Smartphones and vocational reflection

Do smartphones help or hinder reflection upon vocation? It depends. Medieval Christians distinguished between curiositas—a vice—and studiositas—a virtue. Curiositas is inconsistent with vocational reflection; studiositas undergirds real reflection upon calling. Although I enjoy my iPhone, I know it encourages shallow curiosity rather than contemplative wonder.

Smartphones constitute ideal technology for cultivating and satisfying curiositas. These pocket-sized gadgets provide easy access to new knowledge on demand, so that a hunger for novelty finds endless fodder, inadequate though it is for real intellectual sustenance. Smartphones also present abundant opportunities to be known as being “in the loop,” so much so that simply sporting one implies the possession of knowledge. Someone carrying the latest smartphone must be smart—right? Dueling iPhone users are ubiquitous, each reporting to the other the even-more-recently-posted Facebook entry, blog comment, or random news item. Smartphone savants, by and large, cannot keep silent about what they know. If those pernicious habits were not enough for wariness, the heartbreaking images of desecration and desolation readily conjured up by smartphones should. That they so readily give us spectacle, rather than icons, is worrisome.

Smartphones also can underwrite a way of being in the world more concerned with objects than gifts. They often are objects to which their owners bear inordinately possessive relationships, and they can stand in the way of enjoying God’s abundant gifts. Sun-lit skies, songbirds’ melodious celebrations, and friendly sidewalk greetings receive little notice by those in thrall to their smartphones. The viciously curious, with their deformed intellectual appetites, want to know what they want to know; openness to the wisdom one acquires in graciously receiving a self-transcendent gift is beyond them. For all these reasons, curiositas makes one unresponsive to a divine call.

An appetite for novelty, possessed for one’s private gain, proudly displayed to oneself and others, certainly seems the kind of thing that smartphones render likely. And yet mobile connectivity does not have to be spiritually distracting or deforming. Curiositas, with its disordered loves, was a temptation long before Steve Jobs presented the world with its first iPhones. While smartphones can increase the occasions for curiositas and vanity, getting rid of them is not practical nor a real solution for most of us.

What, then, are we to do? We should remember that smartphones are tools that can be put to good use. I sometimes use mine to read scripture or works of philosophy and theology. With it I am able to look at pictures of nature and works of art that, under the aegis of studiositas, inspire contemplative gratitude and prayerful openness. My phone enables me to review lecture notes, share work with colleagues, assist students, and plan scholarly work. These activities, hopefully oriented toward studiositas and exemplary of my Christian scholarly vocation, may be undertaken readily with a smartphone.

Here’s the heart of the matter. As we reflect upon matters of calling, longing for redemption should be reflected in what we desire to know and how we seek to know. We should desire to know certain things but not others. We should cherish knowledge for particular reasons but not others. We should fulfill some intellectual appetites but not others. Correlatively, whether smartphones help or hinder Christian vocational reflection depends on why we use them, how we use them, and the ways we are formed or malformed by them. All vices take something potentially good and ruin it through inordinate love. Curiositas takes a natural desire to know and distorts its motivations, objects, and modes. In doing so, curiositias recapitulates a theme that runs through every form of errant desire. As Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung writes, all the vices share “the same familiar prideful pattern: a quest to provide happiness for ourselves through whatever god-substitute we choose—pleasure, approval, wealth, power, status. We are not willing to let God be in control, so we refuse to keep these goods in their place and accept them as gifts from his hand.”

By developing habits of studiositas rather than curiositas—especially when wielding potent tools such as smartphones—we can see God’s love more clearly in the graciously-given gifts that we receive, that we seek to understand, and that we embrace as goods that direct us back to delight in God alone. Thereby, even a smartphone may become a means to discern—and perhaps even to fulfill—a life-giving vocation.

[Adapted with permission from Douglas V. Henry, “Curiosity and Smartphones,” Virtual Lives, Christian Reflection: A Series in Faith and Ethics 38 (2011): 11-19 (available online here). © 2011 The Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University.]

For Further Reading

DeYoung, Rebecca Konyndyk. Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and their Remedies. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2009. The quotation is from page 183 of the book.

Griffiths, Paul J. Intellectual Appetite: A Theological Grammar. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2009.

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