Thursday, January 8, 2015

Through a Screen Darkly (January 4, 2015)


For our texts today we viewed Prince EA's video “
why I won't let technology control me
And the iPhone 5 commercial which appears at about 5'39"
Our primary text was an interview of Louis CK on Conan on the topic "Why I won't let my kids have a cell phone". Due to some PG13 language, we read a transcript of the interview instead of watching it. But you should watch it, because it's really funny. 
I was at a family wedding recently, sitting near the back of the chapel, and in front of me was a sea of glowing screens. It seemed like every person in the place was watching the wedding ceremony through a screen. It’s amazing to remember that the iPhone is only a few years old. When my son was born 13 years ago we got our first cell phone “for emergencies.” And our first digital camera. (These were two separate objects of course.) I never suspected then how profoundly this rapidly evolving technology would change our lives. It has changed not only how we communicate with one another, but how we shop, how we play games, how we watch movies, how we listen to music, how we interact with other people in the room with us, and apparently… how we celebrate a wedding ceremony. 

When technology is rushing ahead at such a pace, it may take our human-ness a while to catch up. It is delightful to share photos instantly with relatives far away, or find the nearest pizza parlor anywhere you go. I can’t tell you how much easier it is to research sermons now that all the information in the world seems to be available at my fingertips. But when I saw that phone commercial we just watched together, I felt like that summed up everything that was troubling me about our personal screens. All those beautiful places, all those wonderful moments...and between the human being and the living world was always a screen. I began to wonder- how can we develop a healthy balanced relationship to our screens? As a faith community, and as individuals, can we develop a response to the cultural messages that the latest phone or tablet or phablet (or whatever) is always necessary, always central to what we need and want? I think there are 3 basic questions that can guide us to a balanced, healthy relationship to our seductively brilliant technology.

The first question we can ask ourselves: “ is my screen coming between me and this moment?” The reason I was so surprised to see all those phones glowing during the wedding was because I believe when we gather in worship we are creating a living moment together that cannot be captured or duplicated. That wedding was an important event in the life of my family, one we all wanted to remember forever. But I wondered, are we losing something of our lived experience of the moment to create a digital record of that experience? 

Psychologist Linda Henkel, who researches human memory at Fairfield University in Connecticut, has found what she called a "photo-taking impairment effect." In her study, she asked students to take photos of statues and other artworks at a museum and afterward found that:
"The objects that they had taken photos of — they actually remembered fewer of them, and remembered fewer details about those objects. Like, how was this statue's hands positioned, or what was this statue wearing on its head. They remembered fewer of the details if they took photos of them, rather than if they had just looked at them," 

Henkel concluded “relying on an external memory aid means you subconsciously count on the camera to remember the details for you.”

Psychologist Marion Garry (a professor at Victoria University in Wellington NZ) has also been studying the impact of the relationship between photography and memory. She has found something troubling. She says about those parents who take thousands of photos of their children (and I assure you I am one of those parents):
"I think the problem is people are giving away being in the moment" …"and their devices are only going to capture so much...I wish they'd put their camera down and just watch what was happening. It's the idea that they think what they are doing is amplifying their memory, and I worry that what they are doing is just giving the memory away. So if they are paying less attention because what they've got to do is take all those photos. They are splitting their attention between what's going on and the act of taking the picture… It seems to me to be a kind of loss." [1:59]

Garry also noticed that having thousands of photos seemed to reduce the occurrence of a parent and child sitting and looking at a single photo together and telling the story together of that shared memory (which, it turns out, is an important skill that is transmitted from parent to child) . Better, she says, is to have just a couple of photos that we share with our children and one another. Often that one photo can be a jumping off point for many shared memories.

The second question is similar- is this screen coming between myself and others? Our cultural expectations vary widely around this. I remember telling a neighbor that I usually put my phone away when I was in meetings so that I could be fully present. He said at his company it was expected that you always have your phone out checking your e-mail and messages in case a customer needed you. Their company culture emphasized the need to multi-task to maximize productivity. Sometimes screens bring us together, sometimes they keep us apart. I’ve seen young people clustered around a DS screen fully engaged together in a shared experience. On the other hand, I bet we’ve all experienced a time when a friend or family member is starting at their screen and you can’t seem to get their full attention.

