Not long ago, our family enjoyed an all-too-rare evening at home. But as I looked around the family room, I was annoyed. All five of us were on different devices; We were in the same space, but we were not engaged with one another. To use MIT researcher Sherry Turkle’s phrase, we were “alone together.”
“Kids, put away the phones and iPads,” I announced. “We’re going to watch a movie and all look at the same screen the way God intended.”
It’s remarkable how our criteria for togetherness has changed. When I was a kid, it was considered a failure for a family to merely watch TV together; We were told to aim for meals around the table with real conversation. Now that sounds as culturally inconceivable as practicing sexual abstinence or enjoying McDonalds. In a world saturated with personal digital devices, getting a household to silently watch television together is an uncommon victory.
With the release of the updated Apple iPhone this week, I’ve been thinking about the gap between what these devices promise us and what they actually deliver; Smart phones promise us instant access to the world and immediate contact with anyone, anywhere. They carry the potential to erase physical and cultural boundaries. With the ability to translate speech on the fly, the devices in our pockets offer us what Pope Francis called the, “immense possibility for encounter and solidarity.”
Why, then, do we feel more isolated than ever? Why is our culture feeling more fractured, tribal, and disunited? Why are political extremes more acute and compromises more rare? Why is religious fundamentalism on the rise and civil pluralism more difficult to foster? Why can’t I get my family to watch American Ninja Warrior together?
In his remarks about technology, the Pope said the Internet is “something truly good, a gift from God.” However, the pontiff also saw how the proliferation of content can lead to disconnection. “The variety of opinions being aired can be seen as helpful, but it also enables people to barricade themselves behind sources of information which only confirm their own wishes and ideas, or political and economic interests.”
In other words, technology has enabled birds of a feather to flock together as never before. We can self-select a digital life of comfort in which we avoid any person or idea that we do not like. Rather than offering “encounter and solidarity,” as the Pope instructs, our smartphones more often than not create isolation and tribalism. They have become silos for our souls that disconnect us from engaging the uncomfortable people that might provoke the growth of our minds and hearts—including the uncomfortable people in our own households.
I don’t have a simple solution to this problem. I don’t think we can simply retreat to an era before iPhones and social media. That Pandora’s box—beautifully designed by Jony Ives—has been opened and cannot be shut. Instead, we must learn the discipline of encounter once again. It is the discipline of choosing to engage with those who make us uncomfortable and recognizing that in the face of the “other” I may discover the face of God.
This hard work of encounter was once forced upon our species by the need to survive, work, and reproduce, but technology has now made it entirely optional. If we have any chance of recovering the blessings of encounter, then it must be fostered in our homes. Perhaps it can begin when families periodically turn off their smartphone to watch television together the way God intended.
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