One of the Barna Group's most recent project is FRAMES, an attempt to engage in many important aspects of culture and their intersection with Christianity. In light of our culture's growing inability to focus and read anything of any significant length, each FRAME is a concise reflection based both in the author's personal experience and recent research done by the Barna Group. I had the pleasure of attending Barna FRAMES Live recently and will be working through the material presented for each FRAME in the live discussion, the book form, and the short film. Two FRAMES discuss the challenges of navigating real life in a digital age: The Hyperlinked Life: Live with Wisdom in an Age of Information Overload by Jun Young and David Kinnaman, and Greater Expectations: Succeed (and Stay Sane) in an On-Demand, All-Access, Always-On Age by Claire Diaz-Ortiz.
In The Hyperlinked Life Young and Kinnaman set forth the overwhelming influence of technology and digital devices in our lives, focusing primarily on smartphones. They mention how there are more smartphones in the world now than toilets; they increasingly mediate the way we relate to the world around us. In many ways this is understandable; the smartphone provides instant access to the Internet and the warehouse of human knowledge, maps, calendars, calculators, music, videos, and even serves as a handy flashlight. The "phone" aspect of the smartphone seems to be its most antiquated feature; social media and texting tend to be the primary means of communication anymore. While the Internet and its related technology have provided many benefits, many downsides remain. Barna reports that 71% of people feel overwhelmed by the amount of information they need to know in order to keep up-to-date; 54% of people have moments when they feel as if they have too much information; 35% of all adults, and 49% of Millennials in particular, feel their personal electronics sometimes separate them from other people in real life.
To this end Young and Kinnaman feel that the time has come to consider a theology of information. The technology already exists; people spend an average of eight hours a day looking at screens and devices, often checking the smartphone over a hundred times a day. In so many ways the Internet is the modern Tower of Babel (cf. Genesis 11:1-9), made of 0s and 1s, stored in buildings full of servers, perhaps digital, but no less an edifice to human pretension and quest for glory. Such does not make the Internet inherently ungodly or anti-godly, but it does speak to the need, for Christians, to make sure that God is put at the center of information, our digital lives, and how we in reality interface with technology.
I found it compelling, personally, to think about God on the Internet. Since the Internet is a human invention, it might be easy to imagine that God is not involved. But if God is truly not involved in the Internet in some way, why should we, as His servants, have anything to do with it? If we live and move and have our being in God in reality (Acts 17:24-28), and man can go nowhere to hide from Him, since He fills heaven and earth (Jeremiah 23:24), then God's eyes are also upon the Internet and our digital existence, and God should be filling the Internet.
The call for a theology of information, and of wisdom regarding how to live in an Internet age, is necessary and useful. It would seem easier to dispense with the lot, yet such is unwise and impractical; the technology is here to stay, and it provides wonderful opportunities. Last year my family and I took an 11,000 mile trip around the country to visit supporters, family, and friends over a ten week period. We had someone stay at the house and some financial affairs were handled by people here in California, but much of the trip was mediated through technology. Waze directed me everywhere we needed to go, and often proved more accurate than paper maps. Financial support could be deposited through mobile banking. I brought my laptop and backup hard drive and therefore had full access to everything I've ever written, and could quickly upload any lesson to my Kindle for preaching. While such a trip could have been planned and executed before the current age, it could not have been done as easily or efficiently. Furthermore, by posting frequent updates and pictures, many of our Facebook friends were able to experience the trip vicariously. It was not long into the trip when we started to hear people say how they had followed us along our travels through Facebook and appreciated that opportunity. Social media, for all its flaws, does allow life to be lived and shared communally over large distances, a real benefit in a society where young families often move hundreds if not thousands of miles from their birthplace and family connections. Time would fail me if I attempted to discuss all the relationships that have been started or renewed on account of social media connections.
Yet, as Young and Kinnaman note, the breadth of communality and in number of relationships also means that too much emphasis on the digital aspect of relationships lead people to alienation and isolation. 2,000 Facebook friends may not mean that a person has many "real" friends with whom they could share both the pleasantries and the less pleasant aspects of life. Lots of people are more in love with technology than with people; this is not a good trend. Therefore, Christians must consider themselves and how they live their lives in reality and in the digital realm. Christians should consider if their online personae are anything like themselves in reality, and seek to live a bit more authentically online. Christians must be discerning about the information they get online; most people seem to know that nothing is true just because they "read it on the Internet," since people believe that about 55% of what they read on the Internet is accurate. Nevertheless, people remain prone to accept what they want to believe, and reject what they do not: among self-professing Christians, 64% over 40 and 48% under 40 accept the veracity of a particular truth claim if it fits with things they already know; 49% over 40 and 61% under 40 will verify the truth claim with another source. Meanwhile, 60% of all adults, and 67% of Millennials, get frustrated when they have conflicting pieces of information. The Internet has overcome many challenges we faced in terms of finding access to information; the challenge for all of us today is to learn critical thinking skills so as to exercise proper discernment and judgment about what should be accepted as true based upon what God has revealed and what is actually real as opposed to the reality we would like to imagine exists (John 7:24, 2 Timothy 3:15-17).
