Technological Distraction

Christian 'Values'

Previous Chapter: The Instrumental Value of Technology

Martha and Mary


Perhaps more significant than the direct positive and negative effects of technology, such as those summarized above, is its role in shaping human behavior and, in particular, human activity directed toward the realization of the highest good. Consider the following conversation of Jesus with one of his friends.


As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!"

"Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her." (Luke 10:38 - 42)

While Jesus never specifically passed judgment on the technology of his day, much less modern technology, there are two important points in this account that bear on modern technology. First, Jesus’ assessments of human behavior were based on a clearly defined the hierarchy of value described above. Though there are many goods to be realized (the physical needs and comforts of an important guest and knowledge of truth, for example), some have greater value than others, and human behavior should be consistent with that ordering. Second, even when the higher good should be at the center of our attention, we are frequently distracted from it by the salience and urgency of activities directed toward the lower good, as was Martha. In the following, I will attempt to point out that modern technology routinely distracts us from the highest good, thereby jeopardizing our fulfillment of the very purpose for our existence.

  Time, Attention, and Technology

  time and attention requirements of activities

Most human activity is directed toward the realization of some good, and activity requires time to think and to act. We are all aware of the many demands on our time. As we will see below, many of those demands come about as a result of technological objects. But, just as important, activity requires attention. Attention is conscious, effortful thought focused on a relatively small subset of all the stimuli, information, and knowledge (both external and internal) available to us at any given time.

limits to attention

Now it is certainly true that some activities require very little attention. Routine, well-practiced, "overlearned" activities in familiar environments, like walking around in one’s house and driving a familiar stretch of road, require attention only to initiate and terminate and, intermittently, to monitor -- so long as no unexpected events occur. The number of routinized activities one can engage in at any given time seems to be limited mostly by sensory capacities and the number of appendages one has.

But the individual can really only engage in one activity requiring conscious, effortful thought at a time. This is especially true of activities directed toward the highest good. To seek God’s kingdom and to know Him requires substantial time for reflection and sustained attention. So, like time, attention is a scarce resource that should be allocated wisely.

  But modern technology complicates that attention allocation process in several ways. First, it creates many opportunities to realize the good and avoid the bad, and consequently enables and facilitates many activities so directed. Above, I summarized some of the ways in which modern technology facilitates the realization of the good or the elimination of the bad, but let me give some personal examples to illustrate the enormous number of good activities that modern technology enables.

technology creates opportunities to realize the Good

related to the creation

For example, consider activities related to good stewardship of the non-human creation. Communication technologies like those giving rise to books, magazines, newspapers, and brochures, as well as radio and television, inform me of humankind’s negative impacts on the natural environment and I am sometimes inclined to engage in activities to so inform myself. Moreover, these technologies make me aware of some of the things I can do personally to prevent or mitigate some of that damage, and usually those activities are facilitated, if not made possible, by technology.

Recycling technology, for example, makes it possible for me to divert much of the waste I create daily from the ever-growing landfill a few miles from my home. If I want to be a good steward of the natural resources God has provided, I will spend time sorting out the various classes of waste materials, preparing them for the recycling process, and placing them on the curb for pickup by the recycling company.

The same communication technologies that remind me of my stewardship responsibilities and opportunities, along with the technology of the US Postal Service, make me aware of the numerous environmental conservation organizations that I could support. The mail system and modern banking technology make it easy for me to provide that support. All I need do is research the various organizations (which is made possible by various information and communication technologies, of course), write out a check to the organization of my choice, fill out the other necessary paperwork, and place it all in the mail.

Technology makes it possible for me to become even more involved. Using word processing software on my computer and regular mail or e-mail, I can write letters to the editors of selected publications or even articles for those publications to try to motivate their readers to support environmental conservation. Or, using the same technologies, I can write to my elected representatives urging them to vote for environmental legislation.

