Posted by: mattcolvin | May 29, 2013

James K. A. Smith on iPads and iPhones

It’s probably a symptom of how deeply Apple has seduced our culture that many will read the title of this post as though it were the announcement of a new Jamie Smith app to be downloaded for their devices. In fact, I am just blogging an extended quotation from Smith about the problematic nature of Apple’s (and Samsung’s, etc.) touchscreen devices. Our family owns several of these, and we are, frankly, addicted to them. And I fear something will have to be done about it.

Don’t get me wrong. These devices are extremely useful, especially for missionaries in a foreign country without easy access to libraries and many books. Our iPads and iPhones give us the ability to read eBooks, to communicate face-to-face with friends back home via FaceTime or Skype, to take good photos for use on our blog and our monthly newsletter, to learn Cebuano vocabulary (Quizlet app), write emails and quizzes for class, get GPS driving directions, and coordinate our respective to-do lists and calendars. Indeed, when Sora’s iPhone was stolen in Manila in March, we felt the need to replace it because we were so dependent on it for our missionary communications with our senders.

Yet all this comes at a steep price, and I am thinking hard about whether it may be too steep. Here’s the passage of Jamie Smith’s Imagining the Kingdom that has me worried:

Every technology is attended by a mode of bodily practice. So even if the computer is primarily an information processor, it can never completely reduce us to just “thinking things” because it requires some mode of bodily interface: whether we’re hunched over a desk, glued to a screen; looking downward at a smartphone, our attention directed away from others at the table; or curled up on a couch touching a tablet screen, in every case there are bodily comportments that each sort of device invites and demands. Apple has long understood the bodily nature of this interface. In this respect, we already take for granted how revolutionary the touch screen is: a new, differently tactile mode of bodily interface, a heretofore-unimagined level of intimacy with machines. Indeed, working on a laptop feels distant and disconnected compared to the fingertip intimacy of the iPhone or the iPad or other tablets. (Do you ever thoughtlessly try to touch your laptop screen? Then you know what I’m talking about.) The technology affords and invites rituals of interaction. One could suggest that our interface with the iPhone (or any other smartphone) is just this sort of microtraining that subtly and unconsciously trains us to be more like Milton’s Satan, rather than conforming us to the image of the Son—and not because of the content communicated via the iPhone but because of how I interact with the device and the subtle pedagogy of the imagination effected by that intimate interface with a tiny machine. The iPhone brings with it an invitation to inhabit the world differently—not just because it gives me access to global internet resources in a pocket-sized device, but precisely in how it invites me to interact with the device itself. The material rituals of simply handling and mastering an iPhone are loaded with an implicit social imaginary. To become habituated to an iPhone is to implicitly treat the world as “available” to me and at my disposal—to constitute the world as “at-hand” for me, to be selected, scaled, scanned, tapped, and enjoyed.

As is so often the case, this zeitgeist is succinctly pictured in a rather inane Michelob Ultra commercial in which the world obeys the touch commands of an iPhone screen.


Don’t like that car? Swipe for a different one. Wish the scenery was different? Swipe for an alternative. Wish you could be somewhere else? Just touch the place you want to be. Wish you could see her just a little better? Zoooooom with the slide of a couple of fingers. A way of relating to a phone has now become a way of relating to the world. The practices for manipulating a small device are now expanded to show how we’d really like to manipulate our environment to serve our needs and be subject to our whims. And while we don’t go around swiping our hands in front of us to change the scenery, we perhaps nonetheless unconsciously begin to expect the world to conform to our wishes as our iPhone does. Or I implicitly begin to expect that I am the center of my own environments, and that what surrounds me exists for me. In short, my relation to my iPhone—which seems insignificant—is writ large as an iPhone-ized relation to the world, an iPhone-ization of my world(view).

This is a serious problem, and it will require some serious discipline to tackle. Already I have clamped down our our kids’ use of electronic devices, effectively limiting them to reading eBooks on them. What remains to be done is to limit and restrict my own online time and touchscreen usage. This is a painful process partly because I am an introvert, and am far more comfortable reading a book or operating an iPad than I am being available – frightening word! – to other human beings. But I think Smith is right, and so the painful discipline will need to happen. I hope that I can retain the ability to use the iPhone as a pocket camera for our newsletters, and to continue to produce communications that give our senders a good sense of what we’re doing here in Davao.


  1. Great post! I’ve been thinking about how technology shapes our consciousness of the world and mode of interaction with the world for a few years now, ever since I read Plutarch’s remark in Life of Marcellus about the Greeks deliberately limiting technological advance to defensive military applications because they foresaw themselves otherwise living mechanical lives rather than humane lives. I’ve been increasingly persuaded the last few years that the typical response to critiques of technological advance, namely that “technology is neither good nor bad, it’s how people use it” is the wrong approach. The ethics of technology go far beyond whether a device is used for a good or bad purpose – Smith’s analysis nails the deeper issues well.

  2. I like this post, Matt. I am dismayed by the devotion displayed to electronic devices in our era but at the same time I, too, need and appreciate many of the helpful aspects of my iPhone. I also have an iPad which I like for reading blogs, the Bible, and my Kindle so that’s not as much of a temptation. Thanks for the food for thought. We miss you guys!

  3. Matt, we are finding the thoughts you expressed, specifically “I implicitly begin to expect that I am the center of my own environments, and that what surrounds me exists for me. “, very clearly in evidence in our children. Alas, they are not children young enough for us to curtail their behavior.
    Ultimately our hope remains as it has: that the God of Creation is Lord over all creations. And creatures. Including our children.

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