Much of what Young and Kinnaman recommend regarding wisdom for life in the digital age is fleshed out more fully by Diaz-Ortiz in Greater Expectations. Diaz-Ortiz works for Twitter and has needed to establish disciplines in her own life in order to find satisfaction and to remain sane. One of the aspects of technology we do not often want to consider is whether we own technology or if our technology is owning us: who is in control of whom? Most people cannot imagine going a day in their "regular" lives without Internet access; only 12% of people consciously set aside time during their day when they are not using technology. Internet overuse is beginning to be understood as a psychological disorder. Has technology made us more productive? 50% would agree; 50% believe it has made them less productive. This is leading to less satisfaction in life: 42% feel unsatisfied with their lives, and 55% wished they had been more productive the day before.
Consumption of digital media can overcome very easily. There are always new blogs to read, new e-mails to check, new Facebook, Twitter, or other social media feeds to consider. 40% of adults (56% of Millennials) check their phone as the first thing they do when they get up; 33% of adults (54% of Millennials) make a final check just before bed. Therefore, a significant proportion of the population begins the day online and ends it online. The Internet is always on; therefore, there is an expectation that people are now "always on" as well. If you are willing to work all the time, people will expect you to work all the time. If you don't establish boundaries, limitations, and schedules, no one will do it for you, and you will more likely than not feel stressed out, overwhelmed, and insufficiently productive.
Young and Kinnaman recommended "digital detox," going for a day or so without the use of technology just to see how dependent one has become on it as a point of reflection. Diaz-Ortiz finds value in that as well but also espouses a more holistic practice of using the time right after waking up as a period of offline time to prepare for the day. She uses a PRESENT acrostic, featuring prayer, reading, expressing oneself, scheduling, exercise, personal nourishment, and tracking of how well the whole PRESENT thing is going for you. By accomplishing these things offline, you define who you are and what you will do outside of the Internet and away from its distractions. In terms of scheduling she recommends doing as much as can be done offline, so as to have less distraction; to have breaks, ideally not screen time; and to have block scheduling whenever possible so as to not need to constantly shift mental gears between tasks and thus to work more efficiently.
I have personally found using the period just after waking up as a time for prayer, reading, and otherwise offline time as not only productive but also in many ways liberating. As an evangelist in a "mission field" it has been very easy to be "always on" and "working" every waking moment 7 days a week. I had to set boundaries for myself: since Thursdays and Fridays were the only days without scheduled events, I have endeavored to sanctify Thursdays and Fridays as days of non-work. Such does not mean I've taken off two days from God or following Jesus; instead, they are times for reading, spending time with family, getting non-work matters accomplished, etc. Taking those days off does not mean the phone won't ring or e-mails won't come in; if anything, Murphy's law has been at work, and many requests will come in on those days. I've had to learn to just hold off, both in reality and mentally, and let it be done on Saturday or beyond.
At Frames LIVE, George Barna spoke about information and trying to make sense of it, and while listening to him I recognized how I was not really "made" for this particular time. I prove far too naturally curious about just about anything. When information is limited to specific books with specific levels of access, it proves easy to maintain some discipline and self-control; but with an ever-present resource that can answer any question at any time to any degree of depth, I've often found myself spending hours going through Wikipedia pages on all sorts of topics, and have often spent hours reading through my RSS feed. Meanwhile, the stack of books I should read grows ever higher, and projects are often delayed or take longer than they should to complete. Young and Kinnaman call for an understanding of technology in terms of stewardship, and that is wise: we have to be good stewards of our technological lives, keeping it in perspective, not sacrificing the greater good in pursuit of lesser goods. Do I read my RSS feed? Sure, but I try to get other tasks done first, or look at it during a break. I try to get some of that high-priority reading done right after waking up to make sure it gets done. Whereas there must be some flexibility in schedule, I try to keep a good idea of what should get done by when (and probably should have a bit more expansive view of what ought to be done by when).
I say all of this to show that stewardship of technology will look a bit different for each person on account of their responsibilities and particular strengths, challenges, and temptations. While the technology is new, the challenges are not; we are called to exercise discipline, self-control, and sober-mindedness in all situations, and therefore do well to establish healthy technological practices today to model for the next generation which will all but assuredly be even more immersed in technology than our own (1 Corinthians 9:24-27, 1 Peter 4:7).
We cannot close ourselves off from these issues; we are in the midst of the technological revolution, these types of technology are here to stay, and so we must use discernment to ascertain how we can best follow Jesus in this hyperlinked age. These FRAMES are recommended for consideration of technology and how to remain its master and not its slave, and to begin the discussion of how to best glorify and honor the Lord Jesus through a healthy real-digital life balance.