Technology also allows me to go a step further by providing means of transportation for me to travel to locations where I can personally participate in environmental activities, from maintaining hiking trails to picking up trash on beaches. Needless to say, a variety of technologies will in turn enable or facilitate those activities.

related to people There are many ways in which modern technology creates opportunities to realize human good. Just as it makes it possible for me to participate to whatever degree I want in environmental organizations, so it enables my participation in relief and other philanthropic organizations, both religious and secular. Since the parallels are straightforward, I will focus on another small set of examples instead, these centered around the good of my family and myself.

Medical technology creates many opportunities to realize my family’s good health. Whenever one of us becomes ill, for example, we avail ourselves of the technology provided by one of our several doctors. If the sufferer is one of our children, the trip to town to the doctor’s office (arranged by means of communication technology and enabled by transportation technology) often involves most of my family members. When there, the doctor often brings pharmaceutical technology to bear and we’re off to the drugstore. My long-standing struggle with hypertension has involved many visits to several doctors and quite a few combinations of medications. With occasional illnesses, chronic afflictions, and the ‘need’ for vitamin supplements, it has becoming a non-trivial task to dole out the proper pills each day, and I routinely monitor my blood pressure with the help of an electronic sphygmomanometer.

In regard to the good of providing for the material needs and wants of my family, technology is a great enabler. Apart from the agricultural and manufacturing technologies that make these goods available in the first place, information and communication technology make these products known to us and therefore give rise to the want -- if not the need -- to acquire them. Our car makes it possible to travel to town or to a more distant city (when local sources cannot supply the items). In addition to that, we have been doing quite a lot of catalog shopping lately, a phenomenon almost totally dependent on modern technology. The mail brings us the catalogs and although we can place our orders by mail also, we usually choose to use the telephone for this function. That is possible, in part, due to the credit card technology we use to pay for the items, which are delivered within days by the airplanes, trucks, and other advanced technology of package delivery services.

With young children, one of the major concerns of my wife and me is the good of their mental and physical development. Here technology creates an overwhelming number of opportunities. Information and communication technology inform us of lectures, concerts and plays, sporting events, music lessons, museums, and natural attractions. The telephone and mail make it possible to make arrangements to participate in these activities and the automobile is essential to provide transportation to the sites at which the activities take place. And technologies of various kinds make the activities possible or at least easier to accomplish.

related to God Technology, too, enables and facilitates activities directed toward the good of knowing God. Printing is by no means new, but modern printing and publishing technologies have made the Bible available to me in more translations and more forms than my ancestors ever enjoyed. This in turn enables and greatly facilitates my reading and study of the Bible, which build my relationship with God. These activities are further enhanced with a variety of Bible study aids such as concordances and Bible dictionaries, and, being a layman, I am able to engage in certain Bible studies only because of these aids, which are made widely and cheaply available through modern technology. Now the scriptures and more and more Bible study aids are becoming available in computerized form.

Of course, it is not only from the Bible that I know about God: the church plays a central role. Here too technology enables and facilitates activity, as information and communication technology give me much greater access to, for example, church doctrine and inspirational readings, for my edification.

In general, my ability to participate in the work of the church -- especially as a layman with limited time and resources -- is greatly enhanced by modern technology. It is through technology that I learn about local church activities and transportation technology that carries me to them. While it was once practical for only professional missionaries to carry the gospel beyond the local community, with the help of mail, e-mail, and the World Wide Web, I can personally tell others all over the world about God. And of course, the church’s primary role of evangelization is supported by an infrastructure of buildings, facilities, committees, and parishioners. There is much to do to build and maintain that infrastructure, and communication, transportation, construction, and computer technology make it possible and easier for me to participate in those activities.

summary The above is but a tiny set of examples of activities that modern technology enables and facilitates. My point is not that such activities are without positive value; far from it. In fact, every one of the activities mentioned or alluded to above is directed toward the realization of some good consistent with Christ’s teachings on value. Technology thus has positive instrumental value.

