Faith and relevance in the 21st century

Category: Technology

The pleasure of just staring out the window

Electronic devices, shops, lights, noise.

Sometimes you just want to get away from it all. But here I am right in the middle of it. By choice. I’m sitting in Auckland airport waiting for my flight to LA to visit my brother and his family.

I’ve been on my computer for the last hour, oblivious to the sights and sounds around me. But now I just want a break, so I have some dinner with the phone put away, and I stare out the window. Straight away I feel a bit more relaxed.

Why didn’t I do this earlier? The pleasure of just staring out the window, looking at the cloud formation as the sun sets over this land of the long white cloud.

Research shows the benefits to the psyche of just being out in nature, being present instead of bound by the thieves of time. Being in the moment instead of wanting to be anywhere else except where you are.

Other research shows the damage that too much screen time does to us. The loneliness, the anxiety and the depression – the disconnection that ironically comes from being too connected.

The recent shooting in America has links to mental illness. The shooter had a history of depression and behavioural problems. It wasn’t just about guns. It was guns and mental illness. You don’t just go and shoot people if you don’t have a serious psychological issue. And then the easy access to guns just exacerbates the problem.

We could all do with some regular time just daydreaming. It has enormous benefits, and not just for your mental health. I recall a story of a new CEO of a large organisation who was being shown around. He walked past one office where a man was seated at his desk with his feet up just looking out the window. When the new CEO walked past again a few days later, there was the man again, feet up and looking out the window. The CEO asked one of his executives if that guy in there ever does any work. He was quickly told that this guy was paid to do what he does and it was his ideas that had the made the company so successful.

One of the most inspirational talks I ever heard was about the fact that history belongs to the dreamers. In a few days I will be in Washington where, 55 years ago, one man’s dream inspired a nation to take steps to get serious about justice for its African American people.

Take some regular time to stare out the window. We need more dreamers; they are the ones who change the world.

Loneliness in the age of Facebook

This is a wonderful article on the realities and false security that social media can bring if we let it.

This issue has been discussed before but it’s always good to be reminded. This author raises some great points.

It reminds me of CS Lewis’ quote about love:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

You don’t get this on social media when you can hide behind your online persona. No technology will ever remove our need for relational intimacy.


Information overload

information overloadIf ever we had a case of that in human history it is in these days of the world wide web. No wonder it has been coined the information superhighway. We have so much information, and knowledge beyond measure. But is it good for us? Has it made us a better society? Surely the internet has brought untold benefits to humankind. Witness the use of social media in the Arab spring, and how human rights abuses are brought to light so much more quickly these days. There are less places to hide for those who would perpetrate such hideous crimes.

But what do we say about the value of the glut of information we now have literally at our fingertips? Alister McGrath, in his book, Surprised by Meaning, quotes the poet Edna St Vincent Millay who spoke of a “meteoric shower of facts” raining from the sky. Millay, McGrath says, points out that we are overwhelmed with information but we cannot make sense of the “shower of facts” with which we are bombarded. McGrath goes on to say, “confronted with a glut of information that we cannot process, we find ourselves living on the brink of incoherence and meaninglessness.” He then gives the clincher: “information is not the same as meaning, nor is knowledge identical with wisdom.” For an intellectually-minded person like me, that is something I need constant reminding of.

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I’ve finally succumbed

twitter-bird-blue-on-whiteWell, I’ve finally done it. I now feel like I belong because I’ve signed up to Twitter! My handle is NilsvonKalm. I wanted to use SoulThoughts but it wasn’t available. Bummer. Anyway, my tweets will appear in the sidebar on this blog, and my blog posts will automatically be tweeted.

Look forward to being part of the Twitterverse with you!

