Smart or dumb?

When I was ten, my dad bought me a monstrous Swiss Army knife. Over an inch thick, it had everything from a fish-descaler to a magnifying glass, as well as a finger-threatening wood saw. I loved how many options it gave me, and 25 years later I still use it from time to time (though I leave the task of descaling fish to the professionals).

I get the same satisfaction of multifunction with my smartphone but dissenting voices are crying out from the wilderness. "Dumb phones" (probably a still-stylish Nokia) can be seen in the hands of actor Eddie Redmayne and journalist James Brown, who feel free from the shackles of email. Professor Alan Jacobs is delighted to have dumbed down.

Clearly this is a First World Problem par excellence but if you live in the First World that's where you have to work out how to live. Smartphones can make our lives easier, and they can make our lives worse. So, what to do with them?

Christianity offers us wonderful dignity. The Holy Almighty God will share Himself and His power with us, freeing us from sin and into right living as we cooperate with Him. So a consequence (or fruit) of the Holy Spirit is self-control (Galatians 5:23). This means that you can use your smartphone and not be used by it: you can use it for good things and not be dragged into bad. You've got a camera, a map, a notepad, a Bible, your calendar and to-do lists, hours of music, piles of great books and articles, and a phone all in one pocket!

But the stakes are high. Jesus warns us about how to react when our actions and reactions aren't what they should be:
"If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell." (Matthew 5:29-30)
So if having a smartphone dismantles your defences against watching porn, or gossiping, or cheating your employer through wasting the time they pay you for, or getting into debt... then throw it away right now and get a brick.

If you're somewhere between these two positions, here are some things that I've found helpful:
  • Dumbphone advocates always say, "It makes calls and sends texts and that's all I need, isn't it?" Whether this is the main point of your smartphone, why not only get notifications for these key functions? I don't allow any other apps to interrupt me (except WhatsApp which is basically the same thing). Email isn't as important as it wants you to think it is and social media Likes only serve to stir pride.
  • Don't use it last thing at night. The "blue light" will keep you awake, and even if some phones will fix this soon, you still could be talking or praying or reading a book instead, which is better.
  • Take social media apps off your phone for a while. I did this for a few months and learnt a new pattern of not unthinkingly checking them all the time. I had my note-making and read-it-later apps and I intentionally used these more. Eventually I put Facebook and Twitter and Instagram back on but I've kept the resistance reflex (mostly).
  • Put excellent content on your phone using apps like Flipboard, Feedly, and Pocket, or just by having good sites bookmarked in your web browser. If you prefer listening, use the power of podcasting to achieve the same kind of thing. I do the weekly miscellany posts for this purpose*.
  • Don't use your phone at social gatherings, unless you're the DJ or someone is getting an important fact wrong. Focusing on your screen says that people elsewhere are more important and/or more entertaining than the present company. Even if that's true, it's hardly a helpful point to make.
  • Buy the not-latest model. It'll be cheaper, it was probably cutting-edge very recently, and it will help bump you off the conveyor belt of relentless consumerism, which could more accurately be described as envy.
What these things do is put your phone in its place, which should be your pocket or bag more often than in your hand. Unless someone makes one with a wood saw and a fish descaler built in - that would be another issue altogether.


* If you'd like to choose your own things to read from my usual sources, here you go... Pretty much all the Christian stuff can be found through a Twitter list I've made, although I don't use Twitter to keep up with all of them. I have feeds from my five favourite Christian websites sent through to my Flipboard, and they are Think Theology, Desiring God, Ray Ortlund, The Gospel Coalition, and First Things (a recent entrant). I also use Flipboard to read The Guardian's sport pages, The Verge on technology, The Spectator for right-of-centre politics and New Statesman for left-of-centre politics. I also subscribe to The Week in print. I'm less of a podcaster but I like In Our Time and Mere Fidelity.