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176. Computerless

Last week began with meetings in the conference office with pastors and laity, continued with a quick flight to Austin with our Board of Ordained Ministry Chair and Director of Pastoral Excellence to confer with folks from other conferences about clergy recruitment, and included a 36-hour loop to Houston to celebrate my parents’ 60th Wedding Anniversary before flying back to St. Louis so that I could drive to Thayer (down on the Arkansas border) to preach for the church’s 125th anniversary before driving to Kansas City for the Board of Directors Meeting at St. Paul School of Theology. Phew! Six flights, 852 miles of driving, ten meetings, two worship services, and lots of fast food along the way. As I traveled from place to place, various other tasks loomed large that I needed to squeeze in at the margins – the final proof-reading of a new book, Forty Days of Fruitful Living (Lenten daily readings taken from Five Practices of Fruitful Living); launching a new website; writing a blog; various phone conference calls and keeping up with my family and relatives.

All was moving smoothly and intensely along until Wednesday evening when I turned on my laptop in Austin, and nothing happened. A message appeared that said something like, “Cannot detect hard drive.” I’m no computer expert, but even I know this can’t be good news. After trying various keystrokes, shaking motions, and verbal invectives, I resigned myself to an evening without my computer. The next day in Houston, I handed the laptop over (with great hopefulness) to my brother and brothers-in-law (NASA Senior Scientist, PhD in Computer Science, Engineer – you know the type!), and after surgical explorations into the computer’s underbelly, they broke the news to me that the hard drive was history. Prospects for recovery while I was still on my mega-road trip? Zero. Zilch. Nada. None.

So the last five days of travel, I carried around a dead computer in my backpack, unable to do anything about it until I returned to my office in Columbia.

It’s ironic that I had decided to forego any work during my 36 hours in Houston with my parents. I had planned to avoid and ignore email traffic and to simply enjoy the family.  Anniversaries are for laughter, rest, renewal, nostalgia, connection, reunion. But there is a marked qualitative difference between choosing to be off the Internet and being denied access to the Internet. I was irritated and frustrated, and I kept thinking about all the things I could or should be doing if only I could get my laptop working again.

Our technologies have an addictive quality to them, don‘t they? I found myself a little anxious about possibly missing essential and timely information. I became obsessed with finding alternative means for connecting up. Our technologies draw us in, sometimes pulling us away from other more important sources of life. The finest things in life are real rather than virtual, profound rather than screen deep, relational rather than technical, and yet we feel compelled to focus on laptops and mobile devices more and more.

In three brief phrases, the New Testament records the rise and fall of an obscure disciple named Demas, who was a companion traveler with Paul. Paul introduces him at one point, commends his good work and faithfulness at another, and then later writes, “Demas, too much in love with this present world, has abandoned us.” A tragic arc marked by early eagerness, active engagement with the faith, and ultimate disconnection from the spiritual life. I hope no one narrating my faith journey ever has cause to write, “Schnase, too much in love with the technical world, has abandoned us.”

Obviously, I’m not opposed to the use of laptops, iPhones, iPads, and the constantly evolving new technological tools we carry everywhere we go. They make connection and communication as easy as breathing. But they also distract us, aid us in avoiding the harder work of relating directly, and contribute to the sense that we are absolutely critical to every decision and conversation in our work world. Is it  an admirable sense of responsibility or a dangerous arrogance that make me think I have to check my email six times a day on my parents’ anniversary? Is it commitment to the mission or personal hubris to think that the world can’t turn for a few hours on its own without my active on-line engagement?

David Foster Wallace‘s huge novel, Infinite Jest, describes a never-ending television program that has become so carefully polished, so perfectly engaging and so completely compelling that persons who watch it cannot pull themselves away to do other things. The watcher loses interest in all things less appealing and less compelling. In short, the watcher loses interest in everything else and everyone else in his life and cannot turn away from the television even to eat or drink, and so eventually starves to death! Wallace’s image provides a metaphor and a critique for modern technology and media. Sometimes they so ably distract us that we fail to notice that we are missing the essentials for life, and our minds and hearts and souls starve.