The problem, though, is that technology creates the opportunities for far more good activities than we can ever hope to accomplish. As our lives become increasingly busy with activities directed toward the good, we can lose sight of the highest good. Overwhelmed and overloaded by demands for our time and attention, we can be diverted from our search for the kingdom of God.

technology gives rise to derivative goods

As if it were not enough that technology creates many, many opportunities to realize good, it also gives rise to additional goods to realize, and enables and facilitates activities to realize those goods. I call these derivative goods and say that they have derivative value for they derive from other goods and their value is (initially, at least) dependent on those original goods. The problem is not that these goods are contrary to Christ’s teachings on value -- he did not mention them. Rather, it is that they tend to displace in our minds the original goods and we begin directing our activities towards them rather than towards the original goods.
abundance For example, if something is good, more of it is often regarded to be better. There are certainly exceptions to this, and they are widely recognized, but it is true often enough for abundance to be a derivative good to realize, and modern technology is instrumental in that realization. Mass production manufacturing technology is just one instance of that.

Now it is true that technology, even in the broadest sense of the word, is not solely responsible for the emergence of abundance as a good in itself. But certainly modern technology has made abundance possible in a way heretofore undreamed of, and the creation of abundance of some goods opens the possibility for the abundance of others and soon the derivative good becomes an original good itself and we become preoccupied with its realization.

Furthermore, while it can be argued that it is the good to be produced in abundance that is the goal, much of the development that goes on in the world of manufacturing technology seems to be directed largely at abundant production. It is the responsibility of the individual manufacturer’s board of directors or its customers to determine what is to be produced in abundance. It falls on some of us, then, to engage in activities directed toward abundance, whether it is manufacturing research and development or production itself.

variety Besides abundance, there are a number of other derivative goods that have emerged as a result of modern technology, and whose realization is facilitated by that technology. For example, consider variety. Our culture demands personal autonomy and the freedom of the individual to make his/her own choices. Choice in turn demands alternatives to choose from, and that leads to variety. Technology certainly contributes to variety: consider how agricultural, food, and manufacturing technology have contributed to the size of the breakfast cereal section in your grocery store. And that variety in turn leads to more activities to make selections.
speed We are an impatient culture, desiring immediate gratification, so if something is good, a faster realization of it is better. Hence, speed is a derivative good, and technology certainly contributes to it. For example, air transportation technology exists to move people quickly over great distances. It gives rise to the activities of scientists and engineers to create better, safer, and faster airplanes and to those of travel agents, ticket agents, pilots, flight attendants, mechanics, baggage handlers, and others who make commercial flight possible. And besides engaging in travel itself, the traveler must plan his/her trip, purchase tickets, prepare for the trip, and travel to and from the airport.
power Technology literally requires power to operate: mechanical, electrical, thermal, nuclear, and so on. It also imparts power to its users in the sense that it enables or at least helps them to realize the things that they value. So power has become a derivative good. The more powerful car and the more powerful computer have come to be valued more than their less powerful counterparts, and it seems to be the case that power itself is the good that is being pursued both by the developers and the users of technology.
efficiency, productivity Efficiency and productivity are derivative goods. It seems reasonable to say that, regardless of the value of some object, it is better to use up fewer resources in the process of realizing it. Hence the emergence of these goods, and the obsession some of us have with them.
economy, ease, functionality, etc. There are other derivative goods: economy (the financially efficient realization of a good), ease of realization (in which the difficulty of accomplishment of something is minimized), and functionality (in which the variety of goods that can be realized is increased). Modern technology facilitates the realization of these things and they have come to be goods themselves, to be pursued by both the developers and users of technology, often to the point that the original goods they derive from are forgotten.
technology itself But perhaps the most significant derivative good is technology itself. Many of us have become so fascinated by technology that we dedicate substantial amounts of time and energy to acquiring more and more technological objects. Not all of this can be explained by their instrumental value: for many of us, technology has taken on intrinsic value.

