I remember when the iPhone was a novelty. It was the Fall of 2009. My uncle was the first in my family to own one, and he showed my sister and I the games he had on his phone, including Wild West Pinball, a game with penguins, and a shotgun simulation. We were excited. For the next three years, we begged him every time he was in town (he traveled much for work) to play games on his phone. Indeed, this was just his personal phone. He still used a BlackBerry for work.
Fourteen years later, smartphones have shifted from a luxury, to a mainstay, to an inevitability – one quite a few people are sick of. Testimonies abound on how freeing it is to delete social media entirely. Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon all faced multiple antitrust lawsuits across the world in the past few years. Digital detox and device-free retreats have been discussed for over a decade. I imagine they are ever more relevant today after the Covid-19 lockdowns, which imposed an artificial, proprietary way of living on the public, whether individuals wanted it or not. Today, I found a project page selling the parts to build an “un-smartphone” with a rotary dial! It’s tagline: “A cell phone. You know…for making CALLS.”
Over those 14 years, I grew more detached from smartphone games. I never made a social media account. I went through a few flip phones before buying a smartphone — the PinePhone, free of Apple and Google, which runs the same Linux-based operating system as my laptop.
Indeed, I only use my phone to make calls or receive texts. Occasionally, I use it as a Wi-Fi hotspot during emergencies (e. g. I need to reinstall my laptop’s operating system and cannot do so because I cannot access the Gordon Wi-Fi through the installer). Besides that, it usually sits on a shelf above my desk in my room, only to be taken out when I am driving, expect to be on short notice, or plan to make a call. I have a laptop for everything else, as well as a journal.
Recently, Gordon shifted from a chapel-checking system based on scanning student IDs as they leave the chapel to a system that requires them to have a smartphone – specifically, a smartphone run by Apple or Google. Students use the iAttended app to scan a QR code as they enter and again as they exit the chapel.
Upon hearing about this change, I was indignant. I shook my head repeatedly and got ready to boo when the plan was announced. Because my phone runs Linux, I had to ask a member of the chapel staff for an alternative plan.
Today, a few weeks later, the new system does not even fulfill its original stated purpose: To reduce lines out of chapel. Originally, students typed a code from the chapel screen into the app before leaving. However, this has shifted to having students scan another QR code while exiting, producing similar lines out of the chapel as the old student ID system. Even under the old ID system, I saw many students socialize around the Bell as they waited until their next class. I never had a problem with the ID system, even though some students did.
This system, like the wellness checks during the pandemic, presumes that students carry their phones with them everywhere they go. The iAttended tagline says enough: “Students live on their phones. Shouldn’t their chapel records live there too?” No! Just because students live on their phones does not mean that students should live on their phones. The marketing team at iAttended has stumbled into the is-ought fallacy, known by Hume and Kant: Maintaining the status quo for its own sake.
The idea of students “living” on their phones conjures up terrifying images. For example, Ready Player One by the notorious Ernest Cline, a hodgepodge of 1980s pop culture references in which the main characters live their whole lives in an MMORPG and see that as a good thing. Or we think of a student or young adult who spends ten hours a day playing games and browsing through social media. If only humans eliminate the need to sleep and are even able to feed themselves virtually – then we can live in cyberspace!!!
Even when not taken to these extremes, though, I lament that students rely on their smartphones for more reasons than I can list in this article. Major smartphones collect all kinds of data — from the calls a user makes to the temperature of the phone — and sell it to advertising companies. These companies then filter content and target ads in an effort to remake users in their image. Similarly, iAttended stores its data with Google, which profited immensely from Covid-19 and now faces a pivotal antitrust lawsuit.
But these privacy scares are only the beginning.
With the phone in the pants pocket or in our hands (it is almost never fully off) we are tempted to look down at our screens as we walk, eat meals with friends, or during chapel, making us unable to be fully present. Although notifications can be turned off, even having my phone with me and on – mainly when I expect to be on short notice – causes me to feel less free than I do when I leave my phone in my room or stowed away in my backpack.
Some may say that the negative effects of smartphones can be minimized by self-discipline, lectio divina podcasts, other mindfulness apps, or audiobooks. However, I find them to be fundamentally flawed. No matter what you do, you are still only renting your phone, and you are beholden to Apple, Google, Microsoft, and others, including many unnamed data brokers. Their ethical principles include forcing users to buy new devices every few years, even though little has changed — they treat the user as a product.
God made all humans in his image, with creativity, reason, etc., so why should we as believers indirectly endorse an establishment that treats people as though they are inanimate objects? Our faith in Christ is not a spiritual cherry on top of the dominant culture, but our center, transforming our minds. Christ demands our all.
Gordon’s students and the chapel office should choose what is true, good, and beautiful over what is popular, practical, and cheap. We are called to be at the forefront of embodying Christ’s presence in an age of absence.
Categories: Student Life