My Dear Wormwood: A Screwtape Letter on the Art of Smartphone Addiction
This article is written in the spirit of C.S. Lewis’s classic satire The Screwtape Letters, in which a senior demon is giving advice to a junior tempter. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
My dear Wormwood,
I was pleased to hear you’ve been assigned a new charge: a young suburban mother of three who is prone to oversharing on social media and relies on her phone as a tether to the adult world. I hope you’re taking things seriously: mothers are never easy targets. Their maternal instincts are always against us. A mother rising at midnight, 2:00 AM, and 4:00 AM to feed the baby is as odious to me as a monk’s Matins, Lauds, and Prime! Remember that our Enemy has a Mother of whom He is exceedingly fond, and it’s given Him an irrational soft spot for all mothers. Best be on your guard.
I hear that your patient has just experienced a setback in her addiction-cultivation program, and I fear it’s your fault. By making her phone go off during prayer in church (congregational disruption and personal embarrassment notwithstanding), you inadvertently convinced her that there are certain times and places where phones simply should not be. You write that she’s now taken to leaving her phone at home on Sundays, and this is absurd. You must find a way to close that gap—even if it’s only a weekly break of two hours—between your patient and her bonds.
You say she has become aware that her phone is not an untrammeled good but rather an insoluble problem that requires her to make concessions she’d rather not make. Encourage her to think that the blame lies entirely on her own personal weakness and lack of self-control. Don’t let her suspect the systemic nature of it, that hoards of programmers are actively catechizing her in mini-habits for their benefit at her expense, and that this fight is a thousand to one. She participates as one of five billion branches in that tangled vine of the web, and despite her apparent sense of agency, she is actually nudged, redirected, pushed, and pulled in ways entirely invisible to her. As long as she thinks she is using the internet, all is well. But the moment she suspects it is using her, the game is up. That is why your stupid prank at church went wrong: the smartphone interrupted worship seemingly of its own accord—too obvious a metaphor for her to miss. Subtlety, dear Wormwood, is the essence of our task; if you want her to bear the fetid fruit engendered by intimate participation with the internet vine, then you must remain as faceless and invisible as an algorithm.
Much depends on what category your patient uses to conceive of her device, and here our language department has truly outdone themselves. We’ve gotten humans to think of it as a telephone, and a gifted and talented telephone no less. And what is more innocuous—more beneficial—than clever people communicating through very clever means? The smartphone is of course only nominally a phone. The overwhelming majority of uses to which humans put it clearly calls for a new name, but they will only realize this after it has become so embedded in their mode of life that calling it what it is won’t make any difference. That Seed of Suburban Sprawl—the Bane of Pedestrians and Befouler of the Skies—was indispensable to them long before they woke up to what the automobile had stolen, and by then it was too late. Technology giveth, and Technology taketh away: blessed be the name of Our Father Below.
Your patient has a trusting nature and assumes the best of others, not just of individuals (a nasty habit) but also of groups of people, such as institutions and even corporations. You should have no trouble at all in allowing her aversion to the idea of “conspiracy theories” to keep her disinterested in what we’re up to. She clearly believes that the phone itself is a neutral tool, and can only become evil if used for consuming “bad content,” or for spreading misinformation, or if it’s used “too much” (and don’t let her think pointedly about what “too much” is: as long as it’s less than the most phone-addled woman in her social circle, then it’s not too much). Neutrality towards technology isn’t as good as enthusiasm, of course, but it’s much better than allowing the seeds of skepticism to grow. Unquestioning faith in science and progress—that’s our motto.
Make liberal use of Christianese to keep her from interacting with the smartphone as a potential organ of the Principalities and Powers Below. Time limits and self-imposed rules for usage are “legalistic” and therefore “against the spirit of grace and freedom in Christ” (and don’t neglect “moderation in all things”). Cultivate her curiosity by inviting her to look once at a thousand things, each of which exhausts itself as soon as it is grasped. This will unfit her mind for contemplation, for looking a thousand times at one thing and finding it inexhaustible (a state of mind dangerously adjacent to prayer). And as long as she remains suspicious of asceticism, she cannot employ it to check her appetite for novelty, which leaves you plenty of opportunity for promoting desirable habits. You can tell you’re making headway if she touches the screen more often than the bodies of her husband and children.
