Which Is More Isolating: Blindness or Deafness?

Praise God if you can see and hear. Both are miraculous gifts. But if you could only see or hear, which would you choose? It’s the basis of a classroom experiment by W. J. T. Mitchell, English and Art History prof at the University of Chicago. I heard him explain it in a 2006 interview.

A thought experiment I use with my students is asking them: “If you have a choice, you can either be blind or rendered deaf — lose your ears or your eyes — which do you choose?” And then I say, “Don’t think about it, just vote.” Always, 90% vote to be deaf, rather than blind, because they think [sight] is so important.

Then I introduce a discussion to see if the vote changes, and in the course of the discussion they learn quickly, after a moment’s reflection, that the loss of sight is much less a problem than loss of hearing. A loss of hearing means we couldn’t do what we’re doing [a recorded conversation in a studio]. We could be doing this on the telephone. All of our sociability depends on the oral channel. And even though we have this inflated idea about eyesight, actually in terms of our being, as social animals, it’s relatively secondary. Yet we make it into something really important.

At the end of our discussion of course there’s a few holdouts who say, “I still can’t bear the thought of living in darkness.” But they begin to realize that deafness is a much bigger handicap, and of course that leads on to discussions like why are all of the greatest poets blind, not deaf? And why is blindness associated with the insight of “the blind seer”?

There’s no question our lives today are ocularcentric, and we over-prioritize the eyes because we live in a glittered age fully invested in the impulsive power of images to grab our eyes. This is Mitchell’s point, and it opens a vast field of exploration for Christians whose gospel priorities explicitly stress the ear over the eye (Rom 10:14; 2 Cor 5:7).

But this point was also recorded in 2006, prior to the advent of the iPhone and prior to social media as we now know it. In the 12 years since, I’m left to wonder if our new relational structures, heavily patterned after visual/typed realtime conversations of the digital world, now fundamentally tilt this equation? Or is this factor x-ed out by dictation tech?

What do you think?

12 Tips for Parenting in the Digital Age

Do you think we have a smartphone problem?

Two weeks ago I was invited to speak to a room of church leaders on raising teens and tweens in the digital age, a message birthed from things I’ve learned from my wife and through years of personal wins and losses as a dad in my own home.

I landed at an airport, walked outside, got picked up by a 26-year-old Uber driver, Scott. A talkative guy, he asked me what I did. A journalist now researching smartphone habits and addictions, I said. Hardly having left the airport property, he choked back tears and explained that a week ago he broke up with his girlfriend of eight years, in part because of her smartphone addiction. “Me and my girlfriend,” he said, “we kicked our cigarette habit together. But we never could kick our smartphone habit together.” But Scott did. Feeling the urge to prove it, when we reached our destination, he showed me his iPhone and its nearly vacant home screen. He uses the phone only for driving and navigation. For everything else — he held up an old battered flip phone.

I thanked him, got out, checked into my hotel, walked for lunch, and sat inside a restaurant in a booth by a large window to enjoy the sunny cityscape. A few moments later a grimy homeless man walked along the sidewalk, stopped about ten feet from me, outside. Holding an empty Red Bull can smashed flat in the middle, and with the two ends slightly bent down at an angle. With both hands he held the can up in front of his face. With two thumbs he tapped and swiped and pinched and clicked on the flat surface for a full minute before holding it to his ear and walking off in a solo conversation. He’s simply trying to fit in, to look normal, and this is the normalcy he watches all day.

Do you think we have a smartphone problem?

Later that night in Louisville I spoke to a room of key pastors and leaders, parents and grandparents, who share my concerns over how smartphones and social media form and de-form teens and tweens.

Through the kind invitation of Collin Hansen (TGC) and the gift of three research days allotted to me by David Mathis (DG), I was finally able to pull all my thoughts together into one piece. The written form of the address is done, edited, and released a moment ago, under the title: Twelve Tips for Parenting in the Digital Age.”

