The Angel of the iPhone: Part 1, William Stringfellow on the iPhone

Two weeks ago I asked people to talk about why they had given up Facebook or Twitter for Lent (or for a "fast"). I want to thank those of you who responded and shared. You've convinced me that there is something here very much worth investigating. Toward that end I'd like to think out loud for a few posts about the spirituality of iPhones, mobile computing, and Web 2.0 generally.

I'd like to start by revisiting what William Stringfellow said about iPhones.


Of course, William Stringfellow died in 1985 so he couldn't have said much about iPhones. Still, I'd like to use Stringfellow's analysis of "the powers" to frame how we approach the spirituality of iPhones and Web 2.0 social computing.

To start, Stringfellow describes "the spiritual forces" we battle against like this:

According to the Bible, the principalities are legion in species, number, variety and name. They are designated by such multifarious titles as powers, virtues, thrones, authorities, dominions, demons, princes, strongholds, lords, angels, gods, elements, spirits…

And if some of these seem quaint, transposed into contemporary language they lose quaintness and the principalities become recognizable and all too familiar: they include all institutions, all ideologies, all images, all movements, all causes, all corporations, all bureaucracies, all traditions, all methods and routines, all conglomerates, all races, all nations, all idols. Thus, the Pentagon or the Ford Motor Company or Harvard University or the Hudson Institute or Consolidated Edison or the Diners Club or the Olympics or the Methodist Church or the Teamsters Union are principalities. So are capitalism, Maoism, humanism, Mormonism, astrology, the Puritan work ethic, science and scientism, white supremacy, patriotism, plus many, many more—sports, sex, any profession or discipline, technology, money, the family—beyond any prospect of full enumeration. The principalities and powers are legion.
What, you might ask, makes these things "spiritual powers," objects of idolatry and spiritual enslavement? Stringfellow answers:
People are veritably besieged, on all sides, at every moment simultaneously by these claims and strivings of the various powers each seeking to dominate, usurp, or take a person’s time, attention, abilities, effort; each grasping at life itself; each demanding idolatrous service and loyalty. In such a tumult it becomes very difficult for a human being even to identify the idols that would possess him or her…
I'd like to point out how Stringfellow mentions technology in his list of spiritual powers. And his description of the powers--things that "dominate, usurp, or take a person's time, attention, abilities, and effort; each grasping at life itself; each demanding idolatrous service and loyalty"-- seems to apply to what we are seeing emerge with iPhones. Consider the following:

A recent study conducted by Tanya Luhrmann at Stanford University found that many college students report being "addicted" to the their iPhones. From Luhrmann's summary of her findings:
The iPhone is an identity. People spoke about their phone as if it were part of their body, and even more a part of their mind, with a weird entanglement of Big Brother anxieties over security — "If someone stole my phone, they could just get in everywhere and retrace my steps everywhere" — and an emotional sense that their phone was who they were. Some people said that without their phone they felt disconnected from the world around them, fuzzy-headed, helpless and incompetent ("I would feel lost without it")...

The iPhone is alive. People patted their phones. They caressed them and cleaned them and obsessed about where to carry them so that the phone would not get scratched...

People also worried about not being "good" with their iPhone, not using it to its full potential. They had a sense that there was a competent iPhone user ideal, and they worried about not measuring up...

Users see it as addictive: "It's sort of like booze or something." More bluntly: "It's a drug."
This seems to jibe with Stringfellow's description of a spiritual power. And it explains why many Christians are expressing concerns about their experiences with iPhones and Web 2.0. Consider some of the things you all reported in the comments to my prior post:
I felt guilty about all the times I disappeared from reality to converse with virtual friends. consumed so much of my time...

It's possible that I have an actual psychological addiction to Facebook...The sort of thinking that leads me to perpetual page refreshing seems eerily akin to the behaviour of rats who want another seratonin shot and keep pumping that pedal...

So much of what I posted on Facebook was worded in order to see how many people would ‘like’ my comments. It’s just another way in which I am programmed to worry about what other people think and addicted to their praise.

I felt that God was asking me to give it up.

...postings would leave me angry. That made it impossible to simply log on for fun. The anger, I soon found, was not good for my soul.

