Cell phone theology

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.

29 comments for “Cell phone theology

  1. JMS
    December 5, 2016 at 5:15 pm

    Elder Ballard to Church teachers: “Teach [students] about the challenges they face when relying upon the internet to answer questions of eternal significance. Remind them that James did not say, ‘If any of you lack wisdom, let him Google!'” https://www.lds.org/ensign/2016/12/by-study-and-by-faith?lang=eng

  2. December 5, 2016 at 5:21 pm

    We no longer live in literate culture but in a post-literate culture. Online information processing is very different than reading a text printed on paper in a book or manuscript. Many studies have been done on this, perhaps the better known are from authors like Postman, McLuhan, and Carr.

    Pre-literate cultures process information communally, and that is why ritual, dance, and music fill every corner of such cultures. Literate cultures are deeply interiorized and literacy creates levels of abstraction pre-literacy simply cannot. Post-literacy is new. It has neither the mnemonic and analogical advantages of orality nor the deep-thought reflectiveness of literacy. It’s great advantage is mass and instant communication. It’s great disadvantage is that communication tends to be homogenized into one great shallow blur—entertainments and infotainments replace deep study and logical structural thought.

    This ebbing of cognitive models has been occurring since the introduction of the internet and mass video media and is in part the reason for the mundane quality of consumable information: high emotional-low intellectual stuff. The news is a prime example, as it is now encapsulated within 30 second sound/video bites that are designed for ratings and not deep information. Politics is pop-culture driven; remember the 6 hour debates between Lincoln and Douglas where the audience would sit at the edge of their seats? No. No one can even comprehend that now.

    In Mormon culture the heavy stress on emotional payoffs over critical thinking has been going on for some time, in part because of the way we create our ideas of Spirit and Truth, and partly because few really ever read the scriptures for themselves. Reading is a perishable skill. Deep thinking while reading is something else, and in the past the proliferation of commentaries alleviated the need for deep thought—oh, now this is what Elder so and so says about it so that is what it means and I need not think of it anymore.

    Still, post-literacy I think sinks even deeper into out theological modalities. This struck me, almost by force, when viewing the new LDS temple endowment films. I fell out of my chair when I saw the first one. Very nice opening sequence, and then the acting and directing started, and all of it was geared for an emotional payoff over and above everything else. While I understand why they might go in this direction, I realized then just how dangerous this post-literacy thing can be. Epic melodrama has its place, but when it is used as holy ritual, pageantry is the result, and pageantry is the death nail to the sacred.

    So the I phone can bring us any manual and scriptural verse at any time we choose. But it brings it to us without the surrounding text. A quick link can take us immediately to a 30 second video clip of an apostle, but that 30 seconds may prevent many from the 30 minutes of reflection the reading may have once inspired. And so it goes….

  3. Jared vdH
    December 5, 2016 at 5:22 pm

    Strongly disagree. With the printed word the communication was solely unidirectional. Only those with access to a printing press could express themselves – there wasn’t even a keyboard that you spend a whole paragraph decrying. Television is similarly unidirectional. How can you substantiate the claim that television “made it possible to participate in a worldwide faith community” when all you could do was passively watch? How is that participation?

    Also your example of asking your students how to say or accomplish something in a foreign language is similarly faulty. 20 years ago those same lazy students would just have looked it up in a book of common phrases or something similar, they just wouldn’t do it in class with you watching. The same lack of cognition took place, you just weren’t there to witness it and the turn time was faster.

    “Facts that run counter to the narrative of our chosen tribe will rarely come to our attention.” How is this statement any different from newspapers of 100, 50, or 10 years ago? Or academic communities? The amount of time it took evolution to become an acceptable topic for public schools runs completely counter to your argument.

    This whole essay could have been written 50 years ago about television, or 15 years ago about the internet. Frankly I don’t see how it amounts to anything more than another entry in classic, millennia-old genre of “older generation decries the changes in the world”.

  4. December 5, 2016 at 6:35 pm

    Jared (3).
    The old saying is “the message is in the medium.” How we obtain our information is as important as the information itself because the medium has cognitive consequences, and not all mediums are “unidirectional.” Consider the vocabulary and style of letters and journals written in the 19th century by people who generally did not have access to a printing press (except for the newspaper) but who were somewhat educated, and compare that to the letter/journal writing of today, which has been reduced into To Do Lists categorized into 7 Habits of Effectiveness. It’s not that one person is more intellectual or spiritual than the other, but that there are different cognitive resources being used in a letter writing culture than in a to do list culture, and these do have intellectual consequences.