The despicable Douglas Harding warned the fools clear enough to put their phones down: “If we do not keep killing our tools they will make us their tools and finally kill us. The appendage I cannot do without is a malignant growth.” He was right about the cancer, of course; it’s a pity that he hated it. Given enough time, the phone will become an extension of your patient’s own body, a limb not to be parted with but by an excruciating and unthinkable amputation. The Enemy at times demands such cruel dismemberments from His disciples, but there are few these days who take Him that seriously, thank hell.
While there is always some danger in letting a parable prick the conscience, the risk is worth it as long as she doesn’t do anything about her guilt. Static turmoil is a decent substitute for outright disobedience. Even if she writes a cheeky, remorseful blog post on the topic of smartphones, it will be harmless as long as her habits remain unchanged and are (in her mind) unchangeable. Humor borne of despair is the icing on the cake for us, unless of course she begins to pray for help. God have mercy as a joke or an excuse is quite the treat, but God have mercy as a genuine prayer is not to be borne.
And speaking of prayer, how could you let her Catholic friend slip her one of those trite, simpering little prayer cards to (Our Father defend us) St. Michael the Archangel, of all people! (That prayer is really quite prejudiced and close-minded—all that battle talk—as if we really went about the world “prowling” while seeking the ruin of souls. I’ve never prowled in my life!) See if you can take her prayerful impulse and turn it towards shopping: maybe Etsy will have a St. Michael iPhone case. That would be a lovely redirection: she can scratch her itch for heavenly aid without actually speaking to the Enemy or His angels, and yet come away feeling somehow safer, perhaps even #blessed.
Any icon which, when approached with reverence, could enable her to realize that the Enemy sees her and is ready and willing to help, is dangerous indeed. But an icon covering her phone is a product declaring aloud her aspirations while simultaneously stunting their growth. It might even encourage her to use her phone more often (a pleasant thought), and seeing St. Michael encased in plastic is really too funny! (And much less scary—though you can keep that between us). As long as she thinks of prayer as intention rather than attention requiring both time and assistance through the written words of her betters, then you can keep her afloat on a distracted sea of prayerless good intentions for weeks. But be sure to lose that pesky prayer card between the couch cushions; it’s much too concrete to be safe. She’s a Protestant after all, isn’t she? Prayer isn’t cards or printed words or (hell forbid) icons and beads—it’s a feeling, an experience. Keep vices tangible and virtues abstract.
You tell me that your patient uses her iPhone throughout the day for banal things: budgeting, music, the family calendar, texting her friends, calling her mother, email, meal planning, and so on. All of these are quite useless to us in and of themselves, but they provide excellent cover for our sleeper agents: Apple News, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Netflix. These do all the heavy lifting, and if her finger is only one swipe away from what we really want her to be doing, then the battle is half won. Who can resist this indispensable multitasker in which all the brightly colored icons of wheat and tares are mingled together in a gallery of productivity and entertainment?
It is precisely because your patient is conscientious and responsible that she seeks efficient means for executing her daily tasks, and thanks to human ingenuity, there’s an app for that. Don’t let her realize that the time she has saved through these apps is not time saved for activities the Enemy smiles upon: Nerf battling with her boys, reading a book, weeding the garden, scratching the dog’s ears, or chatting with her elderly neighbor. “Saved time” is always reinvested back into the screen from whence it came (especially during bathroom doom-scrolling). I doubt your patient breaks even: you probably get her attention plus interest, while also tickling her pride at being more efficient than her mother’s hand-written grocery lists and Post-it Notes. Humans love to waste time: it makes them feel immortal. Anyone with time to kill must have plenty of it, and it is chiefly this false feeling of eternity that they are bolstering by pouring their free time down the drain.
And in this waste we enjoy our double victory. Not only is she spending more time on her phone and less time with her children, but even when she does play with them, her muscles of attention have likely grown flabby. She’ll mostly just pretend to attend, an unconscious lie which you can reframe as “being polite.” The children will notice her absence of mind, of course, but she won’t.
