Have our smartphones made us better people? Back in the 90s, the power of the computer age was still in its infancy. For example, if you wanted to watch something, you only had so many options. You were held captive to the schedules of the major broadcasting networks and cable companies. Sure, you could pop a tape into the VCR, but your options were usually limited to what you had in the house or what you could find at the rental store if you were willing to drive there. To be candid, as a young man in high school and college, there were many times I wanted to view unfitting content, and the only thing that kept me from defiling myself was a lack of access.
We no longer live in that world. Anything we want is available at our fingertips: literally, at our fingertips on our smartphones. It is often instructive to look back from where we came, even if we only look back to the 90s. I am often concerned for people born in the past 20 years who have no recollection of a world without the internet and smart devices. They have nothing to compare to their current existence. I have grave concerns for young people who walk around with access to a world of temptation in their pockets.
Do not get me wrong. There are so many benefits to today’s technology that it is hard to overestimate, but that does not mean there are no negative consequences involved, especially when we combine it with our sinful nature.
George Gilder wrote a book in the early 90s called Life After Television that specifically addressed the end of television as we knew it then. It is a short, fascinating read. Now that we know how technology progressed, it is instructive, not only in what he had correct but also what he had wrong.
Take, for example, this quote, written during the time of analog TVs, VCRs, compact discs, and computers with CD-ROM, where he talks about how much power these information tools provide us. Remember, DVDs were still a future technology at this point. As you read it, think about how much the power of information tools has increased since then, and heed his warning.
Our generation commands the most powerful information tools in history, yet the culture we have created with these machines is dreary at best. Why doesn’t our superb information technology better inform and uplift us? This is the most important question of the age. The most dangerous threat to the US economy and society is the breakdown of our cultural institutions in the family, religion, education, and the arts that preserve and transmit civilization to new generations. If this social fabric continues to fray, we will lose not only our technological prowess and economic competitiveness but also the meaning of life itself.
Not only has access to everything we could ever want in terms of information failed to lift us as a society, but it has also contributed to the very thing Gilder has warned us about; the breakdown of our cultural institutions. He goes on to say,
No fiscal or monetary policy, however brilliant, will be able to promote enduring economic growth and competitiveness in a society in which children spend four hours a day wallowing in the nihilistic swamp of television. Families and schools cannot succeed unless our culture upholds moral codes and disciplines and hard regiments of study. In the US, culture means TV. It means an endless flow of minor titillations with barely a major idea or ideal.
Today, culture means smartphones, and four hours a day with TV seems tame to the amount of time most people spend on social media and streaming services. Bingeing television series is often presented as a virtue, not a vice. The endless flow of minor titillations has turned into a raging river. That is not even taking into account the overtly destructive content like pornography which can stream to us on our phones.
This consumption of content brings me to one place Gilder seemed to miss the mark. He seemed to believe that once entertainment production was set free from the monopoly of broadcasting companies, as it is now in the internet age, people would choose to watch better programing than much of the nonsense they were transmitting into our homes. Though we now have many more options at our disposal, what appeals to popular culture seems to have deteriorated instead of improved. Much of TV from that era seems tame by today’s standards.
This deterioration of content brings us back to one of Gilder’s questions, “Why doesn’t our superb information technology better inform and uplift us?” I believe it is because our sinful nature does not desire to be lifted. We prefer being distracted rather than pursuing virtue and considering the meaning of life because such aims make us face truths like the existence of God and being held accountable for our actions.
God has created us in his image, and because of that, Romans 1 tells us there are several truths all people know. We know God exists, and creation has revealed many of his invisible attributes. We also know there is an objective standard of right and wrong and that we have fallen short. The problem is, because of our fallen nature, we do not like those truths, and we desire to suppress them. In our attempts to silence them, we tend to attack whatever reminds us of them.
Not only do we desire to suppress the truths themselves, but we go on to assail the institutions that support them as well. Family, religion, education, and the arts must bow to our suppression of the truth. As society conforms more and more to our depraved desires, we see more people label these institutions as bigoted and oppressive. When pushed to its logical end, these attacks are not attempts to reform these institutions; they are attempts to abolish them.
In a culture with strong institutions, the sinful nature is often discrete and subtle, but as a society is given over to the lust of their hearts and these institutions decay, it grows more daring. Today’s primary mode of suppression is to make any language that supports these truths and their institutions off-limits. This suppression of language is why the battle for pronouns is so intense. It is why we no longer have men and women; we have birthing and non-birthing people, and why we no longer have husbands and wives; we have partners. It is also why we are told words like free speech and religious freedom are veiled attempts to enforce gender normativity and oppress LGBTQ+ peoples. A significant portion of the institutions of education and the arts have already fallen. They now function as the frontline in this cause. We are currently at a point where these institutions have yet to realize they are chipping away at the foundation upon which they are attempting to stand.
Why has access to all these information tools not lifted us as a society? Because the information we most need, knowledge of God and man, is continually suppressed. Paul goes on to say that when we suppress the truth in unrighteousness, we become vain and futile in our thinking, and our foolish hearts are darkened. Whether we use them for communication, education, or entertainment, no matter how smart our phones are, they will be unable to guide us to a virtuous life if our sinful nature leads us in how we use them. If we wield the power of our smartphones and the information age incorrectly, they will only accelerate our decline as a society, not improve it. We must never underestimate the power of the fallen nature, but we must also never underestimate the power of Christ and the gospel to change hearts.