So we see that, although technology was originally created to be instrumental in the realization of non-technological goods, it has given rise to new, derivative goods. And over time, these new goods have come to have even more value to us than the original goods that we were pursuing in the first place. Means have become ends. This is an undesirable state of affairs, to the extent that the highest good goes unrealized as a result.

technology necessitates certain activities

The usefulness of technological objects in realizing the good does not come without a price, of course. Time and attention are required for activities related to the objects themselves. Let me illustrate with a personal example: my automobile. Besides the time and attention of the probably hundreds of people who designed and manufactured it then transported it to me, it has demanded quite a lot of my time and attention over the years that I have had it.
to learn about it, to acquire it, to insure it First, I spent time learning about it by reading publications and visiting auto dealers. Having made my choice, I invested time and attention in acquiring it. Before I could actually take possession of the car, I had to go to my credit union and secure an auto loan to pay for it. I also purchased auto insurance to provide financial protection for me and the car and for others whose persons or property could be harmed by its use.
to use it, to pay for it, to maintain it Now in my possession, my car naturally demands my time and attention to drive it. Also, for several years, each month I had to take the time to write and mail a check to my credit union to repay the loan on the car, and I still regularly send checks to my insurance company. Another regular demand on my time and attention is routine, preventive maintenance. Some of that, such as changing the oil, I do myself, a typical self-maintenance task taking an hour or so out of a Saturday morning. More often, though, I drive the car to the shop, secure some other means of transportation to go about my business while professional mechanics do the work, then return to the shop to pay for the service and pick up my car. I go through the same cycle for non-routine maintenance when something on the car fails.
to deal with its negative consequences By God’s grace I have never had to devote my time and attention to dealing with the negative consequences of a serious auto accident. So far, such activities have only been trips to the body shop to repair damage caused to it by other vehicles while it was parked. Many people are not so fortunate.
to dispose of it Eventually I will have to dispose of my car, and that will take some time and attention. Perhaps I will place a classified advertisement in the local newspaper, then show the car to potential buyers until one purchases it. If I choose to continue drive my car until the end of its functional life, I will have to make other arrangements for its disposal. No doubt they will take time and attention too.
summary Like my car, all technological objects give rise to activities directed towards the technological objects themselves. They require time and attention to learn about them, to acquire them, to use them, to pay for them, to maintain them, to deal with the negative consequences of their use, and to dispose of them.

  Technology as Distraction

technological busyness

So we see that technology gives rise to many opportunities to realize the good, that it creates new goods to realize, and that technological objects themselves require time and attention for their acquisition, use, and disposal. The typical individual is thus confronted with an overwhelming multitude of technology-induced activities. I refer to this as technological busyness.

One effect of technological busyness is mental distress. There is a tendency among people I know (and I suspect that they are pretty representative of US society) to optimistically take on more activities than they should. They become frustrated and upset when they realize that there is not enough time to do everything that they would like to do, or at least, that they lack the time and attention to do everything as well as they would like to. This condition certainly leads to their unhappiness and quite likely even has negative effects on their health.

technological distraction But by far the most serious negative consequence of technological busyness is technological distraction: by drawing our attention mostly to activities related to the lower good, technology distracts us from our efforts to realize the highest good and therefore may cause us to fail to fulfill the very purpose for our existence.
 attention and attention allocation Since attention is a scarce resource, allowing us to engage in only one thought-requiring activity at a time, attention must be allocated. Attention allocation is the process of directing attention to just one of several activities that we intend to perform.

My brief introduction to attention, above, and my description of attention allocation, below, are based on three general sources. First, they draw on a long line of attention research, from the late nineteenth century (e.g., James, 1890) to the present (e.g., Pashler, 1998). Second, what I have to say comes partly from my own research into how pilots manage (with varying degrees of success) the many, concurrent activities that must be performed to fly a commercial airliner (Funk, 1991; Chou et al, 1996). Third, my description is based on my personal and professional experience with technology and introspection into why I do what I do, when I do it. Since this is not a scientific paper, I will not cite specific sources to back specific assertions about the attention allocation process. Rather, I urge the reader to validate my description based mostly on his or her own experience.

attention allocation: a hypothetical example Let me illustrate the process of attention allocation by citing a personal example. Although this is a hypothetical one, it is very plausible and I believe that most readers should be able to identify with it. Suppose that it is a Saturday afternoon and I am at home in my living room. My wife is busy in her sewing room and my daughters are in their rooms, having their ‘quiet’ times. I am deep in thought, considering how technology distracts us from our quest for the kingdom of God and what we can do about it. My train of thought is on human attention and suddenly, as a result of mental association, I have a new insight about a factor that may affect how pilots allocate their attention. Although this does of course relate to my research on attention, it does not have direct relevance to spiritual discipline, so now I am off on a new line of thought, distracted from my original mental activity.

