Category Archives: Technology

On Social Media Arguments in the Trump Era

What an interesting time to be alive.

We’ve just been through a rancorous election, and the election of a president whom more people voted against than for—some 8 million, to be exact.

We are divided. And cranky.

In the wake of this, I’ve been thinking a lot about social media, and how we engage with one another around disagreement–or don’t.

jackson-im-just-here-to-read-the-comments-72I have friends who are frustrated by the proliferation of fake news and “alternative facts,” and who see no utility in trying to talk to people who are convinced that their version of reality is correct. Whether it’s the size of Trump’s inaugural crowd, or the reality of climate change, there’s no convincing people, so why try? Our time can be used more productively in other ways.

And I have friends who believe we still need spaces where people who don’t see eye to eye can come together and hash things out. That deep down, many of us want the same things for ourselves. That we all have our bubbles, and we need to be disciplined in breaking out of them whenever possible.

As I think about where I stand, I know there are things on which I’m not willing to concede ground in order to keep the conversation going: the full personhood of LGBT persons, for example.

With that said, however, I fall more in the latter camp. I know that like the Apostle Paul, I see through a mirror dimly. My vision is imperfect. And I’m a big believer in polarity management, which means that traditional struggles such as left v. right can never be fully resolved. Rather, the two poles need to be managed so that they inform and complement one another in a healthy way. For that reason, I don’t root for the ultimate destruction of the GOP. Rather, I root for a sane, reasonable, fact-based conservative party to emerge out of the mess we’re currently in. I resonate with the words of Jack Shephard on LOST: “If we can’t live together, we’re going to die alone.”

80bAnyway, I think about all of this as it relates to online interactions. I’m interested in engaging, and I try to enter conversations with people I disagree with from a place of good faith. The person may quickly show they’re not willing to engage in honest, thoughtful exchange, but I at least want to give them an initial chance. (And I’m sure I miss the mark on this myself sometimes–it’s soooo much easier to make assumptions and respond with snark than with authenticity.)

But many times we have to cut our losses and call it a day, either because the conversation isn’t going anywhere, or we just have other things we need to do. I’ve been trying to figure out how to do that gracefully.

Brian McLaren has suggested that one close with a simple “I see it differently.” If the person wants to pursue it, offer to have a face-to-face conversation. You’ve registered your opposition to the view being presented, but stewarded your time well enough not to get into a back-and-forth that is not going to go anywhere.

It’s a decent way of bowing out. But it has its limitations. For one thing, when someone presents a falsehood as truth, then doubles down on it, saying you “see it differently” implies that truth is in the eye of the beholder, and that there’s no way to know what’s right.

So lately I’ve been trying on this phrase:

“Thank you for helping me understand you better.”

I like it because we can understand one another without agreeing. I like it because it grounds the interaction in terms of relationship rather than rightness. I like it because, in situations in which I’ve used it, it has disarmed the person I was talking to–they felt heard. And I like it most of all because it’s a way of holding myself accountable to how I want to be online. Yes, I want to be a voice for the things I believe in, but ultimately, the only person I can ultimately change is myself, and if I’ve learned something, that’s a fruitful thing.

What do you think? How do you handle difficult conversations online?

I Hope to Read More Books in 2017. Here’s How.

Cooking expert Alton Brown has a thing against unitaskers in the kitchen. These are gadgets that exist for one purpose only, and accumulate like crazy and clutter up your kitchen. (Why do you need a special maze-shaped brownie pan that creates brownies with edges on every piece? Just use a muffin tin.) He claims that the only true unitasker you should have in your kitchen is the fire extinguisher.

I’ve been a smartphone user for almost ten years. The beauty of the smartphone is that it’s a master multitasker. I don’t have to name all of its possible functions here–you get it. Suffice to say that I may use two dozen different apps on any given day. It’s made my life better in countless ways.

untitledBut the beauty of the smartphone is also its downfall. Because while kitchen gadgets and smartphones are great multitaskers, the human brain is a terrible one. In fact, people don’t actually multitask, but instead switch rapidly between tasks, losing efficiency and effectiveness with each switch. I think about this every time I unlock my phone in order to check my to-do list and end up on Twitter, or go to read a book on Kindle and get sucked into blogs instead.

This year I’m setting the intent to immerse in art, and especially to read more books. I read about 20 last year, which is nothing to sneeze at, especially considering I was writing one. But that number was way down for me. In 2017 I’m diving into Taylor Branch’s gargantuan three-volume series on the civil rights era, and I’ll be supplementing that with other books for allies, plus plenty of reading for pure pleasure. I don’t have a goal other than “more than 20.”

