Using Technology without Technology Using You: Got Any Tips?

Conference Info

Echo ConferenceNext month, I’ll be doing a session at the ECHO Church Media Conference (July 29-31, 2009, Dallas) called “Using Technology without Technology Using You.” (Q&A at the ECHO blog)

I have loved playing with technology since I was a kid. My parents tell me that I fixed the church projector when I was 4 and that I was comfortable with the Apple IIe command prompt at 5.

But over the last few years, I’ve begun to feel like the tools that I play with are playing with me too. Have you ever felt like you check your email, twitter, or RSS feeds just a little more often than necessary? Do you consider yourself an awesome multi-tasker, but find it hard to concentrate while reading? Have you ever considered quitting blogging, facebook, twitter, etc?

If so, this talk might be helpful. We’ll give a brief overview of the history of technology and how it influences individuals, society, and the church, and then suggest some ways we approach technology without letting it take over our lives.

We need your help!

To make the session really great, I want to get your tips for handling the constant stream of information, alerts, and new gadgets, and all the craziness in our super connected world. There have been a few posts out there on with tips for things like staying above water, intimacy online, and information overload. Some high profile writers have gone further and told why they were saying goodbye to facebook, taking a blogatical, or quitting social media altogether. But, I’d really like to hear from all of you.

I’ll be sure to share what you’ve learned with those at the conference and put together a slide of all the contributors. So please, comment away!

Please note: this is not a productivity seminar. We’re not discussing GTD, project or management, or software to combat software. This is about understanding what technology is, how it influences us, and how we can approach it holistically.

Published by

John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at http://j.hn/.

35 thoughts on “Using Technology without Technology Using You: Got Any Tips?”

  1. GTD apps / sites / tips — To me, suck the life out of actually getting things done.

    Sometimes, we can be so preoccupied with learning how to be efficient, we actually cease being efficient. :)

    1. Nathan, I totally agree. This talk is more about a mindset and approach to technology than just some productivity tips.

      In fact, the first point, is "Deny the Premise" :)

  2. A first step I am trying to take is observing a weekly sabbath (cutting edge, right?!). Technology is on my list of contraband items during that rest.

    So I am trying to get outside, not watch TV, not check email, not read blogs (even yours… sorry…). When I actually follow through, it truly helps to slow down and get quiet.

    (Like myself, I assume that the majority of your audience at the conference will be on staff at churches. So like me, Sunday is certainly not really a day of rest for them. I opt for Friday…)

    I don't think taking a sabbath is a cure-all for the technology issue. What I just mentioned is simply NOT using technology; NOT engaging it for one day. A more holistic approach will need a philosophy for the other six days of the week. But that one day is certainly a start. :-)

  3. For a while I was opening my feed reader to 100+ posts per day. I trimmed my RSS feed reader to keep only my most crucial feeds (in-depth writing, personal blogs). Force yourself to trim your feeds every few weeks/months. I moved all of the news-type blogs to my Gmail Web Clips. That way, I still have some chance to see news, but if not, I'm sure I will hear about it somewhere.

    Things like RSS feeds and DVRs, which are supposed to save time by aggregating content, actually end up costing more time and attention because instead of having to take the time to go to the source, you end up hooking the firehose straight into your mouth. By removing inefficiencies, we speed things up, which might not always be beneficial. Because we can subscribe and record *everything* and ingest it whenever we want, we end up collecting more info than we have capacity to absorb. Gone are the days when, if you missed a show on TV, it was basically gone. Time exists for a reason – so we don't end up with a thousand shows and blog posts to read simultaneously…which is an extreme case of what happens with RSS feeds and DVRs.

    I guess in general, try use your tools to provide *limits* to your information intake, not just to give you more efficient access.

  4. Once a month I trim my RSS feeds. I deleted the mobile Facebook app. No TV (no satellite, no cable, no converter box even!) since March – though that will change with the arrival of Football season…

    Maybe of interest to you, I'm getting ready to start a young adults/young couples ministry and when the associate pastor suggested that I use Facebook to point people to the churches Facebook Group – I diplomatically said No. Sure, I could hit up everyone via Facebook, but on one hand it's not a youth group ministry and on the other hand, word of mouth and e-mail still work….maybe =)

    1. Ryan, it's good that you're thinking through what technology (or lack there of) will help accomplish your ministry goals. Also, RSS trimming seems to be a big one.

  5. 'Checking' kills.

    I used to constantly 'check' …email, FB, Twitter, friendfeed, blog comments, stats, RSS.

    Now I more or less schedule those. Except for Twitter…I keep that open all day…my job more or less needs me to have a least one stream open.

