If ‘iPhone Culture‘ is a Beast That Devours, We Have to Kill the Beast

Like the sexual revolution before it, the technological revolution is altering our entire understanding of life, truth and reality.

(photo: Pixabay/CC0)

WWBBD? What would Bishop Barron do? If you have an interest in bringing the truth to the confused masses, this is a good question to ask. Bishop Robert Barron of Word on Fire is an exemplar of communicating the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) and even love in truth (that formulation, the reversal of St. Paul’s words, comes from the title of Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate). Really, his words have a fire in them. We don’t have Archbishop Sheen today, but we have Bishop Barron.

Which is why I’m grateful for his recent review of the movie Ingrid Goes West, which he describes as “a telling and penetrating critique of the iPhone culture that has swallowed up so many young people today”—and why I wish he had gone even further in his warning about iPhone culture, one the largest threats to souls today.

The movie follows a girl who is failing socially but is able to infiltrate the life of an internet star she idolizes, befriend her through manipulation, and ultimately lose it all as the façade crumbles. Bishop Barron has a great reflection about a closing scene where Ingrid, the main character, wakes up in a hospital after a failed suicide attempt. Instead of calling out for the young man who has been a true friend throughout the movie, she calls out, “Where’s my phone?” United with her phone she sees people have at least momentarily “loved” her through social media, because she had posted a video about how she was about to kill herself before the attempt.

You might be tempted to say “aww” here, but Bishop Barron then points out:

But then we remember Dan [the true friend], the one person, amidst an army of self-preoccupied phonies, who actually loved Ingrid for her own sake, who was even willing to suffer for her, and who in the end was the one responsible for saving her life. As this one great manifestation of grace sits at her bedside smiling, Ingrid remains preoccupied with the virtual “friends” on Instagram, people who will forget her soon enough and move on to the next internet sensation. If upon awaking, she had cried, “Where’s Dan?” instead of “Where’s my phone?” we might suspect that some substantive psychological change had occurred. We might have grounds for hoping that she had broken through the fog of virtual reality and touched reality. Alas, no.

I was struck by this observation. Reading his prophetic words was one of those moments when you see the shallow water you’re drowning in and feel pathetic in it, but are emboldened to stand up.

Bishop Barron continues:

Should we use the social media in order to communicate and make connections? Sure, but we oughtn’t to let the means become an end. Followers on Instagram and friends on Facebook are, at best, simulacra of the real thing. So let’s, at least from time to time, put down our phones so that we don’t miss the grace of real friendship and real intimacy that might be on offer.

This is a point I think could be taken even further. Because he’s right: the means have become an end. The iPhone culture has become a beast that “has swallowed up so many young people today.” We can’t just leave them in the belly of that beast and hope they put the phone down and look around now and then at the ribs and guts and things.

Things like the “grace of real friendship and real intimacy” are not meant to be experienced merely “from time to time.” If we use smartphones at all, that is what should be only “from time to time.” We need a reversal of a dominant order, not a tweaking of it. If we are really being swallowed, we need knives to cut open the beast’s belly and claw our way out of his putrid innards.

The technological revolution has not yet been dealt with seriously by the Church, even though it is becoming more apparent that it is altering our entire understanding of life, truth, relationships and reality. I think as we can now look back and see the harm of the sexual revolution and wish the Church had spoken more clearly—yes, St. John Paul II tried—so too we will look back on the current revolution and recognize that something momentous happened and we were asleep. The new world of media has stormed a whole world so quickly and forcefully and with such questionable outcomes, I can’t help but picture Jesus awake in a boat with the storm raging and the apostles are all asleep. We know that social media and the trajectory of modern technology is pushing us toward isolation, depression, and a metaphysical disorientation that makes prayer and even the desire for truth nearly impossible, yet we seem to lack the courage to question it seriously.