    There is some truth in what you say; it turns out lazy students in every era are unidirectional in their thinking, but reading scriptures on a scroll made of animal skin in a communal temple setting has different cognitive consequences than reading scriptures in a book within a library or reading them on a phone screen in the palm of your hand. Reading materials on the internet often reduces cognitive memory skills. People tend to skim and link as opposed to read and think. Again, lazy thinkers of each group are lazy thinkers, but the rest of the people still must think through the medium they are using, and this is almost always subconscious. It is appropriate to bring up scripture study on the phone screen as opposed to scripture study in a book. It is more than appropriate, it is necessary.

    In fact, the audio/visual culture we live in has very often irradiated habits of deep thinking, as now almost everything must be coined into attention spans which last less than 30 seconds. News broadcasts have changing images, sound, and color every 5 to 10 seconds; the old Crossfire debate style kind of news could not retain viewers, in fact if the images and sounds aren’t changing every 5 to 10 seconds then people tend to switch the channel. So these things have consequences.

    Perhaps this is why the long speeches of apostles might still have some great advantages, not the least of which is it forces some of the faithful to listen to long speeches. This too is a perishable skill.

  5. Clark Goble
    December 5, 2016 at 11:02 pm

    I’m not sure it’s an either/or. I read a ton of traditional books on my iPad. In fact I swore never to buy big books again. And, after having to move my entire library out of my basement (while dealing with sick kids) last week I definitely see the value in electronic books. If I could scan in my library I most certainly would.

    While an electronic device might bias one towards a certain kind of engagement, I’m not sure phones/tablets necessarily bias in the way you suggest. I certainly agree typing on them is a royal pain. You can always tell when I’m typing on iOS from all the autocorrect errors. But that’s partially my generation that learned to type on real keyboards. My kids who are learning first on tablets and phones are faster on those. Some people actually can type very fast on such devices. Me, I still want a full sized keyboard but I bet that’s becoming less and less common.

    All that said, I truly wish the church would invest so we could see the scriptures either in the current verse format or a more poetic or paragraph oriented format such as many translations offer.

  6. ji
    December 6, 2016 at 8:48 am

    Thanks, John. I’m an early-morning seminary teacher, and my observation is that students who use a book learn more, are more engaged, are more apt to inquire, and are more likely to make meaningful connections than those who use smartphone scriptures. No empirical evidence, though.

  7. Owen
    December 6, 2016 at 10:26 am

    Jared, I am a professional translator, so I have a lot of experience with the metaphor the OP uses. The tools I use now for sussing out unfamiliar words are much, much faster than the old way of using physical dictionaries. However, I can look up a word dozens of times in my electronic corpus without actually learning it, which was not the case for me with paper dictionaries. There was huge value in not having to look it up again. Also, I would often notice other interesting terms on the page, which never happens now. So my throughput as a human translation machine is greatly enhanced now, but my language learning is impoverished. I could fix this with some effort, but all my economic incentives and the environment in which I work push me towards knowing less and being more dependent on my tools.

  8. Owen
    December 6, 2016 at 10:29 am

    …and I do see something similar in the church, with many verses searched but few understood in context or internalized. I almost remember fewer scriptures now than I do phone numbers.

  9. Anonymous
    December 6, 2016 at 10:57 am

    Same old canard about “new fangled gadgets”. The reality is most people didn’t participate in your idealized version of searching, writing, thinking and considering at all before cell phones (aside from a limited and forced participation for a class in college).

    Now the great unwashed are at least a part of the discussion in a limited way, but people who have dedicated their lives to this process (and earn their daily bread through it) are offended by the lack of sophistication and expertise demonstrated by the masses.

    Rather like the medival church being horrified by the prospect of us little folk actually reading the bible in German or French or English.

    The more things change….

  10. December 6, 2016 at 11:39 am

    I think you need to learn to embrace a hand held form of digesting information, should you want to learn in the Celestial Kingdom.

    Then the white stone mentioned in Revelation 2:17, will become a Urim and Thummim to each individual who receives one, whereby things pertaining to a higher order of kingdoms will be made known.

  11. Owen
    December 6, 2016 at 4:38 pm

    Anonymous, your criticism is plausible, but the true measure of the argument is in the knowledge and faith of the membership. What is your experience in your Sunday School classes? Do people have a better or worse grasp of the scriptures than they did in the past? I would contend that the “fruits” of what the OP describes are indeed a significantly shallower understanding than was had in the past even by the blue collar workers and farmers in our ranks. We can all find the “right” scripture now in an instant, but even fewer people now than in the past know anything about it when they find it. Some among “the masses” as you put it didn’t know much then and don’t know much now–the question is whether more or fewer know something now and what the depth of their knowledge is. Are those who use tablets better off than those who use phones? Are those who use paper scriptures and electronic manuals better off than those who only use paper? There are all sorts of combinations people might be using and no reason to believe that there won’t be differences in effectiveness. There is no reason to believe that one specific application of a new invention (smartphones for all of one’s gospel study) is going to be an improvement, especially when that invention is a purpose-built attention sapper. When I sat with my scriptures twenty years ago as a missionary, I studied my scriptures. Now when I sit down to read on my iPhone, I usually end up on Facebook or a news site instead. Right now I should be working, but instead I’m here because these technologies have retrained my behavior and made me less focused, and I haven’t figured out how to fix myself yet.

  12. Clark Goble
    December 6, 2016 at 5:29 pm

    I’m really skeptical using paper over ebook results in a worse grasp. I’d want to see concrete studies on that. There are simply too many confounding variables to give much credence to anecdote.

    For myself I’m ebook only, although I do have problems studying with the tablet version. I usually use a computer and the web site. As I said though I do truly wish there were a study version that included many of the features electronic bibles like Logos offers.

  13. Brian
    December 6, 2016 at 5:56 pm

    Clark @12, there are, in fact, studies that demonstrate that retention and focus are both weakened when reading digital compared to print. They’ve been studying it for years.

  14. December 6, 2016 at 7:13 pm

    Clark (12)

    Here are a few links:

    Now you can find studies that contradict these findings, but the initial results lean heavy towards increased comprehension with print media as opposed to digital.

    Mind you Clark, everyone will be different, and what one looks for is large trends (generalities) that can be deconstructed by individual examples. Still, you grew up immersed in print and your transition to digital emerges from a print cognitive model. The youth have not grown up in the same cognitive model you have. In any case, such trends do take decades culminating after centuries, but the issues are real enough and already are observable.

    Look, I’m for people taking their phone in class to read scriptures. But that’s where I think it should end. Scripture study I think is more effective for most people with print media and time. That is, with study. If people can hold a deep study with digital more power to them. There are pros and cons. Truth is, as I said before, there were never really a lot of people who actually studied the scriptures before. I think all the digital media will do is give a veneer of knowledge to a lot more people while reducing the collective knowledge as a whole. The exceptions will be with the people who study their scriptures.

  15. Comet
    December 6, 2016 at 10:11 pm

    Owen #7

    So very true.
    As a former pro translator the economic incentives to maximize turn around
    at the minimal expense of time and learning were pretty intense. Some of
    that could be attributed to the piecemeal nature of the market but certainly
    much of it to technology and tools (I guess the two are probably intertwined,
    piecemeal market being abetted by the technological change).

  16. Clark Goble
    December 7, 2016 at 11:43 am

    John, I think one problem is that the screen quality affect reading. This is why older studies – especially on computer screens – found differences. It’s really only been the last few years that tablet and phone screens have reached the point they are easy to read on. With laptops even now most laptops have lousy screens. Those matter a lot.

    The other issue is how they are used. But that’s not a limit of the device than it is ones study habits. Writing by hand engages more types of memory than merely typing notes. Also the fact you have to do it slower increases comprehension. I don’t think those are in dispute. But again that’s less the devices than the habits we bring to how we use them.

    Even you note the difference between reading and studying. But ideally we should be studying. And there I simply think that electronic scriptures offer considerable advantages over traditional scriptures. It’s really how one uses them.

    I’d add again that I think for pure reading the bigger problem is less paper vs. screen than it is verse versus paragraph. That is the current format of LDS scriptures encourages an unhelpful way of reading scripture.

    Your point is good though. People don’t necessarily use electronic devices the way they do paper. As that SciAm article notes there’s always the temptation to check social media while reading.

  17. Wally
    December 7, 2016 at 12:23 pm

    Could you print this post out and mail it to me?

  18. December 7, 2016 at 6:07 pm

    Wally (17)

    LOL. So funny.

  19. Northern Virginia
    December 8, 2016 at 7:57 am

    Clark, can you elaborate on your comment “…verse versus paragraph. That is the current format of LDS scriptures encourages an unhelpful way of reading scripture.”? Not sure I get what you mean. Do you have recommendations for a new version of the Scriptures function within the Gospel Library app?

  20. Clark Goble
    December 8, 2016 at 10:48 am

    If you look at most Bible translations they break out poems in a poetic structure and put scriptures in a paragraph structure. Some of that is speculative because they didn’t have modern formatting in antiquity. However to a modern mind it reads much better. The problem with verses broken out the way our KJV does is that it obscures the large structures and narrative in preference to readings individual verses. Here’s Luke 2 done that way for example and Isaiah 52. There’s no reason we couldn’t apply that formatting to our scriptures. The original Book of Mormon was actually done in a fashion closer to that.

    I’d add that I think using the NKJV and simply licensing the translation from Oxford would be helpful too. This is a nice middle ground between using a modern translation and sticking with the KJV. It simply updates spellings and replaces archaic words or words with significantly changed meaning with modern synonyms. Here’s an example with 2 Cor 2. (It also corrects a few egregiously bad errors in the KJV due to better underlying texts)

    Ideally what would then happen is modernizing somewhat the D&C & BoM following the NKJV text. Since with the Book of Mormon Skousen has noted most of the places the translation is alluding to or following some Biblical passage this should be easy. (And of course converting “ye” and “thee” could be done with a simple search and replace)

  21. KLC
    December 8, 2016 at 11:56 am

    Northern VA, here is an amazon link to Grant Hardy’s Readers Edition of the Book of Mormon where he took an older public domain version and formatted it into paragraphs instead of verses. You click on the Look Inside function to read some of it:


    I have this book and it is remarkable how different the experience of reading and studying the BofM is when this simple change is made.

  22. MAC
    December 8, 2016 at 3:28 pm

    Does anyone know the church’s “feeling” toward the Readers Edition BoM?

    Tangential, but I’m curious about the concept of taking an older public domain version vs. the current text. Why wasn’t current text used?

  23. KLC
    December 8, 2016 at 5:21 pm

    I think it’s because the current text has been copyrighted by the church. Recent revisions make it new IP that can be copyrighted.

  24. Clark Goble
    December 8, 2016 at 6:01 pm

    I don’t know if there is an unanimous view of the Readers Edition. I do think the church wants to proceed very cautiously with any changes. However the footnotes from the early 80’s really are pretty bad. I think at a minimum they could do much better cross-indexing, references and note where a quotation takes place. Really there’s a ton they could do better. Further because most people now use (whatever its limits) the app version of the scriptures or the website the Church really has a great degree of flexibility here. It could even do incremental changes and roll them out as they are available.

    The main argument against any change is due to the huge dependency of the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants and even our theology on the language of the King James Version. Phrases can have a theological meaning and role somewhat separated or at least expanded from the original Biblical verses. Although the degree to which this actually happens in practice is I think greatly exaggerated. (The RSV of 2 Peter 1:10 for instance doesn’t affect Mormon theology that I can see for instance)

    I’d note that when it comes to non-English translations the Church has been far more open to change. It’s that use of the KJV language and phrasing by Joseph in translations and even new revelations that is pretty significant. Although in particular verses I think it’s really just idiom rather than real quotations – a way to convey meaning. So D&C 109:73 quotes Song of Solomon 6:10 but I don’t think there’s really much significance in meaning to the quotation. It’s more that the language of scripture perfused Joseph’s mind when he received revelation. (It’s somewhat common even today when people pray or give blessings – again often only loosely connected to the original context)

    I’d note relative to that example that there are some changes between the KJV and NKJV on that verse. The word “terrible” has come to have a connotation that it didn’t in the 16th century. (Interestingly “awesome” is an other word that’s changed meaning a lot)

    Who is she that looketh forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners? (KJV)

    Who is she who looks forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, awesome as an army with banners? (NKJV)

    You can see that this leaves one with a bit of a conundrum. Do you change D&C 109 to use “awesome” instead of “terrible”? It might seem minor here but I can see people wondering if there might be some significant change that happens they don’t like.

    My position is that Joseph saw scripture as pretty flexible. He repurposed a lot of the texts from the Book of Commandments into the Doctrine and Covenants. So shifting minor words like this seems like a trivial matter. However I think people note the fundamental difference between doing that as an act of prophecy such as Joseph did versus doing it to modernize language often in an uninspired (or at least less inspired) way.

  25. December 8, 2016 at 10:03 pm

    I’m all for reading different translation/versions of the Bible, as the KJV is poetically problematic, and revamping a largely superfluous footnote system in our current editions of scripture, but I don’t think this will happen anytime soon, as in, the next century. This is where the digital world could be of great advantage. As Clark said, they could piecemeal it on the digital editions. Again, I don’t think this will happen, but it would be a way to make adjustments slowly.

  26. Clark Goble
    December 9, 2016 at 12:08 pm

    I could see it happening especially relative to the footnotes. The creation of the footnotes back in the late 70’s was driven by Bruce R. McConkie’s interest as I recall. Admittedly it’s much harder today for apostles to take such interest due to the greater responsibilities due to church size. Bruce R. McConkie was able to do a lot of writing and work that today it’s hard to imagine apostles having time for. Still it only takes a few seeing it as an issue to get it done. Most of the original footnotes were automatically created using the admittedly limited computer power of the era. Today there are tons more resources such as Royal Skousen’s excellent critical text of the Book of Mormon along with numerous other works. The only real issue is people seeing it as an issue worth doing.

    There are six apostles over 80 so there’s going to be some sudden attrition over the next few years. Admittedly of the junior members you don’t see many with that interest in scholarship that others, like Oaks, have had. But it’s possible we’ll see a shift in what’s focused on as other figures become more dominant. (Recognizing again that a combination of responsibilities and the increasing age/enfeebleness of many of the apostles limit what they can do compared to say the 70’s and 80’s)

  27. ReTx
    December 10, 2016 at 2:38 pm

    “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”

    Hmmm… As an extreme introvert, I’d say the opposite is true for people like me. Online forums allow me to participate in group discussions, etc., in a way I actively avoid otherwise. I see the movement toward online interactions as a way to rebalance the huge swing toward extrovert social patterns and our love (diefication) of ‘personality’ that occurred in the early 1900s.

  28. December 13, 2016 at 12:13 am

    Jonathan, as others have said, I’m skeptical that the problems introduced by phones are either new or unresolvable. One of my law school professors told me that, before everybody had a laptop and internet, the back row of students sat reading their newspapers. With laptops he could (and now I can) at least pretend that students are paying attention.

    And, fwiw, in spite of the inherent distractions that phones are, there are ways that teachers can channel them to the good. When I teach at church (or rather, when I teach adults), I often prepare a Tumblr with relevant links and give the class the address at the beginning, so that if they want to tune out, they can read stuff relevant to the discussion. (I talk about it at https://bycommonconsent.com/2015/08/05/gospel-topics-essays-lessons-book-of-mormon-and-book-of-abraham/.)

    And I just finished a class in online teaching offered by my employer, which talked at significant length about how technology can supplement traditional teaching.

    I mean, I agree with you that the availability of phones absolutely destroys class where the teaching isn’t very good. I’ve been known to slip out of a lesson and into Twitter, and that’s a problem. At the same time, though, it presents significant valuable and pedagogically-sound opportunities. It forces us, as teachers, to change our lessons from the ones we’ve grown up with, though, and into something more engaging and active. And honestly, I think that would have been a valuable move to make, even if technology hadn’t forced it on us.

  29. Clark Goble
    December 13, 2016 at 11:35 am

    Sam my favorite scene in Real Genius was the class scene where more and more students just show up and leave a tape recorder. By the end the professor has done the same thing. (Sadly I couldn’t find a YouTube video of the scene – just a photo of it) That kind of reminds me of your comments.

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