Recently, Tony Reinke interviewed British thinker Alastair Roberts. His first question was, "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?" Roberts's written answer was substantive and perceptive enough that we thought it would be serve our readers to make it available as a stand-alone article here.
The smartphone — 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).
The second and later of these developments is the rapid rise of the app. Our connection to the online world on our mobiles is now overwhelmingly dominated by the use of apps — chiefly within an environment established and managed by Google or Apple — rather than by mobile browsers.
The app represents a wider diffusion and greater immediacy of the connected realm into our lives. Rather than the more determined process of "going online" by opening a browser on our mobile devices, we are always connected through mobile apps. Being connected functions less as a purposeful action than as a continual state, part of the unconsidered and ubiquitous wallpaper of our contemporary existence. The app-based experience of the online world is localized, personalized, and a continual background to our experience. The smartphone is a landmark development in the process that Marva Dawn has termed the "technologizing" of our intimacy and the "intimatizing" of our technology. Keeping all of this in mind is essential as we continue this conversation.
Are Your Smartphone Habits Healthy?
If we are to assess whether our smartphone habits are healthy or not — and this is hardly a question that should be exclusive to young Christian adults! — perhaps a helpful place to start is by challenging the underlying cultural script that typically drives our adoption of new technologies. This script is one that rests heavily on choice and potential as such and the notion of freedom from (upon the removal of constraints, limitations, and restrictions) and is much less attentive to the reality of freedom for — to our being liberated to become more fully and faithfully human in communion with God and each other.