“Luddite. Broadly, one who is opposed to especially technological change.” According to Merriam-Webster, this is not me. But my kids, their friends, and even some of their parents think I am. Why? Because I (along with my wife) am concerned with the long-term effects of ubiquitous exposure to information- and entertainment-based technology. Especially for children. And especially video and computer games. It has appeared to me for some time that screen-medium games are uniquely addictive. They seem to possess a powerful ability to create an insatiable desire for more of the same to the detriment of a normal well-rounded life. I wish there were more readily available psychological and sociological studies (and popular level distillations) on the question of what electronic media are doing to us. But until there are, I’ll keep thinking about it with the insights from others who are asking these same types of questions. If my technological concerns sound like they’re out of left field, then you probably need to read a book like The Next Story: Life and Faith After the Digital Explosion, by pioneer blogger, published author, and thoughtful pastor Tim Challies.
The Next Story is not really about games at all. Its subject is more general. The author’s premise is that we are in the midst of a digital revolution that is changing the way people relate to, interact with, and live in the world. We have reached the point as a society where technology and our use of it is changing us in profound and fundamental ways. And there is no going back. In such an unprecedented, strange new world, how do we find our way? How do we remain masters of our technological devices without being mastered by them? How ought we to think about our technology: is it good, bad, or indifferent? What are the hidden costs of new technology—in other words, how might something harm us in not-so-obvious and unadvertised ways? These and other questions drive Challies to pursue theoretical, theological, and practical answers. The first part of the book (chapters 1-3) is primarily theoretical, while the second part (chapters 4-9) is both theological and practical.
Some of the most practical discussion sections are organized into “asides.” The first aside (Talk to Your Tech) is a brief article explaining how a user ought to ask questions of his technology. Not that one should expect robotic answers. That would be too easy! Rather, these questions help us to think carefully about what a particular technology is all about. How should you “talk to your tech?” Ask:
- Why were you created? This is the teleological question. Discover what a technology was designed to do, and you should not be surprised it does it better than you expect.
What is the problem to which you are the solution, and whose problem is it? This is the pragmatic question. Just because a particular technology can do something better than you can, that doesn’t necessarily mean you need it to work for you.
- What new problems will you bring? This is the unintended consequences question. For example, as laptop owner my device allows me to do and access so many things that I couldn’t do without it. But now I find myself spending time and resources upgrading programs, I’m now nearsighted because I log so much screen time, and I need to more intentionally exercise because laptop time is sedentary time.
- What are you doing to my heart? This is really the big one—the idolatry question. Am I controlling my device, or is it controlling me? Am I able to easily wrest control back of my heart, or would I go into withdrawal if I gave it up? Why do I want this technology? Is it enabling me to serve my heart idols—what I really want?
The second aside offers seven steps for families to consider when the time comes to bring a new media or technology into the home. These steps are nothing really novel. Parents naturally go through these steps in an organic fashion on many topics. But somehow, we tend to give new technologies a pass. Do we assume they are neutral or innocent fun without any significant cost of ownership? Here are the steps:
- Educate. Learn what you are getting yourself and your household into. Learn to ask the right questions about a device.
- Fence. Establish usage boundaries. What time of day, or what days of the week, will your new technology be turned off and inaccessible? What do you expect to gain from fences?
- Mentor. Train your family how to properly use the new technology according to your values. Praise good decisions. Help them understand poor decisions.
- Supervise. Provide accountability for your household as they use a new technology. Eliminate the expectation of unlimited access and privacy.
- Review. Check how the new technology is being used in your household. Are your fences and supervisory structures being heeded? Do you need to change anything about your strategy?
- Trust. Growth and maturity should earn greater freedom and trust. This is a good thing, because the goal should be responsible usage without too much supervision.
- Model. Makes sure you walk the walk. Your usage standards and rules should apply to you too. Don’t be a hypocrite. Stay accountable. Model a lifestyle of technological restraint to demonstrate you own the device, not the other way around!
In part two of the book, each chapter concludes with a series of questions for reflection. These are invaluable for getting the reader out of the theoretical and getting personal. If you pause and give a few moments thought to answer the questions, they will force you to deal with your habits and your heart. For any reader who skims or skips these, the book will surely prove to be a waste of time. But personal reflection leading to application promises to pay many times over for the time spend reading the book.
Which leads me to the one weakness of The Next Story. It’s just too long and wordy. I don’t fault the author, but the editor. I suspect the target length was about 200 pages to give the appearance of lots of content. The same message could be conveyed in 100 pages. My wife and I started reading it together with high hopes, but she lost interest with all the repetition and review. The only reason I pressed on with the whole thing instead of skimming for highlights was to write this review. Being able to intelligently recommend a useful book that I have read from cover to cover is worth the labor to gain that credibility. Thankfully the last chapter is a summary of sorts. If you come across The Next Story in the bookstore, carefully read the closing argument and you’ll get the gist of what Challies is trying to say.