More broadly, though, I’m taking to heart what Andrew Sullivan wrote last year in his incredible piece, I Used to Be a Human Being:

The engagement never ends. Not long ago, surfing the web, however addictive, was a stationary activity. At your desk at work, or at home on your laptop, you disappeared down a rabbit hole of links and resurfaced minutes (or hours) later to reencounter the world. But the smartphone then went and made the rabbit hole portable, inviting us to get lost in it anywhere, at any time, whatever else we might be doing. Information soon penetrated every waking moment of our lives.

As Sully points out, the content itself often isn’t bad. On Facebook, I’m connected to people I genuinely care about. My daughter communicates with me via text, and at almost 14, it’s often the best way to get her to open up (yes, even in the same house). I read blogs and news in order to be an informed citizen–that’s deeply important. Many of us are thinking about activism during the next administration, and many of those connections will be made via social media.


Has our enslavement to dopamine — to the instant hits of validation that come with a well-crafted tweet or Snapchat streak — made us happier? I suspect it has simply made us less unhappy, or rather less aware of our unhappiness, and that our phones are merely new and powerful antidepressants of a non-pharmaceutical variety.

In order to accomplish this book goal–and to read and think more deeply in general–I realized I needed a unitasker.

We have an old iPad mini that has gotten way too slow to be useful as an all-purpose tablet. But it’s just right for what I need. I wiped the device and installed the barest of apps on it:

  • Kindle
  • iBooks
  • Goodreads–so I can keep track of what I’m reading
  • Washington Post and New York Times apps
  • Music player
  • iMessage–this is the one app that allows for two-way communication. But the idea is to not have my phone with me all the times, and this allows family to reach me in case of emergency.

In the less than 24 hours since getting this set up, I already feel different, and have gotten lots of reading done.

I’m fortunate to have an old but functional gadget lying around that can meet this need. I post this not to suggest that everyone can or should do the same thing. Rather, this is an example of how we get our systems in place in order to accomplish our goals. (Read this article to learn more about the relationship between systems and goals.)

I wonder what hopes or goals you have for 2017, and what processes or tools you might use need to set yourself up for success.

OK… back to the books.

Conversation Can Be Inefficient and Boring. We Need More of It.


I can’t wait to read Sherry Turkle’s latest book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age. Dr. Turkle is one of the best thinkers and writers I’ve found on the impact of technology on human life. She’s neither an alarmist nor an apologist for technology, which makes her just the catalyst we need for a nuanced discussion about this stuff.

Here’s Turkle’s latest thesis, according to the New York TimesOur rapturous submission to digital technology has led to an atrophying of human capacities like empathy and self-­reflection, and the time has come to reassert ourselves, behave like adults and put technology in its place.

That sentence hit me hard this morning. I’ve been so disheartened by what passes for intelligent discourse on the Internet lately. I’m not talking about comments on news articles–we all know how those are: sad buffet tables full of deep-fried lizard brain, liberally spiced with references to Hitler and “Obummer.” No, I’m talking about Facebook threads–friends, and friends of friends. So many words. So little reflection and understanding.

From the article:

Conversation is Turkle’s organizing principle because so much of what constitutes humanity is threatened when we replace it with electronic communication. Conversation presupposes solitude, for example, because it’s in solitude that we learn to think for ourselves and develop a stable sense of self, which is essential for taking other people as they are. (If we’re unable to be separated from our smartphones, Turkle says, we consume other people “in bits and pieces; it is as though we use them as spare parts to support our fragile selves.”)

Ouch. [If you haven’t seen Louis CK’s bit about this on Conan’s show, go, do it now. Rated PG13 for mild language and one crude gesture.]

Through the conversational attention of parents, children acquire a sense of enduring connectedness and a habit of talking about their feelings, rather than simply acting on them. (Turkle believes that regular family conversations help “inoculate” children against bullying.)

This is one of the reasons family dinner is so important–and why it’s best if family dinner is a screen-free zone.

When you speak to people in person, you’re forced to recognize their full human reality, which is where empathy begins. (A recent study shows a steep decline in empathy, as measured by standard psychological tests, among college students of the smartphone generation.) And conversation carries the risk of boredom, the condition that smartphones have taught us most to fear, which is also the condition in which patience and imagination are developed.

