by Christopher Esget
Status updates. Texts. Tweets. Emails. Voicemails. From Snapchat to Facebook to Fox News, everything demands your immediate attention.
It began, in what seems a different age, with the telephone. A century after the American revolution, Alexander Graham Bell launched a different kind of revolution. In 1876, he invented the telephone. Eventually, most households allowed a device into their homes that others outside could control. A bell would ring, and as Pavlov’s dog, we responded. We gained the ability to rapidly transmit information–at the cost of household peace.
Soon it took hours, instead of weeks or months, to get news. Major networks arose to serve as filters, telling us what was important. Yet they were not altogether altruistic. The purpose was profit. Neil Postman and Steve Powers noted in their 1992 book How to Watch TV News, “The whole point of television in America is to get you to watch so that programmers, performers, and others can rake in the money.” Twenty-three years later, that observation is not outdated, but expanded. Addiction to networks like Facebook is not a misuse of the medium; it is the purpose. Earlier this year, Facebook surpassed Walmart in value, being worth $245 billion. Huxley’s nightmare (in Brave New World) of a people held in bondage through entertainment is coming to pass.
What does this mean for our life as Christians? “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:15–16). As the machines demand our attention day and night, it is increasingly difficult to “make the best use of the time.” After posting a message, our ears plead for the dings of affirmation. Are they hitting “Like”? “Retweet”? “Favorite”? Click refresh, then again, and again. Why isn’t she responding?
This obsession over the immediate present often renders us incapable of being present with the ordinary people in our ordinary lives. The pictures on the screens easily seem more attractive than unairbrushed reality. Yet intrinsic to our vocation is to be present where God has placed us. There may be a time for an electronic message, but it ought never be our default. What is important is right in front of us, as Lazarus was thrown at the gate of the rich man (Luke 16:20).
Perhaps the most deleterious effect of this tyranny of the present is our loss of focus on the Church’s goal. We are baptized for resurrection and life in the New Jerusalem. C. S. Lewis said in Mere Christianity, “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.” You don’t have to let your machines tyrannize you. There is only One to whom we must give answer.