Smartphone Gratitude, Smartphone Restraint: An Interview with Oliver O’Donovan

I wrote 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You after two years of research and nearly 30 interviews with experts. In the process I landed a 9,000-word interview with Alastair Roberts (here), and several individual responses from John Piper, like his six wrong reasons we check our phones in the morning (here).

In the process I was honored to get a few minutes to interview my favorite academic ethicist, British theologian Oliver O’Donovan (72). I first ‘met’ O’Donovan in Resurrection and Moral Order (1986), and then read along as he unveiled his Ethics as Theology trilogy:

Until now only bits of the interview have appeared, and only in my book. Here’s the full interview.


Dr. O’Donovan, thanks for your time. I want to ask you about digital technology. My first question sets the broader stage and it’s about embodied, face-to-face fellowship among Christians, which is superior to disembodied communication, whether via epistle or text. Paul and John knew this (see Rom. 15:32; 2 Tim. 1:4; 2 John 12). I think we all understand the value of vocal tone, hand gestures, warmth of voice, etc. in aiding communication and helping us to interpret meaning. But beyond these, what is distinct about face-to-face fellowship that proves itself to be irreplaceable for Christians when determining the joy of our fellowship?

Text is a communication that embodies and overcomes distance. Writing enables us to speak and hear across oceans and across generations; through textual exchanges (like this one) we may pose questions and offer answers between remote places and with sufficient intervening time for thought. God has hallowed the use of written books for his self-revelation in history, and in the Apocalypse all history is presented to us as a scroll in the hand of the Lamb of God. We cannot, and should not try to, live without texts.

Yet there is something higher even than the sacred text, which is God’s direct presence. His final purpose is represented to us as a city, to which men and women gather and in the midst of which he is personally present. We anticipate this when we gather in worship week by week, standing next to one another, listening to, and singing and saying, the same things together, looking together for God’s blessing on the whole human race. Reading Scripture is part of that experience, but it cannot be the whole of it. In private communication, too, we discover something of one another that written words cannot convey. That should not lead us to romanticise our very fragmentary and imperfect face-to-face encounters, but we should remember that in all their imperfections they carry a hint of something ultimate.

Imperfect presences and distanced textual communications each have their essential disciplines. The problem with electronic communications is that they appear to give us the best of both worlds, immediacy on the one hand, distance on the other, so that we think we can dispense with the disciplines. They actually need to be even stronger. Faced with a sudden email and anxious to send it spinning back to its originator, we write things we do not think out carefully — and so lose the benefits of writing. And we say things that we might be able to communicate successfully if we had voice, face and hand to accompany them, but which cannot be communicated in text — so we lose the benefits of immediate communication. Gigantic rows are caused by such hasty communications which are neither well enough composed as writing, nor well enough interpreted through personal signals of good humour and good will.

So two rules for the electronic era: (i) Polish even harder the skills and disciplines of writing, especially when what we intend what we write to be read by more than one recipient. (ii) Don’t rely on the rhetoric of personal communication (“Hi, Oliver!” as my electricity provider cheerfully addresses me) without investing in the reality of personal presence. And, of course, cherish corporate worship, that most counter-cultural of practices for which no virtual substitute can be found.

It seems we receive content in three distinct ways. God has spoken in his word (special revelation), and he has spoken in his creation (general revelation). On top of this we are fed a constant stream of the produced, content either mass produced by corporations or on smaller scale by artists, or now via social media by our individual followers, friends, and family. Christians need to prioritize Scripture and nature, but we are so often drawn to feed on the produced media that comes to us in various forms that seems so “relevant” in the moment. What are the spiritual consequences of over investing time in the produced?

We need not be alarmed about cultural mediations of reality. It is built into our social existence as humans that we learn both of the world and of God through one another. Cultural mediations range at one end from conversations (which Augustine thought should always follow sermons) to high art — the mighty theological reflections of a Michelangelo or a Bach.