I gave up facebook because I felt that it was distracting me from God's primary callings on my life, and I realized that I was not being a good steward of my time.

My reason [for giving up Facebook] was to not get "sucked in" during work or free time, lost in the news feed of others.

[Facebook] had become part of my habit to a degree I was uncomfortable with. Whenever I was bored I'd just click the icon on my bookmark bar or the app on my phone for a minute of mindless scrolling and reading about things that (for the most part) don't really matter.

It's a tool with the potential to suck out your soul...

I gave up having online debates/discussions/arguments about politics and religion.

I feel like Facebook was allowing me to be "friends" without being actually friendly, a key temptation for an introvert such as myself. Second, I found myself comparing my life to the exciting lives posted by others, and coming up lacking (in my mind)...

I would say that my reasons [for fasting from Facebook] had to do with sensitivity vs. stimulation. Our culture is addicted to stimulation (Kurt Cobaine- "here we are now, entertain me"). However, the more stimulated one gets, on movies, gadgets, music, etc. the less sensitive they become.

For me, this was about my growing insecurity that was in a lot of ways fueled by the time I spent on Facebook.

Facebook is something of a monster, chewing up increasing amounts of time as the number of friends grows larger and larger and the need to post every thought, photo and comment feels greater and greater.
Something, spiritually speaking, seems to be going on here. So I think it correct and helpful to see the iPhone (and what it represents) as a spiritual power we have to "do battle with."

To be clear, I don't want to say the iPhone is a demonic power. Only that it is a fallen power, as are all powers in this world. So my goal here isn't to engage in some sort of nostalgic Luddite handwringing. As many of you pointed out in the comments to my last post, Web 2.0 and Facebook are regularly found to be great goods.

So the goal here, quoting Stringfellow, is to learn how to "live humanely in the midst of the Fall." That's the question I want to think about. How to live humanely with the iPhone as a spiritual power in the midst of the Fall.

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17 thoughts on “The Angel of the iPhone: Part 1, William Stringfellow on the iPhone”

  1. I agree on learning to adapt our lives around new and emerging elements of our modern existence in such a way as to preserve what is most human and valuable. And I'm glad you avoided labeling the iPhone (any smartphone, really) as a special class of technology in this regard. I think we are gradually, due to technology, coming to grips with new definitions of our personal boundaries. This is not a negative or new trend, but is a continuing development of our evolution. However, as you point out, each step in progress is subject to the risk of losing sight of the real and important over the trivial and artificial.

  2. I don't know if you're already aware of it, but there has been some research on the religious-ness of our relationship to technology, in particular an article on 'Macintosh devotion as implicit religion'. I blogged about it here:

    Thought it might be useful/relevant, although it's not quite the same as the idea of facebook as spiritual power.

  3. Last summer I took my Mac to the local Apple Store for repairs and just happened to show up on the day a new iPhone was released. I had just returned from living overseas for seven years and I was surprised at how many people were lined up (talk about culture shock!). This wasn't a brand new technology, it was just a new *version* AND we were supposedly in the middle of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. I love technology and I am a big fan of most things Apple, but if you can't wait a few weeks to get the latest thing without having to stand in line, then there's something wrong.

  4. Hi Marika,
    Thanks very much for the link! It's very much in the direction I'm heading here.

    Let me encourage readers here to read your post and follow your link to Pui Yan-Lam's article about Mac devotion as implicit religion.

  5. What an enlightening way to view our realities! I totally agree with this. Thank you.

  6. This was all discussed by a similarly bearded man in one of the bizarre 70's Christian end-times movies, Image of the Beast: "it's the computer, Cathy"


  7. Thank you for this.  I have read many of Stringfellows books and it is nice to see his thoughts applied in 2011.  Bravo.

    I am still sitting with your thoughts...  to live humanly...

  8. This is my first opportunity to visit this website. I found some interesting things and I will apply to the development of my blog. Thanks for sharing useful information.

  9. Yes it's like people can't separate life from reality. Like people will say oh it looked just like a movie. Or with video games with teenagers they see stuff and they do it like shootings or zombie games!

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