iPhone Flattery

I’m finishing up a survey of 8,000 of our readers at desiringGod.org, to get a sense of the scope and influence of social media on the Christian life. The results are eye-opening. Probably most surprising is the generational divide that splits over whether we should be optimistic or pessimistic about what our devices are doing to us.

I hope to share the full findings at DG in the coming month, but what I see is a trend among the 18–39 group (especially men) who are pessimistic and more likely to admit their phone habits are self-destructive. The +40 group (especially among women) is trending optimistic, a demographic that seems more likely to use social media as an extension of face-to-face relationships.

Nevertheless, take it from Andy Crouch, who disconnected for the 40 days of Lent, to explain what life was like freed from illuminated pixels:

There is a lot of talk about the ways our devices are distracting us, and that is certainly true. Having spent several weeks away from it all, I’m a bit aghast at how much buzzing and blinking, how many notifications and messages, how much unasked-for stimulation, I’ve let creep into my life over the past few years. But there’s something deeper than just the sheer variety and urgency of data that presents itself to us. The issue is not just cognitive. The deeper danger of our screens, I am coming to think, is flattery.

Our screens, increasingly, pay a great deal of attention to us. They assure us that someone, or at least something, cares. The mediated world constantly falls over itself to tell us, often in entirely automated ways, that we matter every bit as much as we secretly hope we do. They tell us we are liked, retweeted, favorited—that we are significant, useful, and urgently needed. Every generation of devices gets better at this, becomes less a persnickety, recalcitrant technician (does anyone remember the exacting syntax of command-line interfaces?) and more and more an utterly dedicated, ingratiating concierge for our preferred future.

The unmediated world does not flatter us in this way. Stand on a deserted seashore and the creation pays you no evident attention, except perhaps for a few creatures that alter their paths to keep a safe distance. Even our fellow human beings rarely flatter us with the attention we think we deserve. Walk down a street in Hong Kong or Phnom Penh or London or Rome, and unless you are young and beautiful, or possibly rich, no one will pay you the slightest heed. And youth and beauty, even wealth, are fleeting things. I never was beautiful, but I have had some success, enough to know that even at the heights of attention, when the whole room is looking at you, smiling at you, standing and applauding you, the overwhelming experience of life as a human being is smallness and disregard. There is a hunger for attention that all the selfies in the world will never fill, a hunger that only grows as our mediated world breathlessly offers more and more ways to call attention to ourselves.

Read the whole article here.

3 thoughts on “iPhone Flattery

  1. Hi, Tony. I’m a 41-year-old male, and I definitely lean towards the pessimistic side. I’ve just quit social networks for the second time. I was on Twitter for a couple of years, and then more recently Google+.

    While I can see the benefits for *some* people and organisations, I do seriously worry about where this taking us, in terms of how we relate, what we value, our ability to focus and rest, and, as Andy has pointed out, how we see ourselves.

    I just think the cost is too great for most people.

    Interesting, though, that 40+ women (in particular) are more optimistic. What do you put that down to?

    I look forward to reading the results of your survey.

  2. So that was you behind the survey – I was here: The +40 group (especially among women) is trending optimistic, a demographic that seems more likely to use social media as an extension of face-to-face relationships.

    There are two fundamental ways I have felt social media is of benefit:
    1. Connection – First, I have lived several places and those I become friendly with have also moved. Having FB interaction allows us a ‘touchpoint’ between reunions, etc. Second, it allows for connection generationally. I am not longer a part of “mom’s” groups, but I find that I am still a ‘voice’ as an ‘aunt’ or ‘mentor’ which is not flattery, but service in the spirit of the Titus mandate to the older woman.
    2. Bending – As a tool for good, I have found Twitter to be a vehicle that by God’s grace I can stay informed and inform on my key focus area, along with a wee bit of fun. Again, this is not vanity, but being a citizen both of the age in which I live and the one to whom I belong.

    I look forward to ‘hearing’ the conversation that ensues.

  3. Christine, I can see the value of both of those things, particularly of staying connected with family and friends you don’t live near. It’s worth mentioning that I wasn’t using social media in that way, but as a way to connect with (and find new) blog readers.

    I still think many of the same dangers apply, though, in terms of distraction (spending way too much time swiping mindlessly through timelines), and the way we relate to each other (I travel to work on the train each day, and 90% of people, including me, are face-down, looking at their phones, instead of each other). Not to mention the danger Andy has identified.

    I’m not saying that’s the way you use social media, or that it’s all negative (obviously you’ve identified two positive benefits); I’m just saying I know that was my tendency, and I’ve known many other people for whom that was also the case. You only have to type the phrase “quit social media” into Google to find countless stories of people who are now realising the detrimental effects.

    I think we have to seriously weigh up the benefits versus the long-term cost.

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