Over the last couple decades, smartphones have seeped into the bedrock of our culture, and now it’s hard to imagine life off the grid. This technology, once reserved for the savvy elite, rapidly became a pervasive tool in the hands of most Americans. Incessant chirps, faintly reminiscent of bells, stir us from sleep. Bleary-eyed, we check apps and mentally rearrange our days, considering the forecasts, scanning through reminders, bending to the electronic pressure for efficiency. We orient, mindful of the great responsibility that comes with bearing the weight of our online images, the burden of endless connection.
Love is always more costly, and love of God demands the death of our tiny kingdoms—including the ones that quietly beep in our pockets, falsely reassuring us that we are in charge and necessary.The day marches on, and we scroll right through it. We swipe past ads that pinpoint our specific needs, ghosts from fleeting searches and haphazard musings. These whims, gathered, transform into prompts for purchase of things that can be bought online, which is to say, everything. Even our escapes are overcast with electronic luminescence. We are riveted by the flash of colossal screens, lulled by our curated playlists, and guided toward both exotic and mundane destinations under the clear and cheerful direction of electronic navigation systems. Our days are anchored by rings and beeps.
Silence—real silence, the true absence of any sound—is the stuff of legends. We are surrounded by the digital, enveloped in the predictable presence of programming, cautioned and guided by the god of our own making.
Smartphones provide a sense of security and safety, standing in the gaps of human error, forgetfulness, and boredom. They help us make decisions, eliminate frivolous tasks, and supply us with endless loops of entertainment. We’re often so mesmerized by the utilitarian grandeur of smartphones, of what technology can do, that we rarely pause to ask ourselves what it is, and, even more importantly, how a smartphone’s essence informs and alters who we are.
If we are what we love, as James K. A. Smith writes, then we are pixel and nudge and scroll. We are notification and vibration and hum. We are easily silenced, often flipped over, sometimes switched to grayscale, but never really disengaged. We are, at our worst, addiction. We are forever trying to escape the thing that effortlessly draws us back in. We mimic liveliness, but we ourselves are lifeless.
This lifelessness is easy to overlook until a tech-related drama stirs our attention. We’re jolted by stories that sound like miraculous nightmares—the Alexa that overheard a private conversation and sent a transcript to the owner’s friend, rumors of microchip implants, glasses that keep a smartphone’s screen in the line of vision at all times. If we try to trace our way back to the beginning, we may come up short. Those of us who can remember the days before the internet may try to explain its origin to people who have never known life before it. We scratch our heads, vaguely offering shaky theories for where it began, something about Al Gore and the military and the cacophonous bleeps of connection that end with AOL’s warm welcome, and suddenly everything is email and IM and then folded, neatly, into a bar of Apple aluminum. Its origin is difficult to discern; we can more confidently say where the internet ends—nowhere, and never. It is the digital infinite. It buries us all.
This is obviously hyperbole, as even the internet cannot obscure the ultimate glory and presence of God, who is actually, magnificently infinite. However, its shortcomings do not make it safe: it is this very mimicry of God that makes smartphones so alluring. The imitation of God is an old snake’s trick, one as ancient as the world itself. I’m not suggesting that smartphones have consciousness—at least, not yet—but I don’t think a lack of intention lessens their impact.
Our phones seem to know us, accept our orientation toward them, our selfish sacrifices of time and energy and life. What is the harm in worship, in letting this innocuous tool, the thing that we control with a mere swipe and click—what is the harm in letting that thing control us? Is it such a terrible thing to utilize what makes us seem better, or at least feel like we are getting better? Is there any real danger in the smartphone that informs us, reminds us, connects us, and eases us?
This, too, is an old story, one of bending our knees to idols that have no eyes as cheap counterfeits. These are imitations—and poor ones at that—but we are drawn to ears, no heart, no soul. Our connection to technology may be more immediately apparent and instantly gratifying than our connection to God, but our technology does not love us. The computer bears no affection, the smartphone does not weep, the internet’s affection is a mechanical affectation. Love induces weakness, chooses sacrifices, gives up takes up and holds what smolders and burns. Technology, cool and indifferent and algorithmic, calculates. It is the blind monster that is forever ravenous, never satiated. It will take and take and take and take as long as we supply its altar with slaughtered oblations.
Tyranny comes in many forms, but the most abiding characteristic of tyrants is that they enslave with indifference. The tyrant objectifies, utilizes, then discards. Constant connection demands our attention, feeding us gratification with an aim to profit from our weakness. It does not uphold our good.
God’s true omnipresence, perfect omnipotence, and infinite omniscience exposes human constructions because they appear to demand less of us. Love is always more costly, and love of God demands the death of our tiny kingdoms—including the ones that quietly beep in our pockets, falsely reassuring us that we are in charge and necessary.
Connection is, of course, not an evil unto itself. Owning, using, and even enjoying the benefits of digital connectivity is not a sin. But treating the smartphone like a god, allowing it to take the place of the One it imitates—that is a grave thing indeed.
It is a hard thing to reorient ourselves, but it is the only thing that will save us. We know, of course, that smartphones are neither omniscient nor omnipresent nor omnipotent. They still may master us, accepting our worship and demanding more. But they will never love us, never sacrifice their own interests on our behalf, never offer compassion or guidance or company. Their consolation is a loop of limited distraction. We would do well to step out of the digital infinite, and turn our hearts toward the one worthy of our worship.