Our concern over them should be twofold: (i) whether they are well-made, or whether they are shoddy, mass-produced stuff with a shallow understanding; (ii) whether we are capable of judging them before the bar of Holy Scripture read. These two concerns, taken one step further back, converge on a single concern: how do we measure our communications before the reality that is shown us by God through his word and directly through the world around us? That is what makes study and reflection essentially necessary to us. There are many disciplines of study, but they must aim at the same goal, namely, a “critical” purchase, which is to say, a “discerning” purchase on what is offered us as knowledge in the public realm To be “critical” of statistics, of news media, of scientific claims, of prophecies — not merely by being hyper-reactive and taking the opposite tack regardless, but seriously asking where they come from, what they may show us and what they are unlikely to show us. That used to be the goal of all education. Christians understand it as a discipline of “testing the spirits, to see whether they are of God.”

Huxley and Postman presumed we would lose our capacity for serious reading, not by the banning of books, but by a deluge of information. Others have said it’s not so much the deluge of information that should concern Christians, but the hyperpalatability of that information (it is increasingly shocking or brief or immediately stimulating, but of little eternal value). In your opinion, for the digital age, what is the greatest danger for serious Christian literacy?

My impression is that the damage to literacy is something of a fait accompli, for which the electronic media are usually blamed. There are other factors at work, too. Literacy was not in wonderful health before the 1990’s, and as for the collapsing standards of literacy in the church, it has more to do with the unwillingness of the faithful, or their leaders, to invest money in theological education than with anything else. We are, however, as you rightly suggest, a generation that believes, as no previous generation believes, in “information.” What is information? It is not “facts.” Though we throw that word around pretty freely, when politicians insist on “evidence-based policies,” they don’t mean anything that the philosophers or historians would recognise as facts. They mean figures — columns of statistics that can be projected into a shapely graph. Our generation counts things, without caring very much what it counts or even whether what it counts is connumerable.

What literacy used to mean was a capacity to interrogate an appearance, including the appearance of numbers. What do they mean? What is the lived experience behind them? In an attempt to get back to that we are often offered a rather salacious and sensational view of “lived experience” to go with figures: first the startling statistics on the growth of obesity, then the anguish of Elspeth, who has grown obese. These two taken together do not constitute the lived reality. They are merely the hooks by which a vast and various reality may catch our attention.

And perhaps the greatest threat we face is that of living with short attention-span, caught now by one little explosion of surprise, now by another. Knowledge is never actually given to us in that form. It has to be searched for and pursued, as the marvellous poems on Wisdom at the beginning of Proverbs tell us.

I know you’re not personally immersed in social media and the smartphone. But from your vantage point, as a respected ethicist, should Christians feel uneasy about the rise of digital communications technology? It seems that for most of us, email is a given. Smartphones are a given. But there’s a tendency for us to allow the potential of new technology to override the true usefulness of technology in our lives. What diagnostic questions would you raise to young Christians who are immersed in the world of smartphones and tablets and online mobile communications?

Feeling uneasy is not a sufficient response. All that can be received from God with thanksgiving, should be received with thanksgiving. My generation was fifty, and very busy, when the first personal computers hit, and so we have probably never overcome our ambivalence at the sheer disruption and disturbance they caused as we had to re-learn all our developed skills — and then learn them again, when the first wave of software gave way to the second. I have learned to type in Greek five or six times now, and every time I open the programme, I am afraid of remembering only what one had to do two programmes back! I can still thank God for some things these innovations have given me, and I would wish my grandchildren to be able to thank God for more. But how to learn to thank God? It is a real and difficult question, and not just a matter of being upbeat and believing in progress.

One cannot thank God for anything that one cannot understand. To take some facility for granted is not to be thankful for it. It is simply to take it for granted. Electronic communications are a question — for the younger generation more than for mine. It is they who have really to learn to understand the powers and threats that they embody, partly through trial and error, but also, and very importantly, through remembering what was of greatest importance before the communications revolution kicked in.

