Book Review: 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You, by Tony Reinke
Tony Reinke, 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You. Crossway, 2017. 224 pgs, $14.99.
Back around year 2000, I attended a Christian youth rally that filled an arena full of teens. I remember that one of the speakers expounded in length on the sinfulness of secular pop music and then offered Christian pop alternatives. The concluding message was basically this: “secular music is bad, so throw away your CDs!”
And when I got home, that’s exactly what I did.
But looking back, I can’t help but think that everyone else in the arena that night would have been better served if we were instead guided into thinking about the ways we were sinfully consuming products of popular culture.
12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You by Tony Reinke is a thoughtful exploration into how our smartphone technology can—and most likely already has—influenced how we live our lives. Beyond the obvious convenience smartphones bring into our lives, these portals to social media platforms, virtual communities, near-instant service, and continuous streams of information produce non-obvious changes that alter the ways we interact with each other and with God.
Most of us need help thinking through these challenges, many of which are now considered normal and acceptable behavior in a digital age. Whether it’s social media addiction driven by a desire for instant approval or enclaving ourselves in echo chambers of shared opinion, at the very least we must admit the prevalence of smartphones has made certain temptations more difficult to overcome. To that end, Reinke invites his readers to discuss these changes and challenges. And thankfully, unlike that youth rally I went to years ago, the conclusion of this book prompts an honest examination of ourselves at the intersection of the physical, spiritual, and digital lives.
Reinke is clear that he doesn’t simply want to villainize smartphones and other digital technologies, even as his book focuses on the negative. This is appropriate because we don’t really need a book to highlight all the benefits of smartphones. The important discussions arise when we confront behaviors like being uncharitable toward others online, mindlessly consuming digital content, and selfishly curating avatars of virtual presence. While these challenges also occur in our non-digital lives, it’s often our digital lives that rarely get observed from a biblical lens.
This book is the result of the Reinke’s careful thinking on these emerging issues, as well as his interactions with others who have done the same. Perhaps the book’s most memorable point relates to the notion that digital connectivity has greatly reduced the “friction” of relating to others. By friction, Reinke means all the awkwardness of first introductions, all the difficulties of relating with people different than ourselves, all the empathy required to listen to other perspectives, and all the attention necessary to engage with another person. It’s minimized the need to engage strangers as whole people with a full range of emotions, experiences, talents, and weaknesses. Nearly every application we use on our phones aims to reduce this interpersonal friction. This is precisely how companies like Airbnb, Facebook, Amazon, and the various chat apps gain users and make money. It’s why these applications reside on our home screen, and not a big keypad for dialing. Everything we heard growing up about not getting into stranger’s cars becomes moot when Uber makes it a part of a low-friction transaction. To be sure, this can be quite useful, but a thoughtless commitment to low-friction exchanges also has bad side effects for authentic community.
This is especially important for Christians because technology will only continue to develop in this direction. The church, on the other hand, is called to show the world what it looks like to display authentic relationships that are ultimately centered on Christ. This necessitates friction. As believers inconveniently gather to hear God’s Word preached, they embrace the challenges of caring for those different than them and hopefully welcome long seasons of sanctification that produce peculiar, Spirit-filled lives.
WHO SHOULD READ THIS BOOK?
So, who should read this book? The quick and easy answer is everyone because the book really is that good and because there’s generally a lack of well-informed literature on Christians and technology.
More specifically, this book will be useful for three groups of people.
Member of a Local Church
If you’re a believer and member of a local church, this book will be useful for both your personal discipleship and your discipling relationships with other believers. Use it to take inventory on whether or not the digital content you’ve been creating and consuming has been edifying and glorifying to God. You can ask yourself whether or not you’ve exchanged real community for virtual community, authentic relationships for easy relationships. Reinke will help you consider if you’ve become so accustomed to low-friction communication that you find yourself being uncharitable or even slanderous in your social media posts.
Pastors and Church Leaders
If you’re charged with the ministry of leading a congregation, not only would this book aid in an inspection of your own heart, but it will also help you think about how to serve those under your care. The congregation you serve is comprised of people with phones in their pockets and they need to know how Scripture is relevant to the challenges of the digital age.
It may also be a helpful exercise to think through your own use of social media, particularly how you engage people. Social media probably shouldn’t be the only way or even the primary way your members know you.
I’m going to sneak this one in here because I found Reinke’s book to be really helpful in thinking about a theology of technology. The discussions on Christians and smartphones should be a segue towards broader discussions of Christians and technology.
Much like art, innovations in technology proclaim either true or false things about God. Unfortunately, too often new technology resembles the tower of Babel, the platform on which the world proclaims its self-aggrandizing intentions and achievements. However, as the world expects technology to solve its greatest problems, Christians have the opportunity to innovate and speak about technology in such a way that points to a greater Creator, and a true Savior. You’ll find this book to be a good springboard for those discussions.