Life After the Dash from Zero to Two Billion

A review of two recent books on smartphones and social media.

This article originally appeared in The Gospel Coalition, 7 June 2017.

Winston Churchill’s tribute to the architecture of the House of Commons—“We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us”—has endured as an aphorism because material culture, like buildings, so often slips into the background. Only when we’re compelled to pay attention—as happens when we experience the disorientation of cross-cultural travel or when, as in Churchill’s generation, we must rebuild buildings that had been suddenly destroyed after standing for centuries—do we really see the reflexive power of culture, the ways that human life is shaped by material things.

But none of us can miss the most striking change in material culture in our lifetime. In a single decade we have dashed from a world with zero smartphones (if you don’t count the clunky pre-2007 ancestors of the iPhone) to a world with 2 billion of them. We’ve taken a kind of cross-cultural trip to a new world stuffed with glowing rectangles—and apparently, we’re traveling on a one-way ticket. We’re still getting over the jet lag, and the queasy discovery that although we bought these devices because of what they promised to do for us, they’re also doing something to us.

Artists and writers help us pay attention to how our culture shapes us, bringing hidden cultural patterns to light, putting them in context, and ideally restoring in us a sense of agency and possibility rather than passivity and inevitability.

This is one reason we need artists and writers (and Churchill was both). They help us pay attention to how our culture shapes us, bringing hidden cultural patterns to light, putting them in context, and ideally restoring in us a sense of agency and possibility rather than passivity and inevitability. That is very much the aim and the result of two important, though different, recent books: Tony Reinke’s 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You and Donna Freitas’s The Happiness Effect: How Social Media Is Driving a Generation to Appear Perfect at Any Cost.

Reinke—a senior writer for—writes with heartfelt passion as a Christian: “Eternity, not psychology, is my deepest concern.” Freitas—who teaches at Hofstra and collaborates with Christian Smith’s Center for the Study of Religion and Society at Notre Dame—writes with the more measured, though still empathetic, voice of a scholar and researcher. But their perspectives converge on what you might call hopeful alarm—a conviction that our devices are busily shaping us into people we never wanted to be, along with at least a glimmer of promise that we can find a path out of our mediated mess.

Better Way

Reinke begins his book with “a little theology of technology,” which is fundamentally a reminder of the good, God-given, and constructive role of all human culture in the “garden-to-city unfolding of history.” Like many authors, he treats all of humankind’s skill- and tool-based transformation of the world as equivalent to “technology”: “a trajectory of shovels, sickles, and horse-drawn plows, and then tractors, irrigation systems, and now GPS-guided (and GPS-driven) equipment.” I think treating this as a single trajectory is misleading—if technology were just more tools, we wouldn’t need a new word for it. There’s a wider and more significant gap embedded in those transitional phrases “and then . . . and now” than Reinke implies. Still, he’s right that this whole story is part of the larger human calling to cultivate and create in the world, with potentially glorious results.

But when he gets to the real subject of this book, every one of his “12 ways your phone is changing you” is about a deficiency, a change in the wrong direction—“we are addicted to distraction,” “we fear missing out,” “we get comfortable in secret vices,” and so forth. If the job of every Apple ad is to portray the smartphone as a gleaming gateway to childlike wonder and fulfilling relationships with beautiful people, Reinke’s book is the anti-Apple ad, pointing out how often our smartphones cut us off from real life. His “12 ways” are artfully constructed to show both the superficial results of our device obsession and its deeper consequences for the health of our souls and bodies, and the grave threat they pose to our ability to fulfill the great commandment to love God and love our neighbor. 

This would seem overly negative if we didn’t all sense that it was true. In fact, I suspect it’s in the very nature of technological devices that they cannot change us, except for the worse—and it’s exactly this quality that separates tractors, irrigation systems, and GPS-guided equipment from the shovels, sickles, and even horse-drawn plows our ancestors used. Those tools required and formed both character and skill, and sometimes even wisdom and courage. Our devices, on the other hand, disburden us (to use the term of philosopher Albert Borgmann), but in doing so they also lose their capacity to form us in either body or soul. No wonder we sense that our smartphones are diminishing our power to be truly human—people of wisdom and courage, growing in love of God and neighbor—even as they vastly expand our capacities in other ways.

But alongside Reinke’s discerning critique, he offers useful pointers toward a better way. He concedes that few people are going to become “digital monks.” (It occurred to me, reading this, that going truly device-free, just 10 years into the smartphone era, is already just as impossibly radical a step for most of our neighbors as a vow of celibacy or poverty or obedience.)

Instead he does what good pastors have done for centuries when faced with the complexities and compromises of their people’s “secular” (i.e., non-monastic) life: offer simple disciplines and boundaries that can keep our misguided passions and trivial pleasures in check, and offer a vision of the good life that is far better than what the world can offer. You finish the next-to-last chapter of 12 Ways feeling like (1) you probably should just throw away your smartphone, (2) you probably won’t, and (3) by God’s grace, it’ll probably still be okay.