Nobody has ever had to learn this before. Nobody can teach the rising generation how to learn it. It is a massive challenge to conscientious intelligence, handed uniquely to them. The danger they face, of course, is that the tools set the agenda. A tool of communication is a tool for communicating something. Media don’t just lie around passively, waiting for us to come along and find them useful for some project we have in mind. They tell us what to do, and, more significantly, what to want to do. There is a current in the stream and if we don’t know how to swim, we shall be carried by it. I see someone doing something and I want to do it too, and forget whatever it was that I thought I wanted to do.

This generation has the unique task assigned it of discerning what the new media are really good for, and that means, also, what they are not good for. If they fluff it, generations after them will pay the price.

[end]

My Recent Smartphone Feature Articles

To mark the release of my new book — 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You — I wrote five major feature articles for desiringGod.org. As of today, all the pieces have been published online.

The collection includes distillations of major lectures and messages I’ve given on the topic in the past months, and personal antidotes of the digital age that would not fit in the book, or important principles only mentioned briefly in the book, here fleshed out with greater depth and substance.

In one case, this little collection of features allowed me the precious opportunity to stand back from my book, to summarize the entire thing, and to explain 12 ways our conversations about the digital age become missional opportunities to talk about Christ. See the Denzel piece.

Each feature is fresh content, nothing has been excerpted from the book. Consider it all bonus content, supplemental to the book itself. Enjoy!

Should Pastors Use Social Media?

I typically avoid interviews and evade any media blitz for a book launch. But my new book, 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You, is a little different project for me (more culturally urgent), so I have taken more opportunities than usual (mostly live radio).

In the recent mix of conversations, I talked offline for a bit with a couple of pastors who asked me about how they should think of social media and smartphones in the work of pastoring. They took the time to record and transcribe my comments and sent them back to me, so I guess I can post this online here if it can be of any help to other pastors.

I offer the thoughts in the scattered and random form they came out in the conversation, all beginning with the question: How are smartphones changing the day-in-day-out work of pastoring today, for better or worse?

Transcript

In so many ways I see and hear about, smartphones are changing the work of pastoring, for good and bad.

Digital media, in general, makes pastors more accessible, which is great, and it can be problematic, too. And we can talk about that later. But I was just talking with a pastor this morning about the blessing of smartphones in being alerted to an emergency in his congregation, literally driving down the road this weekend, getting a text, and redirecting to the hospital on the fly. Pastors can respond fast when their urgent attention is needed. This is a great thing.

On a more day-to-day basis, social media, and I’m thinking here mostly of Facebook and Instagram, also allow you to see into the interests and the thoughts of the people in your congregation. Of course this is a slanted look into their lives, but here you can see where they are theologically — or getting themselves into theologically. You can get a sense of their collective interests, or where lines of dispute may be forming over politics, national news, etc. I think these media give pastors a unique look into lives that was not really possible in past generations.

On the other side of the screen, social media allows a pastor to humanize himself and his family to his congregants. It used to be the personal sermon illustrations on Sunday morning was perhaps the closest thing you would get to a glimpse into the family dynamics of the pastor’s home, especially if the church was large and hanging out with the senior leaders was impractical. And that’s changed. And that’s a good thing. It’s easier to know about the personal interests and families of our leaders today, I think.

Whether it’s a positive or a negative, I’m not yet sure, but I’m beginning to see Facebook as a place where all of my closest connections linger on from all of the churches I have invested in over the years. Again, I’m not sure if this is entirely good or bad at this point, but your Christian connections over the years will all stick in Facebook in a way I haven’t gotten my brain around just yet, and this is interesting for pastors who are constantly reminded of people who may have left their church for whatever reason.