Simon Moyle’s thoughts on leaving Facebook

Facebook_heart_c-thumb-200x154-94395_180A typically well-thought-out and humble post by Simon Moyle on his reasons for quitting Facebook. Some of his thoughts are exactly those I have wrestled with at times over the years. Here are some of his thoughts that resonate with me:

  • When it begins to feel like a burden and is liberating to stop…that’s a pretty good indication right there that something’s been wrong.
  • What does it mean when the new ‘marginalised’ means those not on Facebook?
  • We have more information than ever but I wonder if we are more informed?
  • Do we give information enough time to do its inward formation work on us or is it just washing over us because of the sheer volume? Or do we listen only to that which reinforces our existing beliefs?
  • What are the lines between information sharing, boasting, and straight out propaganda? Where’s the line between “letting your light shine before others” and not “practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them”? I’m not sure I know anymore. Does anyone even care?
  • it’s the question of whose desires ‘run’ me…I’m glad my posts have been valued, but I don’t think I should allow others’ desires to run mine. There’s only one Other whose desires I want to run me, and if I spend more time listening to the louder voices instead of the still small one I’m going to have a hard time being ‘run’ by the latter.
  • [Getting off Facebook is] less “efficient” in terms of reaching fewer people in a smaller geographical area, but then efficiency is not a gospel concept.

I agree with most of Simon’s post, though I’m not sure I agree with all of it. That is something I will have to think through. Or perhaps it’s something I don’t want to face. What I am sure about though is that I definitely agree with his points that I have quoted above.

I have written a number of posts (here, here and here) about the impact of Facebook on human identity and relationships, and challenged by someone like Simon who doesn’t just write about it, but as usual, puts it into action.

More on the impact of digital culture on our relationships

iPhone distractionFurther to my previous post, Frank Viola had a guest post recently which talked about the illusory nature of online firendships and their impact on our ability to form relationships. The author of the post is Stephanie Bennett who has written a fair bit about this. Some of the points to come out of her piece are as follows:

  • “Today’s mobile media foster a multi-tasking lifestyle that easily leads to a mentality comfortable with fitting people into packed schedules that rarely leave enough room for meaning conversation or quality time together.”
  • “While our mobile media create a plethora of new opportunities that allow us to use language in many creative ways, they are also changing our perception and experience of the relationships we hold so dear.”
  • “As we become more accustomed to giving partial attention to people, we lose the important focus necessary to truly connect and commune with them.”
  • “Along with multi-tasking our relationships, several other unexpected challenges arise. As dependence upon our personal mobile media for friendship and fellowship becomes entrenched in everyday experience, one main challenge is in dealing with something we might call a hyper-knowing of others. This is that tendency to be much more open with those we don’t live with – sharing personal (and increasingly private) information about ourselves with those whom we have no primary responsibility or actual embodied experience. When this happens, people often feel they are closer to their distant online friends than they are to the people around them. The main problem here is that the online friendship is mostly illusional.”
  • “Words are magnificent gifts given by God to help human beings make meaning, but words are not sufficient without action to back them up.  Too easily, words alone mask our real needs and motivations. The thing is – masks must be removed for intimacy to grow and it is life together that has the greatest potential to reveal who we really are and all that we can be.  Fellowship is face-to-face settings has much greater worth to accomplish the work of the transformation of our souls.”

And perhaps the quote that says it all:

  • “These are no substitutes for truth and reality. Our Father thought human presence significant enough to send Jesus the Christ in the flesh. He could have sent a message in a bottle, but chose the incarnation instead.”

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How digital culture is rewiring our brains

Digital CultureThe Age had a great article today on the way our digital culture is actually changing our brains. There has been alot written about this in recent years. The Atlantic had an article back in May about the fact that social media like Facebook and Twitter is making us lonelier while at the same time we have never been more connected. Here are some very insightful quotes from the Age article:

  • ”There is a massive and unprecedented difference in how [digital natives’] brains are plastically engaged in life compared with those of average individuals from earlier generations and there is little question that the operational characteristics of the average modern brain substantially differ,”
  • “Eye contact is a pivotal and sophisticated component of human interaction, as is subconscious monitoring of body language and, most powerful of all, physical contact, yet none of these experiences is available on social networking sites. It follows that if a young brain with the evolutionary mandate to adapt to the environment is establishing relationships through the medium of a screen, the skills essential for empathy may not be acquired as naturally as in the past.”
  • “A recent study from Michigan University of 14,000 college students has reported a decline in empathy over the past 30 years, which was particularly marked over the past decade.”
  • “A survey of 136 reports using 381 independent tests, and conducted on more than 130,000 participants, concluded that video games led to significant increases in desensitisation, physiological arousal, aggression and a decrease in prosocial behaviour.”
  • “Can the internet improve cognitive skills and learning, as has been argued? The problem is that efficient information processing is not synonymous with knowledge or understanding. Even the chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt, has said: ”I worry that the level of interrupt, the sort of overwhelming rapidity of information – and, especially, of stressful information – is, in fact, affecting cognition.”

