Oct  2017 10
Devices, Envy, and Enough

When I was a youth minister, I remember hearing Youth Specialties founder Mike Yaconelli speak at a conference on the subject of technology. He talked about growing up in Florida when only the corner store and the movie theater had air conditioning. On hot summer days, those places were hangouts for him and his friends. Then everyone got window air conditioners at home, and social patterns changed. Yaconelli concluded: “Technology is not good or bad, but it is not neutral.”

Philosopher Albert Borgmann, from whose writing on technology-ethics-social patterns I’ve learned a great deal, talks about growing up in Montana in a home where the heat source was a stove in the kitchen.

That heat source provided not only cooking heat but a gathering place on cold winter nights and mornings. When central heat became common, that invention changed social patterns. In former times, a family gathered around a stove or hearth. But no family assembles around a central heating unit in a basement or attic.

Technology is not neutral.

Borgmann also writes about devices. Think about the evolution of listening to music. From making music, or going to a venue where music is played, to a family gathered around a console radio, to portable radios, to a Walkman with personal headphones, to i-devices. Who needs to agree on what to play on a car trip when everyone can tune-in to audio of one’s own choosing? And no one needs to learn to make music in order to listen to music.

Technology is not neutral.

At home in the evening, I keep my smart phone at hand. Often, without thinking, if there is a lull in a show or conversation (and, I confess, sometimes when there is not a lull), I pick up the phone, check personal and work email, open Facebook for a minute or two to see what friends and family are doing, glance at news headlines, or check the weather or what the stock market did that day.

In most cases, those moments of checking did not add one positive thing to my life, but I take the action anyway. Repeatedly.

Researchers conclude that people like me are looking for a little chemical rush because of the possibility that some ping from my phone will mean something good has happened. Talk about a dog waiting for a bit of meat to fall from the table…

As I observe my own behavior, as I see how my 11-year-old is absorbed in any screen to which she has access, and as I feel (along with many of my friends and acquaintances) a deep disquiet and discomfort over societies and nations that seem badly out-of-alignment with livable values, I wonder how our devices are contributing to the misalignment.

Researchers talk about envy amplified by social media: scrolling through posts of others’ lives, who are eating fabulous meals in enjoyable places with interesting friends, evokes disappointment and boredom in comparison.

My grown children recently completed a once-in-a-lifetime trip together, while I did routine stuff. In comparison, my day was drab. Every day, I get a Google alert on the word “seminary.” I see which schools are getting grants, gaining enrollment, and starting new programs and partnerships. And my envy and self-questioning rises.

These examples, which could be multiplied many times, are just the tip of the iceberg. With my device, I can compare myself, my things, my relationships, my work, my anything to hosts and hosts of others, faster than the blink of an eye.

Never before have people been able to compare their lives to neighbors and strangers, to so many “greener” pastures and others’ living rooms, as is the case today. In the matter of stoking envy, our internet-connected devices are not neutral.

I am not a fan of the prosperity gospel, that God wants everyone to be materially wealthy. But I also am not a proponent of the scarcity-abundance pairing. Some theologians and pastors teach that consumer societies promote a scarcity paradigm: if I could just own (fill in the blank), the deficit in my life would be filled. These teachers claim the opposite of scarcity is an abundance paradigm: there is abundance for everyone, so act like it!

On the matter of the antidote to a scarcity mentality, I prefer Brene Brown’s opinion: the opposite of scarcity is not abundance. The opposite of scarcity is enough.

How much is enough? That is such a profound question, and one that should inform how people of faith use our devices, just as the answer should inform everything from patterns of consumption to what we think others owe us.

With apologies to the Gospel of Mark (8:36): What does it profit people to (compare themselves to the whole world through devices, amplify envy) and forfeit their souls?

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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