On the negative side, going back to the accessibility point, I think there has always been a small faction of people in every church that thinks they should have the ear of the pastor more than others. I mean, this is a pretty common phenomenon among pastors I talk with — and it always has been. The great Scottish preacher, _______ , tells the story of, for years while pastoring, of getting a phone call at home every Monday evening from one parishioner always with a laundry list of unsolicited feedback on his Sunday sermon. Ha! And there’s disproportion here. There are some people in your church you’d love to know better, but who are reclusive, and you cannot really get to know very well or very easily. And then there are people who are just constantly trying to get in your ear. And digital media, while serving the recluse to help them share, also makes it really easy for the more vocal to send emails and texts and Facebook messages and Twitter direct messages — the average pastor has never been more accessible or available to every impulse of people to reach out.

So the pastor is first and foremost called to something precious on behalf of the body, and that is to pray for its good and to preach carefully through the text of Scripture in order to feed and lead God’s people. This is how I understand the Apostolic model in Acts 6 applying to the pastoral work. So while there are always emergencies and exceptions to this, day-in day-out pastoring requires a level of specialization that must be cultivated and protected for the good of the church’s general health. And so on this side of things, I think social media can make pastors too accessible. I hope that comes across in the heart I intend it.

As an aside, I think it helps for pastors to be clear on what social platforms they use, and how they can be reached. If you’re on Facebook, welcome interaction. If you’re on Instagram, welcome followers. If you’re not, tell people you’re not on them. I would personally not abandon a platform and leave it out there as if you use it, if you don’t.

So when it comes to social media, leaving things unsaid, leaves expectations hanging in the air in churches. So we need to talk. If I message my pastor in Facebook will he respond? Probably not. Maybe he doesn’t like me, sure, or maybe he hasn’t checked his Facebook messages in six months. So I think pastors and congregations need to be very open and to talk, and have reasonable expectations of one another.

Obviously, email for a lot of pastors remains the default. But no pastor can be held to unlimited obligation. There’s not time, especially if he’s working from priorities. The lead pastor in my church welcomes emails from the pulpit. And from the pulpit he reminds us that he has a delete button, too. It’s done in humor. But that’s putting it forward. You are free to email, but he is not obligated to respond to all those emails. Especially in growing churches, that needs to be said.

Also on the negative side — or at least the challenging side of things, I would say that social media pulls together all performers in a way that is challenging to everyone. By performers, I’m talking about preachers, but also musicians, singers, athletes, actors, models, etc. All the people who are seeking to gather a crowd, who perform in front of others — and this certainly includes preachers — they can be collected together on social media platforms. On top of this, social media makes a performance art out of everything that was previously only done in private — painting, calligraphy, cooking, woodworking, crafting, quilting, etc.

So if you like to paint, you can now follow the 100 best painters on Instagram, and you’ll see them paint masterpieces in front of your eyes in time lapsed video montages. And then you go to your canvas and you disappoint yourself in a hurry. No longer can you simply be a watercolor painter selling works on a street corner in your town. Now every watercolor painter and every performer, even down to teenage athletes, are always competing on social media with all the best in the world.

What I’m saying is that every performer, in any type of sphere of performance, gets stratified along a rating system — and it’s a system of tabulations either on the number of our online friends, fans, and followers, or it’s a system of comparison built on the number of likes you can generate on any one piece of content. So that’s hard on the soul when you, in your local element, as a localized preacher, are constantly being evaluated in comparison with the best in the business.

The number of Twitter followers you have is used to gauge your preaching skill, for example. This is a phenomenon all performers face, and preachers are not excluded. It’s a phenomenon that, on one side, pushes us all towards greater excellence. That’s a good thing. But on Sunday morning it also means that a pastor steps on to the stage, and they know people in the congregation are likely listening to some of the best preachers online: Tim Keller, John Piper, John MacArthur, Tony Evans, Matt Chandler, Mark Dever, and on and on and on. And so you preach your little heart out and then you go home and Monday you try to rest, and all the new sermons from all the great preachers start pinging in podcasts and you compare yourself to them.

