I see it at stoplights. I see it during timeouts at my daughter’s basketball games. And I even see it when I stand in the back of the sanctuary during church services. When there’s a lull in the action, however brief, smartphones appear, and eyes are toward them.
But why must we check them so often? Is it because smartphones are such great tools for human flourishing or because they are evil taskmasters that make us less human with each use?
This is the dilemma with which Tony Reinke opens his book, and if you are like most people, the dilemma isn’t theoretical. Your phone is changing you. It’s certainly changing me. How could it be otherwise when we apparently check our smartphones every 4.3 minutes of our waking lives (p. 16)?
Reinke is the author of several books, as well as the host of the popular Ask Pastor John podcast and a senior staff writer for Desiring God. He is well suited to write this book for at least two reasons. First, Reinke feels the tension between the blessings and curses of technology more acutely than most. As a professional producer of online content, he must navigate reaching readers without succumbing to the click-bait, Buzzfeed-type posts that dominate web culture (to which, by the way, DG doesn’t capitulate).
Second, Reinke is the perfect person to shine the glare from our screens back into our eyes, not only because he is a competent researcher and a nimble wordsmith, but because he is also a God-centered theologian. And this trait is necessary because, as he points out, “conversations about our smartphones often do not raise new questions; they return us to perennial questions every generation has been forced to ask” (p. 24). And it’s this point about how new technology always brings us back to the perennial questions—questions about what it means to be creature not Creator; about beauty vs. efficiency; about loving God and neighbor—which makes this book so insightful.
Consider for just a moment our longing for approval (covered especially in chapters 3 and 6). Each generation must wrestle with this. The lore of Narcissus in Greek mythology, who fell in love with his own reflection, certainly predates the 2004 birth of Facebook. Today, perhaps, there are just more metrics to measure our beauty (likes, retweets, followers, pins, subscribers, and so on). And if you let it, your smartphone will send you push notifications for each of these so that when you wake up in the morning, you can glance at your phone to find out how many others love your face too. “When we talk about ‘smartphone addiction,’” writes Reinke, “often what we are talking about is the addiction of looking at ourselves” (p. 110).
The chapters of the book include topics such as the way we become addicted to distractions, how we ignore people, crave immediate approval, get lonely, become comfortable in secret vices, fear missing out, and half a dozen other changes our phones are doing to us. Additionally, readers will find the foreword by John Piper something that not only recommends the book to us, but also begins to engage with the topics at hand, including several of the ways technology has changed in his lifetime. For example, Piper bought his first computer in 1984. It was an IBM PC with 256K of RAM, which he bought for $1,995. A quick internet search (and yes, I did it on my phone) tells me this would be nearly $5,000 in today’s dollars!
If there were something to critique about the book, maybe it would be the structure. The title and layout of the book (12 Ways …) could make the book seem like one giant list-article, or listicle as they’re called. Listicles tend to be the lowest common denominator of online content. I say this, by the way, as the author of several listicles. But this criticism, in my opinion, doesn’t hold. The depth of Reinke’s insights and his biblical fidelity resist formulaic chapters.
One final comment. I found the book disturbing. But not because the problems created by smartphones are merely “out there” in culture or even in the church. Rather, I’m disturbed because the problems are “in here.” Despite all the blessings of smartphones (connection to others, wealth of information, and Bible apps galore), I still see the negative impact in my heart and habits. Too often my children compete with a screen for their dad’s attention. Being confronted with this change was disturbing, but it’s the good kind of confrontation, the kind that when paired with repentance of sin and faith in the gospel, leads to the good kind of change.
* This book review originally appeared in the theological journal Themelios.