This line of thinking continues for awhile, until the telephone rings. Interrupted from my thoughts about pilots’ attention, I answer it. It is a colleague in another city. He is preparing for a meeting and has inadvertently deleted an important e-mail message I sent to him earlier in the week. He apologizes profusely, but asks if I can re-send the message or at least remind him of its contents. He must catch a plane in a few hours and will not be able to receive e-mail after he leaves his office. Fortunately (for my colleague), I have my laptop computer, containing a copy of the sent e-mail at home, so I reassure him that I can accommodate his needs with little personal inconvenience.

So, completely distracted from my thoughts about attention and the kingdom of God (but with the good intention to return to them), I get out my laptop and hook it up to the phone. As I look through my e-mail folders for the one containing the sent mail, I encounter the folder for the class I am teaching this term and am suddenly reminded that I forgot to send an important e-mail, announcing an assignment, to my students on Friday. I make a mental note to do so after I finish the task at hand. I find the e-mail I sent to my colleague and re-send it. Finished with that, I compose a new message to my students and send that also.

Now, I go back to thoughts on attention. I put away my computer and return to the couch. With some difficulty, I recover the line of thought which was interrupted by the phone thirty minutes ago. Proceeding, I am soon interrupted by the sound of a car stopping in front of the house. It is our mail carrier and, knowing that my wife would appreciate it if I brought her the mail, I get up, walk to the mailbox, get the mail, and return to the house. After delivering my wife’s mail to her, I return to the living room, lay the remainder of the mail on the coffee table and sit down to continue my thoughts.

But the colorful cover of a magazine we have just received catches my eye. There is an article in the magazine about aviation safety and my personal and professional interest is piqued. I start to read the article, my mind far from the kingdom of God. And so my afternoon goes.

attention allocation and how technology influences it:
This example illustrates some of the factors that affect the allocation of attention and how technological objects influence the process. The first factor is value. Most, if not all, human activity is directed toward the realization of something of value, if only the experience of personal happiness or the avoidance of pain, as the hedonists say. At the beginning of my scenario, I was seeking the kingdom of God, at least indirectly, for myself and for others. The other activities I engaged in were directed toward the realization of some lower goods: the well being of airline flightcrews and passengers, my colleague, my students, and my wife.

Now, if I would live and act in a way consistent with Jesus’ hierarchy of value, I would not attend to the realization of a good unless I were already making satisfactory progress toward the realization of all goods of greater value. There is but one exception to this. It would be acceptable for me to attend to the realization of a lower good if it were instrumental to the realization of the highest good not already being satisfactorily realized. In other words, I ought to attend to the realization of the highest good needing my attention.

Now this is indeed a very high standard, like the moral teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. In my example scenario, the fact that my thoughts did not return to the kingdom and reach some point of closure indicates that I did not meet it. There are two factors that contributed to that in my scenario and they both play an important role in attention allocation in general. Technology amplifies the influence of both of them.

In any mental activity there is a tension between continuing the activity and diverting our attention to another activity. To put it in a non-technical way, the very presence of thoughts about the activity in the forefront of our memory contributes to its continuity: the persistence of those thoughts in memory tends to keep us on track. In my example, my mind did not flit randomly from one activity to another. Rather, I was able to maintain a line of thought on each one, at least for a time.

