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Prayer Apps and Evaluating Technology

Thinking about the ways technology shapes us—smartphones, fire, and everything in between.

January 26, 2018Filed under Theology#ethics#writingMarkdown source

I use technology a lot to get after the goals I care about in my life. But over the last few years I’ve been thinking about, and I’m increasingly concerned about, the ways that we are shaped by our use of technology. We could generalize this discussion to all sorts of things, and I’m sure I will (though I’m also pretty sure you’d just be better off reading L. M. Sacasas, whom I’ve linked in this connection before). But for today, I want to just zoom in and think about this question specifically in the context of technologies we employ in the context of the Christian faith. (If you’re not a Christian, I suspect much of what I have to say here will still ring true, so don’t run off just yet.)

I’ve been using apps to manage my list of tasks to get through for a long time: first Todoist, then OmniFocus, and now Things. So as I’ve been wanting to develop more rigor around my prayer life, and in particular to make sure I pray for certain people and the very difficult circumstances they’re currently facing, it was natural to go looking for an app to manage that. And although “There’s an app for that” is no longer an Apple marketing campaign, is truer than ever it was when it was an Apple marketing campaign. So there are a lot of prayer apps on the App Store.

I snagged an app both my wife and another woman I really respect have found helpful as a tool for their prayer lives. And it’s been sitting there unused for a month. I launched the app once. I’ve had an item in Things for that whole time to populate it. But I haven’t.

The whole time the app has been sitting there on my homescreen, I’ve been stuck on this question: How does this tool form me?

And this is the broader question that’s nagged at me for quite some time. How are we shaped and formed by our use of, and indeed our dependence on, the tools we employ to remember things, to form habits, etc.? What happens if the tool goes away? Nick Carr has written fairly extensively1 about the effects on concentration and memory; but those merely point to a broader concern: what kind of people do we wish to form ourselves to be? And are our tools helping or hurting us in that aim? For our tools do form us, no less than we form them.

It’s not really about this (or any particular) prayer app. And I certainly don’t think it’s inherently wrong to use a prayer app, or anything of the sort. But it nags at me. Will I truly learn to be disciplined about prayer, or will I simply learn to be further hooked on alerts from my pocket supercomputer? If I end up praying faithfully for people, but also end up more distracted, more reliant on this little slab of metal and glass, less engaged with my family, what is the net on that? It is, at a minimum, not a clear win.

Of course, none of these concerns are specific to prayer apps. I have been using a digital Bible for most of a decade now. I use a pomodoro timer to help my maintain my discipline and concentration throughout my work. I use Bear for keeping a log of what I’ve done for work every day,2 and for jotting down writing ideas. This very post started out that way.

The note in Bear that was the germination of this blog post
The note in Bear that was the germination of this blog post

Using a digital notes app is not the same as disciplining myself to remember things. But the same concerns apply, of course, to all aids we employ. Using a digital notes app is not identical to using a physical notebook as a place for jotting down ideas—but they’re more similar to each other than they are to not using a tool at all. Both have a cost in effective, active memory of those ideas. On the other hand, they also have the benefit of helping us remember more ideas, and more clearly, than we would otherwise, and also of freeing us to think on and remember other things.

This also points to another of the fundamental challenges in evaluating the tools we use. We’re accustomed to thinking of many things—these days, mostly computers and computerized things—as technological and other things as sort of “natural” and “untechnological.” But of course, literally everything we do is unnatural and technological in many ways—too many to count; but for a start consider that clothing is not natural; it is a technology! So are books. So are forks and cups and plates. So are journals, and pencils, and pens. And those technologies all shape and form us, too.

Scribbling notes in a paper journal day after day will change your body and your mind; you will have calluses from holding the pen, and will know that your ideas are found in that journal. The loss of a journal filled with sketches of ideas might become a horrifying thought, because in writing down one’s ideas, one intentionally lets the paper do the work that one’s memory might have done otherwise. Many of those things—though by no means all—are just the same whether using a digital journal or a paper one.

At least in my own experience, some of the important differences include the way it feels mentally to think with a pen vs. to think with a keyboard. (I use the phrase “think with” here to emphasize what it is we’re doing either way: using the tool to help us think as well as to remember.) That difference is, so far as I can tell in considering my own thinking, not just one of feel, either: I write different things, in different ways, with pen and paper than I do with a keyboard. I’m a much better poet with pen and paper, for example.

But those differences do not void the core they share: they are memory-replacements.

Not for nothing have people worried about the effects of new technologies on memory for millennia. And it is worth note: those who thought the advent of each kind of new information technology would come with costs were not wrong. Literate cultures seem inevitably to lose the power of oral recall. Members of illiterate cultures can often accomplish feats of memory that astound members of literate cultures, because they do not have books to offload their stories and histories to. The only way to keep them—and we value stories, so we always find a way to keep them—is to commit them to memory, and deeply. The tradeoff with books is real. The tradeoff with a physical journal is real. The tradeoff with the internet is real.

The question is not whether but how we will be formed by the technologies we employ—at least, unless you plan to go back to living naked, surviving off of whatever you can manage to collect with your bare hands and eat raw (fire, too, is technology, after all).

To narrow it further: the question is which specific shapings we find needful in our specific contexts. Perhaps, if there is a problem, it is not with a prayer app individually, or a todo app individually, or a notes app individually, but with offloading all of our mental tasks to a smartphone. No harm done in using a prayer app; but maybe write your to-do list on paper; and perhaps find something, anything at all, to simply remember to do every day.

  1. Here, on the smartphone, is just one of many times and places; his book The Shallows is perhaps the best-known and longest treatment of it.

  2. For my own purposes; Olo doesn’t ask anything of the sort from me; but it helps me see what I actually get done over the course of a year, and that’s pretty neat.