In Pixar’s movie Up, a talking dog named Dug meets Mr. Fredrickson, a curmudgeonly widower who is the protagonist of the story. Being a golden retriever, Dug greets Mr. Fredrickson as one might expect if golden retrievers could actually speak: “My name is Dug. I have just met you, and I love you.” Dug has a peculiar habit of breaking off midsentence and shouting “Squirrel” whenever he sees one. As in, “he made me this collar so that I may speak—Squirrel!”
As I think about the technological world in which we live, the “Squirrel” metaphor perfectly describes our level of distractability. We all experience the steady stream of buzzes, chirps, and jangles from our cell phones as we sit across from friends, family members, and co-workers. Phone calls. Emails. Texts. Snaps. Tweets. Facebook and Instagram updates. Even as I write this essay, my phone is buzzing and chirping with incoming communications. Squirrel!
Richard Foster, author of the bestseller Celebration of Discipline, writes that “Distraction is the primary spiritual problem in contemporary culture.” While I might quibble with his choice of the word “primary,” there is no question that the advent of the smartphone in 2007 has changed our world is some dramatic, and not always healthy, ways. With a smartphone in our pocket, we’re always available to the world but rarely fully present to our loved ones. We’re able to Google the answer to any factual question but are losing the ability to listen to the actual person across the table from us. We can book a trip or pay a bill or read a book but there’s no App to help us listen for and hear the voice of God.
Here are a couple of ideas from a fellow struggler as to how we might fight against our technological distractibility. 1) Don’t let your phone be the first and last thing you see every day. Author Andy Croch advocates that we charge our cell phones overnight someplace other than where we sleep. 2) Be aware of how much spare time you idle away with technology. Place limits on it. More than once have I gone to check a text, only to find myself scrolling through Facebook a half hour later! And don’t get me started on Netflix bingeing. 3) Put your phone out of reach during mealtimes, date nights, family gatherings, worship, and other important connecting times with the people you love. If someone needs to reach you, you can talk to them soon enough. No one appreciates the person who’s always saying “Squirrel!” So don’t be that person! 4) Enjoy sabbath times from technology. I’m not one for making laws, but would it kill us to put away the tech one day a week? Or one afternoon per week? Or for an evening? 5) Refuse to believe that the world will cease spinning on its axis if you put your tech away. Trust me, it won’t!
I haven’t even talked about the content of what we consume with our technology. A subject for another day. But a valuable first step would be for us to wrestle with regaining our attention spans and making sure that our tech is our servant and not our master.