“If I had been born five years later I would have begun in a different world, and would no doubt have become a different man. Those five years made a critical difference in my life, and it is a historical difference. One of the results is that in my generation I am something of an anachronism.”
-Wendell Berry, writing about being born just before the advent of mechanized farms
I turn 40 years old later this year and I’ve never owned a smartphone. I am a technological anachronism: a living, breathing social experiment in 2023 America.
And lest the reader think this a conceited claim, I hasten to relate that my experience has been far from heroic. Alternatively, lest the reader think this a culturally naive posture, I assure you this life decision has been made with clairvoyance and a hearty dose of joy. Allow me to elaborate.
A Necessity Born of Weakness
I’m the son of a mechanical engineer, who is a kind and good father. In kindergarten, he let me take apart my toy tricycle tractor just to see how it worked. In elementary school beginning in the late 1980s, he taught me how to write in MS-DOS on our family IBM computer, several years before personal computers were commonplace in the home. And by the time of the advent of dial-up internet in the mid-90s, I was fascinated with HTML, the language of the internet. And so by 7th grade I taught myself how to write HTML code by studying the code source on the old Internet Explorer web browser (an option still available on most web browsers today). I then developed my own primitive webpages on our BrightNet server using an FTP (Files Transfer Protocol) to make the various webpages go live. In other words, who counts themselves a true digital native with me not in their rank?
Those were the heady days of the early internet, when even picture-based webpages took a while to load and streamable video was a full decade away. And in that intervening decade, as the internet found itself rapidly increasing in download speed, I found myself at a university with T1 internet access. It was there, during my sophomore year, where I realized that the ubiquity of pornography was a temptation easily accessed, and not easily defeated.
I was even then an earnest follower of Jesus, and as I’ve always taken Jesus’ metaphorical injunction to gouge out one’s eyes if they cause you to sin, I did whatever it took to remove that pornographic temptation. In college, this meant establishing a parental guidance program on my web browser, enacting it with a 20-digit numerical password that I couldn’t possibly memorize after writing it once, and putting the slip of paper that I recorded that password on in a Bible that stayed in my roommate’s closet. It’s not quite a gouging, but it did take some intentionality. And it granted me a lot of peace of mind.
And so by 2005, when it may have been fashionable for a business leader to own a Blackberry, I never felt the need to have- and knew that I shouldn’t have- a truncated internet on my phone. But then in 2007, what seemed a fad then has now become a full-on cultural revolution: the iPhone went to market. A trickle of early adopters led to more experimenters, which then turned a fad into a sustained and perceived commercial need. (Remember when the iPhone was only available to AT&T customers, and Verizon customers clamored for it for a few years before getting it?). Google followed with Android, etcetera and etcetera. It all seems so quaint now: a Kipling-esque Just-So story for a digital age: “How the Leopard Got Its Spots” transmuted into “How the Human Got Its Dead Stare.”
But my temptation never went away, and so I remained on the outside looking in when in 2012 a majority of Americans had a smartphone for the first time in history. It was cute for a few years after that when late adopters would tell me that they were ‘holding out’ just like I was. But what about now? I know only one other person in my life over the age of 18 who has never owned a smartphone, and I’m regularly in contact with 400-500 people on a monthly basis.
Now, if this were a story about only personal morality, alarm bells should be ringing in your head. I’m a pastor and I can tell you by anecdotal evidence that a seeming majority of men, whether by indifference or by weakness, regularly view pornography. The statistical evidence seems to support that claim as well. And though these statistics should compel the Christian to take Jesus’ injunctions to do whatever it takes to distance oneself from habitual sin, in my pastoral ministry of 15 years I have only ever convinced oneperson to go back to a dumbphone. And that was two months ago.
A Necessity Realized by Accident
But this isn’t just a story about a call to personal morality. Rather, it’s a tale that because of my weakness, I’m situated in a unique chair to be an observer of coarsening cultural trends. I sometimes muse sardonically that university researchers should have done a longitudinal study on me. But the research is mounting on the deleterious effects of smartphones nonetheless.
