How “push notifications” are reshaping our lives, relationships, and communication

July 23, 2018

Every new communication technology is disruptive, often in history-altering ways. Nearly 600 years ago, Gutenberg’s printing press ushered in a revolution in education, politics, and religion, including fanning the flames of the Protestant Reformation. Just 11 years ago, Steve Jobs’ iPhone ushered in a similar revolution, one we are only beginning to grasp.

Will the smartphone still be around in 600 years? I doubt it, but no one knows for sure. What we do know is that in its first decade of existence, the smartphone is already changing how we view communication. What are those changes? Are they good or bad for society? These are important questions to ask of any new technology, and I consider them in light of one particular aspect of the smartphone era: the phenomenon of “push notifications.”

The consequences of efficiency  

It used to be a thing of joy to receive a letter in the mailbox. In the early days of the internet, "you've got mail" was a happy notification. These days, I find most forms of “push notifications” to be anxiety-producing. Why? Because they signal a tidal wave of nonstop communication that is relentless and punishing.

How does one stay sane in a world where on any given day, people message you through email (multiple accounts), Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, SnapChat, Voxer, WhatsApp, Slack, Skype, Google chat, and texts (to name a few)? All these forms of communication are efficient. But what are the unintended consequences of that efficiency?

Here are two points we should consider:

1. Chronic catch-up

Because inboxes are never empty and notifications on a plethora of platforms pop up around the clock, I find myself in a constant state of catch-up. I try to make headway on my email inbox, but then there are Facebook messages and Tweets I need to reply to. There are Voxer messages from my fellow elders at church about urgent pastoral situations. Various coworkers need my insights on Slack, and my wife is messaging me over chat.

All of it feels urgent, demanding timely replies. And the cumulative effect is that it reduces would-be meaningful interactions to mere checklist to-dos: “Text ___ back.” “Respond to ___’s email.” “Post ____ article on Twitter.”

But in this frenetic flurry of catch-up, the “communing” sacredness of communication can be lost. We are often too bombarded and harried to make space for considered, attentive, meaningful communication. The smartphone has always been touted as a tool of efficiency, and so naturally this is how we use it. But what if communication is degraded when it becomes too efficient? A tweet or a text in response to someone may be quick and easy, but is that always the wisest way to respond?

Christians, especially, should be mindful of how the efficient view of communication changes how we relate to people. Are we treating them with dignity, giving them our attention and presence? Or do we demean and cheapen them through our quick-draw posture?

When we are spread so thin, across dozens of communication platforms and with hundreds of “friends” and “connections,” the need to “update” the masses can trump the nobler desire to connect with a few people more personally and profoundly. In our hectic, breathless days, we may be tempted to send a quick text or email to someone who actually deserves a more substantive and careful response.

2. When everything is important, nothing is

There is an “everything is urgent and important” quality to the smartphone and its ambience of buzz/ding/beep push notifications. Whether it’s a text message that ends in the ubiquitous words “let me know,” a BREAKING NEWS alert, or something #trending that you simply can’t not know about, the smartphone constantly reminds us of things to do and know about, and people to communicate with. At least five times every day I see social media declarations that something is a “must-read,” “must-watch,” or “must-listen.” The glut of “essential” content means our must list gets longer and longer, adding to our already lengthy queue of communication to-dos.

This is part of why we can’t put our smartphones down, checking them hundreds of times per day. What are we missing? We don’t want to be out of the loop. Plus, there is an undeniable thrill to seeing new notifications. Psychologists have noted the way smartphone notifications trigger a dopamine rush that becomes addictive. As psychologist David Greenfield recently told NPR, “Smartphone notifications have turned us all into Pavlov’s dogs.”

One of the (many) side effects of notification addiction is that we lose a sense for what is actually important and urgent. Do we really need to read every “news” story that comes across our phones? The leveling aspect of information that comes to us on our smartphones—sports scores next to CaringBridge cancer updates next to theological debates about gender roles next to videos of your aunt’s cat—can have a numbing, trivializing effect. Neil Postman noted this, presciently, in his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, in which he talked about the “Now. . . this” nature of televised news:

"Now, this. . ." is commonly used on radio and television newscasts to indicate that what one has just heard or seen has no relevance to what one is about to hear or see, or possibly to anything one is ever likely to hear or see. The phrase is a means of acknowledging the fact that the world as mapped by the speeded-up electronic media has no order or meaning and is not to be taken seriously.

Because the smartphone tends to perpetuate an exaggerated sense of the importance and urgency of everything, we can naturally get sucked into its orbit, to the point that we neglect the truly important and urgent matters in our own lives, families, and communities. Indeed, one of the great perils of the smartphone is its capacity for destructive distraction: drawing our attention in a thousand different directions when our priority should be on the proximate people and local problems in front of us.

The smartphone’s push notifications can crowd out the more vital flags and warning lights in our lives that should grab our attention. Are you spending quality time with your spouse and children? Do you read the Bible and pray in the morning, before you check your phone? When was the last time you invited someone over for dinner? Are you paying attention to your physical health? Have you had a substantive, in-person interaction with a close friend recently?

If your smartphone is crowding out these more-important “life notifications,” do something about it. Turn off your push notifications. Consider downgrading to a “dumb” phone that only does two or three things. Set things up so that the agenda for your time and attention is set by the life right in front of you—your home, church, workplace, community—rather than the smartphone maelstrom.

Read more articles on technology in the Summer 2018 issue of Light Magazine here

Brett McCracken

Brett McCracken is a senior editor and director of communications for The Gospel Coalition. Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24