You wrote to me with concern that your patient enjoys long-form television shows full of so-called “depth and wisdom,” as if you worried that the quality of her programming were to have a profound effect on her life. I’m afraid you’ve missed the point entirely, Wormwood. (Don’t they teach Marshall McLuhan at the Tempter’s Training College anymore?) The medium is the message, and the medium of the smartphone is solitary, tailor-made, and aims at elsewhere-ness rather than here-and-now-ness. What you really should be worried about is family movie night, when they’re all huddled together under the same blanket, eating popcorn from the same bowl, watching the same screen and sharing the same story every week. Such communal attention and mutual affection fosters a nauseating liturgy of happiness you’d do well to disrupt. Can’t you get her bored and scrolling during The Empire Strikes Back? She’s probably seen it twenty times already!
And I don’t care a lick if she’s using her phone to watch BBC adaptations of Dickens novels instead of porn. The point is that on most nights, she and her husband aren’t trading back rubs and chatting about their day: they are propped up before the soft glow of their separately streamed shows, ending the day half a foot (yet a million miles) apart. All the better if they feel proud to be watching “high quality content” rather than trash. If they were watching trash, they might begin to feel guilty and turn it off, and turn towards each other, and then who knows what might happen—what secrets might be shared, what consolations given? I shudder to think of it. The flesh is on our side less than you might think. We want your patient and her husband to be too preoccupied for both pillow talk and sex, isolated by our perfectly bespoke algorithms.
And best of all, if bedtime smartphones replace bedtime sex, then there’s no chance for the grave risk of another baby, which would be terrible for our plans. Of course the humans become bleary-eyed and strained beyond capacity with an infant in the house, but it is precisely that other-centeredness that prevents them from wasting their time on stupidities. They are simply too tired (and engaged in something too important to the Enemy and to their human nature) to be stupid. Instead of reaching for the phone at night, they just go to sleep like exhausted animals.
Having a child is, for humans, like having a near-death experience: insight and contrition and all manner of vice-corroding thoughts come flooding in. Growing families often trigger spontaneous virtues and subdue selfish vices that took years of careful crafting on our part, and no one is more surprised than these “breeders” who, in training their children, end up training themselves. A surprise pregnancy is one of the Enemy’s most devious ways of turning hearts back to Him in desperation. Of course they’ll have a good cry and worry about money, but then love usually gets the better of them. (Human nature is so damned relational!) Before you know it, they’ll be laughing and thinking of names for the little parasite. You can’t be too careful about this: keep that phone in her hand and beside her bed, or all may be lost.
I almost forgot: I’m including below the latest list of banned resources which could trigger her interest in asceticism and contemplation. Such practices would equip her to engage her phone while still tethered to the Enemy—bringing Him into where He does not belong. Such harrowings of hell could jeopardize the addictions of any soul she meets online, pulling other patients out of echo chambers, arguments, and slack-jawed spectacles rather than dragging her further in.
If she comes across anything we’ve banned, mitigate the damage by ensuring she’s got an electronic version for her phone and not a hard copy. Do not despair: one little notification is all it takes, and she’ll be back on Instagram in no time.
Your affectionate uncle,
Notice from the Department for the Censorship of Common Sense and Virtue
The following should be carefully kept out of human awareness:
- “We Are Still Just Watching TV” and “The Screen and The Book” (Marc Barnes has an insufferable Chestertonian snark and must be stopped, which will prove quite difficult since he appears to be the only adult male in America who doesn’t own a smartphone.)
- “Technology is Not Values Neutral: Ending the Reign of Nihilistic Design” (We know that technologies are only good or bad if humans make them so, but these idiots actually think value can be embedded in physical things! How medieval.).
- The Social Dilemma (Former tech industry partners-turned-traitors air their regrets for hurting and addicting people, the cowards.)
- “Recognizing the Voice of Addiction” YouTube Short (If noticed by your patient, place a lengthy Liberty Mutual ad before it in hopes she will click away. Watch out for this Pageau fellow: he’s always polluting YouTube with teachings from the church fathers.)
- Prayer to Saint Michael the Archangel (A thousand curses on him!)
- The Litany of Humility (The only known antidote for FB likes and retweet cravings)
- The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth by D. E. Harding, particularly the chapters “The New Angelology” and “The Angels of Darkness” (Despite the book’s relative obscurity, the department decided to include it here because evangelicals’ patron saint of fiction—C.S. Lewis—considered it “a work of the highest genius” and even wrote its preface. Anything written or endorsed by Lewis is automatically forbidden—especially if it’s about us.)