Performance is so stratified that, unless you reach elite levels, you can very easily fall into a trap of self-condemnation and self-doubt and investing an inordinate amount of time in brand building on the national and international stage, and that pulls you away from your immediate calling, or makes you quickly dissatisfied with it.

Then, I think this can breed another negative, and that is that the congregation becomes a sort of studio for you to record the next episode in your sermon podcast project. So you stop preaching to your people in front of you, and your focus is on the untold millions of people who could possibly listen to your sermon online, when in fact it ends up being about 10 people.

I think this is why Martyn Lloyd-Jones in his book Preachers and Preaching, drops one sentence, out of nowhere, with no elaboration: “Tape-recording — as I see it, is the peculiar and special abomination at this present time.” Literally, he just drops that sentence bomb and walks away and gives no other context for what he means. If I can dare offer up a stab at elaborating on this point, I think it seems to me that he believed recorded sermons broke the special link that emerges between preacher and congregation when they meet in an embodied place together. So listening to podcasts will never provide a substitute for the face-to-face gathering of an embodied congregational worship gathering.

That gets deep, but this is something I talk about at length in my new smartphone book, and I think there’s good biblical precedent for it. Just listen to the Apostle John in 2 John, verse 12: “Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink” — the modern communications technology for John. “Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete.”

Podcasts are great, but they will never replace the joy of face-to-face gatherings together. This is the reality of communication, especially when it comes to our affections. Joy is a precious emotion of our integrated existence in the presence of God’s people. That’s the point of the Apostle John. There is no joy like God’s people gathering together, where we bring together our attention, our minds, our flesh and blood, everything that we are, all brought together into face-to-face fellowship and eyeball-to-eyeball love. There’s no replacement for this. Writing cannot replace this. Podcasts cannot replace this. Watching a preacher on a screen in a worship center cannot replace this either. And to some extent, I think that’s what Lloyd-Jones was getting at. We need to reclaim the glory and the joy of our embodied gatherings.

Someone recently asked me, what’s the one takeaway from writing your book on smartphones, about technology and the future of Christianity, and I think it’s this point. The average, ordinary local church plays a significant role in the counter-cultural resistance movement against the most corruptive trends we now face in the digital age. The local church is precious! That’s the summary of three years of research and writing and I hope is an impactful point readers take from my new book.

[Question: So should pastors feel compelled to use social media?]

No. There is no demand for pastors to do so. You don’t have to be online, especially if it tempts you in ways that are unhelpful for you. And this depends on the particular pastor and how they are wired.

I can speak from experience that it is very easy to thoughtlessly share content online that you will regret. The backlash will sometimes be strong and justified. You can get yourself into huge trouble, really fast, if you share a pro-Trump or an anti-Trump article, for example. You can lose credibility in a nanosecond. You can stir up unnecessary controversy so easily.

But with discretion and wisdom, there’s also a sweet opportunity for pastors to be salt and light online, to help people think above the latest political headline buzz. And I think on Twitter of guys like Ray Ortlund who do this really well. John Piper of course. Burk Parsons does this really well, too. Sages. Wise. There is a huge opportunity.

If you can check yourself and not fall into the trap of trying to generate approval and popularity online, Twitter is a huge opportunity to dialogue and work out sermon points as you develop them, and to spread points from your sermon after the fact. This in itself is a skill that demands a lot of practice over time, but it’s worth it.

I was recently interviewed by someone who kept pointing out that my book had a lot of sentences that were memorable in themselves, and I reminded this person that my writing has improved through the limiters and stresses and pressures of publishing on Twitter — the number of eyes immediately on what I write, the brevity of space, the lack of context to frame things. Trying to do social media well will make you a better writer and a clearer preacher. So there’s a component of sharpening your communicative skills that social media can help you develop and hone over time.

