As promised from our last post, enjoy the Q & A from Bernard Bull, author of Digitized-Spiritual Implications of Technology.
Q: In the introduction to your book you defined a specific technology as being a tool designed for a specific purpose. Inherent in that is that technology or tools are not neutral, meaning that any tool has a specific use in mind. However, our modern technologies are so complex it is hard to navigate the pros and cons. Can you elaborate for the modern parent on how they can navigate the modern complexities of technological tools such as the cell phone?
The cell phone is a great case of the complexity in modern life. It isn’t really a tool. At minimum, it is a toolbox. And even a single app on the phone might exist for multiple purposes. At the same time, almost every app was designed with a primary purpose of generating money. It might be directly, by charging for the app. It might be by collecting data from the user, and selling that to someone. It might be by selling advertising to companies that want the attention of the user. Yet, on the surface, and to the user, an app might have a simple purpose like, to entertain.
All of that is just with a single app. Now multiply that by a hundred or more, and we have the modern cell phone. It is a container for all of these different technologies. Of course, at its essence, one of its main purposes is to connect us with people and resources that are not in front of us, but even with that, there are additional purposes around organization, entertainment, self-help, learning, navigation, just-in-time information, etc.
My main point at the beginning of the book was just that these purposes, even if they are complex, still exist. Sometimes they are explicit. Sometimes that are intentionally buried. Either way, they still exist and have an influence upon us. So, the best that we can do is recognize that purposes exist, seek to better understand them, talk about these purposes together, talk about our own values priorities, and discuss whether the purposes of one or more of the technologies on the cell phone help or hinder our own values and purposes.
My children, 11 and 14, both have a device of some sort. My daughter, at 14, has a cell phone. We agreed, as a family, that they kids cannot download any app without consent from one of the parents. So, my daughter requests a purchase or a free app, the request comes to me, I use that to just approve or discuss it with her, and we go from there. This creates a chance for us to practice thinking about the purpose and the values involved. Over time, my daughter has become quite thoughtful about what she downloads and why, not for me, but because she is learning to use the cell phone to build upon and expand the values that she holds dear.
Q: In your book you reference Chapin's song “Cat’s in the Cradle.” The song speaks to the balance parents make between work and family, and then continues on to show us that our children notice and imitate our behavior. Can you discuss the trends you see technology playing in the modern family dynamic? Can you give any practical tips to parents struggling with this balance?
I’m one of those parents. 75% of my work is on a device. I work for an organization that is dispersed around the world, and almost all of our meetings are online, through a device. So I might work from home for a week, be 10 feet away from my children, by be completely immersed in work, and unable to respond if they ask for something (except for an emergency, of course). I am by far the model for how to handle it, but in my own experience, and in learning from others, I consider it more important than ever to schedule time together, to be as intentional as possible. I also strive to be as candid as possible with my kids. It is important to me that they know if I’m browsing Facebook, watching a show on Hulu, reading a book on my phone, working on a project at work, conferencing with a colleague, etc. That context helps frame how they see what I do, when I do it, and how I do it.
Even as I start to reply to this question, there is so much more that I could say. Maybe that should be a completely separate book.
Q: One could argue that social media has made us a more connected society. We are able to stay connected with distant friends and relatives and make friends and connections with people we have never met in the physical world. At the same time those connections have an impact on our culture, family dynamic, and time. What advice would you give a parent that is raising a child today and their use of social media?
When I wrote Digitized, I was incredibly focused upon a completely different way of talking about this topic. There are dozens of books on the topic that give explicit step-by-step guidelines. Here are 10 Steps to be a Godly Parent in the Digital Age...those types of things. To me, those books fall into a trap of legalism, a list of what to do and what not to do, but are not really based upon any solid biblical source. Instead, I wanted to promote more careful thinking about what is important to us, what we believe, what we value...and then to explore life in a digital world together. So my advice is not about whether social media is good or bad, harmful or helpful. You’ve probably heard the quote that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” I’m advocating for the examined life in the book, inviting families to talk together, explore together, experiment together...and to learn from this. So that is how I think about social media. My main advice is to be involved; to talk about it; to explore; and to be engaged as your child is experiment with, thinking about, and learning about these new platforms and contexts. Simply saying do it or don’t do it doesn’t really equip anyone with the tools for deliberate, thoughtful living in a digital age.
By the way, I know that it would be more satisfying to some people if I just gave them a list of 10 things to do or not do. I was tempted to give into that temptation many times while writing the book, but I completely believe that there is a better way...and that is the way of ongoing, deep, thoughtful, prayerful conversation as a family.
Q: Throughout your book you show how technology can be used for growth but also as a detriment to anything. How do you see technology impacting the spiritual formation of children and the spiritual growth of the family?
Six months ago, I took the greatest professional risk of my life, taking the job as president of a small, experimental College on the brink of closure. It is still uncertain if we will make it through the immediate financial struggle or if we will need to close. Yet, the hardest part of taking this job is that I’ve been living 1000 miles away from my family, traveling between Vermont (where my new job is located) and Wisconsin, where my family still lives. I get to see them about a week a month. During that time, Facetime has become a powerful way for us to stay connected. We even pray together on Facetime. And since I’m living in the most rural place of my life, sometimes not seeing anyone for days, it has been isolating. Listening to sermons on podcast and using this wonderful devotional app called “Pray as you go” have been incredibly grounding for me. On top of that, in this experimental college, graduation ceremonies are on Sundays (and we have almost 20 graduations a year), so I was going weeks without being able to make it to church. Again, while no substitute for church, streaming services have been a way of staying connected. I share all of this because I have a set of values, we as a family have a set of values, and we agreed to take on this family challenge of my new job together, convinced that God had something for me to do or to learn through it. Then we sought out technology that supported our values of being connecting, and for me, to be fed and encourage by other Christians (Vermont is the least religious state in the country).
Answered another way...
Technology has always been a part of life and family, going back as far as recorded history. It has always had an influence on spiritual formation. This is true whether it was in the form of a book, magazines, games, visual art, publicly performed music and plays, radio, television, or the myriad of options today. These are all parts of and expressions of the culture of the day...the spirit of the age. Apart from a few small groups, like the Amish or Mennonites, Christians have sought to make sense of life in each of those worlds and contexts. It comes back to those same questions. Are we taking time to explore and understand the culture in which we live? Are we clear about our own beliefs and values? Are we persistently exploring how our beliefs and values align with or clash with the culture and world around us? Are we then prayerfully seeking how how we can respond? An important part, to me, is that we are not just going along with the winds of every new trend, technology, or fad without taking the time to think, talk, study, pray, and choose how we will respond.
Those might not be direct responses to the question about the spiritual development of children, but I see them as connected.
In the end, one of the most tempting aspects of life in a technological world is the underlying belief that technology will save the day, that the answers to our greatest cravings and needs can and will be solved by technology. If we allow that to grow in ourselves and our families unchecked, then we risk losing out on the most fundamental messages of Christianity...which is at the core of life in any age, technological or otherwise. We were designed and created to be in relationships with God, and our greatest needs and cravings are ultimately found in what he has done, is doing, and will do for us.