You don’t have to be the product

November 12, 2019

There’s a lot of conversation right now — in both spiritual and secular circles — about the impact of digital devices on our emotional and mental (and spiritual) health.

And I believe strongly in what the church calls “disciplines of abstinence,” such as silence, solitude, and sabbath, and their value in helping us reorient our lives toward what we value most deeply. But I also work in tech — for a software company, no less — and have made a 15-year career on the web. So it’s safe to say that I have a lot of feelings about all of this.

Our digital devices can absolutely be where consumer culture meets the digital age. Our appetites are endless and now so is the supply. Whether we’re compelled to consume news or porn or Instagram likes or Amazon items — or even good podcasts or great books or other quality content — there’s a limit to how much consumption is healthy. Some of these things have a greater potential for destruction than others, but too much of any of it can be bad for our souls.

But at the same time, not all the things we do on our devices are created equal. Consumption isn’t the sole function of your iPhone. Your digital devices can be spaces where you primarily create rather than consume.

You don’t have to be the product. You don’t have to be a slave to digital capitalism. You don’t have to distract yourself to death.

And you don’t necessarily have to turn off all your devices to do it.

That isn’t to say that a full-blown digital sabbath or digital detox or digital sabbatical is never beneficial. Sometimes addiction requires abstinence.

But I find it interesting that, in the biblical text, there are two Hebrew words that have to do with rest. The one we’re more familiar with is shabath, which literally means to cease. On the sabbath, we rest by ceasing to work. But the other is nuach, which is this idea of settling in, inhabiting, being at rest. We need to be both-and people. The kind of people who can live a life of nuach and the kind of people who, on a regular basis, also shabath.

Big Tech isn’t going anywhere. Unless you plan to join an Amish community, your life will be increasingly permeated by technology. We need to learn how to engage with technology in meaningful, healthy ways. Creation over consumption. Production over being the product. Intentionality over distraction.

What this looks like for you will vary wildly depending on your stage of life, line of work, and relationship to technology. But a few ideas for how you can practice digital rest:

  • Ruthlessly kill off notifications — especially home screen notifications. A more passive device is a less distracting device.
  • Rearrange your apps so that time-wasters are a page or two deep. This is a subtle barrier but it means having to intentionally reach for that social media or news app instead of tapping it by default when you unlock your phone.
  • Try using your lock screen and voice commands to do things. You can return a quick text, play music, call a friend, take pictures, set reminders, use alarms and timers, and more without going deeper than your lock screen. If you don’t unlock your device, you’re less likely to get sucked in to something you didn’t intend to spend time on.
  • Use both scheduled and spontaneous do not disturb. When this is on, your notifications will be completely silenced — no vibrating, no lighting up your home screen, no alerts to your watch. The only exception is phone calls from people on your favorites list (so, for example, your spouse could still reach you). If you schedule it for, say, 8pm-8am every night, you’ll be interruption-free 12 hours a day.
  • Use the scheduled downtime feature on your iPhone. You decide which apps are available during downtime; everything except the phone is unavailable by default, so you have to opt in to anything you want to use.
  • Similarly, use app limits. Set a maximum amount of time you’re comfortable spending on a given app per day. You can do this per app or for an entire category — for example, 60 minutes max on all social media, or 30 minutes on Instagram. (These limits are cumulative and reset at midnight.)
  • Turn on airplane mode. You can still listen to music that’s on your device, write notes, update your task list, read your Bible, access timers and alarms, and even read books you downloaded. No google, no social media, no news (all the praise hands).