We don’t even really care that we are somewhat “owned” by the dominant tech companies. You think all of this social stuff is really free? As they say, when it’s free, you’re the product. You are being given a drug, led to addiction, and then packaged and sold to advertisers. We serve their ends. “Facebook and Google effectively are surveillance states,” said Chamath Palihapitiya, a former Facebook executive. “And they have so much personal, private information about so many citizens of so many countries." Do you even care? The one who’s giving you your high also holds all your information. Is there at least some problem with that? If this isn’t bothersome, we at least should be challenged to stop pretending we are evangelizing, “relaxing,” and just trying to stay up to date on distant aunts with our media—it’s the dopamine high that we get. We’re addicts. We need it. We’re stuck with it. Don’t sanitize your inability to experience life without a technological wet nurse to walk you through it all.

I think the problem is that we still see the technologies on our screens as essentially “tools,” to be used wisely as all tools are. This is silly. Technology is not neutral. If I place a hammer and your phone on a table, which ones begs for you to pick it up and be absorbed in its ability as a “tool”? “When holding a hammer the whole world looks like a nail,” is an old saying, but at least the hammer has you look outward at the world ready to use the tool, even if unwisely. A phone calls you to itself, away from the world. You pick up a hammer and use it, maybe, but the allure that apps and social medias employ pick you up. To them, the whole world looks like a bunch of despairing souls looking for a new drug. The hammer is used to connect you to a work so specific that, if you miss, the failure is obvious. The phone is an alternative world that you are connected to, one that becomes so absorbing that you would never, ever, consider taking the hammer and smashing the phone.

Neil Postman in Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology displays with penetrating accuracy the rise of technology and it’s overtaking of culture. “Technopoly is a state of culture,” Postman claims. “It is also a state of mind. It consists in the deification of technology, which means that the culture seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfaction in technology, and takes its orders from technology.”

It’s hard to argue with him as he shows, in a book-length string of examples, that we receive “reality” from technology and pass our experience of it back through technology. (Stop and consider what that means.) If we happen to be moved by something in real life, we quickly retrieve a device to get it on a screen, because only then is it real. I’ve been growing a little farm for almost six years, but only this year I made a website. When I showed it to a friend, who has been aware of what we are doing the whole time, he said, “Wow! It’s like a real thing now!”

John Senior said that the fruit of relativism is that things will always be tainted with artificiality and sentimentality. Relativism, combined with the ideology of the “technologists,” as he called them, leads us to be unable to enjoy, experience, and dwell in the truth in itself. Because we do not believe in truth, in real things, we can only hope in artificially creating the sensation of experiencing a real thing. This is what your “feeds” are—endless bits of artificially induced sensations used to keep you hooked to the nothingness of it all. And we’re even OK with knowing it’s a façade, the way an addict knows a drug destroys them, but loves the drug for the high anyway. It’s a form of nihilism.

I cannot support my family without using technology, but I just pray that we are able to use the Matrix and still escape it. Perhaps I lack the courage or creativity or boldness to take more drastic measures. The inability to escape it proves the title of Postman’s book, Technopoly, the monopoly of technology over our lives. I think leaders, especially the bishops, need to see technology not so much as a vehicle of problems, but something of a problem itself. The form of the screen itself needs to be considered, not just what’s on it. We need more than warning of temperance (“put that thing down every now and then”), but completely new forms of life and learning and communicating that are free of the consuming effect of media in our lives. We need to be called out on our inability to live a culture without media, because culture itself has been “surrendered,” as Postman puts it.

This has all happened so quickly that we have yet to realize what we have lost. It’s time to recognize our poverty and look for alternatives. We need to take hammers to things, not just hitting the off-button now and then. We at least need to stop and ask decent questions. What are we losing? What can still be regained? “Through [the rise of technopoly],” says Postman, “the question of what was being undone had a low priority if it was asked at all. The Zeitgeist of the age placed such a question in a range somewhere between peevishness and irrelevance.”

The Church, in the world’s eyes, is always viewed as “somewhere between peevishness and irrelevance,” but the world is always wrong in the end, even if right for a time. Perhaps there’s a sweet spot there for speaking the truth. Postman claims that all institutions that provided meaning and culture are now gone, surrendered to the machine. Perhaps, then, only a divine institution that cannot be undone is one that needs to be speaking much more boldly. If, as Bishop Barron said, the “iPhone culture” is “swallowing up” our young people, wouldn’t a bolder intervention be in order?