A study in the journal of Environment and Medicine looked at this phenomenon which they call “The iPhone Effect: The Quality of In-Person Social Interactions in the Presence of Mobile Devices"  During the study a research assistant would observe subjects having a conversation at a coffee shop and “during the course of a 10-min conversation noting whether either participant placed a mobile device on the table or held it in his or her hand.” When the data was gathered together they found that “People who had conversations in the absence of mobile devices reported higher levels of empathetic concern.” Shalini Misra of Virginia Tech University, who lead the study, writes
“Even without active use, the presence of mobile technologies has the potential to divert individuals from face-to-face exchanges, thereby undermining the character and depth of these connections. Individuals are more likely to miss subtle cues, facial expressions, and changes in the tone of their conversation partner’s voice, and have less eye contact... If either participant placed a mobile communication device on the table, or held it in their hand, during the course of the 10-minute conversation, the quality of the conversation was rated to be less fulfilling, compared with conversations that took place in the absence of mobile devices,”

The message is clear, while our technology can bring us together in many ways, if we are trying to build relationships, it’s best to leave mobile devices out of site. If the conversation is one you care about, putting your screens away is likely to make the conversation more fulfilling.

Now our third question: “is my screen coming between me and my Self?” This is what Louis CK was getting at in our opening text. He contends that “you need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something-- that's what the phones are taking away.” The amazing thing is that this is so similar to how my classmates and I were introduced to contemplation at the first retreat in our spiritual direction training. Contemplation is that ability to just be and not do, and then to allow whatever arises to just arise. Sometimes that is profound sadness, or loneliness, or despair, and sometimes it is peace, or delight, or a sense of oneness with all that is. Contemplation requires space and time and patience, and when we fill up all the empty gaps in our life there is no room left to develop the relationship to the deepest parts of ourselves. 

I have this habit- if I am out at dinner with my husband and he gets up to wash his hands, immediately my phone comes out. Sending a quick text to a friend helps it feel less awkward to be alone, and it helps fill up that brief gap in conversation while he is gone. Louis’ monologue hints that there may be something else going on there- why do I want to distract myself from the fact that I’m alone? What if instead I used that brief pause to re-center myself in myself? What if I used that brief gap to just enjoy the environment around me? And if that feels weird-why? Jungian Spiritual Director Don Bisson says “Technology has quickened our expectations creating an inability to wait”. His theory is that because almost everything we seek on our screens happens in an instant, we have become less practiced, less comfortable with waiting. Instead of welcoming moments of quite introspection, we fend them off with a quick look at our Facebook stream. 

Our screens provide innovative ways to get and share information, to reach out to our friends and family across the world. But I haven’t yet seen them provide a way to ground ourselves in our own center. I have never stood up after an hour spent reading my Facebook newsfeed or using my many aps saying “that was refreshing, now I really feel centered and spiritually grounded.” Instead I usually feel scattered and wonder where the time went. 

All our technological marvels are ultimately just tools. Even the iPhone 6. Like a well sharpened knife, a good tool helps us do our work more effectively. Some of these devices can do an amazing number of things, but no tool can do everything. It is not the job of our i-thingies, or even of the Apple Corporation to discern how and when technology best used. It is up to you, in dialogue with your family, with your community, with your ecosystem, to create a healthy balance. 

I’m reminded of that passage from 1st Corinthians: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” Obviously when the apostle Paul wrote this he could never have foreseen a culture full of people viewing the world through their smart phones, but the first century Christians to whom Paul wrote understood that when they looked through their first century glass it was not the same as looking at something face to face. He was reminding his followers that often we see the world in a superficial way, but we are capable seeing the truth more deeply, more fully, “face to face.” This traditional wisdom holds true in our drastically transformed times. The religious way, the deep way encourages us to look at the world face to face, to know as we are known. Remember, the first source of our UU religious tradition is “Direct Experience of that transcending mystery and wonder.” Even the adorable photo of our grandchild that gets 1000 likes on Facebook cannot compare to the experience of holding that little person in our arms. As we enter the New Year, we must constantly discern: when is this shiny marvelous screen bringing me deeper into connection with myself, with others, and with this moment, and when is it time to put all our screens away, and just be.

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