As for how much? The preacher has priorities. Wife, kids, neighbor, tasks of praying/preaching. These are top priorities for him. If his social media habits threaten his priority in these realms, it needs to be checked. And that’s really the purpose of my book. Let’s think carefully about what God has called us to be and to do and to become, and then lets look at the potential of what our phones can do to serve us toward these ultimate ends. This is what all of us must work through, pastors and congregants alike.

So it is great to see local church pastors manage and steward a national audience on Twitter, and personally flourish in the work. But it’s also really beautiful to see pastors who have wisdom and skill that could build a national audience, but who instead use self-restraint and decide not to pursue that, but instead invest all of their gifts in the time and talents into one, simple local church and the needs of a neighborhood or city. This is beautiful for people to see that kind of commitment. I think we need more pastors who are willing to do this.

I think this is a message congregations need to hear. It’s okay to not try and build a national brand. It’s okay to give your life to the local context of the needs of those around you. And I hope that’s one of the prime takeaways people take from my book, because all of us — pastors, employees, moms, dads, teens — we all need to be reminded of the glory of caring for those in physical proximity to us, not getting distracted by the possibilities of the remoteness of the virtual world and far-off possibilities, which I think is the whole point of the story of the Good Samaritan.

[end]

Star and Spectator: Linking Video Game Addiction and Smartphone Addiction

Anthropologist Thomas de Zengotita links smartphone addiction and gaming addiction in his 2014 article “We Love Screens, Not Glass,” theatlantic.com (March 12, 2014). There he argues screen technology has now evolved to reach a new pinnacle of addictive delight in the digital age because our screens make it possible for us to live in a dual role: as both spectator and star.

This dual spectator/star role in social media on a 4-inch screen, de Zengotita writes, is seen

in the special intensity, the devotional glow you see on the face of a stranger in some random public place, leaning over her handheld device, utterly absorbed, scrolling through her options or matching twitter-wits on a trending topic, feeling the swell of attention rising around her as she rides an energy wave of commentary, across the country, around the world — it’s like the touch of a cosmic force, thanks to the smallest and most potent of all personal screens, the one on her smartphone.

Sum it up this way: that screen is the one she can take pictures through as well as watch pictures on; hence, that special intensity. It testifies to the power of that dual aspect of display, a reciprocal intimacy no engagement with any other medium, let alone reality, can match.

Actually only gaming comes close, a place where the roles of spectator/star immediately merge in realtime:

Here is the essence of it in the case of the video game. A seasoned gamer has mastered the console. He isn’t conscious of his physical situation. He presses the buttons to turn and shoot and jump without thinking about them. He becomes the agent on the screen. There is no gap between his dirty little 14-year-old thumb and his avatar’s massive biceps as it wields that enormous gatling gun against the zombie horde. He is the “first person shooter.”

As a first person shooter, you get to perform and you get to watch at the same time. The powers and pleasures of two kinds of centrality — spectator and star — have merged. An untapped possibility for synaptic closure has been realized and an historically unprecedented form of human gratification attained. No wonder those games are addictive.

This same addictive quality lures us back to our smartphones, yet in a slightly offset way, leading us to engage in a dance between these roles as spectator and star. On your phone

you also engage with yourself, with your world, on this new plane of being where agent and observer are fused. But the smartphone ups the ante. It introduces just enough distance, just enough lag time, between you and your doings on the screen to allow for an endless cascade of tiny moments of arrival, of recognition. Each prompt, each response, intercedes between you and the representations of yourself and your world that you are both producing and contemplating. . . .

Now you get to dance with yourself, with extensions of yourself, and be yourself too. Watch closely the next time you see someone doting over that precious device. It is as if a defunct genetic program for primate grooming behavior has been hijacked and all that fingertip care is being lavished now on the body of a mini-me — my most faithful companion, my abiding reflection, my self, my other.