Left to my own devices: the benefit/burden of technology

My cell phone and I are attached at the hip. 

In a previous life, you would have found my babies there. Whether I was eating lunch, making dinner, or visiting with friends–I often carried a small child with me. 

Now, when I leave the kitchen or my office at work, my hand instinctively taps my hip pocket to make sure my baby is still there. I seldom go anywhere without her. 

Why am I so attached to this device? Is it wrong? Am I addicted?

We recently decided to “Konmari” the electronics area in our home office. We went through our jungle of cords and the electronics graveyard on my desk. Two old laptops. A cell phone with shards of glass for a screen. Another water-damaged one. Their once “solid-state” had become a sorry-state instead.

I thought about the heap of electronic equipment that has come into and left our lives over time. Our things, especially our electronic things, take more of my attention than I wish they did. They are a burden on my thoughts, my budget, and my time. 

And yet, I’m convinced that these devices offer benefits that do in fact, enhance our lives. It all depends on how we choose to use them.

***

My sister recently sent me a Forbe’s article by Travis Bradberry titled “Why You Should Spend Your Money On Experiences, Not Things,” which pointed to a 20-year study by Cornell University psychology professor, Dr. Thomas Gilovich. He found a person’s happiness in owning a new item soon fades and there is very quickly a desire for the next “better” thing. We also tend to compare ourselves to others who have nicer things and become discontent before long. 

By contrast, experiences become a part of who we are. Although these moments are fleeting, they form us by way of our memories and that part of our identity that is connected to what we have seen, heard and felt–the adventures and events we have witnessed first-hand.

Why, then, do we seem to have such a strong attachment to our electronic devices? We know they’ll soon be obsolete and we’ll need (eh-hem, want) the next model. And the Joneses have a bigger big-screen than ours that fills us with jealousy. 

What is it that draws us like a magnet to the devices we are so quick to replace?

While these gadgets are far from real experiences like visiting national parks, taking in a concert or show, and spending quality time with loved ones, they do have a way of mimicking, recording, and connecting us with, those experiences. As the old AT&T long-distance commercial said, “it’s the next best thing to being there.” 

Consider the camera. I can’t count how many variations I’ve owned in my lifetime. Most are long gone. But the photos remain–from the black and white portraits of my ancestors to the recent digital vacation albums on my phone–photos that capture moments and memories that will forever be a part of me. 

Then there are music players and recorders. I’ve had turntables, 8-track and cassette players, CDs, and MP3s. The cassette mixtapes of the 80s have evolved into the playlists of today. The devices may have changed, but their purpose has not: they provide us music to listen, sing and dance to. Music that moves us to laughter and tears.

How about the computer? The first one we owned was a desktop model in the late 80s that allowed us to play “Pong!” (I really don’t remember what else we used it for!) Every few years a new wave of technology left our old machines obsolete. Yet many of the experiences we recorded–through photos, letters, journal entries, meeting minutes, spreadsheets, and written stories–live on.

 And finally, the phone. We sold our corded and cordless telephones at garage sales years ago, and most of our old cell phones are shattered and gone. But when we used them, they connected us by voice, later text, and eventually video and social media, to our loved ones and friends far and wide. 

Since my phone is my main connection to my kids, who now live miles away, I guess you could say I still carry my babies on my hip. 

In this way, our devices, like our experiences, become a part of who we are, an extension of ourselves. They snap our photos, play our tunes, record our stories and connect with those we love.

If we use our devices for so much good, why do they get a bad rap? Why are cell phones often demonized? Why are technology, the internet, and social media frowned upon as a waste of time? 

It’s interesting that the answer lies in that old idiom: “when left to my own devices.” According to The Free Dictionary, it means: To be left unsupervised or uncontrolled; to be allowed to do as one pleases. It would take another whole post for me to get into all the evils of the internet, the time wasted in our tech addictions, and the concerns of social media. Suffice it to say, we must control our devices rather than be controlled by them.

As with any part of ourselves (e.g. our appetite, our desires, our thoughts), if left unchecked, trouble will ensue. While our good experiences leave a positive imprint on our identities, negative experiences also leave their mark. As the apostle Paul reminds us: “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but I will not be mastered by anything.” (1 Cor. 6:12). Only when we take control of our devices, can they offer us amazing benefits that enhance, rather than diminish our lives. 

I’ve already admitted I’m rather attached to my cell phone. And my laptop sits atop my lap as I type this story. 

But when I use my devices with restraint and control, they provide moments that enrich my life. They preserve memories that are an extension of who I am. 

Music at my fingertips. Podcasts on my drive to work. Scripture for my devotions. Messages from friends and family. Photos of our summer vacation. Video chats with my kids. And stories to remember and share. 

Let’s reframe the view on our electronic things. Instead of being “left to our own devices,” our devices (and how we use them) are left to us. They are a gift we can use for good if that’s the path we choose.

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatevr is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Phil 4:8).  

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