Ah, the enigmatic smartphone. We are still just beginning to realize the layers of questions and implications related to our all-pervasive devices.
How are they changing us?
What are the spiritual consequences of our digital addictions?
Why do we compulsively check social media?
Why do we check our devices first thing in the morning?
Why does digital technology lead to isolation and loneliness in so many?
Perhaps there’s some help to be found in north England. Alastair Roberts is a thinker and writer who recently finished his doctoral studies at Durham University and has shown himself to be immensely helpful on these themes. To talk with Alastair is to go deep, and as you’ll see below, his careful and thorough answers to our three questions richly reward a thoughtful reading. Perhaps set aside some time to work through it all. You will find it is certainly worth your time.
Alistair, if a young Christian adult came to you, wondering about whether their personal smartphone habits were healthy or not, what are the preliminary diagnostic tests you would offer?
Let me start by highlighting that we are discussing smartphones. We should not let its name deceive us. The smartphone is not just a glorified phone. That we use the term “smartphone” is an accidental result of the path taken by its technological evolution. The smartphone is, in fact, a personal mobile device that is at once a camera, computer, calculator, gaming platform, means of sending mail, GPS, PDA, phone, reading tool, miniature music and video player, window onto a neighborhood and connected world, and many, many other things besides.
As a device, the smartphone as it typically and currently exists must also be understood as a technological counterpart to two key developments in the character of the Internet. The first of these developments is the rise of the social web (related to what some have termed “Web 2.0”), resulting from the shift of the Internet from a less structured and open realm, populated by a more distinctive demographic of creators and publishers, to a heavily colonized realm of mass participation, social networking and interaction, and sharing, which is dominated, shaped, and policed by powerful companies such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter.