Smart or Wise?
What happens to wisdom when our screens leave no room for long, slow thinking?
I remember the day I got my first cell phone, a gift from my parents for my 16th birthday. After years of begging, they finally caved. They decided that since I was old enough to drive, I would need a phone in case of emergency.
For years, I had watched my classmates obtain the latest models. Colour-screened clamshells abounded in my high school hallways. Much of my free time in the months leading up to my birthday was spent obsessively researching the phone I hoped to purchase.
My first phone was an LG Rumour. It was white, glossy and came with a sleek slide-out keyboard. I loved it. I used it to text my friends, take photos of whatever struck my fancy and play solitaire whenever my classes weren’t exciting enough. My next phone allowed me to browse the Internet. And the phone after that had data, so I could browse the Internet anywhere. I rarely used it to call people.
I had no idea how much this technology was going to change my life. My phone’s primary use was to escape through social media, online games or text conversations. My face-to-face conversations decreased. I isolated myself from people, and my faith suffered. The discreet, handheld device was “smart,” but it wasn’t wise.
THE NEVER-ENDING TECH RACE
Most of the news today is about what’s next for technology. Scan through the headlines and you’ll notice a common theme: progress. Countless articles are published each month on which new smartphone models are launching soon, what new features they’ll have and how they’re going to make our lives better.
The marketing for smartphones goes even deeper into this theme. Huawei’s mission is to “build a fully connected, more intelligent world.” Samsung’s new Galaxy Fold, which has a touch screen that folds in two, promises the ability “to multitask like never before,” while their Galaxy Note9 “has the power and speed to fuel your always-on lifestyle.” A new commercial for Apple’s iPhone XR shows people on their couches and in their beds falling asleep with their phone screens shining brightly in their hands. “You’ll lose power before it will,” the ad teases, going on to tell us that the XR has the longest battery life of any iPhone ever.
Are these really features worth celebrating? Multitasking like never before sounds like getting more distracted than ever before. An always-on lifestyle sounds exhausting to me. And longer battery life means more reliance on and addiction to my phone. While Huawei works towards building their fully connected and more intelligent world, they neglect to mention that both the connection and intelligence is artificial. Are we not using our smartphones enough as it is?
BIBLICAL WISDOM FOR AI
Artificial intelligence and God’s wisdom are two very different concepts. One is more focused on “head” knowledge, progress and how we react – and escape – to virtual realities. The other is more focused on our heart’s knowledge, our faith, the state of our souls and how we interact with our actual, physical reality.
I’m not nitpicking subtleties here. Twenty-first-century technology wasn’t present in biblical times, but the Bible tells us a lot about how we should interact with it. What I find intriguing is the idea of wisdom. Wisdom requires long, slow thinking. It’s a daily, lifelong process of growth. It transcends knowledge, information, intelligence and data.
Wisdom isn’t seers and oracles sitting on mountaintops. It’s hard work. I like John Piper’s definition. In simple terms, Piper defines wisdom as “hearing and doing the Word of God” (desiringgod.org). But he takes it a step further, stating that wisdom must include discernment of how this hearing and doing should be applied – how it should work itself out in all circumstances.
The Bible says a lot about wisdom. The book of Proverbs focuses on the topic. Solomon asks God to give him wisdom. James and Ephesians both reference it. In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul makes it clear that the wisdom of the world is nothing compared to the wisdom of knowing Christ. He goes on to tell us that the condition of the heart must be contrite to receive God’s wisdom. Jesus’ summation of the Sermon on the Mount also comes to mind. He ends his sermon with a flourish, speaking of a wise and a foolish builder. One builds their house on a solid rock, the other on shifting sand.
Our phones may not be houses, but they are significant building blocks in our lives. By that, I mean to say that smartphones can become idols and a means for us to try to find happiness or joy. Today, there is more information available to us than ever before. We inhale data, googling questions we want answers to, looking up the weather instead of going outside or looking out a window, and consuming episode after episode of the latest TV show.
This glut causes more confusion than anything, preventing the formation of wisdom. We’re bombarded with nonstop information, messages and stimuli. All of this data is decontextualized, and because of this, trying to string meaning together can be a grueling ordeal. We’ve become data gluttons, sitting down every day to eat at a never-ending smorgasbord. Our brains are too overloaded to maintain a relationship with Christ.
Today, my phone is five “generations” behind. It’s still smart; I can still browse the Internet wherever I am. I am complicit in this too. But I think it’s time to talk more about how this technology is affecting us as Christians – and our faith. Lest we get sucked into the myth of progress presented by our technology, the tantalizing escapist tendencies of our screens or the vortex of information glut, we should stop and think. And perhaps, with a little prayer mixed in, a measure of God’s wisdom will be given to us.