When I was five or six years old my parents gave me the new Nintendo video game system with a game that would become a classic, Super Mario Brothers. There was a level of magic in the experience for both parents and child. As I sat in front of the TV, I was able to control the character on the screen! My little mind was immersed in a world of dragons and fireballs and electronic theme music that I can still recall all these years later. The experience was magic for my parents because the little Italian Mario was a free babysitter. The game would occupy me for hours at a time, and keep me from fighting with my sister, telling mom I’m bored, or wandering off into the neighborhood. What could possibly go wrong?
In Christopher Marlowe’s 1592 book Dr. Faustus, the title character grows discontent with traditional forms of human knowledge and decides to learn magic from the devil at the cost of his soul. For a few decades he is able to grow in power, captivating the attention of others, doing marvelous things like making antlers grow out of the head of a knight and bringing back an image of Alexander the Great. But tragically his time comes and his soul is beyond redemption, his humanity had been consumed.
We marvel at technology, and rightly so. It makes our lives easier in many ways and can save us tons of time. I’ve read of one woman at the time of the invention of the washing machine who would just pull up her chair and watch the machine work, amazed at what it could do, and thankful that she was no longer washing the clothes by hand an hour each day. But the rapid introduction of technology into our lives is a social experiment with a shadow side. Like the Batman villain Two-Face, is has a side that distorts our humanity. And this is particularly dangerous because it is a blind spot that our culture and the Church understands very little.
The games and shows that appear not just on our televisions, but now in our pockets through smart phones have been professionally designed to grab and hold our attention. They get financially rewarded when they can make their products more addictive. It is like we are all walking around with little slot machines in our pockets. And our kids and grandkids are particularly susceptible. The use of social media like TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat allow teenagers to feel connected to their peers, but recent studies show with increased use there are higher levels of depression, anxiety and lower levels of wellbeing, especially in females. Some girls fall into self-hatred because their images get less ‘likes’ than their peers. Other girls are infused with vanity and sell images of their bodies for the cheap price of a few extra ‘likes’ and ‘shares.’ As Jesus taught, we can “gain the world, but lose our soul” (Matt 16:26).
Maybe the biggest danger is that the hard and soul-forming work of having face-to-face relationships with our neighbors, family and friends is being replaced by hours of entertainment and quasi-relationships online. For Christians that know that the ultimate purpose of life is to grow deep in our souls, and to know and love others, this is a threat at the core of our life’s calling. So then, how should we navigate technology? Going back to where this article started, with me spending a large portion of my adolescence in front of a glowing box, eventually, later in high school, I began following Christ. And imperfectly, my use of media decreased. I started reading more. I learned some music. I studied how to pray. I decided I wanted to have kids. I turned a few degrees toward being a producer rather than a consumer. I still have a long way to go, and I’m as susceptible to getting pulled into hours of media as much as anyone, probably more because I was nursed on it from my childhood.
But for followers of Jesus, we can’t be blind to the way technology is changing us. We can confess and turn from the addictive hours in front of the glowing box. We can make the effort to use our technology as a useful tool, rather than as a boredom fix. Push yourself to do the hard work of putting yourself in front of real people. Reject Dr. Faustus’ bargain. No, we won’t take the magic at the cost of our souls.