Computerless.   It’s an irritating and frustrating circumstance I find myself in.  But there is much to learn in this.

Yours in Christ,

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7 Responses to 176. Computerless

  1. Scott Tilghman says:

    Dear Robert,
    I manage a computer Help Desk at the University of Richmond. It amazes me, and has for many years, what panic sets in when a computer stops working. My fovorite phrase used to be, “what did you do before computers?” The only problem now, is some people do not remember a time without computers.
    I hope you had a back up of your book? ;.)
    God Bless, and safe travels.

  2. David Mossman says:

    Nancy forwarded the link to this column. It reminded me of my recent struggle about getting an iPhone that permits me to be always accessible — not just via phone, but now email and text. There is much wisdom in your story; I, too, am afraid that I am too much in love with this present world and its technology.

    Coincidentally, I’m about to finish David Foster Wallace’s collection of essays “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”. I’ve found it marvelous. His vocabulary vastly exceeds mine and it has been terribly convenient to look up words via iPhone Web access. “Infinite Jest” is on my list.

  3. Martin Slimmer says:

    Great post – thanks for sharing this. Working for a large company engaged in technology, I have many thoughts racing through my head after reading this. I have taken to trying to have some down time after I leave work, meaning I leave my computer off entirely until the next morning. It was very challenging at first, but I’m getting used to it. And I don’t have an iPhone, so that’s not a problem. :)

    Grace & Peace,
    ~ Martin

  4. Annette Altgelt says:

    The consuming addiction to All Things Technical is the new Workaholic form of escaping real living, real people, our Almighty God.

  5. Laura Madsen says:

    I’ve coined a term for this: techumility \tek-hyu-’mi-le-te\.
    It’s not what you might think. People always laugh at first, and picture themselves prostrate before their laptop. It refers to the opposite: peace.
    Consumer technology has overtaken our culture and our communication, but I choose to be at peace with it. I will be inspired with it, and not by it. It is not my god; I won’t run to it. And I will not need the newest, the biggest or the ‘best,’ but whatever serves me for my humble purposes.
    I actually coined this after hearing a number of people, of all ages, sound dismissed and isolated because of their inability to purchase or ‘harness’ a current month’s technology. You point out that even a NASA scientist can’t harness it all; none of us can ‘keep up,’ nor can we afford to. We can choose pride, frustration and knee-jerk consumerism, or we can have something else. Peace. Techumility.

    October 4 at 3:36pm · Comment · Like

  6. Our current technology is addictive in the same sense in which electricity is addictive – we come to depend upon it. When the power goes out we are helpless and angry.

  7. Jeff Johnson says:

    I find this Kevin Kelly quote from his new book, What Technology Wants, especially interesting after reading your post:

    “I am no longer embarrassed to admit that I love the Internet. Or maybe it’s the web. Whatever you want to call the place we go to while we are online, I think it is beautiful. People love places and will die to defend a place they love, as our sad history of wars proves. Our first encounters with the Internet/web portrayed it as a very widely distributed electronic dynamo –a thing one plugs into– and that it is. But the Internet as it has matured is closer to the technological equivalent of a place. An uncharted, almost feral territory where you can genuinely get lost. At times I’ve entered the web just to get lost. In that lovely surrender, the web swallows my certitude and delivers the unknown. Despite the purposeful design of hits human creators, the web is a wilderness. Its boundaries are unknown, unknowable, its mysteries uncountable. The bramble of intertwined ideas, links, documents, and images creates an otherness as thick as a jungle. The web smells like life. It knows so much. It has insinuated its tendrils of connection into everything, everywhere. The net is now vastly wider than I am, wider than I can imagine; in this way, while I am in it, it makes me bigger, too. I feel amputated when I am away from it.”

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