On the other hand, those thoughts may trigger other thoughts not directly related to the activity that lead us away from it. Psychologists have come to view human memory as a vast collection of associations, a huge network of concepts linked by relationships learned through our experiences. Each concept in this network may be linked to many others, creating a very complex mental structure. This means that when we hold a concept in conscious thought, one of these links may carry us to another concept that is not directly related to the present activity. This happened in my example when my thoughts about technological distraction from the kingdom of God led me to thoughts about how pilots manage their attention, and I was diverted from my original ruminations. But there are other things that may divert attention. And that leads me to the first factor I want to focus on, besides value, that influences attention allocation.

stimulus salience The presence of salient sensory stimuli draw and hold our attention to activities, which is a slightly more precise way of articulating the old saying, "the squeaky wheel gets the grease." We are inundated with sensory stimuli: sights, sounds, smells, touches, and so on. The salience of a stimulus is the ability of that stimulus to draw attention. It is related to the intensity of the stimulus: louder sounds and brighter images tend to be more effective in attracting attention. But there are other characteristics of stimuli that are attention-getting as well: the patterns of certain sounds and certain images are more noteworthy to us. The latter certainly originates from the associations formed in our memories.

In any case, a salient stimulus is likely to draw our attention away from one activity to another and further stimuli associated with that new activity are likely to hold it. In my example there were two instances of this. The first was the phone call, where the ringer caught my attention and the utterances of my colleague when I answered the phone held my attention to the new activity. The second was the trip to the mailbox, which was initiated by the sound of the mail carrier’s car.

Both of these salient stimuli that interrupted me were caused by technological objects, and that is a common theme in our lives. The very presence of technological objects in our environment is a source of such stimuli. We are surrounded by technological objects -- whereas once humans lived in a largely natural environment, we now live in a technological environment. The sight of my car, for example, parked in my driveway, is a reminder that it ‘needs’ washing and perhaps other maintenance activities. A basket full of dirty clothes calls my wife’s attention to laundry activities. The computer on my desk at work is a conspicuous object that reminds me of e-mail to read, documents to write, and spreadsheets to build. Everywhere I look there is some technological object that draws my attention to some activity to use it for, or some activity associated with its acquisition, use, or maintenance.

Besides the stimuli provided by the mere, passive presence of technological objects, many objects are designed to generate salient stimuli specifically intended to catch our attention. Besides the ringer of my telephone , my alarm clock is designed to interrupt my sleep or soliloquy. The advertisements in newspapers and magazines use salient images to draw my attention to the acquisition and use of products and services. Billboards and other signs present salient images to draw my attention from my driving to products, services, social issues, and other things. Similarly radio and television sounds and images are crafted to be so salient and ear- and eye-catching that I am strongly compelled to attend to commercials and programs (which are punctuated with commercials). Women’s clothing, jewelry, and cosmetics are designed to create visual and olfactory stimuli that distract me from the task at hand. My computer can be configured to beep at me when electronic mail arrives.

By contrast, the kingdom of God (or the kingdom of heaven) is not the source of salient stimuli. For example, Jesus said "... ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed ...’" (Mat. 13:31) and "...’The kingdom of heaven is like yeast ...’" (Mat. 13:33), and these natural objects are not particularly salient. Furthermore, when asked about the coming of the kingdom of God, he replied "... ‘The kingdom of God does not come visibly ...’" (Luke 17:20). Even though the kingdom can be represented materially through technology, such representations often cheapen and trivialize it; witness Jesus t-shirts, bumper stickers, and graffiti.

Of course, some of the salient stimuli generated by technological objects can call my attention to the higher good. My telephone, for example, can ring to call me to a conversation with my pastor about spiritual growth. But in fact only a small fraction of the thousands of stimuli originating from technological objects that I encounter every hour are related even remotely to the highest good.

urgency The second factor, besides value, affecting attention allocation that I want to focus on is the relative urgency of competing activities. It is often the case that when the opportunity to realize some good arises, if the good is not realized by a certain time, the opportunity is lost, possibly forever. The perceived urgency of the activity directed toward the realization of that good is related to the perceived time remaining to realize the good and our estimate of the time required to complete the activity to realize it. Urgent activities, regardless of the values of the goods toward which they are directed, tend to receive our attention.

In my example, re-sending the e-mail to my colleague and composing the e-mail for my students were urgent activities. The first was urgent because my colleague had to catch a plane. The second was urgent because I had established a due date for my students’ assignment and it would be good for me to inform them of it in a timely manner. The example also illustrates the role of technology in creating that urgency. In the first case, my colleague’s airline established a schedule and my colleague and I (the latter because we could communicate with technological objects) had to fit our activities to a deadline. In the second case, the presence of my laptop computer enabled me to set the goal of sending the assignment announcement immediately. Without the computer, I might well have decided to simply postpone the assignment and make an announcement in class on Monday, thereby relieving me of the need to compose the message on Saturday afternoon.

