Friday, December 9, 2016

smart or not?

                                       (Credit: PixelEmbargo via iStock/Salon)

Why is it that everything that is good... becomes bad, after a while?

Why is it that, sometime, a product, idea or movement that begins as a novelty, offering an innovative and exciting new way to do things, becomes the enemy, after a time?

Why is the line between what’s good for us and what’s bad for us so... slippery?

In the world of nutrition, think of the roller coaster, for example, that dietary fat has been on for a while:  good fats, bad fats.  Yes, butter. No, butter.  Coconut oil in coffee.  Avocado toast.  Deep fried Twinkies.  Which is it?  Is good fat going to save us?  Are deep fried county fair treats going to kill us? (Well, actually, on that last one, yes.)

  What I am on about, today, is the shifting cultural tide on the use of smart phones-  the mini-computers that we carry around with us that give us access to everyone we know and all of the information that we need, whenever we want it, at the tapping of a touchpad.

I read an article this week that described the effect of the smartphone on  (1) our ability to relate, one-to-another as social beings;  (2) on the expectation that we have, now, of instant-gratification and our growing inability to sit in the place of not-knowing; and (3)  the shortening of our attention spans.  These are just three of the detrimental effects of regular smart phone use.  I have experienced all three:

1. I notice that when I am in a public place waiting in line,  like the post-office or the grocery store, my tendency is to pull out my cell phone and catch up on my email.  I used to spend that time just observing others, sometimes talking with others in line or (best of all) making eye contact with the toddler, if I was lucky enough to have one in the line in front of or behind me.  I used to have a spiritual practice in which I would study the folks in line with me and try to see them as Christ in our midst.  Now, I see how many emails have piled up in the time that I’ve been doing my grocery shopping.  Mostly, I just look to catch up, but sometimes, I’ll even type a quick response (often with plenty of typos and autocorrect errors) and... because of this multitasking, I might not even recall, later, the details of that e-exchange.

2. My husband and I spend a lot of our weekend time on the road.  Pennsylvania is a big place and my Sunday visitations often find us in the car for a few hours at a time early on Sunday  morning, or even, heading out on Saturday afternoon, to hole up in a hotel not too far from the next morning’s visitation site.  As we drive, we talk-  about all sorts of things under the sun.  Because we are new to Pennsylvania, we see new things all the time:  watercourses, land masses, Amish buggies, coal mines, unharvested corn still standing in fields way past what we thought was harvest- time, giant metal silos, trail markers, museums, factories, etc.  Rather than note these new things and wonder about them, together, one of us will say, “I wonder what that is all about...” and the other of us dives onto our phone (usually me) to gather the wisdom of our friend Siri and her cousin Wikipedia, which reveals all, leaving no doubt in our mind, that there is an answer for everything.  We’ve learned a lot on these drives, but sometimes I am called back to that central question that we use in Godly Play, in which the storyteller says, “I wonder...” and the children engage their imaginations and their hearts in discovering God’s truth for themselves.  Sometimes, wondering and imagining is a good thing and the textbook answer is less helpful, particularly, from a spiritual perspective. Do we really need to know the answer to everything?

3.  How long can you sit still?  I’ve never been very good at sitting still, but with a smart phone, I’ve noticed my attention span is decreasing due to cultural shifts in the way that information is offered to us:  tweets with limited characters, instagram pictures that deliver one-image ideas, news flashes and notifications that run across my screen like a ticker tape, giving me just the surface story of what’s really going on.  It’s tempting to think that we get complete information in these tiny bites and to allow ourselves to be satisfied.  But there’s always more, and we are losing the cognitive ability to sit and dig deeper, to find the complete, whole, round truth.  I’ve been trying to re-train my brain by reading books.  Remember them?  Hard copy, hold-in-your-hand books.  Reading whole books again is a good practice that has stretched out my shrinking attention span.

Now, we know that nothing is all bad.  Or good, usually.

The best answer is usually in the middle.  The Benedictine ideal of balance.  The Anglican ethos of both/and.

I won’t give up my smart phone.  It is too valuable a resource for me.  But I might try to leave it in my pocket more often-  to engage the toddler in some peek-a-boo in the long grocery line.  I might allow myself to spend more time down the rabbit hole of imagination instead of allowing wonder to drive me to an instant answer and, yes, I’m going to keep lugging books around with me. Who doesn’t love the heft of a weighty tome and the world of ideas in between the front and back covers?

Here’s a link to the article that got me going:

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