I heard Sherry Turkle interviewed on the Note to Self podcast last week, talking about how texting is replacing conversation in ways that can be concerning. We are increasingly rejecting conversation as an outmoded technology because it is so inefficient. It meanders and is sometimes boring. By contrast, texting happens when it’s convenient for us. We can craft our responses so they are “perfect” (her word, quoting numerous people who saw texting as superior to conversation).

I think she’s absolutely right. AND I appreciate that she too is a user of technology–she’s not suggesting we give the whole thing up. (Though seriously with the bad Facebook arguments. I’m about one week and a blood sugar crash away from nuking my account.)

Caroline has been taking an old iPod Touch to school to read Kindle books during her study period. But I also get texts from her sometimes during lunch. She has block scheduling, and on “grey day” she has no friends to sit with. Having someone to reach out to gives her a sense of comfort, and we’ve had some deep interactions through text.

I remember what it was like to be the new kid in the middle school and not have anyone to sit with at lunch. I would have killed for a smartphone! Not only does it give Caroline something to do, it also connects her with her larger tribe, so she can remember there’s more to life than the cliques in the lunchroom. And on “blue days” I’m happy she’s with a group of friends, and I don’t hear a peep from her.

So it’s not an all-or-nothing thing.

That said, conversation is powerful precisely because it’s unscripted. (Improvisational!) I was walking James to school this morning, and he was in a bad mood and complaining about everything. I was tired and bored by his constant carping and just wanted him to stop. I was ignoring him as best I could, then I paused a minute and really listened to him (the most important skill in good conversation–and the one I often forget when I’m being too task-oriented).

He said, “Why does this street have so many leaves on it?!?”

I stopped walking and said, “Seriously? You’re complaining about the leaves??” He put his head down in his sweatshirt. I thought he was pouting, but then I saw he was laughing. So then we made it a game, to see how many ridiculous complaints we could come up with.
“That house is TOO BLUE!”
“That street lamp is labeled 157. That’s my LEAST FAVORITE NUMBER!”
“The sun is so bright on the trees it’s making my EYES HURT!”

By the time we got to school he was in a fantastic mood. And so was I.

I love technology. I’m a heavy user of it. And conversation can be inefficient, tedious, or just plain dull. But it’s also full of unexpected surprises. Much like life. And love.

What Parents Wish Teens Understood about Social Media… and Vice Versa

4175247254_0d1d063004_o_0I’ve recently had occasion to spend time with groups of teens and parents talking about spirituality in the smartphone age–how we set good boundaries and habits, how we bring our healthiest selves to that endeavor, etc. I started out asking each group, “What do you wish your [parents/teens] understood about your feelings about technology and social media?”

I had this idea that I’d write one blog post from each perspective. But as these conversations went on, I realized that was the wrong approach, and unnecessary. Because generally, teens and adults would say the same thing to one another. Here are a few themes:

Both think the other spends too much time online. Parents are worried that their teens are interacting more and more through a screen and not building healthy habits for face-to-face interaction. But youth are just as likely to say that their parents are on Facebook too much, or can’t get through a meal without checking email or responding to a text.

Both were worried about the tech world being a “burden” for the other. You can see why parents would worry about how all this screen time is affecting young minds (and sleep cycles). But youth talked about this too. One young person said, “At least for us, a lot of our screen time is social. But it seems like my parents are always working and having to check in.”

Both see the value in tech-free times. One of my conversations was with a church youth group, and it was the youth themselves (in consult with their advisors) who came up with the tech-free policy for their meetings: they turn in their phones at the beginning and get them back at the end. They also listed many of the same “sacred spaces” where phones and tablets should be off-limits as their parents did: the dinner table, whenever an important conversation is taking place, etc. One parent who heard the teens’ comments about this quipped, “If you value tech-free time so much, why do you holler when we tell you to turn it off or take away your devices?” Touche. Then again, complaining about parental boundaries is a time-honored task of the teenager. What’s more, young people don’t like being interrupted in a task any more than we do. Take a phone out of their hand mid-text and they will complain, just like we testily respond “Just a minute!!!” when someone demands our attention while on our phones.

Both admitted an impact on attention span. This expresses itself a little differently in different generations—like teens before them, today’s youth have multiple “inputs” going at once, much more than adults do—but both teens and adults feel the effects of “monkey mind.”

Both understand the difference between the curated persona and the fullness of life. The youth talked about their parents “bragging about us on Facebook,” and in turn the parents lamented the litany of selfies their kids took in order to get the right one. In a sense, though, we all understand the rules of the game: what we put online, and see online about others, is not the complete story. Then again, both groups said there’s a difference between knowing that intellectually and feeling it in our gut. It still hurts when other people seem to be living their lives better than you are.