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Big Googler is doing the thinking for you

I found this article on the John Mark Ministries website today. It’s taken from The Age. I so relate to it. I find myself doing what this article says, in terms of scouring over articles for bits of information. I think one of the reasons we are like this is that, for all the internet’s wonderful benefits, it gives us too many choices. We suffer from choice anxiety.

I think the cure for this is to trust that we will be more at peace when we take in and absorb what a good book can offer. The anxiety that we experience when we fall into what this article refers to is not worth any extra knowledge we might gain. Further to this last point, I would argue that any extra knowledge is not real knowledge anyway; at best it is surface knowledge. The more we submit ourselves to this way of thinking, the more we are dumbing ourselves down.

Reflection, information, obsession, and Jesus

“All the books you never read, just started; all the meals you rushed, never tasted” – U2, Falling at Your Feet

I lament our loss of reflection in this information age. We are the most informed generation in history but we are losing the art of reflection. We are constantly wired, and I don’t mean just connected to an iPod or iPhone but emotionally wired. When we are constantly consuming information we are no longer being still and thinking about the deeper issues of life. Everything is rushed. We are overwhelmed with choice and we no longer feel at peace with ourselves. We have everything at our fingertips but don’t know anymore how to be. We think we have to always be doing something; we feel guilty when we aren’t being ‘productive’; and we wonder if we’re being lazy when we’re lying around on a Sunday afternoon.

Linked to this loss of reflection is our culture’s obsession with experience. We have a terrifying fear of missing out. We are the addict who thinks we cannot do without more and better. We talk about things being boring or cool. Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe in leading a boring life. The life of following Jesus is anything but boring; it is counter-cultural and filled with opportunities. But what this means is that we live a life that is other-centred and not based on how we feel at a certain time. A life of other-centredness is one that doesn’t have to look for the next fix, because it is inherently satisfying. It is borne out of a deep knowing that we are loved by God and therefore don’t need to spend our days and years trying to prove ourselves to others. We are free to love and serve our fellow human beings. This is what it is to be a follower of Jesus. This is life, and deep down we know it is the right way to live.

The way of Jesus gives the most satisfaction, the most depth and the greatest enjoyment of life. This is anything but boring, but it is not a life that seeks to avoid boredom as an end in itself. It is a life that has a higher end; a life that has found something better. For if we do not find what we are really looking for we will inevitably go back to the life we lived before, and, such being human nature, we will pick up where we left off and it will be worse than before. Jesus spoke of this when he told about the house from which a demon has departed but then has other demons more evil than the first one come back and make the house worse than before (Matthew 12:43-45).

Life in the information age promises so much but delivers so little. We are still dependent beings. The fact of human nature is that we simply cannot live without outside help. We are created with a God-shaped hole and as St Augustine and others down through the ages have said, we are forever restless until we find our hope in Christ. No wonder Edward Mote could write the words of that famous hymn back in the 1830s, “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand”.

We are indeed in trouble when our information age gives us so much to take in but leaves us with so little time to reflect on it. The Christian message is one which offers a way out of our malaise; a way out of the self-centred slavery to which we are addicted. The way to life is to fall at the feet of the One who is Life itself; Jesus, who says to our tired and information-burdened age, “Come to me all you who are weary and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). It is when we reflect on this that we come back to reality and find the life that is truly life, where we share with those people down through the centuries who have had their lives unburdened and their hopes transformed.

Some more words from Falling at Your Feet sum it up eloquently:

all the information
all the radio waves
electronic seas
how to navigate
how to simply be
to know when to wait
this plain simplicity
in whom shall I trust
how might I be still
teach me to surrender
not my will, Thy will

The saving power of technology

I love technology. I love living in the 21st century with all its gadgets, and I’m continually amazed at what we are able to do now that we couldn’t do even 5 years ago. Who knows what we’ll be able to do in 5 years from now? When a new piece of technology comes out, there is that special surge of excitement you get with the anticipation of buying something new. A new technology purchase makes you feel good; you feel excited, and you want to spend all your time with your new friend. Sounds a lot like being in love doesn’t it? Take the recent launch of the iPad in Australia for example. Apparently we’re the first country outside of the US to sell the new tablet which does everything the iPhone does except make phone calls. People lined up for hours outside Apple stores all over Australia (some even slept outside stores overnight) to get their hands on this fabulous new device that promises to change the way we do computing. In a few years time though – give or take – the iPad will be old hat. After a while we tend to take for granted the technology we have at our disposal today. We often can’t imagine how we coped before mobile phones and the internet.

