Smart Phones, Identity, and Loneliness

Jared Longshore
| June 28, 2018

I have thoroughly enjoyed working through Tony Reinke’s book 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You. This post is the last review and, unsurprisingly, I still feel as though the smart phone is shrouded in mystery. In God’s providence new technologies are thrust upon us and, like wild horses, we’re to tame them, mount them, and ride. Reinke’s book has reminded me that this indeed is a wild horse. One that has been introduced to our land only a short time ago. Christians who choose not to saddle up should not necessarily feel as if they simply lack self-control. They may just be exercising the plain old wisdom from above. Those who want to ride like the wind should ensure that the wind in their face is not the upward gust from their fall into a canyon after being bucked off this bronco. The book at hand can help you discern if that’s the case.

Reinke addresses the transforming and isolating power of smart phones in chapters 6 and 7. He writes, “Our phones overtake and distort our identity [6] and tempt us toward unhealthy isolation and loneliness [7]” (189).

In chapter 6 he tells the story of Narcissus who was so enchanted with himself, he caught an image of himself in a body of water, dove in, and drowned. Similarly, “we bend over our phones-and what most quickly captures our attention is our own reflection: our replicated images, our tabulations of approval, and our accumulated ‘likes'” (109). Now surely the water wasn’t Narcissus’ ultimate problem. His problem was his vain glory, his pride. But, if I was friends with Narcissus, I’d probably try to steer him clear of glassy-toped lakes.

Inordinate social media use on our phones transforms our interactions with others and our thinking. “When our relationships are shallow online, our relationships become shallow offline” (116). There does appear to be a thinning out of community when people become too accustomed to digital communication. A few years ago, I was struck by what excellent texters some young people were while being quite dreadful conversationalists.

On the thinking front it is easy for our minds to get “caught in the ebb and flow of online fiascos” (116). Reinke tells the story of a man who ditched his social media and smart phone. His wife said it was a great gift because, “when you had your smartphone, you were a walking vending machine of whatever you’d ingested that day” (117). On this score, the smart phone is merely the messenger. We ought not kill the messenger. But we need to train the courier not to bring trash while admitting that whatever we receive through our phones shapes our thinking.

Reinke goes on to chart how “technology is always drawing us apart, by design” (122). This design of technology leaves us isolated and lonely. Reinke gives a few examples of this tendency of technology. I can think of many examples where technological advances run in that direction. But I can think of some that do bring people together so the quote above might be better worded technology often draws us apart. The smart phone may be able to do both, but it’s isolating tendency is evident in almost every restaurant I walk into. The parents are eating while the kids at the table are staring at the tiny hand-held screen.

We certainly don’t always want or need to be around people. A bit of isolation can do us good. But there will be times when we want company when we need isolation and times when we want isolation and need company. The smart phone provides us with a dangerous opportunity to give into our destructive want and avoid our life-giving need: “The smartphone is causing a social reversal: the desire to be alone in public and never alone in seclusion. We can be shielded in public and surrounded in solation” (124). In the smart phone age, we must cultivate the wisdom and discipline required to put away the phone if we’re using it poorly. With a click and a swipe we can isolate from true community or create faux company when we should be alone with God.

At the outset of these reviews I said, “Don’t let your iPhone put you in its pocket.” I think Reinke’s book is an excellent resource to that end. I mentioned that we need this book like the boys down the street need a bit of guidance with the 4th of July fireworks. So if your using one of these high-powered God-given resources, keep a steady eye on it, ask a friend to watch your back, and light up the night sky, not the neighborhood.