be connected all the time and that can be a great thing and a troubling thing. It becomes challenging when we don’t set healthy boundaries around our use of this technology.
We use our tablets and cellphones for a wide range of things: from communication to entertainment to managing our calendar and money to countless other things. Below is a list of the items my congregation listed from their discussion:
They store a lot of data for access. We can have hours of music, a library of books and videos and access to countless additional hours of entertainment and information. Our cellphones and tablets also become locations where we cognitive offload, where we store things from our memory like our calendar and phone numbers and have easy access to the weather and other sources of information that our brain doesn’t commit to long term memory. In a world of continual connection there is no escape from this information unless we continually set boundaries: our work email for example may be pushed to our cellphone and in some cases the expectation may be for people to answer it at all hours. Even with aps for entertainment we see information continually pushed to the main screen encouraging us to open our phones and interact with these teasing bits of information.
The world is evolving around this technology. My congregation benefits from the additional revenue of a cell tower on our property which gives us additional income that we use to help support our staffing and ministries and most cell towers are designed to blend into the surrounding environment, but if you know what to look for you see them everywhere. Our cars are pulling this technology into their design to the capability of navigation, music, to call and read texts while we drive. The technology continues to migrate into various areas of our life.
One of the means of communication that cell phones introduced into our lives was texting. Different people value texting differently, for some it is equivalent to a phone call and for others it is not. There are times where texting can be a very efficient way of communicating which saves me from a long phone conversation or in person conversation, but there are other things it doesn’t communicate like voice or emotion. For many people texting lowers some of the boundaries for communication and makes it easier to state something that is uncomfortable because we are afraid how someone else will react. I noticed this when I was taking some courses at the University of Central Oklahoma while serving as a pastor in the area. The other students knew I was a pastor and would text me questions about relationships or questions they were afraid to ask in person about religion and it opened a window for some meaningful conversations. This lowering of boundaries can also be a negative thing. I know people who have ended relationships through a text because they didn’t want to deal with the discomfort of breaking up with someone over the phone or in person. I also know of people who have shared information or photos with someone who did not keep that information private but instead shared it with others. There are many ways the use of this technology can help us build a connection or it can make us feel dehumanized.
Cellphones and tablets were originally designed for the consumption of content instead of the creation of content like computers were designed to do. The smart phones were designed for us to purchase things on rather than create things that others might value. We have evolved in how we use them, so we do use them to capture photos and video, you can purchase software to let you view a word processor or spreadsheet, but they are primarily designed around smaller apps which connect you to internet based platforms which were predominantly designed for entertainment: social media, games, music and videos and more. People now use them for banking and economic transactions, but the majority of cell phone and tablet usage is still entertainment related. Now entertainment is not bad unless it keeps us from doing the things that bring meaning and purpose to our lives.
Cell phones and tablets can also be devices which we use to eliminate boredom or to entertain others while we work on something else. Now this is not unique to cell phones, but I think as I talk to parents who worry about their children always being plugged into their cellular devices, I think we need to acknowledge the way we have trained them to use these devices as a replacement for our attention. People worried when television, video tapes, cable tv, and gaming systems came into people’s homes that they wouldn’t talk to one another and cellular devices are acting in the same way. As a parent I understand that there are times where I needed to finish making dinner or cleaning or working and I would put in a show or a game for my children to entertain them and they enjoyed it. But we also need to be intentional about cultivating the type of relationships we want with our families, friends and those who we want to connect with. When we use a device as a replacement for connection with others they learn and model that way of dealing with their own relationships.
As I think about cell phones from a faith perspective, I want to explore the idea and commandment of Sabbath, particularly Sabbath as it is expressed in Deuteronomy 5. The Ten commandments are articulated in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 but one of the minor differences is the way they frame the command of Sabbath. In Exodus 20 Sabbath is linked to creation and the Creator’s action of resting on the Sabbath day, but here is how Deuteronomy explains the commandment:
Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work– you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day. Deuteronomy 5: 12-15
Deuteronomy highlights Sabbath in contrast to slavery and it is primarily about rest. God’s intention for all of God’s people, both those in power and those who served, was for there to be a time of rest for them. We do need to figure out what boundaries we set on our use of technology so we can have time for rest and relaxation. I also think this is an important idea in our society where we think of work as our primary place of meaning creation. In the ancient world the valuation of work and leisure was reversed. As Ellen Davis can state:
We regard work as primary, while the rest of what we do is “time-off.” But it was the opposite in the ancient world. The Latin word for “business” is neg-otium, literally, “not-leisure”; the time when one does not have to work is the norm by which other activity is measured.” (Davis, 2000, p. 191)
I’ve had vacations where a work email invaded into time I was spending with family or been at a movie when multiple messages alerted on my phone and I knew that after the movie I would need to respond to them. All these things can become a distraction in our life and we often could set the boundaries for the type of life we want to live.
We have become incredibly attached to our cell phones. Many people have had the experience of leaving the house and realizing they don’t have their cell phone and either feeling incomplete or turning around to go and retrieve it. We can feel like we are leaving a part of ourselves behind. There is also a fear of missing out and a fear of being disconnected and our cellphones can almost become the umbilical cord connecting us to the rest of our world. They also become a place where we have committed a lot of the things we choose not to store in our memory: our calendar, our contacts and much more. There is an addictive element to these devices because the fear of disconnection is one of the most powerful fears we have (more to come on that next week).
One of the other things I am beginning to wonder about with cell phones is the changing manner in how it seems we are experiencing the world around us. For example, I enjoy going to concert and while I may take a few photos most of the time I am in the moment enjoying the performance and the music, singing along and enjoying the people I am with. Yet, I am seeing more people spending their time recording the show to share with others and enjoy later rather than (in my perception) enjoying the moment.
With most means of communication, we can become captive to the other person’s response. I’ve certainly texted others and seen (when you have two apple devices communicating) the … emerge as the other person is typing a response. We can grow impatient because we’ve grown to expect an instant response, but others may not either be available or feel the need to respond in the same manner because of boundaries they’ve set.
Cell phones and tablets are incredibly capable devices that can connect us with people across the world. With any technology we need to discern when it is important to be available to the people reaching out to us through the technology and when it is important to be present with the people who are physically present to us. These are choices we can make. We were created for connection and rest, we need work and leisure. The boundaries we set can inform how we use technology to create the type of life we seek. We were created for Sabbath and we do need times to break away from our technology. If your cell phone is adding value to your life and relationships, then it is a positive thing but if it is draining energy from your life and relationships then you should consider the boundaries you set around this in your life.
What do you use your cellphone or tablet for? What things on the list of things that you do bring you joy, and which do not?
What do you rely on your cellphone to remember for you? (Example phone numbers, calendar)
How do you create time for rest in a connected world? Are there any boundaries you put around your use of cell phones and tablets?
How do you value a text vs a phone call? Why?
Do you ever feel like you cell phone makes you unable to leave work at the office?
Talk about a time where your cell phone or tablet distracted you from a conversation with someone you cared about?