Disengaging in order to flourish

The gentle sounds emanating from my smartphone alert me to the fact that it is time for me to wake up.  I go ahead and disconnect it from its power source and crawl out of bed.  Throughout the day my phone will serve to remind me what meetings I have, emails I need to respond to, and texts that are vying for my attention.  On top of that, it will serve as an entertainment source for when I’m bored (or for when I want to procrastinate) and a way to keep in touch with friends through social media.  For all of these services it demands only one thing… my unwavering fixation.

In her book, The Joy of Missing Out, Christina Crook explores this unwavering fixation that has grown out of the technology boom of the modern era.  The compulsive checking of emails and the incessant check-ins on Facebook have become the norm for society.  As Christina points out in her book, the very definition of compulsive behavior is an irresistible urge that is often against one’s own wishes.  Our phones are within arm’s reach, our inbox remains open on our computers and our latest tweet was only a few minutes ago, yet we find ourselves drained with little desire or ability to interact with others face to face.  Ultimately, it is us who have been disconnected from our power source.

Christina decided to do a 31 day Internet fast after coming to the understanding that her time on the Internet was allowing her to “emotionally disengage” from herself and her loved ones.  This book was born out of that experience and recounts many of the lessons that she learned during that time.  Included among these insights are the practices she now uses when engaging with the world of technology.  This important book, not only points out the problem many of us are too close to see, but also provides motivation for finding balance in an increasingly unbalanced world.

Through engaging stories and heartfelt confession, Christina endears herself to the reader and gently convicts us of our own shortcomings in how we deal with technology.  Her opening chapter recalls what it was like to be without a smartphone or the Internet and the joy that this brought in her younger days.  She then presents the stark contrast of that world and the modern one where technological progress is heralded while relationships grow shallower and more distant.

Technology, she argues, is meant to relieve burdens, yet there are many that we should not wish to be rid of such as the hard work of preparing a meal for friends.  With the unexamined progress of technology many burdens that are good for human flourishing are being removed, thus hindering the development of relational skills among children and adults alike.  She asks the poignant question, “Have we, by outsourcing the work of our lives, outsourced the living of life?”

She is careful not to diminish the good that has come from technology but is also astute in relating the unexpected consequences of technological consumption.  She observes that while technology has made many things possible, it has also made us entirely independent.  The dependency on others that we have lost has caused us to lose the intimacy that many of us now long for.

At this point, one might begin to hear the defensive voice suggesting that technology is a neutral tool that is to be used to better society.  Christina points out, however, that the compulsive behaviors surrounding technology suggests otherwise.  When something detracts from creativity and imagination it ceases to become a neutral tool and instead becomes a hindering influence.  Christina captures this essence well, demonstrating that much of our time spent using technology has done more to hinder creativity than to promote it.  Indeed, I found myself convicted of my own unexamined use of technology and the effects that it has had on my decision making and creativity.

As a response to technology, Christina offers the practice of being present.  Undoubtedly, we have all been in a situation where we have been at lunch with someone and mid-conversation they reply to a text or send an email that simply can’t wait.  Perhaps we ourselves are the guilty party.  Christina challenges this mindset and argues that in the vast number of circumstances those texts and emails can wait for a moment and thus our focus should remain on the person in front of us.

In addition to the practice of being present, Christina also encourages us to practice the Examen of Consciousness and to eliminate online usage that is not life-giving.  This Jesuit practice forces us to honestly reflect on our behaviors and aids us in becoming more intentional with our actions.

Fasting from the Internet may seem to many as an impossibility and perhaps even a bit irresponsible, yet there are many benefits to be had.  Christina argues that, “When we deprive ourselves of our digital technologies with the intention of making room for quiet reflection and stillness, we help develop self-discipline and fortitude, fostering a greater openness to God.”  It is therefore by fasting from these things that we are able to overcome the inordinate attachment that we have to our devices and instead recover the intimacy that many of our relationships lack.

In two chapters of this book, Christina offers strong motivations for change.  She points out the long-term trajectory of technological progress which at times sounds much like science fiction if not for the reliable sources that she draws on to corroborate her stories.  She contrasts the bleak future of a society reliant on technology with the flourishing society that is centered on relationships and real life contact.  As an additional motivating factor, Christina discusses the fact that our current online habits will be mimicked by our children as they mature into adulthood.  In order for us to teach our children how to use the Internet responsibly we must first do so ourselves.  She ends the book by summarizing strategies for how to effectively use the Internet and ways where we can practice our own technology fasts.

The book is well-researched and well-written, although there are times where the stories become repetitive such as the recounting of her experience of being locked out of her house.  This story in particular is retold on several occasions with the same lessons be drawn out each time.  There are a few places as well where she implies that mental illnesses have increased as a result of our technological progress, but the evidence supporting it is far from conclusive.

The Joy of Missing Out is a timely book for the rampant technophilia of our society.  It is a problem that many of us are already aware of, yet Christina’s voice is one worth listening to.  Her personal insights have been gained through an intentional disengagement with technology and that disengagement has led to a more thoughtful practice.  As our society moves forward and continues to expand the boundaries of what technology can do, a thoughtful discussion is required into what is being sacrificed for “progress.”  Christina offers her voice and invites us to take an active part in this ongoing conversation.  May we heed that invitation.

This review originally appeared on Englewood Book Review.

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