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December 2020 Feature

Apple officially released the first iPhone on June 29, 2007, and with almost ten upgrades later, it has brought about significant changes in our lives.  In tandem, the development of the Android smartphones, has revolutionised the way we live.   There have been rapid changes in communications, convenience and connectivity.  We live in a context where the mobile phone has become an indispensable part of our everyday life.   It is no longer merely a communication device but has become our alarm clock, our camera, our timetable, our diary, our photograph album, as well as a portable word processor.  It acts as a bank, an automated teller, an encyclopedia, a games arcade, a food and travel guide, a shopping portal and library of books, music and movies.   It preserves our past, plans our present and even predicts our future.  And presumably life would be inconvenient and perhaps even miserable without instant access provided by a mobile phone.   It is no surprise that the editors of Time named the iPhone the single most influential gadget of all time, saying that it “fundamentally changed our relationship to computing and information – a change likely to have repercussions for decades to come.”

With the family feastings behind us, most of us can relate to scenario where very often the first order of events was to whip out our mobile phones to take an Instagram-worthy photograph of the food.  It is not uncommon to leave the mobile phone thereafter within easy reach, just so that we could reply the incoming message or greeting.  And it really would not be too long before everyone around the table was busily ‘chatting’ with the other person(s) on the other side of the line, rather than take time to converse with those seated on the other side of the table.   According to Jacob Weisberg, in his article “We Are Hopelessly Hooked”, he approximated that the average person now checks his/her smartphones every 4.3 minutes of his/her waking lives.  Hence on the average of a one hour dinner, most present would have checked their mobile phones more than twelve times in that one sitting!  It does seem ironic that in a gathering of family and friends, many seem much more absorbed with the virtual instead of the physical.

In many ways, the technological advancement in communications (both hardware and software) has fueled this obsession, which I may perchance regard as an addiction.  Sadly, Christians are in no way insulated from such excesses.  The timely word that warns against this is well captured in the Chinese: 守机碍情, which literally means “fixation on the phone impedes relationships”.  Interestingly the phrase is also a homonym for “a mobile (phone) love affair.”  This was the title of Chinese play written by Lim Hai Yen, which highlighted the real-life obsession of social media and its impact on the day-to-day interaction among people.

Our preoccupation with the virtual perhaps smacks of the old Arian heresy where the very material presence (humanity) of Jesus was questioned; where the spiritual is valued and the physical is denied.  Arius’ infamous dictum was that “There was a time when He was not.”  This is subtly evidenced in our obsession with the virtual communication (constantly checking our mobile devices) especially in the physical presence of people that we are meeting!  It also communicates the unspoken conviction that the virtual relationship seems more important (to have our ‘undivided’ attention and to elicit an immediate response) than the actual physical relationship with those whom we are currently meeting.

Athanasius’ response to the Arian controversy is contained in his seminal work, On the Incarnation: “He (Jesus) could simply have appeared to us, coming to us in some grander way, but this was not what he wanted. He took a body like ours, from a pure and spotless virgin who had never been with a man.” Against a virtual presence, he insisted on Jesus’ incarnation into a physical realm, to be one of us.  This perhaps has important implications on the discussions of the interchange between virtual and physical reality.

In many ways, our phones have made us obsessed with the virtual world, such that we are oblivious to the physical reality of others around us. Spadaro reminds us that “the crux of the problem is that connecting and sharing on the web are not the same as meeting someone in person, which requires an effort to sustain and make relationship work.”  He further explained that “the concept of the neighbour is not hung on a wire, but has its roots in and is tied to spatial proximity.” We must not forget that there is indeed a difference between (virtual) connection and (physical) presence.

How are our smartphones changing us?  Are we any smarter or have we become addicted and imprisoned by the very devices that were invented?   It is perhaps unhelpful to offer a list of smartphones rules.  But I am instead reminded of Schaeffer’s admonition: “Christians have two boundary conditions: (1) what men (and women) can do, and (2) what men (and women) should do.  Modern man does not have the latter boundary.” In application, Tony Reinke rightly commented that “the essential question we must constantly ask ourselves in the quickly evolving age of digital technology is not what can I do with my phone, but what should I do with it?”

We have made the smart phone but the smart phones are in many ways unmaking us.  Our uncritical dependence of our mobile devices has perhaps not made us any smarter, but instead it has made us more attracted and addicted to the things of this world, than to the One who has given all things to us.  It’s perhaps time for us to get ‘smarter’?

Rev Dr Andrew Peh is a lecturer in mission at Trinity Theological College. He is also an alumnus of Trinity Theological College as well as E Stanley Jones School of World Mission and Evangelism, of Asbury Theological Seminary. He is also ordained as a diaconal minister with the Chinese Annual Conference of the Methodist Church in Singapore.