    I also do some house keeping from time to time. trimming down the Twitter and RSS once a month helps.

      1. Do we ever really get back on track?

        I'll shut down the tab that's killing time…or the app

        What helps me a lot is to schedule some real solid time to go through my RSS/Email/Facebook a few times a day.

  6. For me, at least, everything you mentioned has gotten worse (I say worse to mean "more dependant upon") when I got a Blackberry. Don't get me wrong – I love it. LOVE IT. But that's also the problem. Everything that I used to have to wait, at least until I got to a computer, to check is now available in the palm of my hand, wherever I am.

    Productivity is a mute point in this debate, I think, because it is often just making us less sidetracked so that we can do different "work" on our computer, read our RSS feeds uninterrupted, or check emails quickly. In the end, the technology is like everything else that we, as fallen people, have. It's a great gift, yet almost every single one of us is guilty of abusing it in one way or another.

    So basically, John, I'd agree completely with Evan. Just turn it off. The most refreshing times are those when I forget my phone, I'm out of charge, the power goes out, or we have no internet connection. At first, it seems like my life-support has been cut, which goes to show you there's a problem. Later, however, I find myself connecting more with my family, engaging in discussion, and not shut off from even those few people around me.

    Hope it helps :-) Keep up the great stuff!

    1. Ryan, congrats on taking your life back! Your story of the BlackBerry reminds my of how I've been with the iPhone. I am more "productive" but that productivity seeped into the most important parts of my life – my family.

  7. This is great, it reminds of when Heidegger writes in his essay "Question Concerning Technology" that a man is only free insofar as he listens and not mindlessly obeys the things that are being revealed to him especially things that are revealed and brought about in modern technology. I think so often, especially with social media, we just invite these technologies into our lives and pretty much submit our wills to them in obedience without questioning or discussing the affects that such technology could have on our lives and all that entails (relationships, spirit, morals, etc). There have been many times when I've asked a friend, "Hey man, how are you doing?" And his response may start with, "Did you not see my status update on facebook, or the twit that I just posted?" I think that sometimes people would rather just post a 90 character status update to tell their friends and family how they are doing as opposed to talking on the phone, writing an email, a letter, or God forbid talking over coffee. Just as Sam was saying we condense our news and other information to fit our accelerated life styles, it seems that our relationships (at times) have fallen victim to the same sort of pragmatism. Just my two cents.

  8. I think something as simple as making sure you are in control of your interactions with technology, instead of letting technology define it. For example, just because Twitter is constantly updating doesn't mean you need to be constantly monitoring. Knowing your boundaries, and how you want to experience life, and then leveraging technology to help you accomplish that is what I believe is a healthy perspective. Letting technology dictate that experience means you will be always "on" and it will take all your attention, and with social media grabbing and keeping your attention is every sites "business plan." Facebook, at its root draw, is trying to keep you on their site for more ads. Google gives it apps away for free in price because your attention is more valuable. Realizing that your life and attention is what is truly valuable, not the technology or the cool things it can do is a realization we all need reminded of…

    1. Facebook, at its root draw, is trying to keep you on their site for more ads. Google gives it apps away for free in price because your attention is more valuable.

      What great insight Tony. Thanks for mentioning that. I love how well you understand the nature of these things.

  9. John: I mentioned GTD, more analogously. I realize what Echo's about, and caught the jist of your talk. What I'm saying is: Sometimes, we get so preoccupied with *using* technology that we lose sight of the *why*. So, I agree with what's been said already: Unplug, take a tech-break, and just spend time the good ol' fashioned way — In person, with real people.

  10. Recognise that Facebook (or your preferred social tool) is addictive – not like P, but like coffee ;)

    Most of us handle coffee fine, we limit ourselves to so many cups a day, or we don't take it after a certain time… Same with social tools, set boundaries! For me, I limit the number of "games" I use (in my case just the ones that donate to useful causes) I limit the times the FB tab is open, first thing and then perhaps 2-3 times during the rest of the day.

    That way like coffee FB is a nice freshener, and tastes good ;)

  11. Perhaps a bit afield from the personal coping discussion, here is a quote from Power through Prayer, by E. M. Bounds (1835-1913) I recently included in a blog post. Though over 100 years old, it touches quite effectively on the infatuation with which some in the Church view all manner of new media.

