Breakfast the other day began with a history lesson.
“Once upon a time,” I told my kids, “there were these things called encyclopedias. And if you wanted to know something about, say money, you would pull the M encyclopedia off your shelf and look it up.”
My boys stared at me in amazement. This was all new to them. My 8-year-old spoke up.
“I have an idea, Mom. Let’s play a game called ‘back then.’” He began pointing to objects around the kitchen. Microwave.
“I bet you didn’t have one of those back then.” Yes, yes, we did. He pointed to the refrigerator.
“I bet you didn't have one of those.” Yep, we had that too.
A blender? A dishwasher? A toaster? I reminded him that I’m not that old, just a shade over three decades.
“Look,” I finally said. “The only thing that has changed is this: When I was growing up, we did not have an iPod, iPad, iPhone, and two Mac laptops like we have today. That’s all that’s changed.”
That’s all that’s changed, but those small devices have changed everything. Our access to information is greater than ever. You can know the answer to something instantly. No more riffling through an outdated encyclopedia. I was in a church meeting the other day where someone asked about the date for Easter Sunday. The secretary pulled out her iPad and found a site called, get this: WhenisEasterSunday.com.
Start searching for answers on the Internet and you begin to believe that there has never been a question left unasked, no Halloween costume that hasn’t been made, no recipe left uncooked. With my stack of iDevices, I have access to free music, free books, free newspapers, free visual art, free movies and free documentaries.
Knowledge and information used to be a scarcity, confined to the elite class of people who owned books and knew how to read them. Culture was for those who could afford tickets to the symphony and the art galleries. Now, thanks to technology, nearly everyone in the developed world has these things at their fingertips.
The irony, of course, is that we should be a smarter, more cultured people. It’s all right there for the taking.
Here’s the problem: We have a banquet in front of us, and given the choice between potato chips and broccoli, we will most always choose chips. They taste good and they’re easy on the teeth. It takes more work to crunch through broccoli, and while we know it’s good for us, we can’t deny that it tastes like grass.
That’s where we’re at. Facebook and YouTube taste better than a NOVA documentary. We can groove to Justin Bieber. Not so much to Vivaldi. (Or as my 9-year-old says when I turn on my beloved choral music: "Mom, there’s no beat. I can’t dance to this.") And while I love the New York Times, I’ll be the first to admit that the celebrity gossip always catches my eye.
Of course, the other difficulty is mining through the information to find what is worth our time. Technology is ever-present. It doesn’t close at 5 o’clock for dinner or make a space for family time. We could spend all day simply refreshing our email, or commenting to friends on Facebook. We could spend an entire life staring at the burnished beauty on Pinterest while our own houses decay around us. We could salivate so long over cooking blogs that we only have time to slap a frozen pizza on the table.
And of course there is the distraction factor. For example, before writing this column, I had to check my five favorite blogs for the daily update. I refreshed my email page three times mid-writing. One of my tried-and-true writing traps is to escape to Wikipedia and read about my favorite authors — you know, the ones who actually buckled down and wrote something.
In writing this column, I was reminded of Elder David A. Bednar’s 2009 landmark CES talk, “Things as They Really Are.” In it, Elder Bednar said, “(Lucifer) will attempt to substitute the monotony of virtual repetition for the infinite variety of God’s creations and convince us we are merely mortal things to be acted upon instead of eternal souls blessed with moral agency to act for ourselves.”
In his talk, he also said we should ponder and pray about these two questions:
“Does the use of various technologies and media invite or impede the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost in your life?"
“Does the time you spend using various technologies and media enlarge or restrict your capacity to live, to love, and to serve in meaningful ways?”
In other words, eat your broccoli, take a walk in the real world, hug a friend, read a book, quiet your mind, untether yourself, if just for a moment, from the allure of technology. You can even dust off those old encyclopedias. You’ll be amazed at what you’ll learn.