What Your Smartphone Says About Your Faith
My iPhone is showing signs of its age. Apps are crashing, certain functions take longer to work and connectivity is not like it once was. With the realisation of its impending death, comes the moments of anxiety of how I can operate without my smartphone.
Readers might think: “Why doesn’t he just get a new phone?”
The ease of replacement of a smartphone is one thing. The experience of anxiety on what to do, even for a moment, without a smartphone is another thing entirely. For indeed, that anxiety is about the loss of what has essentially become a prosthetic in most western contexts.
In the words of James KA Smith, the smartphone has become the “liturgical instrument” of the postmodern city. More specifically, it is the one concrete site where one has a concentrated experience of the forces circulating through contemporary urban life.
One thing that the smartphone demonstrates about the contemporary city is our collective hostility towards memory. Indeed, the postmodern city is proactively destructive of memory. It is not just that I need a new phone, but that there is this tacit pressure to even forget I ever had this phone.
The phone itself express that hostility to memory in other ways. Looking at one’s emails, for instance, one notices that only a certain range of communications are stored on a device. Details of the past are lost almost as instantaneously as they appear. A rather disturbing parallel can be found in a report from the BBC on the retention of old data on social networking sites, another icon of the postmodern city. Rather than being a limitless storehouse of memory, the report refers to an article which outlines a tendency within social networking to lose information about an event, whether through manual or automatic deletion, as early as a year after its occurrence.
This disposable communications is one symptom of our contemporary attitude to memory. When one is asked to live an “authentic life”, it is usually coupled with the imperative to “live in the now”. “Now” is the special messianic moment within postmodern culture.
Yes, this may sound very much like the passage in in 2 Corinthians 6:2, where it says that “now is the appointed time. Now is the day of salvation”. However, there is one big difference between the Scriptural now and the postmodern now.
To intensify the significance of “Now”, the postmodern “now” is deliberately cut off from its connections with the past as well as the future (I have written about this in a piece on The Other Journal), and life for the urban dweller ends up becoming a process of disjointed present moments. In a world dominated by the postmodern “now”, memories are something that we presume we can relegate to the past so we can “live for the moment”. We presume that we can free ourselves from the determinative effects of our past, in pretty much the same way we think we can free ourselves from the control of traditional communal belongings.
This attitude is understandable, given that many memories are marked by what psalm 92 calls “emptiness and pain”, be they failures in aspirations, brokenness in human relations, or the scars of what Shakespeare calls the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”. We prefer to free ourselves from the grip of such memories by concentrating on the present, and the postmodern city’s never-ending production of new pleasures to replace the old provides the perfect social backdrop to help “take our mind off things”.
Only difficulty, however, is that we cannot simply “take our mind off things”. My experience of the city, is mediated not just by my mind but my body as well. And this embodied experience of the city is guaranteed to bring up such painful memories in ways and moments that will surprise and disarm. These memories can come from sights and sounds as mundane as the sight of a table at a cafe, the wrong turn down an arcade, the sound of a bird or a taste of a particular dish (the author Marcel Proust spoke of memories being triggered by Madeleine biscuits in his In Search of Lost Time).
This is because my body has deeply embedded imprints of experiences that are more visceral and more enduring than the memories that reside in my mind. As a result, the city will keep bringing up experiences that will often trigger a memory that my mind may have conveniently forgotten. If this memory is painful this will lead to an anxiety, and the urban dweller may intensify his efforts to expunge such memories by immersing himself ever deeper into the momentary pleasures of the postmodern city.
For the Christian, such struggles with memory in urban life should remind us that we carry within ourselves a whole corpus of memories that cannot be expunged by the mind. We can neither “take our minds off things”, nor can we pick and choose the memories he wishes to retain, contrary to the techniques and associated promises of the postmodern city.
Part of the Christian call to “take up one’s cross” thus will involve taking up one’s memories imprinted within the body, rather than trying to cut them off (as an aside, it is significant that one service the postmodern city offers as an opportunity to forget one’s past is through various forms of plastic surgery, though this must be explored in another post). This need not be masochistic and hermetic, but can be a concrete way to be what Paul calls the offering of one’s body as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1) in an urban context.
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