Screens, Media, and the Oracles in Our Pockets
I sit down in my car, and before I even pull out my keys, I tap my iPhone to check my email. Of course, I just checked my email an hour earlier, before my 2pm appointment. But without even thinking, more like a reflex than an action, I head to the screen in eager expectation.
But an expectation for what? That I would receive an email with revolutionary news, or even just a new lead? For that matter, what am I looking for when I check my twitter feed, Facebook account, or flip on the TV? What eager hope continually draws me to the screen?
With the rise of mobile devices, looking at a screen, whether smart phone, iPad, computer or TV, may be the single most common work activity on the planet.
Last year, Time magazine did a survey of over 5,000 people from 4 continents on their smart phone usage. The results were startling.
- 84 percent said they couldn’t go a single day without their phones
- 20 percent of respondents check their phone every 10 minutes
- 50 percent of Americans sleep with their phones (that number rises to 80 percent for 18-24 year olds)
And it’s not just smart phones. A 2009 survey found the average American adult spends 8.5 hours in front of a screen every day.
Apparently, I’m not alone.
But what are we to think about screens? Does the Bible have anything to say our visual fixation to pixels, to glowing “0”s and “1”s? Can we even do anything about it since most of us work in front of screens every day?
Andrew Byers’ new book TheoMedia: The Media of God and the Digital Age offers unique insight into our relationship with screens. He offers both a new way of viewing screens – and a hopeful way forward.
During a time of vocational uncertainty, Byers recounts a time when he was desperate to find guidance for the future. Instead of “hitting my knees to listen for God’s voice, I was clicking to get online to see if my future had been revealed by way of a new email.”
In the ancient world, there was a name for mystical mediums that the gods used to make their will known to mortals. They were called “oracles.” Worried about a relationship? Consult an oracle. Crops not producing? Find an oracle. Worried about opposing armies? Head off to Delphi. They have a fantastic oracle.
Today, we treat screens much the same was as do oracles. Will my client decide to buy more this year? Consult your email. Am I loved? Check how many likes my last Facebook post got. How’s my portfolio been the last 24 hours? Check the always moving stock ticker at the bottom of the news. Better yet, download an app, and check it hourly.
A simple question: have we placed too much hope in our screens? Are we treating them like oracles, in which we place our hope? Or a more pointed question: which god (God?) do we consult when a big deal – or opportunity – is really on the line?
A portal is a gateway to a different world. A mode of transportation to an alternative universe. No need to think Star Trek here. Each time we “surf” a website we are transported to another world. The “@” symbol of Twitter suggests we are “at” a new place, and we eagerly “follow” folks on Facebook as if they’re going somewhere we want to be.
Unfortunately, what happens in cyber-world doesn’t stay in cyber-world. We may feel that we can get away with things online that we couldn’t in person, but the all-too common snarky comments on blogs or embellished digital “profiles” (is that what you’re really like?) show that we believe the screen has taken us to another world, where cause and effect doesn’t work the same way.
How often at work do we go to screens as modes of transportation to another world? I don’t think this is just illicit Facebook browsing on the clock; we seek relief from work stress or family tensions by immersing ourselves in online articles, YouTube videos, role-playing video games like the billion dollar Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty (not just for teenagers). Screens seem to provide relief, a fix, a new world.
Applause on the Stage
I may be the only one, here. But each time I flip on a screen and check social media, I quietly investigate blog stats, flattering (or not-so-flattering) comments, or the number of “likes” or “retweets.”
I remember in 8th grade there was a subtle rank among students, with jocks and pretty girls at the apex, and “followers” (ironic?) and other confidence-less losers at the bottom (yep, me). Has our obsession with social shares, hashtags, and Facebook “likes” simply democratized an 8th grade popularity contest?
This is perhaps overly harsh. Social media is able to connect entrepreneurs; it allows us to share news instantaneously (many called the Arab Spring the Twitter Revolution) and reconnect with old friends. But what is the motivation behind our reflex to check screens almost constantly?
Refocusing Our Gaze
We live in front of screens. Considering we live in a media-saturated world, what can be done to correct our tendencies to make screens oracles, portals, and stages? Here are three suggestions.
1. Faith. “Trust the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. Acknowledge him, in all your ways, and he will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5-6). Faith can move the mountains, heal the sick, and perhaps even provide you with enough clients to make it to the new year. Our influx of emails, tweets, and messages do not deserve the power we give them to heal the broken, provide our daily bread, and give us a sense of direction in life. It’s certainly a counter-cultural practice, but for every time you were going to look to a digital oracle for your future, look to Christ. Prayer may be more effective than checking one last online article…
2. Incarnation. When God became a man, he put an emphasis on physicality, on face-to-face relational nearness. Byers writes, “If God himself puts such stock in face-to-face physicality, then surely this emphasis is to be reflected in Christian communication habits.” A simple question: did you send that email to avoid a phone call or face-to-face conversation, or did you do it bring two people closer together through a convenient form of communication? With digital communication, we should always be moving from relational distance to nearness. Screens are not bad. You’re reading this blog post on a screen! But they should not be portals into the unreal (except for a possible trip to see The Hobbit), but instead tools to bring classmates, co-workers, and friends into community. After all, Immanuel, the King of Heaven, is also God with us.
3. Cross. Seeking self-glory online has become so common today it has almost slipped in under the radar. But Christ himself emptied himself of his glory, and took the very nature of a servant for the sake of those whom he loves. Action point? Again, Byers writes, “No more embittered remarks in the comment streams; no more self-centered blog posts promoting our online significance; no more vain status updates; no more tricky strategems for beefing up our pool of followers simply for the sake of augmenting our self importance.” Instead, ask a simple other-centered question the next time you consider blogging: “Who is this post going to benefit?”
Most mornings, when I stumble into the office, I push a small silver button which lights up the screen of my computer. And that light is dazzling, with all its connectivity, potential and power. Yet this Christmas, we celebrate a brighter light. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined” (Is. 9:2).
It kinda makes my iPhone seem trivial in comparison.
This post first appeared on the Denver Institute Blog.