My sister and my brother-in-law are sort of millennial anomalies. Neither of them have social media accounts, the only exception being my sister’s infrequently-checked Instagram account.
On a recent visit to Chicago, I asked them about the people running for the mayoral election. My brother-in-law named one of the candidates and then quickly began to second guess himself. You could see the wheels of doubt turning in his head. Was that his actual name? Did I get it right? They both sat there — determined looks on their faces — racking their brains for the name of the candidate.
After a few minutes of observing this, I finally broke the silence: “You’re the only people I know who wouldn’t immediately look that up on Google.” They both broke out in hysterical laughter.
Consumed by digital consumption
We live in a technology-centered world. Don’t know the answer to your question? No problem, just Google it. With the touch of a button, we have endless knowledge at our fingertips.
And it doesn’t stop with Google; our lives are saturated by podcasts, television, the endless feeds of Twitter and Facebook, and those constant news alerts on our phones. The overwhelming availability and omnipresence of all this technology have heightened our digital consumption. We listen to podcasts on our commutes, spend all day at work staring out our screens, binge-watch Netflix when we get home, then repeat.
The ability to have so much information so quickly is thrilling. It allows us to self-educate like never before. But more and more it seems our appetite for digital consumption steers us away from important moments of silence, reflection, and interaction that we need so badly. That’s why it’s important to consider the sacrifices we’re making as we buy into this new consumer culture, as well as the ways in which digital consumption has affected our desires, our curiosities, and our personal lives.
Digital barriers to wonder and experience
As evidenced in the anecdote about my sister and brother-in-law, the consumption of technology can hamper our ability to ponder, to opine, to wonder, and — on a lighter note — to experience that moment of satisfaction when we find the answer to our question without having to Google it.
Over-consumption can also distance and isolate us from our personal relationships. The more time we spend on our phones and computers, the less present we are to those around us. And there’s another less recognized, but equally important, cost: digital consumption leaves less room for self-reflection and silence.
Some strategies for conquering over-consumption
One of my favorite throw-back songs, “Video Killed the Radio Star,” captures the nature of technological innovation and the changes it brings. It talks about how the advent of video overshadows the radio — not rendering it entirely obsolete, but lessening its impact. In the song, Trevor Horn from The Buggles sings, “We can’t rewind, we’ve gone too far.”
While the content may be a bit antiquated, the theme of “Video Killed the Radio Star” is still applicable today. If we can’t rewind, how do we live a meaningful and rooted existence in a world where consuming digital media is the norm?
Here are some ideas to avoid technology overload:
1. Leave your cell phone behind every once in a while. Have you ever noticed how much time you spend holding your phone? How you pick it up each time you move rooms in your apartment, even though you know you don’t need it? A little separation can be good. Each morning before work, I go on a run or walk. I used to bring my phone along with me, but I recently started leaving it behind. This separation from technology — even if only for a short while — is liberating. It gives me time to think, time to myself that no one else is entitled to.
2. Learn to be comfortable with silence. My mom recently told me that instead of listening to the radio as she normally does on her commute to work, she sits in silence. Her hour-long commute has become her time for self-reflection and prayer. One of the effects of being constantly distracted is that we lose a sense of being rooted and grounded. This is the virtue that philosophers sometimes term being self-possessed — we know who we are. Silence is absolutely foundational for a well-lived life. If we can apply prayer to that silence, we become even more firmly grounded.
3. Try to avoid using technology to numb your mind. We all love to use technology to procrastinate. We use it to put off difficult decisions, deadlines, and self-examination. But what would it look like to turn to something else more productive? While it’s easy to use technology as a crutch, we all have to face our to-do list eventually. Personal integration is an on-going process, and we need time to reflect on our lives, relationships, and experiences to make sense of it all. Within that integration we sometimes hear God speaking to us, calling us to use our gifts to meet a need or respond to a situation. We need that space for self-reflection to wrestle with parts of our lives that are not moving in the right direction. Because those areas are uncomfortable, it’s all too easy to ignore them. The cost of avoidance is losing an opportunity to grow and mature.
Technology is too entrenched in most of our lives to completely avoid. But there is a way to live with it without being entirely dependent on it. We can willingly commit to turn off and be present — even if it means we may never get that answer to that question we want to ask Google so badly!
But maybe, just maybe, if we give ourselves the chance to ponder, that answer will find its way to us all on its own.