“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 one person 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.
In what may be a pedantic exercise, let’s enumerate some of those research effects. First, increased smartphone use makes us more depressed and anxious. And, incredibly, we keep handing smartphones to adolescent and preadolescent children, which makes me a reluctant believer in Freud’s death wish. Further, increased smartphone use also makes us worse listeners, damaging our ability to relate to and have healthy conflict with others. Finally, as if these negative effects were not enough to steal our joy, increased smartphone usage also cripples our ability to focus on a sustained task. Relatedly, English Professor James Shapiro at Columbia (an Ivy League school no less!) was recently quoted in The New Yorker, lamenting the decline of English majors and attributing part of the blame to smartphones and himself:
“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?
Not quite. Mere O Founder Matthew Lee Anderson provides a similar repeated sermon on the need to quit Netflix: a time-waster that robs us of deeper pleasures, much as apps on a smartphone do. Mere O Editor Jake Meador would like us to quit Twitter, an app primarily accessed via a smartphone that acts as an anger accelerant in a world that needs contentment. Brad East on his blog and on Mere O wants us to quit podcasts and pop culture. The writer Paul Kingsnorth also doesn’t own a smartphone:
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. ↑
- https://www.covenanteyes.com/pornstats/ ↑
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Thank you. My wife and I sometimes think we may be the last ones free from the whole world’s beck and call. How are these devices discipling us? I also appreciate your inclusion of prayer and being present with God.
I also have never owned a smart phone. I likewise held out because of wanting to avoid temptation, only the temptation I was concerned about was how I might respond in anger or laziness toward my children in relation to having a small computer that would be so easy for them to run off with. A little over a year ago, I did realize that my world was shrinking for lack of maps, travel apps, and access to online order information, etc. That’s when I got a small tablet with data capabilities. I have so appreciated having the tool for those specific instances, but also love that I can leave it behind.
[…] The Case for Ditching Your Smartphone (from Someone Who Has Never Owned One) […]
MS-DOS! HTML! Ah, those were the good ol’ days (I just turned 40 myself, and have a great fondness and nostalgia for the computer tech of my youth; my dad was a programmer working at home in the 80s, so we had stuff, too, that generally people didn’t, at home).
I also don’t have a smartphone. And never will!
And am two parts in to my tiny spiritual magnum opus against smartphones as equivalent to images of the Roman Emperor that Christians in the old school would die before bowing down to.
Thanks for the article!
For my career there are too many benefits to life to drop usage altogether but I agree with your point of drawing your line. I think mine has been drawn with the upcoming rise in AI communications (ChatGPT). I see too many red flags in the rise of the technology where it seems society and business is racing so fast to implementation it will not see the potential harm to future society above the benefits it will provide. I see it following the same societal impact and pattern as the rise of social media. Started small, rapid hype where the masses swarm, massive societal societal change. I have dropped out of the social media space – with (voluntary) participation in AI I will likely never start.
The smart phone was a life-changer for me. I learned how to use Bible apps from a 14 year-old.. and they were invaluable to me as I read the scriptures cover to cover for the first time. I heard hundreds of sermons about nearly every topic, and if I wanted to learn about something (like the “anointing”) I spent an entire weekend watching over 20 sermons about it. Just last week I learned that you can type in any verse followed by “strongs” and it will take you directly to the Greek… word for word giving greater depth to the words. Hallelujah. And having all the commentaries at my fingertips using ‘Bible Hub’ is astonishing. Type in any verse: Revelation 19:10 commentaries… and voila! “The testimony of Jesus is the Spirit of prophecy…” …because….
Perhaps, if you allowed the Holy Spirit to teach you how to use technology to boost your knowledge of Him, share the gospel with others in ways you may never have considered— like befriending brothers and sisters in far-away lands and making a difference in their lives by encouraging one another, then you might see that the phone in your hand can not only be a tool, but through prayer and scripture and fellowship, a vital resource and a means by which we share with the world our own supply.
“When persons discover so much confidence in their own strength, as to imagine, that they alone, of all the children of men, may safely trifle with temptation, and tamper with sin, they give the worst possible evidence of the fact being really so. As a general rule, we are never so much in danger of moral mischief, as when we presumptuously imagine that we are totally beyond its reach.”
Same Fritz biblehub app is truly worth it. The strong’s on greek and hebrew truly give us the meat and potatoes of additional word meanings. The smartphone can be used for listening to the bible and reading God’s word. We’ve been lacking intelligence when it comes to Jesus Christ for 100 years. Get rid of social media, they are indeed time drainers. Aside from sermons, my main podcast is white horse inn. 30 years of whitehorse inn at your finger tips since October 2022 since they made their whole catalog free to download. I’ve never been more blessed to learn about Jesus Christ and Him crucified and having the good news drilled into my ear bulbs.
While I understand you thoughts Pastor Dave, myself being a 46 year old and self taught html back in the early 2000 of web page development, God was preparing those of us to spread the objective gospel truth using digital means as well. Yes, we all need our sheep dogs leading us sheep to our one and only shepherd, Jesus Christ. We all need to visit our pastors to receive the gifts of the sacraments or else we are just another sect of new age Gnostics.
But until we return to a society of visiting our churches on a daily basis, we all need the Word of God and especially the gospel everyday, in our ear bulbs with which I get through bluetooth of my safety headphones and from my smartphone.
I am a Gen X (47) years old, so i grew up before the smartphone and Internet. I think the smartphone just like anything can be used for good or bad. I personally do not care for social media, i do have a facebook, but i am not obsessed with it. To me the smart phone is not a a distraction, to me it is a tool. I would be glad to go back to the flip phone, i think those were cooler anyway. I do have to use an app on my phone for my work everyday. To me the smartphone is just like anything else, if somebody feels they need to stay with old tech because it may be a distraction or weakness, i think that is fine, you just cannot make blanket statements that everyone should just do away with smart phones. Just like you cannot outlaw alcohol just because some people are alcoholics or drunk drivers. The problem is us, we are sinful human beings and anything can be a temptation for us to sin, it is not the tool it is the US sinful human beings.