Assessing the Smart Phone, Ten Years In

By Tom Gilson Published on June 29, 2017

It’s been ten years today, and I’m trying to remember what the world was like before the iPhone. It isn’t easy. I lived a full fifty years before the iPhone came out, but I find I’m losing track of what it was like. It isn’t that it was so long ago — it wasn’t — but rather that a world without smart phones seems so foreign now.

It’s easy enough to remember my reaction the first time I saw someone using an iPhone: I was envious, pure (or rather, impure?) and simple. I didn’t foresee how thoroughly this shiny new thing would re-make reality. If I told you they’d become an integral part of our world, I’d be understating the case quite badly. They’ve thoroughly re-defined the world we live in.

Think back ten years with me, if you can. Then, as now, we were fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. North Korea was trying to advance its nuclear program, then as now. American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, and CSI topped the TV ratings lists. It wasn’t so different, was it? But try to remember — or imagine — none of this happening on your smart phone.

“As Easy to Operate as Your Phone”

I believe it was around 1995 that I heard someone say, “In fifteen years your computer will be as easy to operate as your phone.” Poor guy, he had no idea how the word “phone” would change meaning, to make his prediction come true, though not in the way he’d intended.

I have a prediction of my own. It might be overly pessimistic. It might even be overly influenced today by the lingering effects of that very non-technological skunk that sprayed just outside our open bedroom window shortly after midnight last night. Ask me tomorrow and I might have a brighter view on things.

Today, though, I predict history will regard the smart phone as just as world-changing as gunpowder — and will conclude that we handled it just about as well.

Worse than that, we’re letting it fracture our very selves.

Everyone knows how technology has fractured “friendships” into small-screen experiences. Worse than that, though, we’re letting it fracture our very selves.

Fractured Identities

Recently I was talking with Dr. Jeff Myers, president of Summit Ministries, about changes in the teens who have come through Summit’s worldview training program over the past several years. They’re “much more fragmented,” he told me; they “haven’t developed a core identity.” They scatter themselves about: one quick text here, a reaction to a Facebook post there, leaping instantly from one interaction to another, rarely taking the time it takes to go deep.

We inject pieces of ourselves into in a tiny virtual world, then we fling those fragmentary self-bits out across our towns and around the world, hoping they’ll stick somewhere.

If they come to the Summit center in Manitou Springs, at the foot of Pikes Peak, they haven’t really arrived until they’ve sent themselves away again in the form of five-inch selfies with snow-capped peaks lurking even smaller behind them.

It’s beastly difficult these days simply to be where we are. We aren’t anywhere unless we’re everywhere. So we inject pieces of ourselves into a tiny virtual world, then we fling those fragmentary self-bits out across our towns and around the world, hoping they’ll stick somewhere. But if we land and stick somewhere, it’s only the thinnest piece of ourselves.

It’s hard now to know where to look to find the real substance of ourselves — or even to know who that self is.

This is our world, the way the smart phone has re-created it. I’ll admit I’m as involved in it as anyone: I’ve got the latest and best iPhone 7. A friend of mine already has Apple’s recently released 10.5” iPad Pro, and I’m nearly as envious for that as I was for the first iPhone.

Four Ways to Hold Yourself Together in a Fragmenting World

Maybe I’m revealing myself to be a hypocrite. (I’m sure I have plenty of moments when that’s true.) But just as gunpowder doesn’t have to be used destructively — the original inventors in China used it for fireworks — neither does technology have to fragment a person. I have four suggestions to help us all hold together in the smart phone world:

1. Find your core in your Creator, God. Study His word, not only to learn about Him, but to discover who He created you to be. It’s in there if you’ll look for it.

2. Talk with people. Real people. Not with thumbs on your virtual keyboard, but face to face. Frequently. Prioritize real, in-person friendships over virtual connections. Those relationships are essential to being a whole person. And based on my observation of some millennials, I’ll even throw in a really crazy idea for something you can do with your phone: call someone to talk with them. (I’m not sure everyone knows their phone includes that capability.)

3. Do slow things. Take a long walk. Go canoeing. Sit and think. Pray. Read a book. Ponder a while. Journal. Have a long conversation with someone. Help someone who has a need. Don’t take a picture; don’t post to social media. Just be where you are.

4. Do these things often enough to keep your world from being defined by your smart phone after all.

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