How Technology Keeps Us From Thinking Deeply

Lately, I’ve been noticing more the degree to which technology is changing the ways in which we engage the world (and people) around us. One of the key ways I see this playing out is in the area of attention span – or, more specifically, the dwindling of it. The more attention we give to our technology, the more it demands. The perpetual notifications from our devices certainly don’t help in that regard, constantly pulling our attention away from things and people that are more deserving of it.

I’ve noticed this attention deficit in myself as I’ve grown accustomed to the age of web browsers and search engines. I’ll be in the middle of something when a random question pops into my mind, and often I immediately shift gears and run a search online. It sometimes even happens that in the middle of one search I’ll think of another question and open up a new browser tab for that search. Being immersed in the technology for as long as I have, my brain has gotten used to going in multiple directions at once, and my ability to focus has suffered.

In the age of so much information readily accessible, we want snippets, excerpts, sound bytes. And that’s not always a bad thing – sometimes it’s great to get right to the meat of what we’re needing. That’s largely the impetus for this website – to help find useful resources in a sea of information. But in the midst of making that our standard operating procedure, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that we risk losing context, and understanding the bigger picture of how different ideas and topics fit together.

Book sales are trending down. It’s probably not a coincidence that the beginning of the decline coincided with the arrival of smartphones.

Student utilization of university libraries has plummeted. Patronage of public libraries has remained fairly steady, but patrons are increasingly wanting more of the existing spaces converted for communal gatherings and events. (In that regard, libraries, along with coffee shops, are replacing the church when it comes to meeting peoples’ innate desire to be known). When it comes to books, we increasingly don’t want to put in the work required for a deeper understanding of topics and ideas.

And that has implications. Cultural and intellectual implications, certainly. But it has spiritual implications as well. Words, and the understanding of them, are crucial for being a follower of Jesus. Jesus is the Word.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:1-5)

We come to know and understand the “Word made flesh” by engaging the word of God. And to fully understand who Jesus is, we need to read, study, and understand God’s word, going all the way back to the first “In the beginning” in Genesis – because the story of Jesus and the character of God are woven throughout the Old Testament. There are “gospel deeps” of Jesus that can only be mined in the context of the broader story. Snippets, excerpts, and sound bytes won’t do.

But we find ourselves swimming in a sea of data, yet dying of thirst. In the words of poet T.S. Eliot:

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

We need to learn to become deep. We need to learn to say no to the distractions of our technologies and devices that keep us unfocused and shallow. We need to become deeply rooted disciples, so that in the midst of all the meaningless things pulling at peoples’ attention and affections, we’re able to stand out, and to share the Word of hope and truth to a distracted, confused, and lost world.

 

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