To this day I don’t know what they found so interesting on their phones. There was a wedding processional going on, for crying out loud.
I had heard the ensemble rehearse the processional piece the evening before. The group of about a dozen of the couple’s friends and acquaintances were clearly of a caliber higher than usual, and that’s saying a lot for a Mennonite wedding.
But I was unprepared for the impact of that excruciatingly beautiful arrangement of Cantate Domino as it carried my only sister down the aisle toward her beloved. Seated as I was among the family of the bride, I absorbed the scene, my eyes travelling the far reaches of the auditorium. The lighting, the color and texture of the carpet, the acoustics, the room temperature, the music—everything was supremely suited for the occasion. Everything, that is, except one notable incongruity.
They sat several rows over, among a group of acquaintances and relatives. Since they were not immediate family, I knew I could not expect them to hold my level of interest. All the same, their demeanor jarred me, and just as I was unprepared for the exquisiteness of Cantate Domino, so I was taken aback at their casualness.
There they sat, idly scrolling through their phones.
I wondered, before turning back to one of the most unforgettable moments of my life, what it would take to capture their attention. A bride walking down the aisle on her head? Choreographed singing by a handpicked ensemble from the Julliard School of Music?
The Web is worldwide
Today I also wonder: What does it take to capture the attention of anyone entrenched in the Bermuda Triangle that is the virtual world? A total solar eclipse? The chance to meet for the first time an identical twin who had been adopted out at birth? I don’t mean to sound snarky; I honestly wonder.
The virtual world as we experience it today is a new invention. Never before could humans access so much information. Never before could we maintain contact with so many people.
Never before have there been so many “never befores.”
Never before has a significant percentage of the population spent more waking hours looking at a screen than experiencing the intoxicating reality that is hydrangea bushes in summer, a gaggle of children cavorting at the park, and a hot air balloon drifting above the village.
In my adoptive Ireland, 20 percent of teens spend at least 6 hours a day on their smartphones, whereas only 3 percent spend less than one hour per day on their phones. A growing body of statistics reveals that people experience more depression, have fewer meaningful face-to-face conversations, and watch more pornography and profit-oriented entertainment after acquiring a smartphone.
But are more statistics what we need? Maybe it’s time to acknowledge that Aldous Huxley has been vindicated and the Digital Dystopia is upon us. Maybe what we need at this point in the unfolding saga of the Internet is not statistics but judicious action.
A new, old community
In that spirit, I invite you to join me in a community that has sprung up over the last decade. It is a community where, though all over the spectrum in wealth and status, we each have one thing in common: deliberate avoidance of the smartphone. I call it the BPU (Brick Phone Users) community. My own two years among the BPUs has brought me increased mental space and tranquility. Each new month brings me increased aversion toward carrying the volatile, often soul-destroying, World Wide Web in my pocket again.
There is a lag between the time something is invented and fully understood. For the smartphone, an invention that has been around for thirteen years, that lag is ending. It is time for a verdict. In the BPU community, we have weighed the smart phone and found it wanting.
Several factors spurred me toward my own verdict: first, as a husband and father I did not want a device in my pocket that was constantly competing against my relationship with my wife and four small daughters; second, I resented the temptations associated with carrying a smartphone. Pornography, misinformation, and banality were only several swipes away; and finally, I began to realize that, as long as I owned a smartphone, I was unable to keep my mind free of clutter. Too many intriguing podcasts and stimulating blog posts beckoned me as I drove, waited in the checkout line, or washed dishes. The smartphone deprived me of the natural rhythms of life. I access the Internet with a laptop now and while this does not avoid all the pitfalls, I undoubtedly have more time for reflection and forming neural connections.
Though we BPUs judge the net effect of smartphones as negative for our own lives, we are not saying people who own them are automatically unwise. Like almost every other invention, the smartphone adds to the quality of life in some cases. However, I have trouble conceiving of any technology that ought to be ubiquitous, especially not the Internet. Electricity is useful for the reading lamp in my sitting room, but not when I am camping or hiking. Cars are worth purchasing if you live in a rural area, but if you live in the city, it makes a lot of sense to avoid auto insurance and inspection fees by using public transportation. Sadly, for many smartphone owners the Internet stays within reach both day and night.
How much time would you spend on your smartphone if you had one week left to live? Does owning a smartphone add to the overall quality of your life? Upon reflecting, you may realize your phone is keeping you from immersion in your cousin’s wedding processional, or your sister’s wedding or your own wedding, or your own life. On the other hand, you may well do what has become the default among Westerners and carry a smartphone. It is ultimately your decision. I only invite you to consider the possibility that, in your heart of hearts, you are destined to be a proud and free BPU.
All I can say is we in the BPU community would understand and applaud.
|Gideon Yutzy believes Christians should live as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it: “counter, original, spare, strange.” He is addicted to the thrill of encountering new people, new ideas, new skills, new words, and new levels of personal growth. Gideon lives with his wife Esther and their three daughters, Olivia, Charlotte, and Honor, in an Anabaptist community in Ireland.|
- I dislike the term “dumbphones,” for reasons that I hope will be obvious.