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Technology and Worship -- And Worshipping Technology

I’ve often wished there was an easier way to switch my devices into a sort of “Sabbath mode.”


A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.

Something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit recently is the role of technology in worship. I’ve read some really interesting stuff over the last few years about the relationship between technology, worship and religion. As a person of faith, but also as a person who uses technology quite a bit and works in the technology industry, I’m very conscious of the role both these things play in my life, the ways in which they can sometimes be in conflict, but also the ways in which they come together.

Technology and mindfulness

One of the challenging things about technology is it is having a significant impact on our ability to spend time in what I might call mindfulness, whether that’s in some sort of formal prayer or other worship, or whether it’s a more secular form of meditation or even thoughtfulness. I was talking with someone at an industry dinner last night who said he was noticing more and more people he knew were taking time to meditate. I suspect the reason is that technology — and especially our smartphones — are soaking up more and more of our “dead time,, the time we might have otherwise spent being contemplative. I think we’ve lost something as a result of this penetration in our lives by our technology.

And yet technology can be a part of the solution here, too. It was interesting to see Craig Federighi use a meditation app during one of his demos at WWDC this year, and such apps have been part of making mindfulness available to people without having to go through traditional classes or groups. But we still have to make a deliberate effort to spend time in these activities. There’s a danger that we spend so much time caught up in our devices, our social networks, sports scores and who knows what else, that we never take time to sit back and really think and ponder what’s most important in our lives, whether that be our faith, our families or our friendships.

Sabbaths and technology

Some of the most interesting articles I’ve read over the years on this subject relate to the ancient concept of the Sabbath, and the ways in which observance of a special day set aside each week can help with this overdependence on technology. In some faiths, the use of technology on these Sabbath days is discouraged or prohibited. So it provides a day of complete disconnection from these distractions and the negative influences they can have on our lives.

I certainly try to make my Sabbath a separate day, a day to disconnect from work and from other day-to-day activities like watching TV, sports, social networking and so on. But what’s interesting is technology is that actually still a very important part of my Sabbath worship. I have my Scriptures and other religious materials on my phone and tablet, I use a computer to research and prepare lessons when I have to teach on Sundays, and my church has recently been encouraging members to use digital versions of religious materials rather than costly and environmentally impactful paper books and magazines. This coming weekend, my church will have its semiannual general conference, and we’ll be watching the proceedings in our home through streaming video on our television.

A key challenge associated with all this is that the same devices I use for these religious purposes on Sundays are the ones that carry the day-to-day distractions like email, sports scores, social networks and all the rest. This can make it tough to make the kind of clean break on my Sabbath. I still get interrupted by notifications and prompts to exercise from my Apple Watch. I’ve often wished there was an easier way to switch my devices into a sort of “Sabbath mode” — I would turn off certain notifications along with activity tracking. But the reality is that, as adults, we have to take responsibility to control our own actions and take time to ensure a proper balance between the various facets of our lives. On a monthly basis, I engage in a 24-hour fast from food and drink, and I find this monthly exercise gives me the self-control I need to make wiser choices about what I consume the rest of the month, too, and technology “fasts” can be helpful in much the same way.

Families, kids and technology

I know a lot of parents worry about the amount of time their kids spend absorbed in their devices and their inability to form proper social relationships when so many interactions with their friends are mediated by devices rather than face-to-face. I suspect that some of this concern is overblown — each generation has always found its own ways to communicate and stay in touch with friends — but I also think there are some real challenges here. However, I suspect that many of us parents need to look inward and ask tough questions about our own behavior with regard to technology before we try to modify our kids’ behaviors. The solution often has to start with us, and mitigating our over dependence on our devices and technology.

But technology also has the potential to reconnect us with our kids if it’s used in the right ways — I know a number of parents who have embraced apps that thair age groups otherwise wouldn’t in an effort to connect with their kids. Here, as in the other areas I’ve talked about, I feel like it’s an oversimplification to paint technology as purely a negative force. So much of the impact it will have in our lives will depend on how we choose to respond to it, and the degree to which we decide to remain in control rather than letting these technologies control us.

Religion and technological allegiances

So far, I’ve been talking about religion and worship in a literal sense, but I’d like to close by talking about a less literal application. Edmund Burke talked about the “little platoons” we are all a part of — the groups of which we’re members and toward which we feel an affinity. He talked about our loyalties to these little platoons as the forerunners of loyalties to larger causes, including patriotism. The religious groups to which we belong can be some of these groups, and our loyalty to them and our fellow members can be a strong cohesive force. But in the technology market, we frequently see quasi-religious adherence to particular technology companies and ecosystems.

Unfortunately, this often manifests itself in negative rather than positive ways. Whether it’s “fandroids” or “fanboys,” so many people become so caught up in their allegiance to technology ecosystems they become irrational in their intolerance of other groups. I do wonder to what extent this zealotry is the result of an absence of true religious feeling in today’s world, and people’s need to feel part of a group and its associated identity.

Interestingly, I think technology companies sometimes tap into this — Samsung’s commercials for a while poked fun at Apple fans, while Apple itself clearly tries to tap into the loyalty to its products in its own advertising. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that per se — brand loyalty can be a strong differentiator for a company. But technology companies should also be wary of assuming this allegiance to their brands — or antipathy towards other brands — can ever be enough.

Just as true religion has to be sustaining and fulfilling to maintain the loyalty of its adherents, technology brands have to continue to deliver the value that generated loyalty in the past if they are to maintain it. We’ve seen major religions and major technology companies wax and wane over the arc of history, and I suspect there are lessons to be learned here for technology companies, as well.

Jan Dawson is founder and chief analyst at Jackdaw, a technology research and consulting firm focused on the confluence of consumer devices, software, services and connectivity. During his 13 years as a technology analyst, Dawson has covered everything from DSL to LTE, and from policy and regulation to smartphones and tablets. Prior to founding Jackdaw, Dawson worked at Ovum for a number of years, most recently as chief telecoms analyst, responsible for Ovum’s telecoms research agenda globally. Reach him @jandawson.

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