Last year we commemorated the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing. At the time it was celebrated the world over as Neil Armstrong took his ‘one giant leap for mankind’. Though I was only 6 weeks old at the time, I am told that it brought the world together like few events can. But did you know that, if you have a mobile phone, that phone has more computer power than the rocket that took Neil Armstrong and his fellow astronauts to the moon? That’s just in 40 years, just one generation.

Technology has the power for so much good today. We have seen this through such campaigns as GetUp!, where thousands of people can be harnessed in a few days to lobby the Government on all sorts of issues. We can make free video calls with our friends and family overseas via Skype; we can make a host of new friends on Facebook. But technology also has the power for so much evil. Patrick Carnes, who specialises in addiction issues, says that since the advent of the internet, more than 10% of internet users regularly use the web to look at pornography, such is the ease with which it can be downloaded right into your own home.

This is where the problem with our technology lies. My pastor said some years ago that technology has become our new foundation for living. For centuries it has been money, but now it is money and technology. I remember when the talk of human cloning first began some years ago, there was an interview with a scientist about it who, when asked at a press conference about the ethics of it, simply said “we are going to do it”, as if it was preposterous to even contemplate not doing it when we have the means right in front of us, as if it was a waste of our newfound knowledge to not go ahead with it, and as if anyone opposing it was getting in the way of progress. It was the arrogance of the human spirit saying we are going to do it because we can.

As well as basing our living choices around technology, we are constantly living with the tension of trying to recreate the experience we feel when we first buy our new toy. That feeling of being in love, of being swept off our feet by the iPad of our dreams is something we desperately want to hang on to. In a healthy situation, the feeling of being in love is wonderful, and it is right to enjoy it to the full. But our problem with our purchases is that we try to hang onto that experience and make it last as long as possible until it finally disappears like sand through our fingers and we go out and look for our next purchase. And therein lies the power of the seduction of our culture. Every day, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists in the United States, we are told to buy that experience up to 3,000 times. And again and again we do, just like the adolescent who doesn’t understand the virtue of restraint. The American Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr, has said that Australian culture is just like such an adolescent. He describes the first half of life as infantile, where there is the question of boundaries, identity, security and significance. It is always win/lose, about the container. He then describes the second half of life as being about the contents – it needs to be offered to people. People in the second stage of life need to see that that’s what they want to be. Going further, he describes 4 stages to growth:

  1. Student
  2. Family, houses and children
  3. Forest-dweller, going beyond the comfort zone
  4. Wisdom

Rohr says that Australia is in the first half of life ie. it is infantile, where life has a lot to do with security and significance; and we are also generally not past stage 2 in the stages of growth. We are obsessed with comfort, as is seen in the rapidly diminishing Australian dream of owning your own home.

Many years ago Midnight Oil sang “who can stand in the way when there’s a dollar to be made”. That song is just as relevant today as it was back in the ‘greed is good’ days of the 1980s. Nothing has changed since then, and in fact nothing has changed since the dawn of humanity. The prophet Jeremiah said that the human heart is deceitful above all things.

How insane are we to actually believe that technology can be our saviour? Like many advances in human progress over the years, and particularly since the Industrial Revolution, much good has come about by our technological progress, but so has much evil as well. But don’t get me wrong; technology itself is not the issue. What we need is not less technology per se; what we need is a transformation of the human heart, something that technology can never deliver.

With each new advance in technology, there is the promise of making our lives immeasurably easier. And in so many ways it does. But is that always a good thing, and are we really any better off? Much has been written about the fact that in our technologically advanced society, the rate of depression and stress has gone through the roof.

The recent U2 song ’Breathe’ has a line which says “there’s nothing you have that I need”. That is the attitude we must have with the technological enhancements of our age. While there is a level at which much technology certainly is needed, it is not our salvation. Never has been and never will be. A sign of an addicted culture is when we allow legitimate activities to become our master when they were always designed to be our servant. Technology has done so much good for the world, and will continue to do so. But there is only one Master who follows through on the promise of life. We cannot serve both God and technology.

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