Tim and I got our first smartphones this summer just before we went to Europe. For a couple of backpackers, those phones were incredibly helpful for finding directions, looking up restaurant reviews, and checking bus schedules. Little did we realize, when we returned to the US, just how much they’d change our lives.
It’s not like we’re suddenly doing a whole lot of new stuff, it’s just that the phones have changed how we do things and have made it WAY easier to get what we want, when we want it. It used to be that when we wanted music in the car, we played the radio. We picked the station, but other people chose what we listened to. Now we plug in our phones and go to Pandora, where we have stations customized to our liking. It used to be that if we were out somewhere and realized there was something we needed to buy, we had to either plan a later trip to a store that had it or at least wait until we got home to buy it from Amazon. Now practically any item is just a few clicks away. And then of course, there’s the darned accessibility–the downright convenience–of having Gmail, Facebook, Pinterest, and my favorite blogs at my fingertips at all hours of the day.
However, I’m determined to resist the siren call of the smartphone. I’m working to maintain healthy boundaries regarding where and when I choose to use it. It’s not just that I don’t want to be one of those annoying people who’s engrossed in a text conversation while someone is trying to talk to me in person. It’s not just that it’s sad to see couples sitting in silence over a delicious dinner while they’re each scrolling through Facebook (like those pictured here). I believe that when we overuse smartphones, we’re subtly redefining our whole approach to reality.
To explain what I mean, we have to go back in time a few thousand years to a philosophical and religious movement called Gnosticism. Gnostics believed that the material world (that is, the world of matter) was deeply and irrevocably flawed, because it was created in a flawed manner. Most Gnostics believe that a material world never should have been created at all; in other words, we’re ideally spirit beings, but we’re trapped in physical bodies. Gnostics believe that they possess secret knowledge about God, and that the path to salvation is transcendence–that is, pushing pasts the limits of the physical world and embracing a higher spiritual reality. What exactly such a salvation meant in practical terms was different for different Gnostic groups. Some were ascetics, while others were hedonists. Today, there are still people who self-identify as Gnostics, although the movement is much more prevalent as a philosophical offshoot other religions (Judaism, Christianity, etc.) than as its own religious movement.
I would argue that there’s a sense in which overuse of smartphones turns many of us into functional Gnostics. When I choose to continually, habitually immerse myself in an alternate reality, I’m expressing a belief that the the solution to the flaws I see in people and things around me is simply to escape from them. The worlds to which I escape are digital worlds. They usually present a version of reality that is transcendently, idealistically beautiful: perfect outfits, perfect meals, perfect parties, perfect home decor, perfect relationships.
Think about the alternate realities we spin on Facebook and Instagram. We carefully select and edit the details of our lives to conform to an often-blissful narrative. Smartphones offer me salvation in the form of release from the messy, broken physical world around me to a digital world where life is clean and beautiful (all on a budget of course). Often feeling trapped in dirty houses, tough jobs, and difficult relationships, the appeal of pushing past the physical world to a higher plane of existence is too good to pass up. No wonder that people often ignore the material world in favor of a glorious substitute.
Yes, the material world is flawed, but not simply because it is material. Yes, we need salvation, but it doesn’t come through escape. In fact, all escape does is feed our desire for more escape. And at the end of our lives, how will we view those countless hours we wasted scrolling through Facebook or pinning things on Pinterest? Probably with a lot of regret. Clearly I’m not saying that all time spent online is detrimental (obviously writing a blog here). But the fact that new tech tools have given us unprecedented access to online worlds means that if we’re not careful, there’s a real danger of becoming addicted to constantly escaping the physical world in favor of a seemingly more enlightened reality.
In other words, becoming functional Gnostics.