Evangelical Christianity has never been the most reflective tradition when it comes to our engagement with culture. We have leaned toward simplicity and reductionism: violent movies are bad, classic literature is good… and iPhones are neutral. You can use a smartphone to do bad things (like view pornography) or good things (like podcast your favorite preacher) – but the device itself is “just a tool.”
Smith is one of the insightful evangelical writers urging us to think more deeply about such matters. His contention is that simple rituals – like our daily interaction with a touch-screen device – subtly form us into a certain kind of people:
A way of life becomes habitual for us such that we pursue that way of life – we act in that way of life – without thinking about it… And such rival discipleship is effected through the most banal practices.
Consider, for example, the pervasive role that certain technologies now play in the everyday life of a middle-class North American. Every technology is attended by a mode of bodily practice… it requires some mode of bodily interface: whether we’re hunched over a desk, glued to a screen; looking downward at a smartphone, our attention directed away from others at a table; or curled up on a couch touching a tablet screen, in every case there are bodily comportments that each sort of device invites and demands… The technology affords and invites rituals of interaction.
How you handle your phone might seem to be a rather banal concern… [But] let’s not forget… what appear to be ‘micropractices’ have macro effects; what might appear to be inconsequential microhabits are, in fact, disciplinary formations that begin to reconfigure our relation to the wider world – indeed, they begin to make that world. One could suggest that our interface with the iPhone (or any other smartphone) is just this sort of microtraining… not because of the content communicated via the iPhone but because of how I interact with the device and the subtle pedagogy of the imagination effected by that intimate interface with a tiny machine. The iPhone brings with it an invitation to inhabit the world differently – not just because it gives me access to global internet resources in a pocket-sized device, but precisely in how it invites me to interact with the device itself. The material rituals of simply handling and mastering an iPhone are loaded with an implicit social imaginary. To become habituated to an iPhone is to implicitly treat the world as “available” to me and at my disposal – to constitute the world as “at-hand” for me, to be selected, scaled, scanned, tapped, and enjoyed.
…[In other words], a way of relating to a phone has now become a way of relating to the world… While we don’t go around swiping our hands in front of us to change the scenery, we perhaps nonetheless unconsciously begin to expect the world to conform to our wishes as our iPhone does. Or I implicitly begin to expect that I am the center of my own environments, and that what surrounds me exists for me. In short, my relation to my iPhone – which seems insignificant – is writ large as an iPhone-ized relation to the world.
— James K.A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 141-143 [italics are Smith’s, boldface type is my emphasis]
So… do you still think your smartphone is neutral?