Besides the ones I noted, there are many technological objects that contribute to the urgency of activities and many ways in which they do that. Calendars and clocks, both technological objects and both representing long-standing technologies, provide the basis for urgency. The concept of time and the loss of opportunity as it passes, of course, do not depend on either of these, but it is hard to imagine urgency in the way most of us understand it today without these technological objects.

Most technological objects, as noted above, create opportunities to fill our lives with activities (most with deadlines) directed to one good or another, but there are several technologies that especially contribute to urgency. Telephones in general and cellular phones in particular, FAX machines, e-mail, and overnight delivery services are touted to remedy short deadlines and, it is true that they do. The problem though, is that they induce us to set close deadlines or to procrastinate, or both. The net result is that urgency is increased.

Many of us have turned to time management systems, ranging from simple to-do lists to elaborate personal planners and Personal Digital Assistants to help cope with our busy lives. They are clearly effective in that regard -- up to a point. But like the technological objects just mentioned, they give us a false sense of mastery over time and activity. As a result, we can and do schedule more and more activities over shorter and shorter periods of time, compounding the urgency of our lives.

Together, these and other technological objects virtually guarantee that our lives are full of urgency. Hardly an hour passes when there isn’t something scheduled or something due, and since we have been busy with other things before, or we have procrastinated because of a technology-induced complacency, we are not adequately prepared for those appointments or the things we have promised are not quite ready. And the urgent gets our attention.

As not all salient stimuli are associated with inferior goods, not all urgent activities are directed toward them. There is urgency associated with preparation for worship services, opportunities to share knowledge about God with friends may slip away, and the days of all of us are numbered. But from my own experience, the vast majority of my urgent activities have very little to do with the kingdom of God.

Also, while we correctly perceive the lower good to be transient, by contrast, there is little perceived urgency associated with seeking God or His kingdom. Questioned about his second coming, Jesus responded "‘No one knows about that day or hour ...’" (Mat. 24:36). In spite of his subsequent admonition to be ready for the reckoning associated with his return, the fact that no date or time was given seems to have led some of us to a sense of complacency about the highest good. Another contributing factor might be the concept of eternal life. According to Dodd the concept of eternity, as in eternal life, would have evoked in the first or second century Greek reader an understanding of the timelessness of an intimate, in-dwelling relationship with God. Our lack of a sense of urgency about the highest good may have something to do with that. In any case, we are left with perceptions of great urgency with respect to the lower good and quite the opposite with respect to the highest good.


  Most will agree that technology, in all its senses, can be instrumental in realizing both the good and the bad. While not everyone would agree with me when I assert that it is impossible to judge technology’s net value in that regard, let me sum up may argument about the subtler effect of technology on how we behave. Technology creates many opportunities and gives rise to many activities to realize good, it creates derivative goods to realize and activities to realize them, and technological objects themselves demand activities to acquire, maintain, and use them. We are left with very busy lives indeed. But the crux of the matter is that technological objects so amplify the salience of stimuli and urgency of activities directed toward the lower good, that we are often incapable of directing our attention to the highest good. Technology is a profound distraction. It diverts us, individually and collectively, from realizing our highest calling, the realization of the kingdom of God.

Next Chapter: Controlling Distraction in theTechnological Society

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References for This Page

James, W. (1890/1981). The Principles of Psychology, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Pashler, H.E. (1998). The Psychology of Attention, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Funk, K. (1991). "Cockpit Task Management: Preliminary Definitions, Normative Theory, Error Taxonomy, and Design Recommendations, The International Journal of Aviation Psychology, 1(4), pp. 271-285.

Chou, C.D., Madhavan, D., and Funk, K. (1996). "Studies of Cockpit Task Management Errors," International Journal of Aviation Psychology, 6(4), pp. 307-320.