In London on Sunday I noticed two cameos. On the Piccadilly line, I sat opposite a mum with two children under 6 who were sitting next to her for comfort and a cuddle, but she was absorbed in her smartphone. They were not restless or impatient (that may yet come, of course) but as much as it was obvious that they were there, she was completely engrossed in whatever it was on her screen. I could see her, head down, the children cutching up to sit with her, as we left the train and walked along the platform.
On the way home, we sat opposite a young dad who was engrossed in his smartphone, texting away like crazy, while his daughter was in a pram next to him, in one of those spaces on trains where you can sit with a pram. As soon as the baby woke, away went the phone, he unstrapped the child and started talking to her, bouncing her on his knee, engaging with us when we spoke to the child and generally fulfilling evey expectation of what good fatherhood should be. Loads of eye contact, lots of face-to-face speech, lots of pointing and showing. The phone was nowhere to be seen, and then he got off at Hemel Hempstead. We had just enough time to tell him that we thought he was a wonderful dad and to keep on doing what he was doing.
Another little cameo, from school two weeks ago. It is mid-morning, a parent comes into the school with a child who is either late or has had a medical appointment. She is talking all the time on her phone, and is dragging said child with her. I open the door, greet her, she ignores me because she is on the phone and is still talking while she speaks to Debbie in the office and depositing child in school. She goes, I open the door (quite tricky to do if you are talking on a phone and have a handbag in the other hand, obviously), say goodbye, get ignored again, and return, somewhat bemused, to my office.
Finally, two years ago I agreed to meet up with an old friend of mine, a teacher in Montmorency, in northern Paris. We share an interest in rugby, and I was there because Sal had a business trip to Porte de Versailles, and we said we would meet up at Bvd St.-Michel at a given time. I spent most of the afternoon watching him use two telephones in a pub to try and arrange what seemed to be a series of schoolboy rugby fixtures in England and France. It was interesting (but saddening) to see that despite making a real effort to meet together, his attention was so easily distracted. Me? I had two excellent beers while waiting.
We have all seen this, and most of us have done it. Most of us regret it (if we notice) but the attraction of the wretched thing is so alluring. I am not criticising here, because we all know that this is an enormous pressure. The things are so shiny and pretty and like Pandora’s Box, they invite us into a world full of shiny newness – apps, games and new people and ways to connect with them along with the peer pressure that we should be using them to their full potential or else we might be seen to be somehow technologically backward. But they are a modern representation of the old teaching that unless we crown our WILL king over our DESIRE and EMOTION, we will soon lose the joy of our families. And the families are already suffering, in spades. As are our friends and those to whom we wish to be close. Already it is obvious that the quality of marriages is affected by the online obsession, the opportunity for secrecy and thus mistrust is growing and we are in real danger of being widely connected to a range of people whom we know scantly, but disconnected from those who love us. We choose the ethereal – what is “in the ether” over the real – that which can be touched and felt, and eye-contact made with, as John says in his first epistle.
I hate the fact that when children think of us (and it is not just technology, but all sorts of other things as well) they think of us as the people who prefer texting into the air than to spend time with them. An Australian newspaper, picked at random from a plethora of material on this issue, tells this story well.
- If you are talking to somebody and your phone goes off, the person in front of you, ESPECIALLY if they are a child, is vastly more important. Leave the message until you are on your own or the child is asleep.
- If a mobile phone goes off during a family meal, ignore it, and mentally decide to phone back later. The people WITH YOU are more important than the person on the phone, except in some exceptional circumstances.
- If a landline goes off, answer it and say you will phone back later. Better still, unplug the thing.
- Turn the telly off during meals, so you can talk without distraction.
- Cultivate hospitality – not merely the provision of food, drink and shelter, but the physical presence of your attention to those who are among you. Some years ago, at Spring Harvest, I heard Viv Thomas, teaching pastor at St Paul’s in Hammersmith, describe what he and his wife do when being hospitable. Every phone goes off, unplugged and electronic gadgets – music, radio, telly – are all switched off, and a simple meal prepared. Hospitality has to be outrageous, argues Viv, if we are to be counter cultural. I would suggest that switching off an electronic device might be a counter-cultural start….
A way backwards…
Earlier in the year, I was eating at La Tasca in Xscape in Milton Keynes. Four men, quite garrulous, entered the restaurant and ordered drinks and got their iPhones out. The table fell quiet, and the four of them set off into their own little worlds. Four otherwise sane humans, meeting for a meal, absorbed in their phones so deeply that they might as well have been on another planet from one another.
It’s not confined to iPhones, by the way. Laptops and any kind of screen will have the same hook for the undisciplined. The eyes are the lamp of the body, says Jesus in Matthew 6.
This is a key issue for educators. There is a lot that is being spoken about the use of smartphone technology as an educational tool. I have no problem with the concept, but the search for what is real – God and his Kingdom, is not done through an iPhone, but through relating, through the extraordinary bond that requires us to be physically present to each other, reflecting the fact that we are created in God’s image.
The debate about whether we should allow mobiles in schools today is a live one, but couched in the wrong terms. “For what purpose can we learn to use these machines for good, for communal benefit” is the issue, not the practical one, the use of smart technology as a teaching tool or even the child protection one, as important as all these are. They are products of the human imagination, partly fallen, that have the potential to harm and to heal. The test of any new technology might be – does it enable us to learn together, to grow together, to get closer to each other, or does it isolate us from each other? I have been thinking about this since the advent of the Sony Walkman (cassette version!!!) in the 1980s in South Africa, with a friend of mine unable to hold a conversation in a garden because of the thing stuck in his ear. It is a big concern, possibly not big enough.
Great technology, sure. But use with care.