The Dumb Phone: The Digital Sackcloth

About a year ago I traded in my iPhone and upgraded to a Light Phone, better known as a dumb phone. Let me tell you, it truly is dumb: but I love it. The Light Phone is the size of a driver’s license and consists of a black and white ‘E-Ink’ screen. It has basic options: calls, texts, alarm, a calculator, podcasts, music, and a bad directions app. It cannot take or receive pictures, track your friends, help you bet on your favorite team, look something up on the internet, or really do anything we’re used to from smartphones. It was even designed to slow the user down while texting to encourage calling instead. The makers say it’s called “going light.

The digital world is noisy! It pesters us with why we should know something we don’t already know, be somewhere we aren’t, look at something we shouldn’t, or buy something we don’t have. We need to step back and dip into our Church’s wisdom to take a deeper look at the effects of the digital world.

Pope St. John Paul II described the objective and subjective dimensions of work, goods, and services in his encyclical Laborem Excercens. John Paul explained that we cannot only focus on the objective dimension: what something brings about. We need to focus on the subjective dimension, which is what something does to the user.

Let’s unpack his teaching with a fun analogy. Say there’s a student on campus. Actually, he’s more than a student: he’s an aspiring hipster. He decides he doesn’t want to walk to class and instead buys a gas moped. The gas moped perfectly transports him from his off-campus apartment to his class as the passing wind tickles his symmetrically groomed mustache.

Yet there is a problem. When he arrives to his class, he wreaks of gasoline from the moped. Now the cute girl he’s been inching closer to asking out doesn’t want to sit by him. This poor fella is dismayed, but he can’t detach from his shiny new moped. He has tunnel vision. He’s so attached to the comfort and convenience of his moped, easily bringing him from his distant apartment to class.

The objective dimension of the hipster’s moped is what it does: it gets him to class. The subjective dimension of the hipster’s moped is what it does to him: it makes him smell like gas and destroys the only game he thought he had.

If we’re serious about growing in holiness, we need to reexamine our reasoning and criteria for the things in our life. We should begin with the subjective dimension, regardless of how others may look at us for doing so:

  • How is this thing changing me?
  • Is it helping me grow in comfort and convenience?
  • Is it helping me grow in virtue?

Maybe not the intention of the producers of smartphones, but I dare to argue that the fruit of the smartphone is vice! The second most read Christian book behind the bible, ‘The Imitation of Christ’ by Thomas à Kempis, offers this thought:

If you avoid unnecessary conversation and useless visiting, as well as a pre-occupation with news and various reports, you will find sufficient times for good meditations.”

A reader of this book and Doctor of the Church, St. Theresa of Avila, said this of meditation:

Meditation is the basis for acquiring all of the virtues…and to undertake it is a matter of life and death for the Christian.”

The fruit of noise, averaging 4 hours of daily screen time and picking up your phone every 6 minutes for idle conversations and news, is vice and loneliness. The fruit of silence and meaningful conversations, divine intimacy and authentic friendship, is virtue and communion.

Our beautiful Church has a name for people who go against the grain and appear crazy in this world. They are called saints. One example, Saint Francis of Assisi, son of a wealthy Italian silk merchant and French noblewoman, was expected to embrace the culture of materialism. Instead, Francis grew inebriated by the love of God and embraced a brown, sackcloth outfit that he wore everyday. Francis was regarded as crazy and regularly mocked. His first followers noted that Francis wasn’t doing this to spite others. He led a cheerful, happy revolt against the spirit of materialism.

Since Francis walked the streets of Assisi in the 12th century, this happy revolt against the spirit of materialism has inspired millions of conversions.

If you find yourself restless from doomscrolling, have already tried the “hack” of deleting most of your apps and making your screen black and white, or find yourself poised to break that nagging habitual sin, then maybe it’s time to follow St. Francis’s lead and embrace a digital sackcloth. And maybe, God willing, the silence of not having a smart phone will lead you into greater divine intimacy.

“A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.” – GK Chesterton

Kevin Kellerman
Kevin Kellerman
Kevin encountered Jesus in the Eucharist at Seek 2017 while a student at Kansas State University. He and his wife Jessica now live in Kansas City with their two children, Josephine and Augustine, where Kevin works in tech as a software engineer.

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