    An excerpt :

    "We are constantly on a stretch, if not on a strain, to devise new methods, new plans, new organizations to advance the Church and secure enlargement and efficiency for the gospel. This trend of the day has a tendency to lose sight of the man or sink the man in the plan or organization. God’s plan is to make much of the man, far more of him than of anything else. Men are God’s method. The Church is looking for better methods; God is looking for better men. “There was a man sent from God whose name was John.” The dispensation that heralded and prepared the way for Christ was bound up in that man John. “Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.” The world’s salvation comes out of that cradled Son. When Paul appeals to the personal character of the men who rooted the gospel in the world, he solves the mystery of their success. The glory and efficiency of the gospel is staked on the men who proclaim it. When God declares that “the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show himself strong in the behalf of them whose heart is perfect toward him,” he declares the necessity of men and his dependence on them as a channel through which to exert his power upon the world. This vital, urgent truth is one that this age of machinery is apt to forget. The forgetting of it is as baneful on the work of God as would be the striking of the sun from his sphere. Darkness, confusion, and death would ensue.

    What the Church needs to-day is not more machinery or better, not new organizations or more and novel methods, but men whom the Holy Ghost can use — men of prayer, men mighty in prayer. The Holy Ghost does not flow through methods, but through men. He does not come on machinery, but on men. He does not anoint plans, but men — men of prayer."

    It is far too easy to reshape our aims around the values subtly embedded in a medium, such as convenience or power, which are in many ways antithetical to our calling as disciples of Jesus Christ. It is also easier to neglect God-given tools like prayer while fiddling with our own gleaming contraptions.

    A firmer grounding in the Scriptures and a commitment to placing Biblical wisdom ahead of the latest earthly "intelligence" is critical. A better grasp of the ways God has dealt (and promises to deal) with men is needed.

    Those who have gained some perspective on the often invisible ways in which media impact the media consumer need relentlessly to question those (the many, it seems) who assert, with no justification whatsoever, that media are value neutral. It is embarrassing to witness so many within the Church who are entirely unacquainted with the world's established understanding, including the works of Marshall Mcluhan, regarding the potentially negative effects of media. It is also alarming to here pitches for new media use in the Church that sound like decades-old advocacy for televangelism.

    1. The prophet's call to repentance that can be heard throughout McLuhan's work, which peaked in the publics eye in the mid sixties.

      In 1985, that same call to turn away from the gods of media could be heard from Neil Postman (to be fair, I've only read "Amusing ourselves to Death")

      Today, twenty years later, we can hear that same voice.

      For me, the voice practically shouts from the pages of Shane Hipps' "The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture: How Media Shapes Faith, the Gospel, and Church."

      It's almost like there's nothing new under the sun. ;)

      Ecc 12:13 Having heard everything, I have reached this conclusion:
      Fear God and keep his commandments, because this is the whole duty of man. 12:14 For God will evaluate every deed, including every secret thing, whether good or evil. (NET)

  12. I try to filter who is more important on my lists.

    For twitter I know who I just glance at and those I might have to consider as a good thought. I use TweetDeck and sort the groups by category and importance. I know who I probably might be helped by paying attention to. Others are just for fun and read in a glance, I might just not read them but once or twice a day.

    Facebook can send notices. I turned almost all of them off, but it can also work in reverse. If you really are only interested in certain people because they are more important in your life you can subscribe with SMS or through email. You could just "remove" most people and only follow a few.

    I think setting daily goals also helps me stay focused. I started using TaDaList.com and it's helped me stay focused. I actually set a goal for reading news and blogs and once I've read through them, I'm done for the day.

    I may keep facebook and twitter open, but I'll only check them during a break. I try to let facebook and twitter be more about being productive than just social, so that also helps. When I think about using those tools for adding value to people's lives it makes it harder to just consume through them.

    I don't think running away from tech will solve anything. Stepping away helps us learn that the world doesn't end when we aren't on, but it doesn't address the issue about what to do when we are on.

    Setting priorities helps focus. And praying about our focus and proper usage of these tools is always a good thing.

    1. Jonathan, could you elaborate more on how and why you make decisions about "category and importance"? Do you have a goal or a desired outcome behind it? What are the criteria for whether something is important and why?

  13. Practically speaking, prioritizing modes of personal interaction serves as a decent starting point. If I have made an appointment to speak with you face to face, especially if one of us has traveled a significant distance, media-borne communication should be set aside unless there is a special, pre-agreed upon need (such as a wife about to go into labor) for attention to other communications. Under most circumstances, meals shared with other human beings should not be interrupted by media. Undervaluing flesh-and-blood human companionship is the flip-side of overvaluing digital offerings. Information you can find online is an inexpensive commodity. A person's real tone of voice, facial expression, intent gaze, hand on your shoulder, etc. is a unique treasure. Prize it accordingly.

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