“You’re talking to someone who has only owned a smartphone for a year—I resisted,” he said. Then he saw that it was futile. “Technology in the last twenty years has changed all of us,” he went on. “How has it changed me? I probably read five novels a month until the two-thousands. If I read one a month now, it’s a lot. That’s not because I’ve lost interest in fiction. It’s because I’m reading a hundred Web sites. I’m listening to podcasts.” He waggled the iPhone disdainfully. “Go to a play now, and watch the flashing screens an hour in, as people who like to think of themselves as cultured cannot! Stop! Themselves!”
As the research continues to pour in, it only confirms what I have viscerally experienced these past 16 years, and what I didn’t need research to tell me: we’re getting unhappier, we know one of the causes, and no one is doing anything about it. Or, that’s the way it feels to me sometimes, as I continue to grow in my attention span, reading more novels than ever…
Now, one of the reasons I elucidated my own story is to disabuse the reader of any notions to my claims of pride or exasperation. For me, the lack of a smartphone is God’s perpetual thorn in my own flesh, reminding me of my weakness. But what of everyone else’s weakness? What of everyone else’s addiction to the screen in their pocket? Am I a voice crying alone in the wilderness with no one to baptize out of the digital rat-race?
I don’t have a smartphone and won’t have one. I’m hardly an ascetic, but it’s a fact that simply not having things like this – things which most people take for granted – changes your perspective, in the same way that fasting for forty days changes your perspective on food, and your relationship to food, and the physical world. But you have to do it to realize that.
Contra Dr. Shapiro, Kingsnorth intuits that getting older should be about growing wiser, learning contentment with less, and growing in one’s attention span. But those privileges of old age are seemingly only afforded to those who fast from the allure of technological wizardry.
But, my crank anachronism aside, here’s why I really want to smash people’s smartphones with the zeal of Elijah: I want to teach people how to pray. I want to teach people how to sit alone with the Lord. I want to teach people how to be still with their thoughts and be present to the God who loves them. And since my start in pastoral ministry (2008) tracks close to the advent of the iPhone (2007), I can confirm that it’s getting harder with each passing year, and each passing generation to teach people how to do this.
I don’t know a lot of pastors, for instance, who can sit still and just breathe deeply with the Holy Spirit for more than a few minutes. I don’t know a lot of people who put their phones in a sock drawer at the end of the work day and make themselves inaccessible. And thus to be perpetually available to text messages or notifications is to be perpetually unavailable to that still, small voice that blows where He wills.
If we would be a people who cultivate deep, abiding prayer with our Triune God, then we must take seriously the threat of the smartphone to our plans for how we’ll spend eternity in a New Heaven and Earth. We won’t be looking at a screen forever; it’ll be a Different Gaze staring back at us. Now we see through a blue-light darkly, but someday we shall see Him face to face.
Given my fatalistic track record thus far, I suppose this essay will fall on mostly deaf ears. In which case I should have a realistic conclusion, so here goes: everybody needs a point at which they say ‘no’ to tech inevitability.
You might be like Wendell Berry and eschew a real computer and a tractor, for the sake of a typewriter and a team of mules. The latter are still a form of technology, but Berry’s ‘no’ comes much earlier than for most of us. Perhaps your ‘no’ is alongside me, abandoning the smartphone devolution. Or perhaps your ‘no’ comes later, as with Anderson, Meador, or East.
Wherever your line is with so-called tech inevitability, pick it and stick with it. Wherever your line is, you will soon see the world racing past you, and you’ll find that somehow you’re happier than the rushing crowd.
MS-DOS is a way to engage computer software with written prompts, a common form of software use before Microsoft developed clickable ‘windows.’ ↑
Usually when older adults speak of digital natives in the millenial or zillenial cohort, they mean someone who has always grown up with the ease of the user-end digital experience via a plethora of apps. But I speak as one, on the back-end side of programming, who is a digital native more closely related to those early software developers in Silicon Valley in university computer labs, just a generation later than them. ↑