Media change is not bad. Each new medium has enabled us to do new and important things in the sphere of belief. Writing made it possible to extend the prophet’s voice beyond mortality and to establish a canon of scripture. Television made it possible to participate in a worldwide faith community. The Internet democratized religious discussion like nothing else before it. Technology extends our abilities to write, read, think and believe. But our cell phones are impoverishing us.
It’s an unavoidable consequence of the design parameters of a mobile communications device with a video display. A device that can be comfortably carried around, held in the hand, and pressed against the ear can only be so large, around six inches by four inches at most before it becomes cumbersome. A screen of that size, held at a distance where adult eyes can focus on it, can only display a limited amount of legible text. Input methods have to compete with onscreen display space, making the devices much more capable of consumption than production. Even for merely consuming media, the ability to navigate from one screen to another is more limited, and there is almost no way to compare multiple screens simultaneously. With limited screen real estate, Google’s top result is often the only one you see.
The effects are especially pernicious for online discussion. On a cell phone screen, the space that can be devoted to each letter of a virtual keyboard is small, so mistakes are frequent. Predictive word input is faster than typing each letter, but failure modes for predictive input are more often catastrophic than with a traditional keyboard: if you type one letter wrong on a computer keyboard, a reader can usually restore the intended word, but if the cell phone typist hits the wrong word input button, the meaning of a sentence is often beyond repair. The cell phone may be the first media revolution that made communication more difficult than it was before.
All this is to say that relying on our cell phones makes it easy for us to be passive consumers of one perspective and more difficult to be active contributors to a discussion between many. And it’s already starting to undermine our gospel experience.
Cell phones replace connection and communion with the people who are physically present with self-absorption and persistent but virtual connections to the same accustomed circle of contacts. Now that we all have unlimited access to the lesson manual, any one person in class can object if the teacher strays from the manual. Even if the manual recommends that teachers personalize the lesson, all it takes is one volunteer censor. For less experienced teachers using call-and-response methods to work through the material, class members don’t even need to recall basic facts when they can just read them off the screen.
The revised youth curriculum assumes that the person teaching the lesson will transform the outline, either by using pencil and paper or by using keyboard, mouse, and screen. Teaching straight from the manual was bad before; now the results are disastrous. But it’s very difficult to do anything more than read off the screen from the source when all you have is a cell phone. And when youth are asked to teach lessons, their cell phones are how they access the lesson outline.
With my college students, I regularly ask them to figure out how to say or accomplish something in a foreign language. If they have access to their phones, they will type something into a translation app, and instantly come up with one answer that seems authoritative to them but is usually wrong in some way. Not only has nearly no cognition taken place of the type that would help them learn, but what little information that has entered their minds, however briefly and superficially, is likely to be wrong. Now imagine your cell phone answering the question not about what to say, but what to believe. It’s like clicking “I’m feeling lucky” when you’re trying to discover the meaning of life or work out your salvation, and hoping for the best.
The limits of cell phones make it very difficult to be autonomous actors in a discussion with multiple perspectives if we are dependent on them to mediate the discussion. Instead we’re largely limited to the choice of who to follow. Facts that run counter to the narrative of our chosen tribe will rarely come to our attention. Instead of considering textual complexity and wrestling with moral choices, cell phone theology is reduced to the question of who we’re going to retweet.