Technology in an “Evil Age”

By Ryan O’Farrell, Psy.D.

While we tend to instinctively view the history of the world as one of progress, the apostle Paul uses very different language to describe the time we live in. In Ephesians 5:15-16, he says that we need to live wisely, making the most of the time, “Because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:16, ESV). This sentiment is echoed in Galatians where Paul says, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen,” (Gal. 1:3-5, ESV, emphasis added). Though many of us may bemoan the present state of affairs in the world, in general, most of us do not reflexively think of the times we live in as being, by nature, “Evil.” In fact, in the midst of constant medical, scientific, and other technological advances, we tend to assume that we live in a time of progress. And yet the fact remains that for Paul, the days are evil.

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If Paul’s words in Scripture are true, then there ought to be a profound reorientation regarding how we instinctively view and relate to the technology that so permeates our lives (e.g., smartphones, laptops, tablets, television, the internet, etc.). Because in an evil age we cannot assume technology is morally neutral. Instead, we must assume there is an evil bent behind our technology and guard ourselves from being used by our technology in ways that detract us from the freedom we have in Christ.

Please do not misunderstand me at this point. I am not saying that technology cannot be redeemed. The book was once cutting edge technology and I love books. But what I am suggesting is our technology is inherently a product of this evil age and as such, we cannot assume it is created good. As a matter of fact, in the case of our smartphones, tablets, etc., I suggest there is a degree of bondage that we all experience to these devices. To some, this may sound far fetched. But consider that the average smartphone user checks his or her phone 150 times a day. This sort of compulsive checking is not an accident, as websites and apps are designed to pull users back again, and again, and again.

To understand why this is, I want to point to the work of Tristan Harris, an ethicist who was previously the Design Ethicist for Google. Having worked in the tech industry for years, he brings important insight into how the tech industry works. He notes that websites and apps generally operate on what can be called an attention economy. What this means is that websites like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc., get more money the more time you spend on their websites, because the more time you spend on them, the more valuable their webspace is for advertisers. Thus from the get go, website and app developers, especially those of the social media sort, do not have consumers’ best interest in mind. In general, websites and applications are not designed with the idea of helping consumers’ utilize their devices as tools for specific purposes. Rather they are designed to keep consumers’ hooked because the more time consumers’ spend on their product, the more money they make.

In what ways is our technology designed to keep us hooked? There are a multitude of techniques used to subtly lead users to spend more time on their devices than intended, but one technique that is very prominent is called variable-ratio reinforcement. What is variable-ratio reinforcement? Variable-ratio reinforcement describes one way a person or animal can be rewarded as to make a given behavior more likely to occur. The way it works is that a person or animal needs to perform a behavior (say, pulling a lever) an unknown number of times in order to be rewarded (say, with money or food). In turn, the reward makes a person or animal more likely to perform the behavior. If what I described sounds like a slot machine, that is because slot machines are based on this principle.

What we know from research is that variable-ratio reward schedules are the most powerful form of reinforcement, which is one reason why gambling can be so addictive. Gambling leads a person to continue to gamble because the unpredictable wins one experiences encourages a person to continue playing through losses since “the big one” might be right around the corner. What many people do not realize is that this sort of variable-ratio reinforcement is operative on many websites and apps. One unintentional way variable-ratio reinforcement is evident is in email. Have you ever had the experience of checking your email again minutes after you had already checked it? Email boxes unintentionally mimic the principles involved in variable-ratio reward schedules, since users who keep checking their inboxes are occasionally “rewarded” by seeing new email. Sometimes that new email is “urgent” and because we do not know when that “urgent” email may pop-up, we compulsively check our email to make sure we do no miss something important. This same principle that can compel us to check Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter again and again and again. Maybe we did not see anything interesting the first time we were on, but maybe now, 5 minutes later, there will be something we want to see. Websites that use infinite scrolling operate on the same principle. “In ten minutes I’ve only seen a couple of links worth clicking, but if I keep going I might find a couple more.” And so we keep scrolling, clicking, and compulsively checking and before we know it, we say to ourselves, “How did I waste an hour on nothing?”

More can be said on how developers keep us hooked on our devices, but suffice it to say that in an evil age we cannot assume that our technology is morally neutral and only needs to be used well. Because of the subtle ways technology pulls us into it, we must guard our lives so that we use technology well, instead of being used by it. How can we do this? I believe we need to take a two-fold approach to pursue freedom. First, we must use strategies and apps that help us create boundaries around our technology use. The Center for Humane Technology is a non-profit that has some great ideas and tools for starting to put the guard rails up. You can explore their website at: http://humanetech.com/. But guarding our technology use is not enough. We must also pursue our God who calls us out of bondage and into his glorious freedom. Priests in Old Testament times were charged with guarding the house of God from anything that would defile it. Yet just as in the Old Testament, where priests guarded the house of God, not as an end in and of itself, but in order to allow worship, so we, as New Testament priests, must learn to guard our lives in order to keep our lives free for worship. So I invite you to join me for a free event in February where I will expand on the ideas presented above and journey with you toward a life where we are free to worship. Please check: http://www.myliferesources.org/events/ for information.

Dr. Ryan O’Farrell is a clinical psychologist who works at Life Resources, a non-profit Christian emotional and relational health resource center located in Mount Pleasant, S.C. He is available to speak to your group or organization on a variety of topics.  For more information about Dr. O’Farrell and Life Resources, visit their website at www.myliferesources.org.

Article can be found in the January 2019 edition of The Carolina Compass.