Putting Technology in its proper place

May 24, 2018

Over commencement weekend, I prayed with both the Class of 2018 and the Golden Highlanders of the Class of 1968: “In a world captivated by technology, may we model what it means for technology to be …our tool not our tyrant.” It is one of the aspirations I have for myself and for all Houghton graduates. I have been reminded more and more in recent days how difficult this is to achieve.

Technology is a great gift. Even for a tech-challenged person such as myself, I see its benefits every day. I can stay in contact at the touch of a keyboard with friends, relatives, and alumni all across the planet. While I still prefer my Canon camera for taking pictures, I find myself getting more and more comfortable using my iPhone for capturing that proverbial Kodak moment.’ (Lots of irony there!) I can take the picture send it to the subject – all without dealing with film or processing or the post office. Last weekend, I was trying to figure out how to find a wooden easel for displaying one of my recently acquired student art works. Paul suggested I ‘go online.’ (That still is not my first thought in such moments.) But when I did, I found at least 20 options, made my selection and placed an order. I am now waiting for it to arrive on the doorstep of 7428 Hillside. How convenient. Yes, technology is a great gift.

But then during this same period, I also see its downside. I see how the ‘smart’ phones are the default “conversation partner” for many of the guests at our weekly gatherings of the extended family, especially for those under the age of 25. Rather than ‘go to the phone’ when one needs to make a call, one has to choose intentionally to put aside the phone to give attention to the actual people in the room. (How subtly that change has happened in our culture!) I watched (quite judgmentally I might add) in a meeting this week – a meeting where colleagues were sharing rather personally with each other – as one person continued to keep track of email, responding carefully and as quietly as possible to the messages while others continued sharing. Later that same day I found myself in a business meeting that was moving quite slowly. I was feeling the weight of a day’s worth of email that I knew was waiting on my computer. Before I knew it, I had reached for my iPad and began to do my own email during that business meeting. I felt mildly uncomfortable with my choice, but started by justifying myself. It’s only a business meeting. They don’t need my input. But slowly, I began to face the inconsistency between my judgmental attitude toward others and my own behavior. It is NOT more important for me than for others to multitask. It does not matter, ultimately, what kind of gathering. If I am a designated member of a group, I need to be paying attention to the real persons in the room – people who are made in the image of God, people who deserve my full attention and my respectful presence. I cannot treat people as one more set of computer screens that I can elect to tune into or not.

This was a wake-up call to me. As a fairly non-technological person, I have always felt myself immune to the lure of technology and its temptations. But there it was. I had been drawn in – to make choices and even to justify choices – in the concrete circumstances of a given day that I would never have justified in the abstract.

So there you have it. I don’t know what your story is. But I suspect we are all in this together, seeking to make technology our tool and not our tyrant. As you work through your own strategy for staying free and out of bondage to your own ’personal digital assistant‘ (as they used to call these devices), I am hoping that some of you discovered our Houghton Reads book of the month, The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place by Andy Crouch.

Grace and peace to you today.

Shirley A. Mullen, Class of 1976

P.S. Next month’s Houghton Reads selection is James Bryan Smith’s The Magnificent Story: Uncovering a Gospel of Beauty, Goodness & Truth.