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The Next Story: Life Changes

Yesterday I wrote about my desire to be a doer when it comes to the convergence of technology and theology, media and Christian living. I do not want to write a book full of prescriptions that I choose to ignore. And so, as I’ve dedicated increasing amounts of time to research, I’ve begun to examine my own life, my own use of technology and ultimately, its use of me.

Today I’d like to give three quick examples of the ways I’ve had to change my own life as I’ve thought about what it means for me to live in a distinctly Christian way in this media-saturated world. Maybe in the book I’ll write about some of these in greater detail. For now, I will be brief. Each of these is simply a way I’ve found that I can step just a little bit outside the torrent of media and information that always seems so close to overwhelming me.

I recently came to the realization that email owns me. A good technology that should be at my disposal has instead taken over and put me at its disposal. And if you’ve read Postman you’ll know that technology is very good at this. No sooner do we put a technology in our service than we find that it has so changed our lives that suddenly we have become enslaved to it.

When I find myself compulsively glancing at my screen every time I walk by, hoping to see an icon telling me I’ve got a new message, when I unthinkingly pull out my iPhone to check to see if I’ve got any new email, I realize I’ve got a problem. When I sit in meetings with email open, glancing as often to the screen as to the person speaking, I understand that something has gone wrong. Somehow I’ve given email more than it deserves. In my mind I’ve made it into something it is not and something it should never be. Email was never meant to be the first thing I look at in the morning or the last thing I look at before bed.

Hear me when I say that email is not a bad thing. It’s not a good thing either, really; it’s just a thing. I wouldn’t want to say that email is somehow innately destructive. It is an excellent medium for communication and one that serves many purposes very well. It is exceptionally efficient, at least when at its best, and gives us amazing levels of instantaneous access to one another. I wouldn’t want to cut it out of my life and certainly do not intend to.

But email is demanding, especially when given the reins. Recent scientific studies show that there may well be some kind of a correlation between the psychology of email and the psychology of slot machines. A variable interval schedule, as psychologists might know it, draws us back time and again, hoping for the occasional payout. Though most of the time there is no payout when checking email, just like there is usually all cost and no payout when playing slots, there is always the promise of something great. Occasionally we may win a jackpot and occasionally we may get a bit of very good news by email. But most of the time there is no payout at all. Yet our brains seem hard-wired to keep searching, to keep driving us back to the inbox, hoping against hope.

So what have I done? I’ve made email something that I’ve scheduled into my life. Let me back up just a little bit. Thinking about the nature of email and the kind of messages I receive via email, I realized that my mind had been tricking me. Really there was only very, very rarely any exceptional good that could come to me via email—the news that my book proposal had been accepted, the news that a friend had safely delivered her child. Far more often than not my email varies between junk and normal—spam and interesting yet ultimately non-urgent and non-life-changing communiques from friends and family. Such emails are easy to schedule into certain times of day; there is no reason to monitor them on a constant basis. And so I now check email only occasionally—two or three times a day seems to be sufficient. So far I don’t see that it’s had even the smallest amount of negative impact. I do not access email at all in the evenings and have cut far back on the weekends (by way of example, I checked once this past Saturday and not at all on Sunday).

It has shocked me to see that the world keeps turning even when I don’t constantly monitor email. Who would have thought it could be possible? Life goes on.

So much for email. I’ve also stopped gratifying my urge to instantly search for anything that interests me. Very often I find my mind wandering to a person or a topic and before I know it, I’m sitting at a computer and typing the search into Google. Just this evening I had the urge to search for information on Elizabeth Edwards, a book titled How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read and feedback on the new Facebook upgrade. I would then have blown fifteen minutes satisfying these impulses. I have seen that in this wired world knowledge about has become far more important than knowledge of, that the great virtue is in instant access to information. I’m going to try to stop catering to that desire. Instead, I’ll scratch things down in a notebook and look them up later. Or, more often than not, I’ll forget to look them up at all and be no worse off for it. I want to spend far less time searching out new information and more time reflecting on the information I’ve already got.

And this feeds into the third change I am making. Yesterday I went looking for books dealing with distraction. As I did so, I had a video clip playing in a different window and found that I was constantly flipping back and forth between them. The irony was not lost on me. For a long time I’ve been conflicted about A La Carte. It is a feature of this blog that has become quite popular—when people talk to me about what they like about the blog, it is probably second from the top of the list (immediately after book reviews). When I began it, some 1050 posts ago (the first one was in the summer of 2005 and I’ve been quite regularly updating it five times a week since then) I saw it as an opportunity to share a few of the things that had caught my attention the day before. To be honest, it did not evolve much beyond that. It continues to be a bit of a brain dump, or a link dump, if you prefer.

Two things have come to bother me about it. The first is the regular juxtaposition of information. Here I’ll have a story about a terrible natural tragedy that brought about massive loss of life, and right below it I’ll have a link to a silly video parody of something completely unrelated. Somehow that doesn’t seem right to me. The second thing that bothers me is the way it has become a force for distraction. I don’t think any of us really need most of the information we can find through A La Carte. It’s mostly just mindless entertainment, even the best of it. The messages implicit in A La Carte are that we can skim lots of things, but really read nothing; that all news is really just a form of entertainment. It downplays thought and reflection at the expense of immediacy and variety. The messages get lost in the medium.

So here is the plan for A La Carte. It is not going away; it is just changing. What I want to try is to post a single link every day through A La Carte. Rather than posting a list of links that caught my eye, I’ll post a link to a single story along with an assessment of why it is important. If I haven’t found anything particularly important, I won’t post at all. I do not want to be another force of distraction. I want you to know that if I link to something, it is worth your time and attention. Stay tuned tomorrow for the first iteration of the new A La Carte. We’ll see how it goes.

So those are the three changes I’ve already made. They are small things, I’m sure, but they are not without significance. Like so many people, I feel as if technology owns me as much as I own technology. More so, even. I’ve got amazing gadgets and gizmos available to me and each of them plays its own role in my life. I just need to make sure that they are in my control, rather than handing them the reins and following blindly behind them. I think I’ve done far too much of that already.