And then, in an elegant epilogue that draws on G. K. Chesterton, Reinke calls us to wonder and worship in a way that makes all our infatuation with our smartphones, and our anxiety about them, seem small and ultimately inconsequential next to the glory that is going to be revealed. Which is probably the best way to keep your phone from changing you. 

College Students and Their Social Media Use

Freitas’s The Happiness Effect is both more restricted and more expansive than Reinke’s. She limits herself to a single topic—the effect of social media on the lives of college students—that turns out to have myriad dimensions, each of them explored in informative, artfully crafted chapters on selfies and self-image, sex and sexting, public and private identity, and more. 

The method is the same as in her groundbreaking book Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America’s College Campuses—in-depth interviews correlated with broad surveys of students on secular, Catholic, and “Christian, non-Catholic” (in practice, I think this generally means evangelical) campuses. Sex and the Soul demonstrated both the dominance of hook-up culture (on secular and Catholic campuses, at least), which is widely acknowledged, and also the incredible ambivalence students felt about it, which is not. Likewise, The Happiness Effect leaves no doubt that social media play a huge role in the lives of college students—in this case, there doesn’t seem to be any discernible difference between evangelical-college students and their secular and Catholic peers—but it also shows just how uneasy almost all students feel about social media and its demand for a constant presentation of public perfection.

Freitas is amazingly free of alarmism given the alarming trends she writes about. If you tend to be in the “society is going to hell” school (my own tendency, I’ll admit), Freitas will introduce you to students who are disarmingly thoughtful and articulate and show flashes of real wisdom and courage. Only a handful of her subjects—such as a trolling, online-bullying fraternity bro who shows no signs of self-awareness or remorse—are unsympathetic or evidently mired in addiction and pathology. There’s a bit of “the kids are all right” in Freitas’s tone, born of her admirable respect and even love for the students she interviews.

Now, Freitas’s subjects are a lucky bunch. All of them, by virtue of being at a residential college or university, are winners in their generation’s educational and financial lottery (even if they’ll have student debt to pay later). Social media may be less benign for the half of American adults their age who aren’t in school (not to mention the 30 percent of young men who are neither in school nor working). Age 18 and older, her students are old enough to resist the worst pressures of social media—though many of them narrate harrowing experiences from middle and high school. They’re charmingly dismissive of dating apps like Tinder—which Freitas finds plays a surprisingly small role in their lives.

But of course they would be. Right now they’re surrounded by thousands of other available young men and women their age—in a few short years, many of them will be living far more isolated lives in cities where, I’m told, the average Tinder user spends eight and a half hours a week swiping. For that matter, they live, most of them for the last time in their lives, in a community that integrates work, play, and daily life in a genuine, embodied community, all within walking distance. In one sense, Freitas could hardly have picked a research group more sheltered from technology’s worst effects.

Even with all these advantages, Freitas’s subjects still seem shell-shocked, looking for the exit from the world the app-makers have built for them. My generation leapt onto Facebook as fast as we could—this generation is shyly shuffling off, leaving only the most anodyne, employer- and grandmother-approved shell of themselves behind. They take refuge in the privacy of Snapchat or (less healthily) the total anonymity of Yik Yak, the one social network Freitas comes the closest to unequivocally condemning. (Happily, its end seems nearer now than it was during her research.) She finds very few “digital monks” who can give up social media entirely—it’s too useful, for one thing, in streamlining communication and keeping up friendships—but she finds plenty who are looking for ways to limit its effects. 

She also finds a few who seem genuinely at home, both in the real world and on social media—and the great gift of The Happiness Effect, as with Sex and the Soul, is how attentive Freitas is to religion and students’ own religious lives. The handful of students who seem to have found a genuinely healthy, peaceful way to make the most of social media turn out to have deep religious—and for the most part specifically Christian—roots. There’s Jennifer, who seeks to uplift others, share her faith, and glorify God in everything she posts. There’s Jae, whose keen observations about the potential of social media to be “idolizing” strongly suggests he has read Reinke. He simply quit Facebook when it became an idol for him (though he’s still on Instagram). And there’s Jose. Freitas’s description of him is worth quoting at length:

When Jose mentions having “to be careful” about what he posts during our interview, he is talking about making sure that his posts about his faith are authentic and rightly intended. . . . Among the students I interviewed, Jose is virtually unique in the authentic way he uses social media. . . . [W]hat sets him apart is that he appears to express genuine feelings online, which is something most young people are afraid to do. As with Jennifer, this appears to be driven by his commitment to God. Also, like Jennifer, posting with God and faith in mind seems to energize Jose rather than demoralize him. 

It’s a beautiful, and rare, moment in the book—a picture of someone who, against all odds and very much in the minority, has found a way to be true both to himself and to God, even on social media.

Reshaping Our Smartphones

Winston Churchill uttered his famous words about buildings shaping us in 1943, urging that the House of Commons be rebuilt even while the war that had destroyed it was still going on.

Ten years into the smartphone era, we have many reasons to be thankful for their benefits. But it’s not hard to see that some important things are crumbling around us as well. Reinke and Freitas not only help us see the cracks in the system; they also point us in a more constructive direction.

Our phones have shaped us. It’s time for us to do some shaping in return.