Parents worry how this affects a child’s emerging sense of self and self-worth–rightly so, I think. But while this is just a hunch, I wonder whether young people will actually be better at handling this as adults than we currently are, because they’ve had the time and the mental elasticity to learn how.


I know there’s a difference between what people say and what people do. We all know the “right answer” to this stuff–whether we take it to heart in the heat of the moment, when the text is calling to us, or when we want that shot of affirmation from Instagram, is another matter. I also know that kids who attend a church youth group aren’t necessarily a random sampling of teens. But I found it comforting that the puzzles and struggles of the digital age are pretty universal across generations. Ultimately it highlighted the need for good communication. I firmly believe that teens will be much more likely to embrace norms that they’re a part of negotiating. Here’s a set of good resources to start that work, from the Note to Self podcast.

And for our part, we adults can do a better job of modeling healthy behavior. It reminds me of a parenting class I took years ago. We were asked to write down the attributes we wanted our children to have when they were grown up—maturity, generosity, compassion, etc. After sharing our lists with one another, the facilitator said, “Great–that’s your list to work on. You want them to have a spirit of service? Cultivate that in yourself.”

If you want your children to have a healthy relationship with technology–and have healthy relationships through technology–we need to start with ourselves.


Photo by Lauren Randolph for On Being.

Say It with Flowers… Or a Text?


A couple of weeks ago I led a workshop at the Festival of Homiletics called The Word in a 140-Character World: Faithful Preaching in the Digital Age. It was a variation on the Spirituality in the Smartphone Age material I’ve been presenting for a while now.

I speak and write a lot about technology, and at the heart of much of my work is discernment—discernment around questions like How much social media is too much? Am I presenting an authentic picture of myself to the world? Does this interaction build community or tear it down?

One piece of the discernment we don’t talk about enough is how we decide which medium to use for various communication tasks. Back in the olden days, you pretty much had in-person or the Pony Express. Now we have in person, phone, text, letter, email, direct message, posting on someone’s Facebook wall, tweeting “at” someone, SnapChat, etc. How we say it is almost as important as what we say. (The medium is the message, still and always.)

I’ve had several experiences recently that reinforced the power of good discernment. They are all quite simple, but really speak to how powerful it is when you get the medium right.

  1. Following the workshop, I got an email from someone who suggested a word change to one of my slides to make it clearer. The person made a joke in his email: I’m sending you this while sitting in the same room as you, and could probably tell you in person but I’ll do this instead. It would have been splendid for him to stay and offer his comment face to face, but email was better because now I have a written record of his feedback so I won’t forget. Also the writer sensed, I think, that the suggestion was an emotionally neutral one, which makes email an appropriate venue for it.
  2. By contrast, a woman waited in the “chat line” to let me know—in a very constructive but pointed way—that the images I used in my presentation were not representative of the fullness of humanity, racially and gender-wise. “What you are saying is important and you don’t want your message to be undermined,” she said, by predominantly male and white images. She was right—and I realized, while I think a lot about what I say, the images are often the last (and sometimes, sadly, last-minute) addition to the presentation. While it was not easy to hear her feedback in person, it was so much more constructive than emailing me, or even worse, tweeting it, which is what often happens at conferences when people are rankled by something a speaker says or does. I’ve rarely seen that go in a constructive direction—in fact, folks ending up jumping on the bandwagon to the point that the speaker can feel attacked, even if the initial criticism was valid. Incidentally, this person also took the time to wait until the crowd had died down, which was not necessary but certainly disarming.
  3. My grandmother passed away a week ago. I have received a ton of condolence messages from people, and believe me when I tell you I appreciate them all. But I also received a phone call from a college friend. He left a wonderful, compassionate voice mail that comforted me greatly. I wouldn’t call his phone call a complete surprise, since he and I have stayed in touch in recent years. But the message was exceptional because I was not expecting to hear from him in person. I share this, not to make anyone feel bad who sent me an electronic message instead of calling. Rather it was a lesson for ME. How often do I choose the easy, expedient way, rather than the way of deeper connection?

We really are in the guinea pig generation. We have more ways to communicate than ever before. As a result, we must be attentive to the how, not just the what.

How have you seen the right medium enhance a message you sent or received? And how have you seen a message get undermined by the manner in which it was conveyed? I’d love to hear.