Guest commentary by Susan Forshey
Over Easter weekend in 1999, my close friends convinced me to end my Lenten media fast a day early by going to a movie. Based on the good reviews and the promise of an enjoyable evening, I agreed.
The movie was “The Matrix.”
Advice for people who have fasted from food is to ease back into eating with a small, slow meal. After six weeks without media, “The Matrix” was like eating a five-course dinner while skydiving.
Though tame in comparison to today’s movies, the violence shocked me, even as I was captivated by the incredible story. It drove home how the Lenten fast had reset and heightened my senses. Like Neo, when he finally sees the Matrix for what it is, I realized how much immersion in screen stories had desensitized me.
Working with Young Adult Volunteers at the time, I longed to live more faithfully within the Story that God was writing. However, especially after a long day of ministry, it was easy to disappear into a show or movie. While screen stories, such as “The Matrix,” were powerful food for reflection, too much screen-time dulled my sense of participation in my own life and in the lives of those around me.
That Lenten fast was the first of many media fasts I practiced over the years. At the turn of the millennium, it was easier to set boundaries around the internet and TV.
Then everything changed.
Three new technologies entered my life, almost simultaneously: streaming media, social media and a smartphone. What had been easily kept to certain times and places was now available 24/7.
In 2008, Nicholas Carr penned his now famous article, “Is Google making us stupid?” and I latched on to it like a lifeline. He described people who were experiencing similar challenges: distraction, diminished attentiveness to life and an intuition that technology was re-forming us neurologically.
Screen life now seeped into every moment and every place via computer and smartphone. At that time, I was working with M.Div. students and noticed they were describing similar struggles. It became clear that any discussion of Christian formation and discipleship needed to take this new reality into account.
Adam Alter, in “Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked,” argues that behavioral addictions to the internet and media are now pervasive. Evidence abounds that technology is out-pacing the brain’s ability to maintain healthful boundaries and habits. Using the massive amounts of user data to inform changes, internet and media architects fine-tune our experience to target the desire and reward centers of our brain. Even television series are now structured to encourage binge-watching. Alter writes, “They run thousands of tests with millions of users to learn which tweaks work and which ones don’t — which background colors, fonts, and audio tones maximize engagement and minimize frustration. As an experience evolves, it becomes an irresistible, weaponized version of the experience it once was. In 2004, Facebook was fun; in 2016, it’s addictive.”
This is a grim judgment. Certainly, social media allows people to share their lives in many meaningful ways. Binge-watching a favorite show with friends can be enjoyable. Yet, like Neo in the Matrix, are we living lives defined and determined by our technology? Do screen stories and connective tech support our non-screen life or undermine it?
I wrestled with these questions as I experimented with productivity apps, like Stayfocusd and Forest, to limit my internet and smartphone usage. However, I longed to reclaim one place where the internet was completely unavailable.
When I purchased my first house this past July, loving named The Contemplative Cottage, I didn’t install internet access. Instead, I put in a landline and began leaving my smartphone at work a couple nights a week. Six o’clock to eight the next morning seemed a defendable amount of time to be unplugged from streaming media, texts, emails and Facebook. Those who might need to reach me had my landline number.
On those nights, my phone and computer were no longer the last thing I looked at, nor the first thing that greeted me the next day. I wish I could bottle the spacious feeling of a morning without connective technology. Going into work rested – no more late night phone-checking – and not already saturated with news, information and tasks, helped me greet my students and colleagues and hear their stories with fresh ears and an open heart.
After Christmas, I went without smartphone and internet for four consecutive days, the longest in years. The result was shocking: The world did not end. The ability to focus increased without the ever-present distraction of the phone. A more expansive sense of time made the days feel longer, richer and less rushed. I was more patient with people and circumstances, and more aware of beauty.
I wish I had tried it sooner.
Even with these wonderful experiences, the challenge remains to keep practicing: to leave the phone behind, to block out a few consecutive days each month to be tech free, to choose the God’s Story over getting lost in multiple screen stories. Some days the phone stays on my office desk. Some days it comes home.
Some days no matter what I do, I’m plugged back into the Matrix. Even then, I’m slowly gaining confidence in my ability to create an unconnected tech-free and media-free space — if only for an evening. The key is starting small. Giving up all connective technology for long periods is impossible for many people, myself included, due to work and family responsibilities. But a few hours, a night or a weekend is possible with a little advance planning and well worth the effort.
This amazing technology, as helpful and as enjoyable as it can be, need not determine our stories.
We can choose to unplug.
Susan Forshey is the assistant professor of discipleship and Christian formation at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. A retreat leader and spiritual director, Susan writes and speaks about the brain and spiritual practices, Christian education and contemplative living. She blogs at The Contemplative Cottage. Her cat, Minerva, is patiently teaching her to put down the phone and pay attention.