Is on-demand culture changing us?

“Not a Lick Smarter”

Back in 2011, comedian Pete Holmes announced to his audience on the Conan show that he had an iPhone, adding, “I have Google on my phone now. . . . It’s ruining life because we know everything, but we’re not a lick smarter for it. . . . You don’t know something? Wait two seconds. You will know! Having Google on your phone is like having a drunk know-it-all in your pocket. There’s no time for mystery or wonder. . . . The time between not knowing and knowing is so brief that . . . life is meaningless.”

In the past decade, we’ve seen an explosion in what might be called “on-demand” culture. Whenever we want, we can watch practically any movie ever made on Netflix or Amazon Prime; we can see what our friends and acquaintances are up to from minute to minute through their most recent Facebook, Twitter and Instagram posts; and we can text or email anyone in our contact list whenever the feeling hits us, whether they live down the street or on the other side of the earth. We can use an app on our phones to get a ride from a stranger or order meals and have groceries delivered to our house. In certain zip codes, Amazon offers same-day delivery, but who needs that when a credit card and one click can download a book instantly to Kindle?

Research indicates that this culture of convenience and constant access has changed us. As people of faith, we’re challenged to understand how these cultural shifts have changed who we are and to figure out how to respond to these changes in keeping with our traditions and our values.

How does on-demand culture affect us?

The benefits of these changes are obvious. Used judiciously, on-demand culture can save us time and perhaps even money. The liabilities, on the other hand, are less obvious. We may well use all the time and money we save to do more “on-demanding” and in the process hurt both our character and our relationships. A February 2, 2013, article in The Boston Globe titled “Instant Gratification Is Making Us Perpetually Impatient” indicates that the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project studied people under the age of 35 who led “hyperconnected lives” and concluded, “Negative effects include a need for instant gratification and loss of patience.”

Darrell Worthy, an assistant professor of psychology at Texas A&M University, found that our society is becoming more likely to play a computer game on their phones than to read books or magazines, a conclusion in line with the Pew study. “A lot of things that are really valuable take time,” Worthy said in the Globe article. “But immediate gratification is the default response. It’s difficult to overcome those urges and be patient and wait for things to come over time.” In other words, our use of technology may help us do things more quickly, but at the expense of depth and meaning.

Nicholas Carr, author of the 2010 best seller The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, writes in his book, “When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning.” Carr continues, “The ability to skim text is every bit as important as the ability to read deeply. What is different, and troubling, is that skimming is becoming our dominant mode of reading.” It may also be true that skimming has become our dominant mode of being.

Writer and Sojourners website editor Sandi Villarreal asks in a 2014 post, “When does our reliance upon a constant stream of multi-channel entertainment and instant gratification become harmful?” She argues, “Our cling to convenience is an obvious . . . stumbling block to spiritual growth. . . . Gluttony is not a sin reserved for the portly; it is the reality of a culture that emphasizes overconsumption and steals our attention away from relationships — especially our relationship with God.”

In different words, these writers are all sounding the same alarm. All of them are warning that what we lose in our on-demand culture is significant: the ability to wait patiently, the ability to think deeply, the capacity to form and nurture relationships with others and with God. Its downside is captured in Pete Holmes’s statement about how our on-demand “information” culture allows no time to contemplate mystery or wonder, thus rendering our lives meaningless.

How do we respond?

A desire for wonder and mystery is a good place to start counteracting our on-demand culture, especially when the 24/7 cycle of news and information is instantly available through our smartphones and social media offers us a constant forum to chat about it. In a 2017 Sojourners post, Joe Kay writes of how he is drained by the daily recital of injustice: “A sense of fatigue sets in on those of us who feel a divine call to protect the vulnerable, fight injustice, and treat God’s creation as sacred.” He says that this “background noise . . . can slowly drain our energy, inspiration, and courage if we allow it to happen. We need daily moments of awe and wonder to rejuvenate and recharge us — especially now.”

Jesus modeled for us the value of taking time for solitude, contemplation and prayer in the midst of his public ministry. He took time for moments of awe and wonder and recommended the same to his disciples: “Notice how the lilies in the field grow. They don’t wear themselves out with work, and they don’t spin cloth. But I say to you that even Solomon in all of his splendor wasn’t dressed like one of these” (Matthew 6:28b-29).

Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, calls contemplation “a positive choosing of the deep, shining, and enduring divine mysteries that are hidden beneath the too-easy formulas.” Among those enduring mysteries are love, creation, beauty, justice, and wisdom, none of which can be reduced to mere information. Rohr says that in contemplative prayer, “we let go of habitual thoughts and sensations and connect with an Inner Witness (Romans 8:16)—God’s presence within — that gazes back at ourselves and out at reality with an Abiding Love.”

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